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Urban renewal: the psychological dimension

Meditation is the route to enlightenment, of the outer, urban, context, as well as the inner, personal, condition.


Steve Latham


Paul Virilio, coined the term ‘Dromology’ to describe the scientifc-philosophical investigation of speed in contemporary experience. And this is the nature of the ‘urbiverse’ we live in.

To proceed with this, however, we need also to admit its dialectical, two-sided nature. The’ Big City’, may be exciting, stimulating; but is also encourages constant stress and anxiety.

You never know what’s coming at you. Yesterday, news reports were full of animated journalists talking breathlessly about a knife attack, probably terrorist-related, in Streatham, a part of London I know well.

Although it is ‘second-hand’, ‘mediated through media’, this unexpected, surprising, and sometimes dangerous quality of the urban flow, hijacks our amygdala, and causes cortisol levels to sky-rocket.

We “live and move and have our being”, in a mundane rather than divine milieu, a soup of heightened tension, which provides both thrills and spills.

So, part of the secret of survival is to pursue stillness; not by abandoning the city, in my case London – because that is, as Samuel Johnson wrote, to become tired of life.

As a spin on this Johnsonian trope, Saladin Ahmed has written an ‘urban fantasy’ novel, from a middle eastern, Islamic, perspective, which overturns the conventions of SciFi.

In it, Adoulla Makhslood is an ageing demon-hunter, who wants to just sit and drink tea, but who is called back for one last adventure.

Such is the destiny of every longterm urban-dweller, overcome by the accedie and boredom of a settled routine, but one which is interrupted again and again by each fresh arrival.

To appreciate and welcome the next new thing, we need to cultivate an inner stillness. Even amidst the disturbance of constant change, there is a place of quiet, and that is in the eye of storm.

We find rest, the still point, in contemplation, consideration: a non-intellectual, but thoroughly cerebral, study of the interface between the outer and the inner dimensions.

Plato compared the well-ordered city to the interior balance of the soul. Academically, the science of politics developed from examining the power relations within the Greek polis. Similarly, our own psychological integration is necessary for us to adopt a non-threatened posture towards possible threats to our primitive lizard brain.

Not that this necessitates abandoning out prior commitments, to justice or truth-claims. Instead, these are essentially contested within an environment which throws us repeatedly against alternative options.

In so far, as the word ‘heretic’ originates from the word for ‘choice’ (historically meaning the choice against, or different from, the dominant orthodoxy), we are all heretics now.

Present conditions of plurality force us to choose, to adopt, consciously, our beliefs and values. Truth itself therefore becomes at issue. As Pilate said: ‘What is truth’?

But again, any plea for practical advice on urbivision therefore collapses into a confused babel, a predicament, where the innermost habits of the heart shape our reactions.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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