Re-imagining the City Critically

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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>So what, in our heart of hearts, should determine what a city is and does?

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>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 not 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?

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Conclusion: the realm of necessary work could be shrunk significantly without any significant negative impact on a desirable realm of freedom.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>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?

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The Occupy Sandy movement these past few weeks provides some hints.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>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 do (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?

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>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?

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>To put the challenge of reo-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?

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>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?

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Imagine all that, and then imagine what we would need to change in the city we already know to make all that possible.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>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?

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>V. From the Real City to the Re-Imagined City: Transformative Moves

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>If then we were to reimagine 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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Look individually at what those pieces might be (there are of course more, but the following are examples of key ones).

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>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 permitall students to benefit from it.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>A warning: Re-imagining the city can be fun, it can be inspirational, it can show doubters that another world is possible. But there is a danger:


line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>  1. But a caution here, for what the heart desires can in reality be manipulated. Herbert Marcuse deals with this issue in making the distinction between authentic and manipulated desires, authentic and manufactured needs. See Collected Writings, ed. Douglas Kellner, vol. VI.
2. Similar to Jurgen Habermas’ formulation.
3, Hegel, Marx, Herbert Marcuse
4. How to define what is “really necessary” is of course a tricky proposition. For one fruitful approach, see Herbert Marcuse, Essay on Liberation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.
5. Richard Titmus, The Gift Relation, 1970.
6. Maimonides, St. Francis.
7. Are parts of the struggle for competitive or simple existence, not done for the satisfaction of productive work well done that they provide., Herbert Marcuse has it in Essay on Liberation.
8. Marx’s fantasy, in the Grundrisse, commented on in Herbert Marcuse vol. VI, Collected Papeers, Douglas Kellner, ed., Routledge.forthcoming,
9. For the present situation, focusing on white collar work, see Brynjolfsson, Erik and McAfee, Adam (October 2011) Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Digital Frontier Press. ISBN 0-984-72511-3.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Isaiah 40:4 is used in the text of Handel’s Messiah, in a passage in which the prophet tells the people to prepare for the coming of the Lord by making a highway for him through the desert, and then:

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Reading this as a political metaphor for the social and economic constitution of an imagined city, it is eloquent. It might be read as a metaphor in the debate on income tax rates under way as I write this, as well as for the appropriate goals of the criminal system and the need for transparency in public actions.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Beware of presenting social issues in physical metaphors, lest they be taken literally! 

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