How Cities Learn

Eddy Adam FRSA has spent the past year looking at how cities can innovate in addressing the challenges they face in the 21st century. Central to this is how cities can better learn from one another.

Buddhists believe that on the eve of Buddha’s birth, his mother dreamt that a white elephant gave her a lotus flower. Consequently, they hold white elephants to be sacred. In 1885, when the British were at the gates of Mandalay, the Burmese Emperor’s white elephant took ill, which was deemed inauspicious by the local population. Even worse, as the British marched into the city the animal died of natural causes, portending the end of the great Burmese Empire and the fall of the house of Thibaw.

For the invading army, the idea of maintaining a white elephant as a palace pet was wasteful and ridiculous. From this incident we gained the phrase ‘white elephant’ in the English language. However, the conquerors’ cultural misinterpretation was costly, and they unwittingly sparked widespread unrest in the city by dragging its corpse through the streets of Rangoon.

Nowadays, the phrase ‘white elephant’ strikes fear into the heart of those involved in urban development. Symbolising wasteful extravagance, it suggests vanity projects, unaccountability and poor decision-making. It was hard not to be struck by this on a recent visit to Myanmar. There, the regime has, in the past decades, invested millions in the construction of an entirely new capital city, Naypyidaw, halfway between Yangon (modern Rangoon) and Mandalay. This huge urban project remains pristine and unreal while no major foreign embassy has agreed to relocate from Yangon. Meanwhile, the country’s two long-established cities experience population booms and traffic gridlock due to an explosive rise in vehicle use.

Walking the smog-choked streets of Yangon, it occurred to me that as cities grow they are too often condemned to repeat the mistakes of others. Is there any way we can avoid this, and better assist cities to learn from one another?

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