The Ethics of the Urban

Mohsen Mostafavi edits a new book on city, public space and politics

Text by Mohsen Mostafavi

Is democracy spatial? 
by Mohsen Mostafavi
How are the physical aspects of our cities, houses, streets and public spaces – the borders, the neighbourhoods, the monuments – bearers of our values? In a world of intensifying geo-economic integration, extreme financial and geopolitical volatility, accelerating worldwide population movements, deepening environmental crises and a dramatic new wave of popular protest against both authoritarian government and capitalist speculation, cities have become leading sites for new claims on state power and new formations of political subjectivity, belonging, identity and citizenship. How can we understand such novel aspects of social contestation, and what do they reveal about the challenging nature of urbanism and the process of city building in the early 21st century? 

Insurgency and Citizenship 
by Diane Davis
The large number of political protests sweeping through the cities of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other parts of North Africa and the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring captured world imagination not just because of their seemingly momentous historical import, but also because they have literally shown the enactment of democratic sentiments in the form of bustling bodies physically clamoring for rights and recognition in the face of dictatorial power. Without news cameras, however, such insurgent urbanism would neither have been accessible to the world nor understood as violently disrupting the status quo. Even a tweet could not have rendered legible the same intensity of emotions conveyed by images of people physically encamped at the seats of political and economic power, or angry mobs marching toward a phalanx of armed police.

In this regard, the global media has taken a cue from the playbook of urban design, recognising that visualisation is not just central to the task of understanding but holds the potential to inspire better futures yet to be built. Even so, it is not merely the pictures of amassed bodies that force recognition of a collective challenge to the status quo. The physical location of these acts also matters. In many of these protests, public squares served as the proverbial “centre stages” upon which collective action against societal injustices became both possible and symbolically meaningful. Much like Tiananmen Square, the mere mention of Tahrir Square, Pearl Square, Green Square and even Zuccotti Park evokes images of people whose power to confront an autocratic system needs only the proper physical venue.

Ethics of Charter Cities 
by Gerald Frug
Charter cities is an idea, organisation and website created by Paul Romer, an economics professor at New York University. The basic idea of a charter city can be summarised in a few simple steps. First, one needs to find a developing country (Honduras? Mauritania?) that will cede to the charter city a large amount of its uninhabited land – enough to enable up to 10 million people to live there. Next, the sponsors of the charter city need to write its charter, the document that specifies the basic rules that will govern the ceded territory. This document is the critical ingredient in the project. It is the charter that attracts investors, businesses and residents to the venture. These people are attracted because the charter’s rules protect investment, provide a business-friendly atmosphere and ensure security for residents.

Charter-city proponents treat cities as objects of consumption. They portray potential residents as shopping for a city in which to live like they shop for any other consumer good. The only deviation from private market transactions they allow is that consumers make their choice not by handing over a credit card but by moving to town. By definition, this consumer-oriented vision equates the concept of freedom of choice with that of freedom of consumer choice. As a result, it radically limits the aspect of the self considered relevant in the design and implementation of city life.

Consumption, however, is an individual activity. Spurred by their own economic interest, people buy consumer goods one by one (or family by family) with little concern about the impact of their purchase on those living nearby. Values commonly associated with democracy – notions of equality, of the importance of collective deliberation and compromise, of the existence of a public interest not reducible to personal economic concerns – are of secondary concern, or no concern at all, to consumers. Yet it is widely recognised, in political theory as well as daily life, that reducing human experience to the act of consumption falsifies it. Worse still, the consumer-oriented vision of the city strengthens the consumptive aspect of the self over alternatives: consumer preferences help generate a social world that, in turn, shapes consumer preferences. By doing so, it narrows the aspects of human nature that cities have the potential of fostering.

Bottom up is Not Enough 
by Michelle Provoost
In the sixth year of the global economic crisis, some interesting shifts have become apparent in the architecture world. The stream of iconic buildings commissioned by commercial developers has lost momentum. Prestigious projects that were the architectural contribution to the globally accelerating construction economy have stalled. Buildings that had no real bearing either on functional or cultural needs, but rather worked as a business model, connecting to global capital flows and serving the global competition between cities, have been cancelled – at least for now.

Other types of practice have become increasingly popular. Characterised by small-scale projects arising from a direct need, their architecture is both bottom-up in organisation and cheap. They range from collective housing blocks to urban agriculture to the (many) public-space projects to a variety of temporary self-built structures. It has become an international movement that not only celebrates successes at biennales but also has many realised projects. These context-specific “acupuncture” projects challenge the public, bureaucratic planning institutions, as well as icon-driven starchitecture. As the product of designers together with residents and local businesses, their democratic content is higher and more direct than that of the previous generation of urban projects that were determined by large commercial interests and global trends, which largely evade democratic control.

Yet architecture seems to have created a path for itself that lacks critical meaning. Despite its initial ambitions, this movement plays merely a supporting function for the powers that be. Can this bottom-up movement have a real impact that transcends each individual and specific project? The next step in this process should be to build a bridge from the single projects to the civic institutions, and to reconnect to the public, democratic structures – in other words, to connect the bottom to the top. It will be necessary to go deeper into the policy, political, financial and economic fundamentals of urban development. The reconquest of these foundations is a tough and tedious job – one that not every designer has the talents to pursue. It is far more complicated and labour-intensive than a single intervention, but also much more influential. To be truly effective and to continue, these initiatives must grow so that their effects become long-term and larger-scale. Otherwise, this “movement” becomes reduced to a series of forgettable pinpricks rather than acquiring the cumulative, profound effect of targeted acupuncture.

The Fair City
 by Robert J. Sampson
In most cities, there is considerable social inequality between neighbourhoods, especially in terms of socioeconomic position and racial segregation. Particularly in the United States, these factors are connected, in that concentrated disadvantage often coincides with the geographic isolation of racial minority and immigrant groups. But violence, incarceration and multiple health-related problems tend to come bundled together at the neighbourhood level as well. These problems are also predicted by neighbourhood characteristics such as the concentration of poverty, racial isolation and single-parent families, and, to a lesser extent, rates of residential and housing instability. I have come to think of this as the “social matrix of adversity” at the community level, a phenomenon that contradicts the growing tendency to isolate clean causal estimates or manipulate single causes. Something more like a matrix of hyper-advantage exists at the upper end of the spectrum: multiple social indicators of what many would consider progress, such as affluence, computer expertise and elite occupational attainment, are also clustered geographically.  These patterns are seen in many global cities.

These durable inequalities seem surprising or even paradoxical when we consider the changing American landscape. Poverty is increasing most rapidly in the suburbs, crime has decreased just about everywhere and gentrification is reshaping many working-class and poor areas of central cities. New York is the poster child these days for crime reduction and a new type of urban renewal. The media and popular culture have focused attention on Brooklyn, for example, highlighting gentrifying neighbourhoods that were in despair not long ago. The phenomenon is real, but the fact that it makes the news is precisely the point – “rags to riches” is no more common among neighbourhoods than it is among people. For every poor neighbourhood on the move, more struggle out of the media glare: durable inequality is the norm.

Making Urban Subjects 
by Saskia Sassen
Cities have distinctive capacities to transform conflict into the civic. In contrast, national governments tend to militarise conflict. This does not mean that cities are peaceful spaces. On the contrary, cities have long been sites for conflict, from war to racism and religious hatred. Yet militarising conflict is not a particularly urban option: cities have tended to triage conflict through commerce and civic activity. Even more important, the overcoming of urban conflict has often been the source for an expanded civic sense. And more generally, the daily dynamics and interdependences of life in the city contribute to the making of an urban subject, as distinct from an ethnic, religious or racialised subject. I think of the possibility of an urban subject not as one that erases these powerful markers, but that repositions them. This repositioning is likely to take on many diverse forms and involve diverse spaces, depending on a city’s trajectory. Notwithstanding this variability, we can conceive of the urban subject as one who can experience the urban context as such, as urban. 
It signals that urban space is an actor in these dynamics.

Today cities are at risk of losing this capacity and becoming sites for a range of new types of conflicts, such as asymmetric war, ethnic and social “cleansing” and class wars. Dense urban spaces can easily become conflictive spaces in cities overwhelmed by inequality and injustice. The major environmental disasters looming in our immediate futures could lead cities to become the sites of a variety of secondary, more anomic conflicts, such as drug wars and other non-urban conflicts that merely use the city as a deployment space. All of these challenge the traditional commercial and civic capacity that has given cities tools to avoid falling into armed conflict, and to incorporate diversities of class, culture, religion and ethnicity.

Does this emergent urban future of expanding conflict and racism contain within it those conditions and urban capabilities that have historically allowed cities to transform conflict? In the past, urban capabilities and urban subjects were often crafted through the struggle to address challenges larger than our differences, our hatreds, our intolerance, our racisms. Out of this dialectic came the open urbanity that, historically, made many cities into spaces for the making of the civic and commerce, from historic Jerusalem, Baghdad and Istanbul to modern Chicago and New York. One factor feeding these positives was that cities became strategic spaces also for the powerful and their needs for self-representation and projection onto a larger stage. Both the modest social classes and the powerful found in the city a space for their diverse “life projects”. None of these cities and projects was perfect. All of them saw hatreds and injustices. But the complex interdependence of daily life 
in cities was the algorithm that made them thrive.

The Political City
 by Erik Swyngedouw
For Jacques Rancière, democratising the polis is inaugurated when those who do 
not count stage the count, perform the process of being counted, and thereby initiate a rupture in the order of things, “in the distribution of the sensible”, such that things cannot go on as before. From this perspective, democratisation is a performative act that both stages and defines equality, exposes a “wrong” and aspires to a transformation of the senses and of the sensible, to render common sense what was non-sensible before. Democratisation, he contends, is a disruptive affair that the ochlos (the rabble, the scum, the outcasts, “the part of no part”) stage to be part of the demos and inaugurate a new ordering of times and places, a process by which those who do not count, who do not exist as part of the polis, become visible and audible, stage the count and assert their egalitarian existence.

There are many uncounted today. Alain Badiou refers to them as the “inexistent”, the masses of the people that have no say, “decide absolutely nothing, have only a fictional voice in the matter of the decisions that decide their fate.” The scandal of actually existing instituted (post-)democracy in a world choreographed by oppression, exploitation and extraordinary inequalities resides precisely in rendering masses of people inexistent, politically unheard, without a recognised voice.

For Badiou, “a change of world is real when an inexistent of the world starts to exist in the same world with maximum intensity.” In doing so, the order of the sensible is shaken and the kernel for a new common sense, a new mode of being in common, becomes present in the world, makes its presence sensible. It is the appearance of another world in the world. Was it not precisely the sprawling urban insurgencies and rebellions that sparked off with rarely seen intensity since 2011 that ignited a new sensibility about the polis as a democratic and potentially democratising space? This appearance of the inexistent, staging the count of the uncounted, is precisely what the polis, the political city, is all about.

Edges: Self and City 
by Richard Sennett
Rome is a city in which boundaries have replaced borders. If you walk an old area like the Piazza del Popolo, you see signs of gentrification on its side streets, the poor being pushed out as bourgeois bohemians move in; the big shopping streets are full of international chain stores; offices and workshops are moving out to faceless 
buildings on the periphery; tourists dominate the streets.

Most modern cities are becoming like this, outside of Europe as well as within it. Spatial segregation means that sites for mixture, for the experience of different peoples and different functions, are fading. Modern Beijing has been planned with a strict regime of spatial segregation, as has modern Mumbai. In the globalisation of cities, the boundary is replacing the border; cities are ever less internally porous.

The political consequence of this replacement is that spaces where people can practice politics are disappearing. The unhappiness of the poor or of the immigrant is rendered invisible – invisible to privileged segments of the population. Calculative discourses – in zoning, “smart city” planning and the like – push away unsettling forms of encounter. But the positive, mutually bonding aspect to practicing politics also disappears; the spaces poor people occupy become inward-turning, and inward-turning spaces tend to shrink into smaller and smaller zones, people losing a sense of connection to comrades or fellow sufferers who are physically distant. As for resistance, so for co-operation: the places where people who differ might co-operate – in seemingly trivial activities such as managing a garden allotment or a playground – are shrinking as they become ever more subject to formalised rules.

Urban Desolation and Symbolic Denigration 
by Loïc Wacquant
The scene of urban desolation and social despair reflected in photos of Chicago’s collapsing black ghetto at the century’s close invites us to consider the link between the built environment, social structure and collective psychology. More precisely, it points to the need to elaborate theoretically and empirically the connections between urban desolation and symbolic denigration in America’s racialised urban 
core and assorted territories of relegation in the dualising metropolis of the advanced societies: how the daily experience of material dilapidation, ethnoracial seclusion and socioeconomic marginality translates into the corrosion of the self, the rasping of interpersonal ties and the skewing of public policy through the mediation of sulphurous cognition fastened onto a defamed place.

The decline and death of hundreds of commercial, social and cultural establishments – from machine shops and barber shops to hotels and brothels, theatres and restaurants, churches and banks, clothing outlets and day-care centres – turned a vibrant neighbourhood into an urban wasteland doubly segregated by race and class. The bustling commercial artery of 63rd Street mutated into a lugubrious strip dotted with the burned-out carcasses of stores, boarded-up buildings (scavenged for metal, fixtures and bricks), and vacant lots strewn with weeds, broken glass and garbage. Extending the thrust of the “New Federalism” dictated by Washington after 1980, city policy shifted from supporting lower-class residents and districts toward attracting corporations and beefing up middle-class amenities. The ensuing breakdown of public services in the metropolitan core undermined the local institutions central to the strategies of preservation of the urban poor, leaving them mired in rampant joblessness, crushing poverty and escalating crime, as the predatory commerce of the street grew to fill the vacuum left by the ebbing of the formal economy.

Art, Trauma and Parrhesia
 by Krzysztof Wodiczko
The democratic process depends on the vitality of public space. Yet the democratic principles that are constitutive of public space cannot be sustained if we do not provide the cultural, psychological, technological and aesthetic conditions for the inclusion (and acknowledgment) of voices that are economically, culturally and socially marginalised and estranged – the voices of those who are perceived, treated and at best tolerated as strangers, those who are labelled as “poorly adjusted” or “not integrated”.

The well-being of the democratic process is connected to these people’s capacity for speech and expression, as well as their emotional and mental health. Unfortunately, many of those who have a great deal to say are often so emotionally overwhelmed by what they have experienced that they remain silent. They are locked in a traumatic state of communicative incapacitation, a “freezing of the failure situation”, to quote D.W. Winnicott.

Visibility and public testimony are closely linked to recovery from traumatic experiences. Media art and performative public art can play a role in recovering – or “unfreezing” – the capacity to speak by creating situations in which marginalised or traumatised people might insert their experience into public discourse. The key task of critical art and design in public space is to develop projects collaboratively with these emergent democratic agents. Rather than speaking for them, we – artists, theorists, designers, researchers, curators, educators – can help these citizens and residents develop their own capacity to open up, speak openly and become heard and visible. We must at the same time help create the conditions for having what they say heard by others whose perspective might be altered by these new democratic agents, a group comprised of “strangers” and the estranged. §

Ethics of the Urban: The City and the Spaces of the Political edited by Mohsen Mostafavi

Harvard University Graduate School of Design and Lars Müller Publishers, 2015

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