Saturday, August 30, 2014

Steve’s Speech at the Launch of Rethinking the City

Good evening...I’d like to start by thanking each and every one of you for coming tonight to share this special occasion with us. I do appreciate that its a long way for many of you and also the end of a long week but I'm very grateful to have the opportunity to present some ideas and, of course, to introduce my book. I'd also like to thank Merilyn and Hornsby Council for enabling it to happen and the lovely Nilmini for making it happen. Also, a special mention for Steve Frost for formally launching our books and exhibition today and for being a great friend and mentor.

I start my book with the words: “Fate has been generous to me”. This may seem like an odd way to start a book about cities but I use this expression for three specific that I can talk about fate, so I can talk about generosity and so I can talk about me. I talk about me, because when I describe cities I don’t mean buildings and roads and shops and houses. What I mean by the word ‘city’ is the place where people live. The habitat for humanity. When I think about the City I’m asking: What kind of habitat are we creating for ourselves? So I say: “Fate has been generous to ME” because it’s personal. The kind of environment we create affects the people in it. It affects you and me personally.
Secondly, I refer to Fate because your fate is the particular environment you were born into—this idea of Fate originates from the earliest stages of Western history—in Homer’s Iliad...but I’ll talk about this a little later.

The third reason why I start by saying: “Fate has been generous to me” is because I wanted
to say I felt lucky, because finally at the age of 50 I can say that I do feel lucky. It took me a long time to come to this realisation and to fully appreciate you—collectively—who represent the moments of my life. I also wanted to make it clear that we are not saying simplistically that fate is bad and destiny is good. Your fate is just your starting point. Your destiny is where you finish up in life and I just feel that we—as a society—have forgotten how important the pursuit of destiny is. We live mostly by just accepting our fate because we don't want to believe that our life will finish.

I also wanted to emphasise that we do live in the lucky country and so my first chapter describes how some people are born into a safe, stable and comfortable environment and others are not. Fate is generous to some and not to others. We don’t all have equal opportunities, so how does that inequality affect the way we create our cities? In my view we build cities by assuming that everyone is the same and so create highways that take everyone in the same direction. We pave the places where we want people to go so that everyone can follow that easy path. So, one question that I ask is: How often do you break the routine and get off the main road and discover something new or do something for the first time?

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by... ”

Unlike Nil—who—as you heard—was always looking to travel off the beaten track—I just wanted the main highway. Over and over again in my life I wanted what everyone else had. I wanted to fit in—but I just couldn’t get there. I can look back now and say that my path diverged from the main road when I was about 11—when I found out I had epilepsy. This meant I couldn’t play soccer any more—I was no longer on the team. It was the first time I asked myself: Why did I have to be different? Why couldn’t I just fit in? Later it would mean that I couldn’t drive a car, which—if you live in the suburbs of Sydney—means that you can’t really explore the world. Despite the love and support of my family and others around me I started to feel left out. The sense that I couldn’t do what others could do affected my confidence and self-belief. The reality for me was that the very minor epilepsy led to a loss of self-confidence, which is a slippery path—a path that for me would lead to depression. Con and Chrissa, Jim and Eleni, Paul and Mary, Shannon and Maria and their families helped me through this and I’m so glad you were all in my life at that time.

So here I can make another point about cities. In car-dependent cities like Sydney, everyone that drives a car can get on the main highway. My fate, at the time, was to be unable to drive in a city that is car-dependent and that had very real consequences for me.

You are probably starting to appreciate that Rethinking the City didn’t start off as a book about cities. It started in my own experiences. I studied town planning and later environmental law because I wanted to understand the world—I thought if I could work out how the world works I might find out how I could fit in. I always felt like an outsider looking in. Looking at everyone on the main highway—with their partners, their children, their lives—and wishing I could be there. So Rethinking the City explores all the threads of my life, my work in town planning, my study of environment and law, my exploration of the Orthodox church as well as many other religions, my sense of identity, my dabbling in share trading and learnings about how the economy works and also my work in local government, which taught me how government functions.

Fundamentally, Rethinking the City explores the relationship between the individual and the City— the relationship between our private interests and the public interest. It asks: How does the way we think affect the City and the environment we live in?
In 2004 my life fell apart. It was my high impact moment. I had been working at South Sydney Council in the first job that challenged and excited me. It was creative and interesting. Thanks to Katherine and other work colleagues at the time I felt useful and respected.

Unfortunately, as South Sydney merged with the City of Sydney, the South Sydney managers were considered surplus to requirements. Just at that same time I also lost faith in the Church because the institution continually contradicted its own teachings. To top it off my 'on again - off again' girlfriend of several years said she wanted it to end. It was at that time, late 2004, that I had the good fortune to be given a job at Fairfield Council, where I would meet the people who would change my life. Rob and George pushed me to be the best I could be. They trusted me even when I didn’t trust myself, which is a most empowering feeling. Rob helped me confront the depression and showed me the way through. I’ll be forever grateful.

The first time I met Nilmini De Silva she told me some of the stories from her many travels. Nillie was the very opposite of me. Each time we met I heard more stories and more dreams about future travels. For the first time I started to reflect on my own life. Sure I had done the obligatory trip to Europe but nothing like the journeys of discovery—off the tourist trail—that Nil was describing! I felt completely empty. I felt as if I had spent my life complaining about what I didn't have, wishing I could be like everyone else, rather than making conscious choices about my future.

I then decided to do a short course on Chinese Environmental Law in Shanghai. I decided that this would be the line in the sand for me. I would go to China and I promised myself I would be a different person when I came back. I would pretend to be confident until I became confident. Without knowing it I chose to create my destiny. Your fate is the cards that life deals you. Your destiny can only be found if you stop complaining about the cards you didn’t get and look at the cards in your hand.

The week I came back from China I met Katherine, who I would marry the following year. I was attracted to her because she was an outsider like me. She talked about the happiest time of her life when she lived for six months in Crete with just enough money to make ends meet. Deep down I wanted that simple life away from the maddening crowd. Through Katherine I learnt about philosophy and Greek history and I came to understand the human face of town planning. How our choices and actions create the city we live in and why courage is so important. All of these are important elements of my book.

In 2010 when my marriage broke down I was alone again. But this time it was different. This time I knew that I was never meant to be on the main highway. I knew I had to find my own path. No longer would I worry about fitting in because I accepted that I couldn’t. This acceptance is the most liberating feeling. When you know what you are not, you are free to discover and create who you are. The last four years with Nillie have been a journey of self-discovery. Through our travels, our writing and our relationship we have been able to learn who we are.

If you ask me what the meaning of life is: I’ll tell you that life only has meaning when you are free to discover and create yourself. We create the meaning by figuring out what we can meaningfully contribute to the world. Who are you and what do you have to offer? What is your unique contribution?

Fate has been generous to me for another reason. I am now exploring, discovering and creating at a time in human history when social networking and the internet is allowing us to reinvent the way we interact with each other, the way the economy works and the way that politics works. These are the essential elements of a city: economics, religion and politics and all of these are being transformed in our lifetime.

While travelling through Europe in 2013 we visited eco-villages, transition towns and i
ntentional communities. These were people who were looking for new ways of building their city so as to achieve environmental sustainability and meaningful social connections. In Ireland and Greece we witnessed the consequences for people when their social systems are collapsing. This is not the first time in history that entire societies have collapsed.
In about 1200BCE—three great empires—Egypt, Greece and the Hittite empire, which is in modern day Turkey—all collapsed simultaneously. In the Dark Ages that followed people had to invent new systems and new kinds of cities. In the land of Canaan, which was previously part of the Kingdom of Egypt, Moses set out the principles for the Hebrew model. 

It would no longer be work, work, work—there would now be a day of rest—one day for freedom from work for the former slaves—a day where the week’s produce would be shared to ensure everyone’s needs were satisfied. It was a new society focused on equality.
In Greece, Homer challenged the Greeks not be trapped by their fate but to do great deeds and pursue their destiny. The Greeks therefore divided their cities into the economic domain, where work was done; and the political domain, which provided freedom from work where citizens could do great deeds and in which they created sport and practiced art and science and philosophy.

In Lydia, which was in modern day Turkey in the area of the collapsed Hittite empire, they invented coins. Whoever had enough coins was free from work.
I won’t go into any more detail here but you will have picked up that the common theme in all three models was the creation of a way of achieving freedom from work. Freedom to create equality, freedom to pursue your destiny or freedom to relax and do nothing. Why can’t we create a society that offers freedom—instead of one that demands more work, more jobs and more growth?

In Rethinking the City I ask: Can we build cities that are based on the ideas of freedom, equality, trust, transparency, authenticity and resonance with the natural environment? I think we can...but to understand whether this is possible in the future, we need to understand who we are today. To understand ourselves today we need to understand where we came from, both personally and as a society. How did our history create who we are?
Much of the book therefore explores our history because I am trying to understand how Western society was constructed. What are the ideas on which we build our cities and what should we change?

Of course I go into it in more detail in the book, but if you are interested we will also be doing a number of author talks in which I will delve into these ideas in much more detail. The first will be Saturday week, here, at 2pm. I will also be presenting at Gleebooks on the 21st of September and other events you can see on our website. We just wanted today to be a bit more personal but we would both be happy to answer questions and chat with you later.

For now, though, please enjoy the food and drinks, buy a book or two...or a photo. Thank you all once again for coming and sharing this important day with us.... Cheers 

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