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Future Cities: Re-imagining the City critically (Part 1)

Editor’s Note: In a previous piece entitled, “Future Cape Town: Regenerative, connected, strong and diverse“, I attempted  to re-think and re-imagine Cape Town from a principles (or values) perspective, which would then inform the physical vision. I then came across this excellent essay, by Peter Marcuse, in which he explains and elaborates, far more eloquently, on the potential process and exploration of the future city from a principles perspective and what this may include. The City as we know it and may know it in future, becomes a product of the principles that it sets and derives, beyond a mere planning process to determine the best future built environment.

by Peter Marcuse

Re-imagining the city can be a provocation to reconsider and expand the range of possibilities for a city in the future. It can simply be an opportunity for an unfettered imagination physically to design something completely new and different, not tethered to the existing city. Or it can open the door to a fundamentally critical view of the existing city, questioning the social and economic and organizational principles that underlie its present constitution and are normally taken for granted. The best of classic utopias do both. What follows focuses only on the latter, on the imagining not of the physical but of the human principles and practices on which an imagined city could be based. It raises some critical questions about some of the principles and practices as they implicitly exist today and imagines some alternatives.

If we were not concerned with the existing built environment of cities, but could mold a city from scratch, after our heart’s desire, Robert Park’s formulation that David Harvey is properly fond of quoting, how would such a city look? Or rather: according to what principles would it be organized? For its detailed look, its physical design, should only then be evolved after the principles it is to serve have been agreed upon.

So what, in our heart of hearts, should determine what a city is and does?

I. The World of Work and the World of Freedom

Why not start, first, by taking the question literally. Suppose we had neither physical nor economic constraints, what would we want, in our hearts? Never mind that the supposition posits a utopia; it is a thought experiment that may awaken some questions whose answers might in fact influence what we do today, in the real world, on the way to an imagined other world that we might want to strive to make possible.

It may be hard to imagine such a counter-factual, but there are three approaches, based on what in fact we already know and want today. The first two rest on a single distinction, that between the world of work and the world outside of work, a key implicit division that underlies how we plan and build our cities today, a division that largely parallels that between, as various philosophers have phrased it, the system world and the life world , the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom, the world of the economy and the world of private life, roughly the commercial zones and the residential zones. One approach is then to imagine reducing the realm of necessity; the other is to imagine expanding the realm of freedom.

Most of us probably spend close to a majority of our time in the world of work, in the realm of necessity; our free time is the time we have after work is over. Logically, if the city could help reduce what we do in the realm of necessity, our free time would be expanded, our happiness increased.

II. Shrinking the Realm of Necessity

Suppose we re-examined the composition of the world of necessity that we now take for granted. How much of what is there now is really necessary? Do we need all the advertising billboards, the flashing neon lights, the studios for the advertising agencies, the offices for the merger specialists, for the real estate speculators, for the high-speed traders, the trading floors for the speculators, the commercial spaces devoted solely to the accumulation of wealth, the consultants helping to make unproductive activities produce only more wealth, not goods or services that people actually use? If we do not need all of them, do we need all the offices for the government employees regulating them? Do we need all the gas stations, all the automotive repair and servicing facilities, all the through streets to serve all the cars we would not need if we had comprehensive public transit? Do we need all the jails and prisons and criminal courts? Are these parts of the realm of necessity today that are really necessary?

How about the ultra-luxury aspects of the city today? How do we see the multi-storey penthouses in Donald Trump’s buildings? The virtually fortified enclaves of the rich in high-rise enclaves in our center cities, the gated communities with their private security in our inner and outer suburbs? The exclusive private clubs, expensive private health facilities, ostentatious lobbies and gateways and grounds where only the very rich can live? Are McMansions and true mansions necessary parts of the realm of necessity? If conspicuous consumption, a la Veblen, or positional goods, are in fact necessary for the well-being of their users, than something is wrong here: such marks of status, such conspicuous consumption, surely is not ultimately as satisfying for its beneficiary as other more socially rich and personally productive and creative objects and activities might. Or are these expensive attributes of wealth part of the real freedom of their possessors? But the realm of freedom is not a realm in which anything goes: it does not encompass the freedom to harm others, to steal, to destroy, to pollute, to waste resources. Imagine a city where there are limits on such things, in the public interest, freely and democratically determined, but in which what is provided for (but all of it) is what is really necessary for a meaningful freedom to be enjoyed.

Conclusion: the realm of necessary work could be shrunk significantly without any significant negative impact on a desirable realm of freedom.

III. Freely Doing the Necessary

A second way the necessary world of work could be reduced would be if some of what is in it that is truly necessary could be freely done, moved into the world of freedom. If in our imagined city what we do in the world of work could be converted into something that would contribute to our happiness, we’d be way ahead of the game. Is that possible – that we would do some of our presently unpleasant work freely, enjoy our work as much as we enjoy what we do outside of work? That we would in fact at the same time reduce the amount of work that is really necessary, and also convert much of the remainder into work that is done freely, in fact part of the realm of freedom? And if so, could a city contribute to making that possible?

But why “unhappy?” Couldn’t some work that is now being done only because it’s paid for, unhappily at least in the sense of not voluntarily done but only done because of the necessity of making a living, also be done by volunteers, under the right conditions And even provide happiness to those doing it?

The Occupy Sandy movement these past few weeks provides some hints.

In Occupy Sandy, volunteers have been going to areas devastated by the hurricane Sandy, distributing food, clothing, helping folk made homeless find shelter, water, child care, whatever is needed. Under the name of Occupy Sandy, many veterans of Occupy Wall Street and other occupations, but they are not doing it to build support for Occupy movement, but out of the simple desire to help fellow human beings in need. It’s part of what being human is all about. It’s been discussed, as part of what sociologists call the “Gift Relationship, ” but not the relationship of giving where you expect something in return, like exchanging gifts with others at Christmas, and it’s not just with people you know, but with strangers. It’s an expression of solidarity: it says, essentially, in this place, this city, at this time, there are no strangers. We are a community, we help one another without being asked, we want to help each other, we stand in solidarity with each other, we are all parts of one whole; that’s why we bring food and blankets and moral support. The feeling of happiness, of satisfaction, that such acts of solidarity and humanity provide are what a re-imagined city should provide. A city where no one is a stranger is a profoundly happy city.

Imagine a City in which such relationships are not only fostered, but ultimately become the whole basis for the society, replacing the profit motive for personal actions with the motivation of solidarity and friendship, and the sheer pleasure of the work.. Think of all we already do voluntarily today that is really, in the conventional sense, work. Imagine something very concrete, something maybe very unlikely but not so difficult to imagine. Imagine what you would do if you didn’t have to work, but were guaranteed a decent standard of living: all the voluntary organizations we belong to (de Tocqueville noticed that long ago), the collectively way houses were built and roofs raised in the early days of the United States, the clubs, the street parties, the volunteers staffing hospitals and shelters, the Occupiers of all sorts doing what is really social work as part of their freely given support for the movement, the houses built by volunteers with Habitat for Humanity.

Think of volunteers directing traffic in a blackout, sharing generators when the power goes off, giving food to the hungry. In many religions, carrying for the stranger is among the highest of virtues. And think of artists doing chalk pictures in the sidewalk, actors putting on street performances, musicians playing publicly for pleasure as much as for donations. Think of all the political activity that we engage in without any expectation of return other than a better city or country. Think of all that retired folk do voluntarily that they used to be paid for: teachers tutoring students, literacy volunteers helping immigrants, women who had worked at home and still do also helping in the kitchens of shelters and community clubs, volunteers cleaning trash on trails and roadsides. Think of all the young people helping their elders to master new technologies. Isn’t the city we want to imagine one where these relationships are dominant, and the profit relationship, the mercenary relationships, the quest for profits and ever more goods and money and power, were not what drove the society? Where the happiness of each was the condition for the happiness of all, and the happiness of all was the condition for the happiness of each?

Some things in the realm of necessity are really necessary, but are unpleasant, uncreative, repetitive, dirty – yet get done today because someone gets paid to do them and is dependent on doing them for a living, not because they get any pleasure out of doing them. Part of the work done in the realm of necessity is not really necessary, as argued above. But some is: dirty work, hard work, dangerous work, stultifying work: cleaning streets, digging trenches, hauling cargo, aspects of personal care or treatment of diseases, garbage collection, mail delivery – even parts of otherwise rewarding activities, like grading papers for teachers, cleaning up in hospitals, copying drawings for architects or fussing with computers for writers today. Could any of this be freely done if the conditions were right? Some of this work can undoubtedly be further mechanized or automated, and the level of unskilled work is already steadily being reduced, but it is probably a fantasy that all unpleasant work could be mechanized. Some hard-core will remain for some unhappy soul to do.

But as to such pure grudge work, would not the attitude towards doing it be much less resentful, much less unhappy, if it were fairly shared, recognized as needed, efficiently organized? In some social housing estates in Europe, tenants were accustomed to sharing the responsibility for keeping their common areas clean, the landing in their staircases, their entries, their landscaping. They were satisfied that it was properly organized and both the assignment of tasks and the delineation of physical spaces was something worked out collectively (in theory, at least!) and generally accepted as appropriate. Most took pride in this unpaid, unskilled work; it was an act of neighborliness. Once we watched a fast-order cook flip pancakes, tossing them in the air to turn them over, grinning as he served them to an appreciative diner. Craftspeople traditionally took pride in their work; today there are probably as many hobby potters as there are workers in pottery factories. If such facilities were widely available in a city, might not many people even make their own dishes out of clay, while automated factories mass-produced ones out of plastic?

So one route to re-imagine the city from scratch is to imagine a city where as many as possible of the things that are now done for profit, motivated by exchange, competed for personal gain in money or power or status, or driven by necessity alone, are done out of solidarity, out of love, out of happiness at the happiness of others. And then imagine what are all the things we would change?

To put the challenge of re-imagining a city most simply, if a city could be fashioned for the purposes of the enjoyment of life, rather than for the purposes of the unwelcome but necessary activities involved in earning a living, what would that city be like? At a minimum, wouldn’t it shift the priorities in the uses of the city from those geared to “business” activities, those pursued purely for profit, in “business” districts, to those activities done for pleasure and their innate satisfaction, in districts designed around the enhancement of residential and community activities?

Read part 2 tomorrow.

This piece originally appeared at the blog of Peter Marcuse on 14 December 2012, along with related pieces, at pmarcuse.wordpress.com. Peter Marcuse is a Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University

Image credit: RogueHAA and eVolo