Posts tagged capitalism
Posts tagged capitalism
How citizens and communities taking control of their neighbourhoods are outlining hopeful urban futures
Cardinal Place, London. A great example of not so great urban development
Ah, Britain. I had the privilege to visit London for two days, as a result of the kind invite by Philips’ Livable Cities programme to participate in a round table discussion and help select the winner of the #pinyourcity contest.
The great UK cities
A quick count tells me that I have been to eight British cities in the past two years. It keeps fascinating me how privatization is perceptible in these cities. Privatization has resulted in the securitization, shinification and standardization of the British inner city. Securitization is wonderfully described in Anna Minton’s Ground Control. Initially from 2009, an updated version was published this year – with an extra chapter about the impact of the Olympics on London in terms of the ‘suburbanization of the inner city’ (as I like to call it) – the book explains how British cities are now owned by private corporations, designed for profit and watched over by CCTV. The shinification is illustrated by the clustering of corporate offices in the city centers, most of them built since the 1990s after the market had been severely deregulated. Cities wanted to show that their city centres were back in the global game of finance, business and consumption. This great article by Rowan Moore shows how the sky scrapers that have been popping up over the past decade and will continue to be built over the next few years, do not meet planning guidelines, community needs and architectural standards. Still, politics seems to encourage the ongoing shinification. Often, these shiny towers do not contribute to their surroundings, producing anonymous and even hostile public space and hardly offering public facilities. And there’s the standardization, which has to do with urban environments becoming as safe, clean, and predictable (similar to other places) as possible.
The privatization has also resulted in a sharp divide. Both in society (after a dismantling and marketization of the welfare state), and in cities. Spatial segregation is increasing, just as the pressure on low-income residents of neighbourhoods that are the new frontiers of gentrification. The always great Polis just published a great article on new developments in Stratford, where UCL is planning to build a new campus, the protests against it (by the local community, but also by groups from within UCL), and the role and responsibility of the university in urban renewal.
But a relatively polarized society also seems to encourage grassroots action with a social and sustainable agenda in cities. In Western cities, these seem to become the next popular urban thing, both for policy makers and for creative urbanites, as a sort of follow-up to creative cities policies and only symbolic creative production. I think that’s great, because there is much more ‘use value’ in it, compared to ‘sign value’. I visited three of those projects founded on such principles in London. Being on a tight schedule, I could only visit three of them in Dalston.
Dalston Eastern Curve Garden
First I visited Dalston Eastern Curve Garden. Created on the former Eastern Curve railway line running from Dalstion Junction Station in 2010, the Garden grows stuff but also has a great wooden construction under which you can meet, eat and drink. More recently, a glass house was added. Regular events and workshops are organized there, working together with local communities and youth groups. I was only there briefly, but it felt like a great place run by a great bunch of people.
Arcola Theatre’s bar
After that I checked out Arcola Theatre, which is amazing. In a converted paint factory the studio theatre is now providing high-end performances and plays, but is also delivering community engagement and creative learning. Moreover – and even more exceptional – it has set up an energy business, Arcola Energy. This added sustainability to its social agenda. The theatre became a testing and demonstration ground for energy-efficient methods, cutting its standard energy consumption by 60%, and Arcola Energy now does consultancy and provides sustainable energy solutions to theatres and other organizations. The theatre works with local volunteers and other organizations. It also runs a fantastic eco-café, now open all day and offering organic and handmade food and drinks from local gastronomes. One of the things about Arcola Theatre that I like most is Pay What You Can Tuesdays, which lowers the threshold for local people to visit the theatre.
My last stop before heading for the airport was FARM:shop. This is the third inspiring place I visited within not much more than a square mile. The name FARM:shop basically explains what it is. A farm in a shop. It is a café where you can have coffees and sandwiches. It is also an urban farming space, where different growing typologies are demonstrated – aquaponics, polytunnel, indoor allotment and a rooftop chicken coop. The produce is also sold in the shop and used in the food they sell. Their aim is to have shops like these all over the UK, connect peripheral farms to urban communities and inspire people to grow their own food. And it is inspirational. Especially because it has a DIY feel and the people are very nice. It makes you feel like doing the same stuff at home. And the sandwiches are incredibly good.
These projects are just three of them that I visited in a rush There’s a great publication, Compendium for a Civic Economy, which features more inspiring examples of communities and citizens taking control of themselves and each other in social enterprises. You can buy it in hard copy, but the first edition can also be read online:
At first, coming to London to discuss livability, I couldn’t help but thinking about the city’s livability as also being segregated: to the rich, London is highly livable because high-end lifestyles are perfectly catered. The less well-off, however, are being more and more marginalized, and much of the city’s amenities are not affordable or suitable for them. According to Saskia Sassen, an inherent ‘quality’ of global cities is social polarization. But some kind of countermovement is taking place and I cannot wait to see it crystallize in the near future.
Note 1: I am always very much trying to decypher the ‘dark matter’ in urban development. But not all of the institutions’ agendas are solely driven by economic and financial growth in urban renewal. The Guardian published a great story about a housing corporation in chic North-London is building for low-income tenants in Islington.
Note 2: While the UK government is often characterized as only having acted from a privatization and deregulation mantra over the past decades, it is remarkable that all of the UK’s national museums have free admission (since 2001, actually), which is a great gesture to the country’s residents and tourists. This is something the Dutch government could definitely learn from.
A postcard the Failed Architecture team ran into in a London bookstore, after returning from a workshop in Nottingham.
September 26 | 20:00h | TrouwAmsterdam | €5 | English | Talks & Debate
With: Owen Hatherley (writer and journalist, a.o. the Guardian), Wouter Vanstiphout (architectural historian and holder of Design as Politics chair TU Delft), Rudy Stroink (architect and real estate developer), Kai van Hasselt (urban strategy consultant at Shinsekai Analysis)
During Failed Architecture #9, we want to examine the role of market forces in our current living environment and the persistent urge of local administrators for ‘too-big-to- fail’ iconic architecture. What are the pros and cons of the marketization of urban space, and what are the underlying reasons for the continuing governmental support for large- scale office and luxury housing developments? We address these issues by looking at British examples and by analyzing Dutch cases such as Amsterdam’s Zuidas and Amstel III, and Rotterdam’s Calypso and De Rotterdam developments.
One of the best movies I have seen lately would be Play Time, a 1967 classic by French filmmaker Jacques Tati. It shows the mismatch between the modern city, modern architecture and modern society on the one hand, and human behavior on the other. It beautifully captures how people are – contrary to what modernists seem to believe – not completely rational and controllable beings, but that they have the urge to play, to be spontaneous, and to create chaos and disorder. It made me think of what Richard Sennett says about the relationship between urban design and human behavior.
Cities of progress or cities of process?
Play Time shows how architects, managers and others that plan and structure organizations, cities, and society, are constantly battling people’s need to disobey or be creative. The film is set in the 1960s, which was the era of advancement in and where everything had to go along in this progress, including cities, buildings, organizations, and people. But this is not how people instinctively want to live and how social ties, spontaneity and creativity are fostered best.
Play Time starts off relatively boring and slow, which I think is done deliberately by Tati to correspond with the boring and uninspiring modern environment. In this part of the movie, people act in line with the buildings they live and work in and the technologies deployed to make everything go more efficient. People move in straight lines and make ninety-degrees turns. They all look absentminded and now and then have to battle the nature of the buildings, pieces of furniture and technologies that are supposed to make their lives easier and more productive, but turn out to be obstructive rather than beneficial. There is also very little human contact, besides the interaction that is necessary given people’s part in the system.
Time to Play
The second half of the film becomes more surprising and chaotic. That’s also where the people stop acting the way the planners, managers and architects had in mind, and where people refuse to act in an ordered manner: chaos kicks in. The chaos, in the end, cannot be controlled by the people employed to preserve the order (the waiters, the architect, the construction workers, and the police officers), but creates a festive setting in which even the previously grumpy ones start dancing and singing. That’s where the people take back control of their living environment. I would like to see the movie as a homage to the homo ludens (“man the player”), ridiculing and opposing the homo economicus (“man the rational/self-interested”). I think Tati is criticizing a society that is increasingly arranged for production and consumption, basically numbing people and obstructing in their natural behavior.
That ‘numbing’ effect of the built environment on the human psyche is something I have been reading about earlier. In his wonderful book “The Conscience of the Eye” (1992) one of my favorite sociologists, Richard Sennett, explains that the modern man has and uses the capability to remove inconvenient parts of nature in order to create a workable landscape. Because the technological capabilities go hand in hand with the ideology of business enterprise, urban design is shaped in a particular way: highly rationalized and uniform. How come? In capitalist societies, undertaking business means that things have to be commodified in order to create exchange value. In order to be able to commodify and exchange, goods have to be comparable. This also goes for land and buildings, which need to be shaped in a somewhat similar way in order to be comparable and supplementing so that they can be exchanged. An ordered, standardized physical urban pattern is the result of these mechanisms. For capitalists, it is important to divide the land and buildings in such a way, that the balance between the amount of real estate property and value per property is optimized. That is where the mastery over nature comes in, to create a gridded urban pattern in order to create equivalent commodities. So a cynical conclusion here would be that in the end, all that urban space is about, is creating exchange value. Sennett based his theory on 19th century American society and urban planning, particularly the urban grid. It can be seen in all kinds of urban environments in all kinds of capitalist societies. Older (medieval) cities are less influenced by this rational environment, because urban space was less of a ‘tradable good’ back then. I think this reasoning is definitely also applicable to other eras of urban planning that came after the 18th and 19th century, especially modernism. In modernist ideology, the belief was that everything needed to be structuralized, rationalized and efficient in order to, in the end, let the economy flourish.
That’s why I had to think of Sennett’s theory when watching Play Time. An over-rationalized city, society or building, Sennet says, disorients the individuals that live and work in it. They cannot establish anything of real value in an endless, mindless and geometric division of space. Such an urban environment subdues and dominates individuals. At first, this was predominantly two-dimensional, but when the technology of elevators made it possible to create skyscrapers tens of floors high, it added an extra dimension to the abstract urban environment.
Sennett and Tati both in their own way argue that humans should not be confined by rationalized technologies and built environments. And if they are, creativity, joy and social dynamics simply are constrained. I couldn’t agree more.
Jacques Tati’s “Play Time”
Richard Sennett’s “The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities”
“Progressive anti-capitalist forces can more easily mobilize to leap forward into global coordinations via urban networks that may be hierarchical but not monocentric, corporatist but nevertheless democratic, egalitarian and horizontal, systemically nested and federated (imagine a league of socialist cities much as the Hanseatic League of old became the network that nourished the powers of merchant capitalism), internally discordant and contested, but solidarious against capitalist class power - and, above all, deeply engaged in the struggle to undermine and eventually overthrow the power of the capitalist laws of value on the world market to dictate the social relations under which we work and live. Such a movement must open the way for universal human flourishing beyond the constaints of class domination and commodified market determinations. The world of true freedom begins, as Marx insisted, only when such material constraints are left behind. Reclaiming and organizing cities for anti-capitalist struggles is a great place to begin.”
- David Harvey, Rebel Cities, 2012, p. 153
Recommended: Owen Hatherley’s review of Rebel Cities for The Guardian.
La Paz ©Dan Wood
“A city is a space of extremes and opposites, which exist together harmoniously. Choreographed unchoreography. Public and private. Of movement and staticness. Art and finance. Visitors, immigrants and residents. A city is the canvas of human existence.”
- Shriya Malhotra
This is part of a series of definitions of cities featured on City Breaths. The aim is to collect definitions from different perspectives. The definitions will tell us something about what the role of urban space is in sustaining human life, the way we experience and perceive urban space and the sensations it creates in us. You are welcome to add more definitions. The other definitions can be read here.
EKÜMENOPOLIS: the struggle for the right to the city in full effect
This is the trailer for the 2-hour documentary Ekümenopolis. The film magnificently shows the power dynamics within the city of Istanbul. Because the city - former Constantinople - does not have a tradition of strict urban planning, neoliberal forces are shaping the city, creating chaos, pushing out the less-affluent population and destroying ecosystems. It is hard to suppress feelings of sadness, powerlessness and anger when seeing how a city is virtually being destroyed by capitalism.
Not just the comprehensive approach of the subject is impressive. The visuals are amazing as well, which are the result of great camerawork and beautiful animations. If you want to see a good film about how cities work, urban politics, capitalism, the city as a growth machine, and the struggle for the right to the city, this is your number one 2012 recommendation.