Impressions About the Ideal City: Between Myth and Reality and the Revolution Around the Corner

In 2014 we ran our conference funding for Early Career Researchers scheme for the first time. In this series of posts, some of the winners report from the conferences they attended with our support.

By Patricia Schor

The title of the 2015 Conference of the Research Committee 21 on Sociology of Urban and Regional Development: The Ideal City, matched the allure of its location. Urbino, once a renowned Renaissance town, is a stunning walled cityscape between idyllic provincialism and humanist urbanism. The iconic XV century painting at Urbino Ducal Palace gave its name to the conference, a depiction of spatial order, harmony and symmetry without a populace, the urbs without the urbanites.

The conference invited reflections on how dreams of cities, plans and policies differ from vernacular urban experiences and how urbanites challenge the city once idealised. It aimed at gaining insight about what this means in terms of social justice at current times, in different urban geographies, for a variety of city subjects/agents.

The conference was well attended, which meant parallel sessions and difficult choices to make. The organisation was impeccable; the reception was warm. The Welcome session, however, was made of an all-male panel. Needless to note that no session should be male only but, in particular, one that (re)presents symbolic and material power as the welcoming, where the hosts (the chair, the president, the rector, the mayor) offer hospitality to the common others. The more so as ‘diversity’ was a favoured topic of the addresses; the city and, by extension, the conference, as ‘a relational space for the encounter with the other.’

David Harvey gave the Opening Plenary session keynote: ‘The urbanization of our discontents.’ He fired against the absence of Marxism in the conference program, while cities are at the centre stage of the realization of capital, through accumulation of wealth by the capitalist class by dispossession of the poor. In the aftermath of decades of neo-liberal rhetoric and policies, Harvey urged, there is work to be done in fostering a popular understanding of the nefarious workings of capitalism historically, work for us.

At the same time, he indicated that ‘universities became hotspots of neo-liberalism replication and corporatism.’ He invited a daring effort beyond isolated analysis of case studies, seeking the commonalities or the same story that cities are telling us across the globe, a story of unmet needs of the urban poor and of alienation. Harvey incited an explicit anti-capitalist agenda on the part of intellectuals and social movements and told us that ‘the revolution is around the corner.’

It is in fact, in the making. In 2003, pointing to the numerous movements in the Global South against corporate globalization, Arundhati Roy spoke at the World Social Forum – Brazil, about the revolution surreptitiously at work:

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

The several conference sessions followed, with papers presenting solid analyses of an array of critical aspects of and mechanisms at play in cities worldwide. A key issue under scrutiny was the dividing lines imagined and materialized in urban space across the globe and the disputes around them. The city was discussed as a laboratory not only from the perspective of urban planners but also from those urbanites targeted by planning and those overlooked by it.

The topic of diversity was recurrent in conference sessions. As diversity turned into a buzzword in both academic and policy circles, its usage requires critical vigilance though. The ever more sophisticated framing of difference beyond the ‘traditional’ parameters of class, race and gender conceals power, in a post-political fashion. Not only does this type of analysis ignore well-established patterns of exclusion and inequalities, it also supports their uncontested denial and continuity. Consideration instead of conditions of precarity and vulnerability enabled a gaze to cities where unpredictability became the centre of (dis)organisation of life. Indeed cities embody and epitomise this dismantling of future certainties, yet there are historical regularities in the type of subject that experiences such instability more crudely. Several papers offered reflections departing from grounded ethnographic research, tackling particular subjects of precarity in their contexts of (un)settlement and insecurity: the Roma in European cities, the low cast as scavengers in India, Blacks (in the Americas and Europe), Muslims where a minority population, women and the youth, among others.

Reflections from and on the African continent and cases of African cities were practically absent, in particular from/on Sub-Saharan Africa (with rare exceptions). This is an important lack for, on the one hand, life conditions in African cities are more severe than in Latin America and Asia, constituting what Edgar Pieterse coined a ‘permanent state of emergency’ where urbanities undergo routinized social violence and extreme levels of deprivation, and craft lives amidst this harsh reality. But the absence of African urban scholarship is also important because it reinforces what Pieterse denoted as an already asymmetrical relationship between African and Northern universities.

At the same time, the conference was overwhelmingly white, i.e. participants were Western or fitted other category of national (hegemonic) normative subjects. This is an impressionistic finding (as most in this brief blog post), which however, conforms to academic practice across the board. Conferences, as this one, could instead materialize into heterogeneous laboratorial spaces, circumventing the habit of reproducing samenessin academia. This habit, defined by Philomena Essed and David Goldberg as cultural cloning, not only narrows down the range of possible outcomes of the encounter, it also reproduces spheres of privilege through the normative preference for peers belonging to the same social category (in terms of race, ethnicity, age, abilities, …). This is especially problematic as people of colour, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and other precarious subjects are the object of scrutiny, as often happened, but do not figure as agents of analysis. Self-awareness to the hegemonic position of the middle-class institution-bound academic should act as a point of departure to invite others (independent scholars, policy makers, activists, indigenous peoples) and welcome dissonant perspectives to break open this terrain.

Segregation through gentrification was a process discussed in various sessions. Here an important point of contact between societies ruled by a (still) strong welfare state and those not, is found since neo-liberal ideology has broken into the offices of the (welfare) state. A fundamental critique to the rhetoric of urban policy was put forward in several papers. Reflection about the ideal urban space revealed ideologies of race, class and gender entangled with capitalism. Territorial stigmatization, State surveillance, the imbrication between safety, security, care and militarization were target of a much necessary scrutiny for it problematizes widespread neo-liberal common sense, exposing injustice and dehumanisation in cities across the world.

Nevertheless, according to Ayse Caglar in the plenary ‘Migrants between myth and reality: Displacement, dispossession and city making,’ discussions about city making remain bounded to the narrow territoriality of the neighbourhood, dismissing the big processes. She argued, moreover, that critical geographers persist within the (epistemological) limits of nationalism, denying the coevalness – contemporality in time and space – of natives and non-natives (after Johannes Fabian). This methodological boundary must be broken down, Caglar contended, in order to arrive at a proper understanding of the reconstitution of capital that occurs in the city. The criminalization of the poor has a fundamental role in this process. However, according to Caglar, migrants are agents of city making too, both as agents of neo-liberalism and contestants of it. She indicated that our task is political and must envision progressive action. We should then speak of global conjunctures; assess power and domination, contributing to the movement for social justice.

‘From the ideal city to urban warfare: the colonization of housing and urban land by global finance’ was the title of Raquel Rolnik’s plenary intervention. She addressed the critical role of housing in the making of space and socio-political relations and called attention to the dystopia produced under neo-liberalism, whereby financial capital commands an economy based solely on home ownership. The shift of housing as a social good into a commodity, Rolnik argued, is a global trend that led to the tenure insecurity crisis. She explored the grave implications of this process for precarious populations in the North and in the global South. Rolnik posited that, as land and real state increasingly became part of the financial circuit, such populations were expurgated from high valued urban land. Still, and also in line with Caglar above, she called attention to the fact that informalsettlements exist in symbiotic relationship to the (cement) city. She argued for the necessary consideration of the (capital) dependency of the city to such settlements and discussed the constant production of frontiers (of legality) through endless urbanization. On the other end Rolnik pointed to acts of radical re-appropriation of urban space that show commonalities across the globe. These are the big issues we must look at and connect.

What further appears to constitute a commonality across experiences of urbanity is the process through which injustice is enacted through space, namely how otherness (the body of others) mashes with spatiality through the construction of impure, ugly and unsafespaces. Some sessions addressed the making of spatial stigmas informing evictions, segregation and enclosure that guarantee sanitized urban territories for attracting capital. For a fuller understanding of this process, history must be taken in consideration. Yet the historical span of papers was often limited. At these times of what has been narrated as a wave of migrants forcing European fences (among others), stretching the capabilities of our welfare state and the absorbing capacities of our societies, economies and culture, it is paramount to keep track of centuries old constructions of social threat and alterity that enabled walling cities, excluding certain populations, enclosing others and preying on precarity.

In the closing session, Susan Fainstein and Peter Marcuse reflected (with John Logan) on whether The Ideal City is also just. Marcuse problematized the main focus of the conference sessions, which was, according to him, on the reality rather than on the myth or ideal of the city. According to Fainstein, the just city must abide to the principles of democracy, diversity and foremost equity. She defended another planning for the one taught so far perpetuated injustice.

Marcuse approached the question whether to work towards (transformative) reform of the capitalist system or to overthrow/surpass it. Still according to both him and Fainstein, most conference papers offered empirical investigation, however did not address the commonalities between cases: critique but not the way forward. Fainstein strongly argued for exploring other routes, rather than simply identifying capitalism as the evil (which, for her, leaves open the question: what then?). She called for ‘a programme that we can sell’ in order to counter ‘the enormous threat from the Right.’ Anti-poverty and justice must both be tackled – ‘the floor and the ceiling’- in order for equity to take effect.

Adding urgency to the conversation, David Harvey intervened to ask ‘who is the mob around the corner’ as they are not in (the painting of) The Ideal City, and ‘what will they do?’ He criticized the profound distrust of institutions on the part of activists who took to the streets of cities across the globe. Susan Fainstein defended the institution of (new) political parties, without which no effective connection of grassroots movements with the government can take place. The panel engaged with the question: who are we, and what is our role in such process? Marcuse rescued the spirit of Paris 1968, for him the last time ‘people around the corner who wanted to make major changes, who hoped for the ideal city, became a visible presence in the streets,’ and added to the movements maxim, performatively concluding the session ‘with a raised fist’: ‘all the power to the imagination in theory and in practice.’

From the audience someone had already stated that those (young people) that will come up with alternatives are not here. ‘People from communities’ are not present at the conference. We must however, he added, let them speak. In fact we must and if, as the RC21 representative posited with the conference closing words, ‘maybe, the revolution is around the corner’ it will not converse with us without the subjects of its enunciation, in the safe confines of a walled academic territory.

Originally posted 29th September 2015.

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