#GreenFests: The Improbable City

19th August 2015

The Improbable City is the theme for commissions at this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival. It’s based on the poetic novella …

The Improbable City is the theme for commissions at this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival. It’s based on the poetic novella Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, in which the great merchant traveller Marco Polo describes to the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan the wondrous cities he has encountered. The emperor slowly realises that the cities Polo describes are probably fictional, while Polo himself comes to realise that in his descriptions he must balance “exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions” with the probable, to avoid achieving “cities too probable to be real”.

Seven works have been commissioned for the 2015 festival:

These visual artists have used their work to conjure alternative imaginary worlds, improbable cities that require our imaginations in order to exist.

This is not a one-way street, however. Whilst we determine how we see these fictional worlds, they in turn affect the way in which we perceive reality. They can be very different to our world or very similar, but by highlighting these similarities and differences they draw attention to them. Through juxtaposing an imaginary world with our own, we become aware of things in the real world that we may never before have considered, and about which we must now come to understand.

Comparing and contrasting imaginary worlds with our own also raises questions of how we want our world to be. Which aspects of theFringe 3 imaginary worlds do we desire, and which do we wish to avoid? Is it possible to bring those aspects we want to life? Sometimes an imaginary world can inspire direct and deliberate action to ensure that it becomes a reality. Take, for example, the recent campaign to build a to-scale version of Minas Tirith, the capital city of Gondor in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, in southern England. Other times the effect can be more subtle: think, for example, about how books such as Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 still shape modern discourse on human embryo manipulation and mass-surveillance.

The apparent dichotomy between fiction and fact is a state of the present (and perhaps the past) but it is blurred when considering the future. The future does not yet exist for there to be facts about it: the future must be created. What then, we must decide, do we want from our future cities?

While we may quibble about the specifics, there are some fundamental qualities that are generally taken to be universally desired. For example, we want our cities to be sustainable: they must satisfy the social, economic and environmental needs of their citizens, both in the present and the future. In order to do this, certain challenges must be overcome, challenges that will change over time. This means that the cities of the future will have to anticipate these changes and be sufficiently flexible to accommodate them.

Developing such flexibility is a cornerstone of the 100 Resilient Cities project (100RC), of which Glasgow is one. This project, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to sustainability challenges – physical, social and economic – of the 21st century. Such challenges include extreme weather events resulting from climate change, chronic food and water shortages, high unemployment, and inadequate infrastructure to name but a few.

Fringe 3Glasgow, for example, is having to move on from its post-industrial past and reinvent itself for the 21st century. Careful town planning is creating a healthier environment for Glaswegians, while a vibrant arts community and a diversifying economy are serving only to increase Glasgow’s resilience to various shocks and stresses.

Another example of a project that is trying to build cities today to cope with the problems of tomorrow is the Carbon Trust’s Low Carbon Cities Programme, which works closely with cities to develop and implement carbon reduction strategies. So far this is proving very successful, with emissions reducing by 25% on average over 5 years. By engaging businesses, governments and the public sector, the Low Carbon Cities programme is helping more and more cities move to a sustainable, low-carbon economy.

Such visions of future cities may not be the most exciting – they don’t feature the flying cars and hover boards that Back to the Future had promised us by now for example (Back to the Future II is set in 2015). But there is something great in the idea of a city that allows its citizens to live healthy, happy and fulfilling lives in such a way that their actions are not detrimental to the environment or to each other. A truly sustainable city is itself a wonderful dream, though it is full of challenges that must be overcome – challenges which ensure that such cities are not too probable to be real.

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A project initiated by Edinburgh’s Festivals with key partners the Federation of Scottish Theatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network

Edinburgh Festival City Federation of Scottish Theatre Scottish Contemporary Art Network