Ostriches, superlambananas and local distinctiveness

“So what’s with the multi-coloured ostriches?” I asked my hosts in the Romanian city of Bistrița. Dotted around the historic heart of this Transylvanian regional centre are several of these birds, each brightly coloured, life size and with a horseshoe in its beak, and also (dramatically larger than life size) some of their eggs. Apparently they appear on Bistrița’s historic coat of arms, dating, along with its charter fair, from the 14th century. They are a fun feature of the city, but not uniformly popular. For many residents the “official” logo, featuring the spire of the Evangelical Church and some of the courtyard arches of the merchants’ houses, is a better example of local distinctiveness.

But brightly coloured animals are rapidly becoming one of the most fashionable ways of defining a city, and at least the ostriches have an authentic link to Bistrița. Liverpool’s famous superlambananas, a common sight in the city during its stint as European Capital of Culture, and still to be found lurking on the odd street corner today, have rather shallower local roots.

All of which got me thinking about how modern cities can create real local distinctiveness. I was in Romania to do some work, courtesy of an EU Urbact project, hot on the heels of trips to Ireland and Germany. A striking feature of the three trips was how lacking in local distinctiveness almost all 21st century aspects of city life are. The same cars, the same phones, the same lap tops. Identikit airport terminals, motorway service areas and shopping centres. Romania is not a wealthy country by EU standards, but the Iulius Mall in the city of Cluj, where I spent my last night before my 6 am Wizzair flight back to Luton, is as Westfield as any you care to think of. And Romanians do their weekly supermarket shop in Auchan, Lidl or Kaufland, just like their counterparts in France and Germany.

Of course, what we really mean by local distinctiveness is our heritage of old buildings, and particularly those which predate the industrial revolution. Local vernacular building styles which developed independently from each other, using local building materials, created a fine grain, which can vary over even a few miles. And here of course almost every city in Europe has a rich treasury of individuality. So Bistrița, as a Germanic trading centre for centuries, like many in Transylvania, has a local character all of its own, very different from the rest of Romania with which it joined forces as recently as 1919.

Planners set a lot of store by local distinctiveness. And as a way of deciding what to preserve of the past it has of course immense importance. Our local styles are a vital feature not only of our towns but of our sense of ourselves. “C’est joli, notre pays”, the hotel receptionist said to me, in the French which is often favoured over English by older Romanians, perhaps harking back to the time in the 1920’s and 30’s when Bucharest was known as Little Paris. And it is local distinctiveness which plays such a big part in people’s love of their own country.

But the problem comes in trying to keep the idea going in the global village. You could argue that local distinctiveness only came about because people didn’t have access to wider ideas. After all, our legacy of similar Gothic cathedrals, not just in England but across the Channel too, is a product of the movement of master masons around the place seeking new commissions, and the desire of local dignitaries to recruit the best.
It certainly isn’t that different cultures have a genetic predisposition towards different building styles. Homo sapiens are famously similar genetically. Due to our common descent from a small number of individuals, and the short time our species has been on the planet, a typical social group of fifty-five chimpanzees has more genetic diversity than the entire human race (source – Bill Bryson’s excellent science primer A Short History of Nearly Everything p.556). We moan about clone towns, but now that developers have access to the sum total of knowledge on the planet, it is no more surprising that the skylines of Shanghai, London and New York are becoming interchangeable than that identical twins raised on different continents choose the same colour clothes.

Today our efforts at retaining local distinctiveness seem doomed to creating the theme park Britain of the volume builders’ vernacular housing styles. The unashamedly modern, but human scale and individualistic apartment buildings of Vauban, in the German city of Freiburg, have created a far more genuinely distinctive place than the “anywheretown at a fancy dress party” that so often secures planning permission in the UK.
And anyway we should be careful what we wish for. Vernacular village building styles were often born of the sum total of local ingenuity, with little outside influence. But of course that very insularity created communities which we would not necessarily like to live in today. After all, people have been escaping from villages since medieval serfs sought the anonymity of their local town, aiming to pass unnoticed for a year and a day to secure their freedom. I was reminded of this in Dublin when I went to see the excellent Irish film, Stella Days. It’s a captivating portrayal of the limiting effect of living in a small community in the 1950’s, and the transformational impact of the arrival of electricity. Unfortunately I don’t think it has been released in the UK.

My hunch is that it is really the human scale and fine grained townscape of historic cities, produced by a myriad individual decisions rather than corporate investment, which we cherish. Only the experts will understand the finer points of local vernacular building styles, but we all know what we like! And what Vauban brought home to me is that if you make room for these individual decisions you are more likely to create a liveable place than by any amount of well-meaning corporate attempts to ape local distinctiveness.

In a hundred years’ time large parts of our cities will probably all look much the same, whichever continent you are on. The same central business districts, football stadiums, airports and metro stations, the same shopping malls with the same global brands (assuming we don’t do it all online by then of course). Our thousands of years of separate development will be rightly preserved in our historic buildings and field boundaries, as a living museum of local vernacular styles. But the future will be about a common aim to have the best, while at the same time being able to make it personalised and distinctive. Surely this should apply to where we live, much more so than, if the advertising is to be believed, it already does to our cars, coffees and mobile phone tariffs.

Ostriches and superlambananas will have their part to play in creating this individuality of course. But more important is the opportunity for us to really influence the appearance of the places where we live. And not just through being “publicly engaged” by a friendly volume housebuilder or local Council, but by controlling, either individually or as a community, how our homes are designed, and how the space around them is used. That would really be localism.

Perhaps there are already excellent examples of this approach in the UK. If so please let me know. I would love to go and have a look. Because as far as I can see the Germans are doing it rather better than us at the moment.