Whose City Now?

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Tuesday 8th November, 2016

Ray Forrest

In 1970 Ray Pahl posed a simple but highly provocative question: Whose City? It takes you to the same place as more recent debates around ‘the right to the city’ but rather more directly. Pahl was asking the question about British cities. And at the time he was confronting analyses of city life which focused on individual household behaviour and household choices to the neglect of the wider context in which such choices were made. People made choices about where to live, which school their children went to and so on - but for many, the choice was pretty limited.

Pahl was particularly interested in the role of the urban managers - for example, those who controlled and allocated public housing, those who provided mortgages or urban planners operating in various capacities. In the early 1970s, a lot of these urban resources were in the government or charitable sectors. It is now hard to imagine that many of the commercial lenders which have now gone under through financial mismanagement and economic shocks, or have been absorbed by bigger financial players, were then charitable institutions. The Halifax Building Society in the mid-1990s was a charity and one of the largest financial institutions in the world. Now it is a division within the Bank of Scotland, which is in turn part of the Lloyds Bank Group which is, of course, partly owned by the UK government.

So the world has changed a lot since 1970 but the question, whose city? is more relevant than ever. We now live in cities in which we are bombarded by the rhetoric if not necessarily the reality of choice. State monopolies and state functionaries have more often than not been replaced by private sector providers. These providers compete for our attention and our resources. And our resources may take the form of ever increasing amounts household debt, our portfolios of choice-driven liabilities. As many other commentators have observed, in the new city of choice we have to manage our own portfolios, consult our financial advisors, decide on which utility company, which internet provider and so on. To a great extent, we have become our own allocators, our own gatekeepers or at least that is how it appears.

Instead of the more starkly visible urban managers of the old-style municipal city, we now have to deal with a bewildering and constantly morphing set of intermediaries. Gone are the days when it was pretty clear who was digging up the road outside or who to contact when the power was cut. We now have to negotiate around the more complex, institutional architecture of the contemporary city. There are more nooks and crevices, more advisors, consultants and arm`s length providers. This is not to suggest that the gatekeepers of old were necessarily accessible or fair. But perhaps it was easier then to identify where the decisions were being made and where to complain - even if the reactions were often unresponsive and paternalistic. Who is calling the shots now?

Pahl asked who decides? And then - who decides who decides? One response at the time from Marxist inspired theorists was that all this emphasis on the gatekeepers was misdirected. It was the capitalist class which determined the menu, the choice and who sat at which table. The managers were not responsible for the lack of housing or educational opportunities - they were simply managing a structurally determined scarcity. But even if that was essentially true, Pahl was adamant that the managers, the intermediaries, could make a difference. They could contribute towards more equitable outcomes or, indeed, make things worse. Organisations, institutions and the people who worked in them at different levels impacted on who got what, and when. That was why we should pay attention to their actions. That was why we should hold them to account.

Not only have many of the functions and functionaries of the contemporary city been privatised, outsourced, modernised and marketised since Pahl`s original observations - they have also been transformed by the new possibilities for data gathering and data manipulation. I am writing this in Hong Kong. And here, as in every major metropolis, the talk is now all about smart cities in which technology will create a new era of virtual urban gatekeepers trawling and analysing big data to make better informed decisions. This will be the responsive and reflexive city in which we shall all be both active consumers and active data producers. The promise is of wider citizen participation in the shaping of urban policies and of a richer and more personalised, urban experience. But whose city will that really be, serving whose interests? Will power really be more diffused - or more concentrated? Who is deciding the rules, the algorithms? We need to keep asking.

Ray Forrest is Professor of Housing and Urban Studies at City University of Hong Kong. He recently co-authored the paper Whose city now? Urban managerialism reconsidered (again) as part of our special section on Ray Pahl and Urban Sociology. 

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