Amidst the cacophony of modern life, I am always so grateful when I discover a haven of silence, a place of deliberate stillness for contemplation and awareness of being. What a pleasure to discover a fascinating new research project called Still City being pursued by Monnik, a Dutch “collective and laboratory for investigation, imagination and storytelling.” Based in Amsterdam, Monnik’s work “concentrates on how persons and society need to reconfigure or reassess their relationship with their self-constructed modern world.”
The Still City project is explained this way on its website:
This is a project about stillness. We are living in an increasingly urban world, in which growth is the central tenet. Growth, in all its cultural translations and incarnations, has been the cornerstone of modernity. Most of our parables stress the virtues of personal growth, economic growth, demographic growth and technological innovation. Forms of growth that are considered deeply intertwined, simultaneous, and interchangeable. But what happens when growth is no longer feasible, or when it becomes undesirable? What happens to a city when growth based on ‘Bigger, Better and More of it’, becomes unsustainable? What happens when a city stops growing but doesn’t shrink either? What kind of values and narratives will emerge when the notions of economic growth and personal growth disconnect? How will people relate to labor, love, family, individuality, community, history and the future? Is there such a thing as a mature city?
Still City Project is a search for a dynamic urban culture that is not based on growth. The Still City can be understood as a sustainable and inclusive society. A society that wants to leave the more negative connotations of the notion ‘growth’ behind to find post-expansion, post-depletion and post-exploitation value-systems. The ambition of the project is to construct urban scenarios that will help us understand how a post-growth society could function.
Monnik is currently engaged in a series of interviews with international thinkers in various disciplines, and “people-on-the-ground” who are trying to deal with “the everyday reality of growth, and non-growth, in our society.” The group hopes to develop some scenarios on how post-growth circumstances would change the urban environment, and publish the results in The Still City Scenario Machine.
I spoke with Edwin Gardner of Monnik a few weeks ago, who explained to me that Still City is interested in the commons because it seems to lie “at the core of both an inclusive as well as a sustainable society.” He and his colleagues see the commons as providing “an alternative narrative and imagination to the dominant discourse on property and prosperity” -- a theme of obvious interest to Still City.
You can get an idea of what Monnik is investigating through its case study/workshop on the Still City that it held in Tokyo in November 2012. The group brought together 26 urban explorers – "writers, artists, designers, architects, scholars, free-thinkers and urbanologists” – to roam Tokyo “in search of latent values, behaviors and practices that may foreshadow a Still World. Spanning eleven days, the workshop incorporated public lectures and presentations, explorations through tours, and intense discussion. With its zero-growth economy, aging population, and a neither growing or shrinking urban environment, Tokyo is an ideal site for an urban exploration into the phenomena of stillness.”
Among many other activities, participants watched a film about how “decentralization and cooperative societies will allow [Tokyo residents] to make our energy supplies sustainable faster than we ever imagined, often without subsidies and while making a profit.” An architect explained how “co-creation and the cultivation of bottom-up ideas from local residents could address the challenges that come with prolonged economic malaise.” People took a trip of “Haikyo hunting,” or the exploration of urban ruins, which has become a popular pastime for foreigners and Japanese alike.
Want to learn more about Still City? You can download a fascinating report on the Tokyo Still City Project here. Monnik has assembled a nice collection of books that are germane to its search for Still City. And here is a brochure the explains for the entire project.
Still City seems to be mostly about asking pertinent, penetrating questions and proposing new ideas. There are no clear blueprints or formulaic answers. Consistent with Monnik’s mission of exploring how human beings relate to their self-constructed environment, the project is a frankly experimental gambit into unknown territory. How rare, and what a treat! It’s amazing that the curators have the space and resources to stretch their (and our) imaginations about the idea of Still City, almost in the style of a conceptual artist. I look forward to the interviews that the project leaders are now assembling.