The quest for the convivial city: How do ours fare?

What comes to mind when you think of the word “convivial”? Likely, images of happiness, freedom, relaxation and ease: people interacting pleasantly without constraint or conflict.

The idea of conviviality isn’t simply a lack of negative attributes; it actively includes positive elements too.

A planned legacy of accessible parkland, the green ring around Adelaide is a key element of its conviviality. Photography by Doug Barber

Keeping this in mind, we want to ask what a convivial city might look like. Answering this might appear deceptively simple: a city that is safe, friendly and open. Negative attributes, such as crime, segregation and coercion, would be absent, while the convivial city would display positive attributes such as inclusivity, mutual respect and perhaps playfulness.

However, these simple answers give rise to other questions. What is meant by “safety” and how do we achieve it? Are there limits to a city’s friendliness? And is the openness of the city universal, or are there conditions attached?

Demonstrably, when thinking about convivial cities, more complex questions come into play. These include questions about accessibility, who is included (or not), and how open we are willing to be.

WHY FOCUS ON CONVIVIALITY?

The academic literature on the idea of conviviality is growing, particularly in relation to cities. This work usually considers urban spaces and questions of design, liveability, diversity and multiculturalism.

Originally conceived by Croatian-Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich, conviviality is imagined as a means for achieving a better society. This goal is to be achieved through inclusion and the radical socialisation of knowledge, skills, technology and social power.

The idea is that these can then be used for the benefit of all (rather than any one group monopolising, say, the benefits of technology).

At the core of Illich’s concept of the “good society” – to which conviviality is expected to lead – is an ethics of radical inclusion. That is, conviviality is not selective: it is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

For example, in a convivial city, urban design, security, surveillance systems (for example, CCTV) and policy would be used for the benefit of all.

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