Who owns the city?

byMark Minkjan

published on 10/1/2016

There is a crucial difference between property ownership and the ability to take ownership of your city. Our cities are quickly being sold off; the challenge now is to ensure the true urban experience.

Recently I walked around in London. What I heard were the never-ending sounds of demolition and construction works. What I saw were cranes everywhere, as well as advertisements for the shiny luxury apartments and corporate offices that were being pulled up. What I read, was a poignant article by sociology professor Saskia Sassen that was published in Guardian Cities. In line with my experience of London at that very moment, Sassen signalled a dangerous loss of actual ownership in cities.

The global cities expert writes that space and opportunity for the powerless in cities is shrinking because large corporations are buying up swaths of land and many of the buildings. The result are exclusive and gated spaces, both virtually and physically. It threatens the existence of affordable housing and business space, actual public space and core urban qualities. Sassen: "Cities are the spaces where those without power get to make a history and a culture [..] If the current large-scale buying continues, we will lose this type of making that has given our cities their cosmopolitanism.”

While cities are becoming more and more dense, they are in fact becoming less urban. Small interweaved streets, individually owned buildings, make-shift spatial solutions and diverse public spaces are disappearing.

Urbanity is characterised by diversity, incompletion and social, technological and economic innovation. Sassen: “Such a mix of complexity and incompleteness ensures a capacity to shape an urban subject and an urban subjectivity.” But today, “rather than a space for including people from many diverse backgrounds and cultures, our global cities are expelling people and diversity.”

Sassen’s analysis, which includes megalomaniac examples and alarming figures from London and New York, concludes on a highly pessimistic note.

Nehru Place, Delhi. Image: Alan Morgan/Flickr

Three days later, however, the same Guardian Cities published another story, describing an alternative and more hopeful ‘cityness’ from India. In the article, professor of sociology and architecture Richard Sennett celebrates Delhi’s lively Nehru Place market: “It’s a completely porous spot in the city, people of all castes, classes, races and religions coming and going, doing deals or gossiping about the small tech start-ups in the low offices which line the square; you can also worship at a small shrine if you’re so minded, or find a sari, or just lounge about drinking tea.”

What Sennett sees is the true urban experience that every urbanist dreams of, but ironically it is not the kind of inclusive spaces that are being created today. I believe the reason lies in the difficulty to build them, as most truly urban spaces grow organically over time. However, constructing isolated enclaves for homogeneous uses and users prevents them from every coming into existence. Worse, those new glass boxes and predictable commercial spaces often come at the cost of places that are, or have the potential to be, lively and open.

Sennet: “urban identities are porous in the sense that we are going in and out of lots of different experiences, in different places, with people we don’t know, in the course of a day.” What he regards necessary is an “opening up and blurring the edges of spaces so that people are drawn in rather than repulsed; they emphasise true mixed use of public and private functions.”

There’s a crucial difference between property ownership and the ability to take ownership of your life in the city and your direct surroundings. We cannot just sell off our cities to corporate investors since they have little interest in creating or sustaining unpredictable places of opportunity. Real urban places are neither the numbers on the Excel sheets of property investors, nor playgrounds for the happy few; they are spaces of lived experience, of surprise, and of social and economic possibilities for all citizens.

As the exhibition CollageCity 3D at the Shenzhen UABB also suggests: cities are - or should be - continuously evolving assemblages. They should be open to step-by-step social and physical evolution to which everyone can contribute and from which all can benefit. Perhaps a setup like the plan-free planning of Oosterwold could be an alternative to the flattening of cities that we see occurring. Or could designers have a more direct hand in creating and fostering diversity, as architect office TD suggests with their building block that tries to combine all dwelling desires in Social City?

If we want the cities of tomorrow to be actually urban, their design, politics and ownership should allow for various, unplanned and unexpected uses. That way, we can preserve the historical nature of cities as absorbing places of complexity and diversity that enable encounters, innovation and co-existence. It is up to the people designing, building and governing our cities to leave space for actual urban life. Only then cities will be social.

Top image: David Holt/Flickr

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