Common Ground in a Liquid City

Common Ground Book

Common Ground in a Liquid City

By Matt Hern
AK Press, 2010, 240 pages, $17.95

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Re-imagining our cities is the best chance we have to create prosperity, lower our carbon emissions, and save what’s left of the natural world. Today’s urban sustainability experts widely believe this to be true, yet many still debate how we should go about creating cities that are ecologically and socially sound. Author Matt Hern helps expand the discussion with his new book, Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future. In it, Hern, who teaches at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, uses his hometown of Vancouver, B.C., as a vantage point from which to explore what it will take to make cities sustainable.

Hern asserts that today’s cities are fluid, with people, goods, and capital flowing through rapidly, and hence poses his stage-setting question: “How do we find common ground in a liquid city?” How do we make cities vibrantly compact, locally run, and alive at a time when citizens feel disconnected and governments remain beholden to global conglomerates? Hern travels to nine cities to contemplate how Vancouver could do things differently, focusing on particular aspects of each city. For example, in New York City, he reflects on crime and community; in Diyarbakir, Kurdistan, he considers food and globalization.

The result is an intriguing collection of essays that reads much like a travel journal; the tone is conversational and relaxed, the stories are often personal. Hern begins his book at home, pointing out why he believes Vancouver doesn’t deserve its bloated reputation as a sustainable city. Vancouver has been prescribing more walkable streets, multi-use buildings, and density to solve the city’s ecological problems. But, Hern writes, until these plans are locally generated (as opposed to profit-driven), streets will remain sterile, housing prices will continue to skyrocket, and poverty levels will increase. Can such a city be called “sustainable”?

“I think the most fundamental question facing cities across the globe, whether they are current winners like Vancouver or losers like Diyarbakir is a stark one,” Hern writes. “Is there the political and ethical will to work toward sustainable cities that are based on local knowledge and local economies, or must cities simply roll over and show their belly to the global marketplace?”

Hern speculates that an element hindering the city’s vitality is too much top-down planning. He points to Montreal as an example of a funky city teeming with life. Hern believes its liveliness comes from the city’s historical affinity for collective ownership. He suggests cities invite residents to the table, instigate and nurture true democracy, and focus on creating more equal societies—solutions that could be adapted to any city.

“A city should be the best of humanity,” writes Hern. “An ethical union of citizens drawn together by mutual aid and shared resources.” Re-imagining our cities will be the key to creating a better future for all.


  • : In a city with a history of corruption and lack of transparency, one elected official is restoring meaning to the term “public funds.”
  • : Curitiba, Brazil, is drawing attention around
    the world not for its beauty or cultural amenities but for its
    solutions to ecological and human problems that have left other
    cities in despair.
  • : A city in Brazil recruited local farmers to help do something U.S. cities have yet to do: end hunger.