16 March 2010

Civitas et civis

The Passport Office is flooded this morning. In the absence of any precipitation of note in the last 24 hours I think it is safe to rule out Climate Change as the instigator of this unfortunate event, though given the fact that our own apartment located a number of floors above the ground was the victim of rain-induced flooding last July, such attribution to the fell hand of human-induced climatic misfortune is not beyond the realms of possibility.

But no matter, what interested me most about the report in this morning's Irish Times Online was the following phrase:
"Any citizen who is to collect a new passport today can collect it from Hainault House, 69 - 71 St. Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, from 11.00 this morning. Meanwhile, any citizen who needs a passport on a genuine emergency basis should report to nearby Iveagh House, 80 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, where an emergency service is in operation."
This was of interest to me because of the repeated use of the word 'Citizen', a phrase that one seldom sees in either conversation or print, or rather, one seldom sees in conversation or print unless you find yourself preoccupied with the same sort of source material as I do, for it is a word that I am passionate about.

The word itself derives from a Middle English appropriation of the French 'citezein', meaning inhabitant of a city, itself coming from the Latin 'civitas' meaning city. In both the early French and current English meaning the 'citizen' is defined in terms of the place in which they inhabit, the citizen is one who belongs to the city, or to the state. However in the original Latin etymology this relationship is reversed, for the word 'civitas' was itself more properly defined as being a body of citizens, the 'civis' or citizen was at its core and the city defined its existence in terms of its inhabitants, it was because they were.

The official motto of the City of Dublin, still visible on many street lamps throughout the city centre, is "Obedientia civium urbis felicitas", translated roughly as "the obedience of the citizen is the happiness of the city", and is all too indicative of the reversal of this relationship since Roman times.

However last night I was invited to attend a workshop organised by the City planning office bringing together architects, academics, urban planners, elected representatives and, apparently, grumpy bloggers with a passion for the notion of the Public Sphere and the way in which the right physical Space might stimulate its growth, and over the course of almost four hours around twenty of us discussed aspects of the proposed new Economic Corridors in the draft City Development plan in a facilitated yet free-flowing conversation.

What impressed me about the evening was the genuine sense of duty to the citizens (and the word 'citizen' was used extensively, rather than 'residents' or 'inhabitants') that was conveyed by the city officials and those involved in the planning process. Much of the conversation revolved around ways to engage with and empower the citizenry through the planning process and beyond into the actual realisation of the physical space itself.

It was also encouraging to be able to reference David Harvey, Elinor Ostrom's work on the Commons and the participatory budgetary process in Porto Alegre during the formal workshop and in sidebar conversations during the interval and be received with interest if not always with approval.

I was struck by a phrase used at the start of the evening, that of "Collaborative Urbanism", and it seemed to encapsulate everything that should happen within a city planning process where the citizen is at its heart. I emerged from the evening's workshop feeling that at least in part of the City Council there were people who believed with a passion that 'the Happiness of the Citizens is the Happiness of the City', and while they might not always have the best tools to engage with the citizenry, the willingness and desire are there.

Good news for the Citizen, then.

Of course in the context of the above notice of the flooded passport office the word 'Citizen" is obviously being used less as an appellation of inclusive civil camaraderie, and more to alert the confused readership of Ireland's newspaper of record to the fact that not just anyone off the street can show up at this office and expect to pick up a passport, no indeed, for they must be (deep breath and pause for dramatic effect), IRISH!! No Polish or Romanians, no visiting Germans or lost Americans happening upon Molesworth Street could expect to receive travel documentation wherin the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ireland requests all whom it may concern to allow the bearer, a citizen of Ireland, to pass freely and without hinderance and to afford the bearer all necessary assistance and protection. That privilege is for Irish folk, and Irish folk alone.

and possibly Israelis.


Dublin City Development Plan, an interesting site with summaries of the main themes, videos of public debates and other feedback forums and of course the full plan itself in downloadable form.

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