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Health, Sports & Psychology

We make the cities, and the city makes us

Updated Monday 23rd May 2011

As Phoenix grows a square mile a day, Eastern European cities are knocking down unwanted housing. Our relationship with cities is increasingly complex...

"Do you know what I like about this city?" said my good friend Dave once, as we set off for one of our traditional Saturday nights out in Liverpool. "What I like," he said, "is that you can lean on it." It's a sentiment which I imagine would have appealed to the author of this celebration of urban life - Toni Morrison:

Extract from Jazz by Toni Morrison:
The minute they arrive at the train station or get off the ferry and glimpse the wide streets and the wasteful lamps lighting them they know they are born for it. There in a city, they are not so much new as themselves, their stronger and riskier selves. What they start to love is the way a person is in a city, the way a schoolgirl never pauses at a stop light but looks up and down the street before stepping off the kerb. How men accommodate themselves to tall buildings and wee porches. What a woman looks like moving in a crowd. The amazement of throwing open a window and being hypnotised for hours by people on the street below.

Laurie Taylor:
An unashamedly, I admit it, indulgent way to introduce a fat new book called The New Blackwell Companion to the City. Its co-editor, along with Gary Bridge, is Sophie Watson, who's professor of sociology at The Open University and she now joins me in the studio, along with Matthew Gandy, who's professor of geography at University College, London and his chapter in the book is called Landscape and Infrastructure in the Late Modern Metropolis.

Look there we were, Sophie, we were starting off [with] a bit of a glamorous, bit of a romantic thing by Toni Morrison about how the city's a place to find yourself.

It does seem as though it's almost impossible to talk about the city without suddenly saying 'the marvellous wonderful place where life is…' or 'it's a dirty stinking polluted crime ridden place'. We do have a love/hate relationship don't we?

A gated community in Nevada, seen from the air Creative commons image Icon Rich_Lem under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
A 'secure' gated development in Nevada

Sophie Watson:
I think that's right. There's always been tensions in the way that people think about the city, I mean if you think back to Dickens, for example, he represented as a place of dirt, of disease, of poverty, of destitution and a place certainly in the East End where you would never go, sort of dark London with all its filth and grime.

On the other hand it's always been represented also as a kind of place of delight, of phantasmagoria, as well to many men would say where you kind of enjoy looking at all the glistening lights and shopping and commodities in those old arcades - the Paris arcades and places like that.

And that sort of division a view of the city has gone right through history I think, if you look at modernist writing, people like Virginia Wolf with her idea of subjectivities being free and experiencing themselves in the city, and other negative writers now who see the city as a place, still, of destination and horror and we must get away into the suburbs to protect ourselves from these…

Laurie Taylor:
I think you'd want to suggest that these cultural representations, apart from being intrinsically interesting themselves, nevertheless do have repercussions to the nature of city life as we experience it - they feed into our views of the city, however much they are fictional by nature.

Sophie Watson:
I think that's true and, increasingly perhaps, the case that private developers in cities now play on those ideas, so for example the fear of the "different" person who might attack you in the street; the idea that there are these strangers out there who are dangerous and we must get away from them. So how do you get away from them?

We buy ourselves a nice house in a residential enclave and we put up the gates and we can only get in by putting a card through the gate outside.

So that the way in which people imagine city has an effect.

Laurie Taylor:
So really by raising the fear of crime you could make money - you can increase people's desires for all the expensive security apparatus?

Sophie Watson:
Indeed. And I think that that's a rather dangerous way in which cities are heading. Particularly you see this in Chinese cities for example, increasing numbers of these high, wired, segregated places where the rich people go. You see this in America; you see it to a certain extent in Britain as well.

Laurie Taylor:
Now let me turn to you, Matthew, because I know these cultural representations fascinate you as well about the ways in which certain images from within culture overlap with reality. You refer in your piece to JG Ballard's 1962 novel The Drowned World as a particularly potent example.

Matthew Gandy:
Yes. I think Ballard is extremely interesting in looking at the fragility of modernity and the fragility of cities. And this novel written in 1962 I think is very prescient in terms of the vulnerability of cities to catastrophic failures of infrastructure. But I think what Ballard was most shocked by in the case of New Orleans was not the breaching of the levies, but the virulent racism towards the survivors in New Orleans.

Laurie Taylor:
So when you looked at this, you can also see certain parallels here between the people who are most likely to be affected? I mean that, when Ballard is writing, he also sees the unequal impact that flooding is going to have upon a city?

Matthew Gandy:
Absolutely. If London were to be flooded, as some people predict, it would be poorer areas in the east of the city that would be most badly affected.

Laurie Taylor:
This is a sort of neo-Hobbesian vision of collapse, isn't it, of everything falling apart. Are you suggesting that you, in a way, subscribe to this or you just see it as a very fine example of this type of metropolitan apocalyptic literature?

Matthew Gandy:
Some critics of Ballard seem to take him too literally. People like Fredric Jameson, who offers a very stern Marxist critique of Ballard. But actually, I think that Ballard has a much lighter ironic view of the relationship between technology and cities. And science fiction literature allows us to explore scenarios and use our imagination to look at cities.

Laurie Taylor:
It's interesting, isn't it, Sophie that one of the ways that we talk about cities is really as though they are inert spaces and we wander around them viewing.  I mean almost the Walter Benjamin thing, we are observers, we are planners, we're looking at them. But you want to say that we need to pay a little bit more attention now to the ways in which cities are directing us - that they're not simply inert?

Sophie Watson:
One of the interesting changes in urban studies and the way in which people think about cities over the last 10 or 15 years is that we think of cities perhaps almost as acting back, or that we are in a sense made in the city ourselves.

Birmingham Bullring shops Creative commons image Icon Tom Pullman under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
The Birmingham Bullring shops

So the city makes us the people that we are; the city makes us move the way that we move. Example: we might put in turnstiles in a particular place, the original thinking that went into putting in those turnstiles might be very different from the thinking that would make those turnstiles now, but the fact that they're there make us move in particular ways.

So, in a sense, the infrastructure of the city is making us be the people we are; become the people we are; move in the cities in particular ways. In that sense we're much more interested now, I think, in that kind of combination of people in cities, what people call the assemblage - the subject and the object, the materiality coming together.

Laurie Taylor:
Yes, I notice the other day when I was taking a flight and I got instructions, almost saying you should be leaving pretty home pretty soon if you're going to make the flight; it's leaving and it's on time; let's get a move on. It was as though voices were arousing me to the next journey I needed to make across the city.

Sophie Watson:
A good example of that, I think, is when you get into a car and you don't put your safety belt on - it starts bleeping. In other words that safety belt is making you actually put on that safety belt, otherwise you're going to go crazy because it's going to go on beeping.

So there's all these ways in which that sort of inert material is beginning to make us behave in certain kinds of ways.

Laurie Taylor:
Now, one of the other outstanding things about the city, turning to you Matthew, is that we suddenly reach the point where for the first time in the history of the world more people live in cities [than in rural environments]. How many times have we heard that - it's become a big cliché. But that does seem to disguise the fact that not all cities are expanding. We know some are expanding at enormous rates still - places like Lagos in Nigeria - but some are also in decline aren't they?

Matthew Gandy:
Yes, certainly in Eastern Europe, in East Germany for example, there's a phenomenon of shrinking cities, where there are cities which are significantly depopulated now, and there's a discussion about actually destroying perfectly good housing because it's too expensive to maintain.

Laurie Taylor:
Now what's gone wrong there? What is the reason behind all this?

Matthew Gandy:
I think one of the primary drivers is widespread industrial decline and fundamental changes in the urban economy in these areas. But there are counter voices which say why don't we allow people to use these empty spaces in a creative way, why don't we simply let people arrive and do new things with cities.

Laurie Taylor:
But there's no indication that that's happening at all?

Matthew Gandy:
Well the problem is that the deliberate destruction of housing is actually to maintain the housing market, so that creative or spontaneous initiatives always run up against the barrier, if you like, of catalyst urbanisation.

Laurie Taylor:
[So] here is capitalism arriving and stopping something, which might be for the social good, or preventing it happening. The city does throw into relief, doesn't it, the arguments about public and private provision. There's always this battle whether we're talking in the area of public transport or [other] sorts of provision.

How's this been going on over recent years? Have we seen the increasing significance of the private analyses with previously public functions being taken over?

Sophie Watson:
Well, this is something that interests me a great deal. Public spaces have always been in cities, but they've changed over the last while, in terms of a lot of the spaces have become privatised; a lot of the spaces have become "thematised", so you might have a public space which is something like a shopping centre, but in fact it's not really very public at all because there's security guards pushing people out and so on.

But in terms of what Matthew was saying I think this is a very important point - there are all sorts of spaces emerging in cities which can become really important to people.

They might be marginal, they might be liminal spaces. I recently went to Budapest and all those old houses that are being abandoned there have been taken over and turned into cultural centres. They're sort of informal - the plaster's falling off the wall and there's bars and there's music and they're rather fun to be in.

And I think it's really important that in cities we have public spaces that are informal and made possible for different groups to occupy. And that the more that we privatise or buy up spaces, the less those informal activities can take place.

Laurie Taylor:
I'm just suddenly throwing this in, but I can remember seeing a survey done something about a hundred years ago about why it was that people came into the city, and they said they want to go to the park; they want to go to St James' Park; they wanted to see the Tower of London.

If you ask people now why they're coming in nearly everybody says for shopping, they are coming in for shops, so shops and all those public spaces are no longer regarded with quite the same sort of high interest that they were in the past.

But turning to you Matthew, just picking up on this, because if we're talking about the way a city functions, when you talk about affordable housing, transport and telecommunication, the idea of public investment in these doesn't seem very likely in the current economic climate at all?

Matthew Gandy:
I think that's absolutely right. There's a major dilemma here - how do we invest in the long term infrastructure needs of the contemporary city? Because so much investment is skewed towards short-term profit maximisation, and we need to make long term decisions about the future of cities.

Laurie Taylor:

The skyline of Phoenix, Arizona Creative commons image Icon Al_HikesAZ under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license
Phoenix, leaking out into the Arizona desert

Is it the case that if we look at some cities worldwide that we do see this infrastructure...  We were always being told about the Victorian sewers collapsing in London, that's a common statement - but is that a common feature elsewhere?

 

Matthew Gandy:
Absolutely. Certain infrastructure systems like telecommunications tend to leapfrog the more expensive complex systems like drainage and water supply but there's no doubt about it we have a global crisis in terms of infrastructure provision.

Laurie Taylor:
And yet I've just been reading a piece by Edward Glazer, the American economist, who says that ecologically cities are much sounder than suburbs, in terms of the amount of fuel they consume and so, therefore, we should be building more cities, we should be building higher block residential developments and so on and so on. Can the city provide a green solution in the way that developing suburbia and elsewhere can't?

Sophie Watson:
I think that a lot of the solutions that are so-called ecological often end up privileging the richer rather than the poorer. They're what I would call "ecological fluff" in a sense. They make nice places that are green and pleasant.

Certainly I would argue that density has to be increased in cities which are subjected to urban sprawl because people are going to be using cars more often and so on.

I think that in the long term it's going to have to be some kind of combination of mix density across most cities for the environmental questions to be properly addressed and I completely agree with Matthew that so many of these initiatives are increasing the differences between rich and poor.

Laurie Taylor:
And we can only expect to see more and more expansion of cities in the future?

Sophie Watson:
Absolutely.

Laurie Taylor:
Just more and more.

Sophie Watson:
If you see the rate of growth in some of the Asian cities at the moment,  it's extraordinary; and places like Phoenix, which I think up until recently were growing something like a square mile a day or something like that, we're talking about massive growth in some of these cities. And the kinds of questions that are raised by this are extremely important to be taken seriously.

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4, 18th May 2011.

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