How can we in this era of hyperconnection shaped by the Internet, computers and smartphones “rehumanize” the city and acquire the spaces in a tangible way, instead of seeking refuge in a “digital city” and spaces with incorporeal societies?
In a new essay, officially launched in June, Guillaume Éthier, professor of the Department of Urban and Tourism Studies at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM), imagines an “analog city”, that is, a “small utopia”, which is “basically the opposite of the digital error.
“Things are changing in terms of sociability and public space. There is a shift towards the digital, especially from concrete spaces, he explains. The idea is to take note of this passage and imagine a city that would try to recreate its role based on this new situation. »
The duty met him on rue Saint-Viateur, in the Mile End, in Montreal. A place that, according to him, has several “properties that are specific to what could become an interesting commercial avenue, with life”.
Cafes, bookstores, restaurants and colorful shops abound on the streets, and here and there passers-by can sit down. The professor points to a room a little out of the way, with two benches surrounded by low walls and vegetation, lined up next to a small specialized grocery store.
“It’s good to have small spaces with intimacy, bubbles,” he says. He praises slowness, in a world that tends more toward speed and instant response. “It allows for another appropriation of the city and to stop in the flow,” he adds.
The opposite would be “very generic” spaces, “slippery” “non-places”, such as airports, large malls, supermarkets or coffee chains like Starbucks. Space without cultural density, and where people are changing.
“It’s a place where you know that no matter where you are in the world, you’ll have the exact same experience,” says the researcher, talking about Starbucks coffee, which he sees as the products of the era. which changes the way the city is taken, just like Airbnb or Uber. “Inside, there are workers who have laptopswhich performs 1,000 jobs and which are connected with the same tools, ”he adds.
The professor says that urban space in modern cities has less and less to offer to entice people to spend time offline.
He thus praises floating places full of vitality where people can meet while disconnected from the internet and social networks. “There are things that do not happen online. We see it with the metaverse project, it is so gross compared to the richness of behavior outside,” he emphasizes.
Things are changing in terms of sociability and public space. There is a shift towards digital, especially from concrete spaces.
A little further away, Mary, who lives on a side street in Saint-Viateur, has a brush in her hand and is in the process, together with two others, of giving shape to a large mural in an alley, on which we see a course of water, vegetation and animals. “I would imagine what the landscape was like here before construction and what it would be like if we allowed more biodiversity in the urban environment,” she explains. A few passers-by stop to observe.
“You just have to go a little slower and be in a contemplative state to realize that these things exist,” slips Guillaume Éthier. For otherwise connected somewhere else or in a life where we only get from point A to point B, they would go unnoticed. »
To praise for imperfection
Cities must also take on and celebrate a part of imperfection. The ideal of the smart city, which will be effective at all costs and equipped with sensors and cameras that track the citizen, does not impress the researcher. He regards it as “an upper middle class ideal”, which thinks of city life “as something messy, to be domesticated”, and which wants to normalize behavior.
The Field of Possibilities in the Mile End, which describes itself as a place that “reinvents the use of abandoned brownfields”, well represents the type of “informal” and experimental place that comes out of this vision and is necessary for a city . “The rules are a little different, you can isolate yourself and be out of sight,” says Guillaume Éthier.
Here and there, the hiker sees abandoned fire rings and works of art on the wooden poles that connect the electrical wires or on the fences that block access to the railway. Ground paths cross groves of trees and tall clumps of wild grass. Further on, a group of ten-year-olds play and learn with the help of an animator.
“When those kinds of places disappear, you go into the basement and play video games. Or you walk in the park, more boring and slippery, but something is missing, ”he says.
The researcher is currently collaborating with the city of Montreal in the development of the city’s next city plan. Together with his university colleagues, he chose about twenty public spaces, including the Field of Opportunities. “We try to see what we can learn from these sites and to understand how users use the site and acquire it. And here it is a place we targeted to show the need for informality in the city, ”he explains.
And faced with what he describes as the failure of debates on social networks and the people behind their screen are in “representation” and remain camped on their strong opinions, the professor also dreams of open discussion spaces in the cities.
“There is the public space, which is now global, and there is our intimate private space where we talk to each other. But there does not seem to be much between the two anymore and the opportunity to meet people differently, in other circles, “he argues.
He does not know what form it may take, but he imagines discussion forums in public places, as a kind of agora, to meet people with different backgrounds. A bit like the American organization People’s Communionwhich organizes meals in the local communities to promote exchanges between people from different backgrounds.