Future Cities: Re-imagining the City critically (Part 2)

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 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?

PART 2 (PART 1 here)

IV. Expanding the Realm of Freedom

As an alternative way of re-imagining, a city could also be re-imagined based on the day to day experience with what already exists in the realm of freedom in the city as we have it now. And if so, could a city contribute to making that possible? Making available other facilities necessary to sustain the realm of freedom in the re-imagined city? Community meeting places, smaller schools, community dining facilities, hobby workshops, nature retreats, public playgrounds and sport facilities, venues for professional and amateur theaters and concerts, health clinics – the things really necessary in a realm of freedom?

We might give the possibilities shape by examining how we actually use the city today, when we in fact are not concerned with making a living but rather with enjoying being alive, doing those things that really satisfy us and give us a feeling of accomplishment? What would we do? How would we spend our time? Where would we go? In what kind of place would we want to be?

One could divide what we do into two parts: what we do privately, when we are alone or just with our intimately loved ones, and what we do socially, with others, beyond our core and intimate inner circle. The city we would imagine would make sure each has the first, the space and the means for the private, and that the second, the space and the means for the social, are collectively provided. For the first, the private, what the city must provide is protection for space and activities that are personal. The second, the social, this is what cities are really for, and should be their main function. Cities, after all, are essentially defined as places of wide and dense social interaction.

So if we look at what we already do, when we are really free to choose, what is that we would do? Probably very much some of the same things we do now, when we are free – and, possibly, if one is lucky,, they might be some things one is also getting paid to do now. Some of us love to teach; if we didn’t have to earn a living, I think we’d like to teach anyway. We might not want to have a 9:00 a.m. class, or to do it all day or every day; but some we’d do for the love of doing it. Many of us cook at least a meal a day, without getting paid for it; would we maybe cook for a whole bunch of guests in a restaurant if we could do it on our own terms, didn’t need the money, and weren’t getting paid? Would we travel? We would take others along if we had room? Entertain guest, strangers, from time to time, out of friendliness and curiosity, without getting paid, if we didn’t need the money? Would we go to more meetings, or be more selective in the meetings we go to. Would we go for walks more often, enjoy the outdoors, see plays, act in plays, build things, design things, clothes or furniture or buildings, sing, dance, jump, run, if we didn’t have to work for a living? If none of the people we met were strangers, but some were very different from us, would we greet more people, make more friends, expand your understanding of others?

Imagine all that, and then imagine what we would need to change in the city we already know to make all that possible.

What would that imagined city look like? Would it have more parks, more trees, more sidewalks? More schools, no jails; more places where privacy is protected, and more where you could meet strangers? More community rooms, more art workshops, more rehearsal and concert halls? More buildings built for effective use and aesthetic pleasure rather than for profit or status? Fewer resources used on advertising, on luxury goods, on conspicuous consumption?

What would it take to get such a city? Of course, the first thing is unfortunately very simple; we’d need the guaranteed standard of living, we’d need to be free of the need to do anything we didn’t like to do just to earn a living. But that’s not so impossible; there’s a whole literature on what automation could do, on what waste there is in our economies (23% of the Federal budget goes to the military; suppose that money didn’t get paid for killing people but for helping them)? And wouldn’t we be willing to share the unpleasant work that remains if it were the means to live in a city that was there to make us happy?

All that takes many changes, and not only changes in cities. But the thought experiment of imagining the possibilities might provide an incentive for actually putting the needed changes in effect

V. From the Real City to the Re-Imagined City: Transformative Moves

Beyond thought experiments, provocative as they may be , what steps can be imagined that might pragmatically move us towards the re-imagined city of heart’s desire? One approach might be to start by seeking out existing aspects of the city activities that either already offend our hearts and moving to reduce them or that already give us joy and moving to expand them.

If then we were to re-imagine the city pragmatically but critically, starting with what’s already there, the trick would be to focus on those programs and proposals that are transformative, that would deal with the root causes of problems and satisfactions, that would be most likely to lead from the present towards what the city re-imagined from scratch might be. In other words, to formulate transformative demands, one that go to the roots of problems, what Andre Gorz called non-reformist reforms.

it is fairly easy to agree on much that is wrong in our cities, and to go from there to agreement on what might be done in response. Then putting those pieces together, a re-imagined image of the city, perhaps not as shining as one re-imagined from scratch but more immediately realistic and well worth pursuing, could emerges.

Look individually at what those pieces might be (there are of course more, but the following are examples of key ones).

  • Inequality. We know high and rising levels of inequality are at the root of multiple tensions and insecurities in the city, and that a decent standard of living in the city depends on its residents having a decent income. Strong living wage laws, and progressive tax systems, are moves in that direction. The transformative demands here would be for a guaranteed minimum annual income for all, based on need rather than performance.
  • Housing. Decent housing for all, eliminating homelessness, over-crowding, unaffordable rents, would be key ingredients in any properly re-imagined city. Housing vouchers, various forms of subsidies, even tax incentives, zoning bonuses for mixed-rental construction, are all moves towards ameliorating the problem. For homes threatened with foreclosure, reducing principal or interest and extending payments is helpful short-term, but likewise does not deal with the underlying problem. Transformative, however, would be the expansion of public housing, run with full participation of tenants and at a level of quality removing any stigma from it residents. Community land trusts and limited-equity housing likewise points the way to replacing the speculative and profit-motivated component of housing occupancy from it use value, stressing the community ingredient in housing arrangements. That does address the roots of the problem of unaffordable quality housing.
  • Pollution and congestion. Automobile fumes congestion, inaccessibility except by car for needed services can all be serious problems, and regulating emission levels on cars and congestion pricing are useful means to ameliorate the problem. Transformative are measures such as closing streets (the Times Square experiment vastly expanded), and lining it with much improved pubic mass transit, encouraging adaptation of heavy usage areas to bicycle access, mixing uses, all go further to attacking the roots of the problem, to suggesting transformation towards re-imagined cities.
  • Planning. The lack of control over one’s environment, the difficulties of participating actively in the decisions about the future of the city in which one lives, is a major issue if the quest is for happiness and satisfaction in the re-imagined city. Public hearings, the ready availability of information, transparency in the decision-making process, empowered Community Boards. But until Community Boards are given some real power, rather than being merely advisory, alienated planning will continue. Real decentralization would be transformative. The experiment in Participatory Budgeting now under way in New York City and elsewhere is a real contribution to potentially transformative policies.
  • Public Space. After the experience of the evictions from Zuccotti Park, the need for public space available for democratic actions has become manifest. Adjusting the rules and regulations governing municipal parks, permitting more space, public and public/private, to be available for such activities, are steps in the right direction. Protecting the right of the homeless to sleep on park benches is a minimalist, although basic, demand, obviously not a demand aimed at ending homelessness. Expanding the provision of public space and giving priority for its uses for democratic activities can be transformative, and would be a component of any re-imagined city.
  • Education. Adequately funded public education, with the flexibility of charter schools but without their diminution of the role of public control, would be a major step forward; for students presently in higher education, forgiveness of student loans is a pressing demand. But the transformative demand would be for totally free higher education, available to all, with the supportive conditions that would permit all students to benefit from it.
  • Civil Rights. Organization is a key factor in moving towards an imagined transformed city, and the city of the present should facilitate democratic organization. Other issues mentioned above: public space, education, housing and incomes making real participation feasible, are all supportive of an expanded conception of civil rights. So, clearly, is the end of many practices restricting organization, from police limitations on assemblies and speech to so-called “homeland security” measures to simple use of the streets for public assemblies, leafleting, etc. Transformative here would be oversight measures seriously limiting the unfortunately inevitable tendency of government officials and leaders to try to control critical activities within their jurisdictions, critical activities sure to be found short of the achievement of the re-imagined city, and perhaps even there.

Put the goals of all such transformative demands together, and you have transformed a purely imagined city into a developing and changing mosaic based on the existing, having its roots in the present reality, but slowly flesh on the bones of what imagination will generate.

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

Image credits: RogueHAA and eVolo

The following two tabs change content below.

Rashiq Fataar

Founder and MD at Future Cape Town

Rashiq Fataar is the founder, Editor in Chief and Managing Director of Future Cape Town.