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Society, Politics & Law

Security and the city

Updated Thursday, 20th December 2007

The development of cities has always been a story of the growth of insecurity

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Chronicler of the criminal city: A scene from Dickens Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Pro-urban and anti-urban discourses have articulated the city variously as a site of intermingling, difference and heterogeneity, of heightened sensibility and excitement, of the potential for social interaction and democratic civic life on the one hand, or as sites of threat, contamination, unruly forces, alienation, dangerous others and chaos.

In 1973's The Country and the City Raymond Williams strove to depart from these binary representations of the city. While exploring the contrasts between rural and urban life, Williams was intent on challenging the pejorative views of rural life, and on revealing the complexity of both urban and rural experience and the interconnections between them. These tensions between negative and positive imaginaries of the city have been played out in the way that cities havebeen planned and made.

Fears of those perceived as threatening or different from the dominant cultural norms and social forces have underpinned decisions to build cities in this way or that. In other words, the very matter of the city is implicated in dominanturban imaginaries and in the social life enacted in urban spaces.

In the early nineteenth century, industrialisation developed in tandem with urbanisation across large parts of the western world, bringing in its wake poor living conditions, in particular slum dwellings, ill health and disease, and social unrest in many cities. Engels graphically described the urban deprivation, poor housing and health in The Condition of the Working Class in England, which finds its literary counterpart in Charles Dickens’ descriptions of London, for example in Bleak House:

"It’s a black, dilapidated street avoided by all decent people; where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants, who, after establishing their own possession, took to letting them out in lodgings. Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery. As on the ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so, these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever, and showing more evil in its every footprint than Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle, and the Duke of Foodle, and all the fine gentlemen in office, down to Zoodle, shall set right in five hundred years – though born expressly to do it."

And, again, in Oliver Twist:

"A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours ... covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth."

The social consequences of urbanisation were a preoccupation of a great deal of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century western writing on cities. In a famous 1903 essay 'The metropolis and mental life', the German sociologist Georg Simmel suggested that urban subjects have to develop a sense of reserve – a "blasé attitude" – as a response to the over-stimulation and unceasing contact with strangers in the modern city.

Writing in 1887, Ferdinand Tönnies argued that cities separated out the multiple social ties of community (Gemeinschaft) and made exchanges specialised and one-dimensional in forms of association (Gessellschaft).

The city was increasingly defined as the antithesis of the country – urban life is characterised by anonymity, superficiality, indifference and segregation, and rural life is imagined as cohesive, connected and organic.

The origins of city planning in the late nineteenth century thus lay in the perceived disorder, pollution, ill health and immorality that characterised the industrial city. In this context the notions of progress, rationality and order that were embedded in the project of modernity were translated into planning ideas and the desire to organise social and economic activities in cities in a rational, predictable and safe way.

Planning in Britain was centrally concerned with clearing slum dwellings, and public health initiatives, on the one hand to assuage fears that overcrowded cities were hotbeds of germs and disease and, on the other hand, to mitigate the growing dissatisfaction of the poorer classes, who were feared to be on the verge of revolt, following their European counterparts.

There was a further gendered dimension to these interventions. The mid-Victorian social investigators of London represented the urban topography of the time as bifurcated between high and low life – the west and east ends. The prostitute was positioned as the quintessential figure of the urban, herself endangered and a source of danger to men who congregated in the streets. She too had to be controlled and segregated at a distance from the secure suburbs of the Victorian bourgeois family.

Urban policy intervention was thus concerned with making social worlds where the threat of contaminating others – the poor working classes, or the street prostitute – was kept at bay, where the idea of a secure social world was core.

Race and ethnicity represent another category of difference in the city. Minorities have experienced a long history of subjection to various forms of intervention and management in cities, legitimated by powerful sections of society as a strategy for making safer social worlds.

According to Anthony King, the central social fact of colonial planning was segregation. Marguerite Duras, in her 1952 novel The Sea Wall, described the transport system in colonial Saigon in the 1930s:

"It was only from these crowded trolleys and beyond that you could have any idea of the other city, that one in which no white people lived. White with dust and under an implacable sky they lumbered along with a moribund slowness of clanking metal. Old cast offs of the metropolis. Naturally, no white person worthy of the name would ever have ventured to use these trolley cars; to be seen in one would be to lose face – Colonial face."

Ethnicity or racial difference in cities is not simply socioculturally defined, it is also inscribed in the very bodies that are marked as culturally and racially different. We could argue that, at the level of the individual, the very materiality of particular bodies, and the fear that they bring contamination, has further shaped the way in which cities have been planned and made.

This is graphically illustrated in the early Venetian Ghetto of the Renaissance, where difference – the difference of the Jews from the Christians – was a powerful force in the Venetian imaginary. Richard Sennett explains that when the Christians shut the Jews behind the walls of the Ghetto, they believed they were:

"isolating a disease that had infected the Christian community, for they identified Jews in particular with corrupting bodily vices. Christians were afraid of touching Jew: Jewish bodies were thought to carry venereal diseases as well as to contain more polluting powers. The Jewish body was unclean."

Sennett goes on to argue that the fear of touching Jews represented the frontier to the conception of the common body of the medieval era – the body in the imitation of Christ – where "beyond the frontier lay a threat – athreat redoubled because the impurity of the alien body was associated with the sensuality, with the lure of the Oriental, a body cut free from Christian constraints."

Cities and individuals who are able to exercise only limited power within them have long been subject to management and segregation, in attempts to make safer social worlds for those who imagine themselves to be a danger. Interventions into the city by urban planners and policy makers, it could thus be argued, have always been motivated in part by an attempt to manage fear and risk. As Leonie Sandercockputs it:

"planning and urban management discourses are, and always have been, saturated with fear. The history of planning could be rewritten as an attempt to manage fear in the city’."

This extract is adapted from course materials for The Open University course Making Social Worlds.





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