On the morning after the carnival the city is lethargic, hung over. The sidewalks are awash in food wrappings and wrinkled streamers; a folded festival program drifts desultorily in a wind of rush hour traffic. The city feels congested, and as it girds itself for the day to come it inhales a thick cloud of commuters. They are choleric, too, and as the city and its citizens breathe out they contort themselves into the inevitable chores of tallying the carnival’s takings and its tourist count, pacifying the corporate sponsors, fording the flow of critical press, and beginning the indelicate effort of justifying next year’s budget request. And in this shift is an unseen, almost unacknowledged tension, the tension between movement and volition, between the opiate and its effect, between public means and private ends.
This unspoken tension is at the heart of Toronto Poet Laureate Pier Giorgio Di Cicco’s Municipal Mind: Manifestos for the Creative City (Mansfield Press, 2007). To Di Cicco, the city’s vitality is measured not in the plans and accountings which impose structure and quantify value but in the spontaneous, authentic eruptions of creativity that give expression to joy. In the creative city, art happens not because it has been programmed but because it cannot help itself. And, averring that “this book is not about what can be done better, but what we cannot do without”, it is into this breach that Di Cicco launches his manifestos, prescriptions for the rehabilitation of a “civic aesthetic” that recognizes “the desire of the citizen for elements one no longer dares to ask for – conviviality, joy, delight in wonder, the shared forum of imagining and play, of unreserved laughter and serenity .... [and] all the playful and ecstatic registers that justify city life, without which the city becomes a place of business, or indentured servitude.”
Municipal Mind comprises a preface, thirty-four unnumbered manifestos, and a coda. The manifestos themselves may be combined and read in any number of ways, but thematically they form three parts: twenty-two discourses describing the creative city, followed by a diagnosis of the current civic malaise, and shifting thereafter to specific rehabilitative statements about how we might restore the civic soul by harnessing diversity, creativity, and civility. Through the heart of Di Cicco’s manifestos flow closely interwoven definitions of the creative city, which Di Cicco avers is found in “rejoicings that spark the impulse to create again and again” in an “essential atmosphere of passion”. Above all, creativity is found in “the faithful investigation of ultimate metaphors”. Di Cicco’s metaphors are carried on currents of joy, passion, embodiment; these are “where the romance of a city begins.” A creative city is authentic, unselfconscious, conversational, and unpretentious. The creative city is an antidote to the diseases Di Cicco diagnoses: spitefulness in the civic politic, loneliness, the fetish of “lifestyle”, foolish bylaws, and the dictates of the market. The creative city culminates in self-reflection, charity, mutuality, reverence, and openness to risk-taking. It gives rise, ultimately, to an ethic founded in an aesthetic of grace.
Di Cicco is not the first to discuss “civic aesthetics”, but his innovative use of the term inverts the meaning of aesthetics usually encountered in the urban planning and design literature in conjunction with the “city beautiful” movement of the first half of the twentieth century. Where proponents of the city beautiful movement harnessed urban design to attain desired social goals in efforts to build great capitals of culture and commerce (following the model of Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris), in contrast, Di Cicco insists that “the beautiful is not landscape, or cityscape or architectonic; the beautiful is what people have built in the spaces between each other – a reciprocity, an exchange of ideals and a shared vision.” Di Cicco’s creative city may also be aesthetically beautiful, but more immediate and vital is the “architecture of faith,” and a “city soul” that is “located in the architecture of the space between people and is predicated by congruent aspirations and social commonality.” In the meantime, Di Cicco suggests that we find beauty and inspiration where we may, in the abandoned or overlooked quarters of the city; he observes that “the citizen rummages through the city looking for those sights and spaces that reflect a human scale.”
For its diagnosis of the urban malaise and its lyrical prescriptions for treatment, Municipal Mind is a vastly overdue contribution. It should appear on the desks of every city bureaucrat and politician, not so much as a manual but rather as a palate cleaner between the larded courses of by-laws and budgets. While reading Municipal Mind, I could not help but think Di Cicco was reflecting on some of Toronto's more audacious cultural failures, such as the Imagine a Toronto ... Strategies for a Creative City report that appeared and vanished a year ago like so much other flotsam tossed upon the municipal waves. His appeal to the "legacy of an idea that resonates before and after the clang of turnstiles" might be applied pointedly to creative festivals, like Luminato, whose success is calculated in terms of tourist dollars spent and for which local engagement is a hasty afterthought. If in cities we spend most of our time staring into flickering screens and the headlights of the cars in front of us, Di Cicco goads us to look out the window at the real city arrayed before us, the city we must do more than see but should actually feel.
At the same time, it is in this unceasing adjuration to feel that Di Cicco’s manifestos hesitate and lose some of their power. Di Cicco deplores the dominant civic discourse as “dipodic, western, Aristotelian,” and argues that “poets, artists, designers” can add the necessary holism to our language. But if our cities suffer from a “failure of heart”, then the body politic of Di Cicco’s creative city has a heart but lacks a spine. Di Cicco argues that passion is what we need. But I cannot agree that our cities lack passion. When one young man shoots another in a high rise hallway, or when we riot and loot, or merely isolate and exclude, surely that is passion unleashed. Di Cicco’s claim that “violence is the reaction to loneliness, the absence of collective ideals” is true, as far as it goes, but requires a concerted call to one aspect of a “civic aesthetics” Di Cicco refers to only indirectly and in passing: the discourse of shared principles.
“Only universals cohere,” Di Cicco writes toward the end of Municipal Mind, and surely this is the clearest definition of principle. But Di Cicco’s “narrative of the charitable and the empathic, from which the pledge of civic sacrifice is born” cannot be rooted only or even primarily in the body or the visceral passions, although certainly it can extend to them. It must connect our embodied experiences to something outside ourselves, something more lasting and more meaningfully communicated, something that simultaneously celebrates and transcends diversity. Di Cicco argues that creativity – for him the greatest universal – is the route to civic grace, and I do not disagree, if by creativity he refers not only to the flourishing of the arts, authenticity, and openness to joy but also the harder virtues of standing for shared principles we can agree or disagree on. Di Cicco moves toward this position in the latter portions of Municipal Mind, particularly in his discussions of civility, mercy, and care, but the connecting mechanism between creativity and care – that of principle – seems to me to be incompletely developed. He avers that we must be “poets of a common metaphor,” but perhaps at the same time we would do well to be philosophers as well.
Years ago when I trained and practiced as an urban planner, I railed against the bureaucratization and 'professionalization' of the planning field, particularly its preponderance for reinventing the wheel (in which every new design movement was termed a 'revolution' and gave rise to a new orthodoxy of urban design) and its fetish for quantitative measures of the qualities of cities. Shortly before leaving the profession, in response to a call for greater strictness by the planning profession's gatekeepers I wrote in the Ontario Planning Journal that professional accreditation should be opened to "sculptors of public art; committed social activists; writers ..." and that we could restore relevance to the profession by "stretching the boundaries of our vision of planning to include all that which enhances our relationships with each other and with our cultural, physical, ecological, economic, political, intellectual, and spiritual environments." It is restorative to read Pier Giorgio Di Cicco's manifestos for the creative city, and it is with relief that I will set it beside my equally dog-eared copy of Land Use Planning Made Plain. In September, when I return to teaching city literature, culture and design to university students, we will have the pleasure of using Municipal Mind as a guidebook for our urban pilgrimages.
[This review originally appeared at Reading Toronto.]