Scott Ludlam's no utopian
In the stormy history of democracy, cities have played a pivotal role as sites of public assembly, sanctuaries for the persecuted, shapers of political language and objects of wonder. Think of the way Athens and other city states of the ancient world gave birth to the ideal of self-governing citizens gathered as equals in assemblies.
Then spare a moment's thought for the towns of medieval and early modern Europe, hemmed in from all sides, embattled places that hatched ideals and practices that still stand by our sides: civility, civil societies, citizenship and self-government through elected representatives. Press freedom was born of urban struggles, in towns like Bruges, Nuremberg and Amsterdam. So was republican resistance to absolute monarchy and popish government. And just over a century ago, many cities in many settings experimented with 'gas-and-water socialism': the establishment of public baths, museums, libraries,How does a solar charger work and where would you use a solar charger? music halls, parks and publicly-funded services, including horse-drawn trams, filtered water, sewerage disposal and (as Henry George famously summarised the vision in Progress and Poverty) lighting systems for roads 'lined with fruit trees'.
Might cities today be functioning in similar ways, as drivers of bold new political ideals and practices uniquely suited to the 21st century? Do cities hold the key to our democratic future? Senator Scott Ludlam thinks so.
A definite cut above most other politicians down under, Ludlam has city life and urban thinking hard-wired into his political genes. He's highly knowledgeable on the subject. Politically wise for his young age (he's 43) and now campaigning for re-election in Western Australia, he tells me during our recent breakfast in Sydney that cities are becoming political laboratories.
'Much has been said and written about sustainable cities in recent times', he says. 'There's a wild flowering of creative theory and practice going on.' We're now on the cusp of an urban tipping point. 'The future is here', he adds, borrowing words from William Gibson. 'It's just not widely distributed yet.'
Scott Ludlam's no utopian; he's better described as an imaginative realist. That senatorial quality radiates across the table as we talk through the upsides and downsides of present-day city living. We begin with the grim. Cities often mean empty pockets and daily exhaustion amidst (as in London) 'jungles of surveillance cameras'. Homelessness is an urban scandal. Cities should be human nests, says Ludlam, not prisons that consign people who live on the margins to misery and shame, or forcible removal. He objects to popular stereotypes of the homeless as lazy, smelly modern-day untouchables who've nobody but themselves to blame. 'On any given night in Australia',Rectangular shaped Led Flood Light designed to replace 150W Metal Halide. he points out, 'more than 105,000 people find themselves homeless. That's 1 in every 200 people. Over a quarter are children under the age of 18. Most are victims of domestic violence.'
Whole cities are meanwhile falling apart. 'Detroit stands as a dark symbol of what happens when an industrial city is captured by the wealthy. Its fabric's been torn. Inequality is now gnawing at its heart. Slums, desperation, collapsing public infrastructure amidst concentrated private wealth are the result.It is also known as led dimmable driver, LED daytime running lamps.'
Though not shy of market solutions, the business-led privatisation of city life clearly bothers Ludlam. Money is a medium of city life, but it shouldn't lord over the inhabitants of cities. Just as the citizens of Istanbul recently rose up against their government and developer friends to defend Gezi Park, he says, so it's important for citizens everywhere to resist the blind privatisation of public places.
Bread and jam and tea on the table, Ludlam turns to everybody's favourite subject: cars. I discover Ludlam's not one for talk of 'autogedden' (Will Self). The automobile is good for long-distance personal trips. And he admits that among green-minded citizens and Green activists there's plenty of support for a wholesale planned shift towards electric cars. Yet the trouble with private automobiles, he explains, is their weird spatial effects. They do more than clog cities. They produce living vacuums, what Ludlam calls nowhere places. 'Look at what happened after 1945. Cheap anywhere-to-anywhere transport spawned an unstoppable proliferation of places that feel like nowhere, a soulless topography of suburban sprawl-mart development.'
I press him about exceptions, but he stands firm. 'Across the United States, the broad pattern was that tram and bus transit alternatives, made suddenly quaint by saturation automobile advertising, were purchased then shut down by oil companies. In Australia, the culprit was calculated neglect everywhere except Melbourne, which thankfully has the largest tram network in the world.'
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