Charles Landry: Applying emotional intelligence

Charles Landry is an author and international authority on the use of imagination and creativity in urban change. In the past decade his work has focused on concepts such as “civic urbanity,” the “creative bureaucracy” and “the management of fragility.”

Charles Landry.

Charles Landry.

UK-based Charles Landry has a longstanding relationship with Australia. He was recently part of the Public2015 symposium in Perth, which explored the value of creativity in building dynamic places. He has also completed numerous residencies, including the South Australian Government’s Thinker in Residence program. Landry recently spoke to Landscape Architecture Australia about the fragility of cities, the value of emotional intelligence to city-makers and facilitating dynamic change.

Claire Martin: You’ve spoken about the fragility that’s created by people and place. Could you tell us about your fascination with fragility?

Charles Landry: I do think things are fragile when human beings are involved. Saying “fragility” rather than “vulnerability” may be just a personal preference, but for me, fragility implies the need to be very alert and awake. It’s about all the collective risks – the risks that exist are partly environmental, but then there are the risks of rich and poor, of diversity, of escalating movement and mobility around the globe, there’s the risk of not having the government systems to cope with it all. So I used the word “fragility” in a book called The Fragile City and the Risk Nexus [written with Tom Burke].

Do you think conducting social life in open and accessible spaces has the potential to create arenas for empathic change?

… I recently helped [facilitate] a UN-Habitat event, Urban Citizenship in a Nomadic World, attended by four hundred people over two days – there were lots of sessions, it was quite complex. I summarized the event and mentioned six big themes … the first theme I said was the “participative imperative,” but suddenly [one of the participants] got up and said, “you have not used my words,” and another said something similar, but that of course was impossible to do when I had about sixty pages of notes. Anyway, the point I’m making in relation to empathy is that … we need to learn the art of conversation, really learn the art of speaking to each other, because we all agree that we need to go from a top–down to a more bottom–up approach to running places. But we haven’t really learnt empathy properly.

The theme of empathy is the growing one. I was [recently] chairing a jury of new innovations in the digital economy and three of the ten shortlisted projects, and the one that won, were all about empathy … which is in crude terms being able to see yourself through the eyes of the other. I often use the phrase “cultural literacy” in the context of cities, and unless we have that as a common feature of how a city works, there will be fragmentation and division.

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I’ve been thinking about that in relation to the privatization of public spaces as a global phenomenon and the risks of internationalization and similitudes.

The trigger for everything I’ve done over the past thirty-five years was always related to what is unique and distinctive about the place. So the fact that everything could start to feel the same really depresses me. There’s no doubt that all of this is getting worse and the way people try to create distinction in cities and places is obviously through experience. My view is that people pump up desire and try to generate experience through neuroscientific techniques, which is the opposite of what I think distinctiveness is. They promote it as if it is distinctive, but they’re just heightening the pitch of the sensory experience.

The city is more than hardware: football fans make themselves comfortable on the Arsenal football club statue lettering outside Emirates Stadium, London, UK.

The city is more than hardware: football fans make themselves comfortable on the Arsenal football club statue lettering outside Emirates Stadium, London, UK.

Image: Charles Landry

I’m interested in what you’ve described as “sensory urbanism” or “soft urbanism.”

I initially wrote about that in The Art of City Making, when I actually went around cities and started smelling, touching, hearing – I went through each of my senses. I went into supermarkets and tried to smell the smell of nothingness in the refrigeration unit or the pumped smell of bread at the bread counter. The primary way we perceive the world is through the senses, through the emotions, and those emotions have psychological effects, so that was my starting point. So the way a wall looks [for example] to me is really utterly important. I use the word aesthetic in the original Greek way – not aesthetics meaning beauty, aesthetics can also be ugliness. Aesthetics just means perception. So for me, that is the starting point of everything … it’s the only thing I know.

What I’m amazed or astonished by, given that everybody sees and has emotions, is the lack of emotional intelligence and aesthetic intelligence that is applied to city-making. And partly that’s because everybody wants to frame things in a rational language and in co-defined linear ways of thinking, which is why I find there’s so often detachment from the way city-makers, decision-makers and citizens communicate with each other.

A lot is talked about in terms of science communication. How important is your role as a communicator?

You’re a communicator as well – we are all trying to work out how we can make the greatest impact. I decided that what I like is doing presentations on things, and so I write these small books … they’re rather egotistical actually, because if I write them, then I’m not thinking about the things in my head, I get them out of my head. The second egotistical part of it is that it gives me new things to try to say. So if I’m writing and exploring a little book, I’m going to have to summarize it and that gives me content for a new talk. Those are the two ego-driven bits. But then the third bit is that it’s simply nice to have an object that you produce, a bit like a mini work of art using my own pictures. But on the more substantive issue, it’s my way of trying to focus on what I think really, really matters. One thing I know is that I’m not an academic, that is not my role in life. I think my role in life, that I’ve defined for myself, my big aim, is to change the intellectual architecture of how we think about cities. And a lot of what I’m playing with is just trying to get a few very small concepts across, which I hope are strong enough to change the way people think. I’ve just signed a contract to do a big book called The Civic City: Urbanity and Citizenship in a Nomadic World. My aim is to rethink the relationship between the individual and the group in places we live together and call cities – it has a more instrumental intent.

You describe the change-maker ecosystem in terms of the individual, smaller groups, advocates and organizations, and the idea of coalescence in terms of the importance of accelerating change processes.

Yeah, I think that’s the key thing I’m always looking at – I mean, you’re right, I’m looking at the dynamics of change and I want to be part of a dynamic change. I’m always trying to look at things catalytically. So while, for example, the notion of people or projects or organizations that are game-changing is important to me, what is even more important is the question of whether it is all adding up to something, because tactical urbanism, as you know, [consists of] short-term projects that hope to have long-term change. And my question is always, “Well, are they making long-term change?” The point is that politics has obviously changed – we live in a world of fragments. So I’m always [asking], “How can you bring the fragments together so that they make more than a whole?” The problem with tactical urbanism can be that we say, “Oh, let them play around for a bit, that’s fine,” but the structure, the core structure, stays the same. What I’m interested in is how we can change the heart, the DNA or the intellectual architecture of the way cities work.



Published online: 2 Dec 2016
Words: Claire Martin
Images: Charles Landry


Landscape Architecture Australia, August 2016

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