Athens rooftops

Looking northwest over Athens from Lykavittos hill

One striking feature of Athens, for me at least, is the way that rooftop space is massively underused.  This is not only the case for Athens: the same is true of London, or endless other cities.  But Athens presents a case of a very densely populated city where, unlike London, most roofs are flat.  Although space down below may be at a premium, a whole extra city’s worth is available up above.  All that’s there, in most cases, is a washing line or two, and a few TV aerials.  I look out at all this, imagining naively what it would be like if every roof was used as a communal space, draped with greenery.

There are all sorts of reasons why this space is left empty, including the question of how it might be regulated. Blocks of flats are usually maintained collectively by their multiple owners or residents; each household has to contribute a certain amount of money each month towards things like cleaning the entrance hall and stairs, use and repair of the lift, general upkeep, etc. Since these arrangements are inevitably informal, and rely on a degree of goodwill, they need to be kept as simple as possible – especially at a time when money is short.

Dreaming of rooftop gardens or the like is one thing, then, but who would look after them? And who wants the headache of having to intervene when one family (perhaps the one living on the top floor) starts to colonise the space in subtle ways?  It’s rather like the ‘hot-desking’ system in open-plan offices, which goes wrong when people start marking particular desks as their own with personal items. This problem can be partly resolved through a rule that all desks have to be cleared at the end of each working day – but that produces a rather sterile working environment (and, even then, people may effectively claim a particular desk as their own simply by sitting there each day). The best way to avoid conflict is simply to leave the roof as a not particularly welcoming space, where nobody is allowed to leave personal belongings.

Athens rooftops 2

But never mind dreams of communal gardens in the sky. What about solar panels, at least?  Of course, they raise a whole new set of practical and administrative problems. And yet, Athens is graced with abundant sunshine for much of the year.

The sun, the sun. Since we’re on the topic of the sun, let me share a thought from William Cronon’s (1992) well-known history of Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis (my holiday reading at the moment).  He reminds us that, while we may want to understand economic growth through labour theories of value, the real basis of capital lies not in production but in consumption – of natural resources: “In any ecosystem, only the sun produces” (150). Thus, “The abundance that fueled Chicago’s hinterland economy … consisted largely of stored sunshine: this was the wealth of nature, and no human labor could create the value it contained. Although people might use it, redefine it, and even build a city from it, they did not produce it” (149-150).

In a place where the sun bestows its value so freely, what other uses might be made of all these empty roofs? Well, if you’re rich, you can always install a swimming pool.

Kolonaki swimming pools

Rooftop swimming pools, Kolonaki

Athens, 15 August 2016

 

References

Cronon, W. (1992). Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Punggol

HDB flats in Punggol, Singapore

Singapore seems like an interesting place to study the various ways in which people manage to negotiate differences, and rub along together in everyday life. It promotes itself as a harmonious multicultural society.  Here, as published by the national Department of Statistics, are some demographic data from 2015 (rounded to the nearest per cent). Quite a mix:

Total population: 

  • 5,535m (of whom just under 30% are foreigners working, studying or living in Singapore without permanent residency status)
  • NB: the figures below relate to citizens and permanent residents only

Ethnicity:

  • Chinese 74%
  • Malay 13%
  • Indian 9%
  • Other 3%

Language most often spoken at home:

  • English 32%
  • Mandarin 36%
  • Chinese Dialects 14%
  • Malay 12%
  • Tamil 3%
  • Others 2%

Religion:

  • Buddhism: 43%
  • Taoism / Chinese traditional beliefs: 9%
  • Islam: 15%
  • Christianity: 15%
  • Hinduism: 4%
  • Other religions: 1%
  • No religion: 15%

Over 80% of the population live in flats built by the Housing & Development Board (HDB), the national public housing authority. New flats are sold at subsidised prices, with priority given to first-time buyers, but can be sold later on the open market. HDB has been steadily building flats since 1960. (By the way, can we do that too please?)

What particularly interests me is that the government sets ethnic quotas on who can buy these flats, specifically to avoid any groups being concentrated in particular places (as was once the case in Singapore).  These quotas are the same across the whole island, updated monthly, and are set at both block and neighbourhood level.  There are also complex rules about who you can sell your flat to.  The basic principle is that, once a block or neighbourhood has reached the maximum proportion of a particular ethnic group, no sale is allowed which will increase that proportion (Wong, 2013).  Of course, people will self-segregate in all sorts of ways, as they do everywhere, and this will no doubt help reproduce social inequalities of different kinds.  And yet, to some extent, the occurrence of everyday encounters with different cultural groups, in semi-public and public spaces, is thus effectively mandated by the state.

How, then, do Singaporeans go about negotiating these differences, so as to coexist peacefully in these spaces? Junjia Ye (2016) explains that the principle of Gui ju holds the answer. In part, this describes a generally accepted set of behavioural norms – and the state has led publicity campaigns to prescribe “proper codes of conduct in Singapore’s public spaces” (p.92).

She also describes Gui Ju as allowing for social relations to be characterised by ‘civility’.  Civility, as understood in the West, describes the enactment of ‘tolerance’: rather than reflecting an easy-going attitude towards a given other, tolerance indicates the repression of dislike or disapproval (Hancock & Matthews, 2001; Bannister and Kearns, 2013). If we like or approve of a person, there is no need to ‘tolerate’ them.  And yet there are occasions when the limits of our tolerance – which need not be thought of as singular or fixed – are overstepped, and we react with anger.  Similarly, Ye suggests that the social codes of Gui ju may often be transgressed by unsocialised migrant workers (who, as mentioned earlier, make up almost a third of the population).  Fortunately, Gui ju also includes ways of dealing in a civil manner with these transgressions: in the politest way possible, the transgressors are informed that their behaviour is problematic.

At this stage, I have several thoughts and questions:

  • I am wary of reading Asian public behaviour as ‘civil’. At first sight, Singaporeans, Koreans and the Japanese for example appear to behave – to my western eyes – in a remarkably civil way.  And yet civility, as an English language concept, is very closely tied up with the ideal of the autonomous liberal subject, as Frank Furedi (2012) points out.  Something like Gui ju no doubt has entirely different roots – which are probably related to the more collectivist orientation of Confucianism (although I’m out of my depth at this stage)
  • In her article, Ye points out that Gui ju simultaneously allows for differences to be overcome, but also itself creates a “dominant ordering of space” which reinforces a “divide between migrants and locals by disciplining how people ought to behave” (p.97). Civility, similarly, has an ambiguous status: it may bridge differences but its limits also construct an inside and an outside. Civility may be a less homogeneous and more flexible principle than Gui ju, but I’m not sure whether we should think of either as ‘meta-codes’ for behaviour, or as straightforward normative delimiters of what behaviours are deemed acceptable
  • Reports of a rise in xenophobic attacks in the UK, following the Brexit referendum, indicate that the experience has – perhaps temporarily – marked a breakdown of civility, in the sense that the attackers have not felt obliged to suppress their dislike of the ‘other’. It is interesting that this has been theorised as being enabled by the signals given by the politicians (ie state actors) campaigning for the UK to leave Europe.  These recent events, like Singapore’s housing quotas and public education campaigns, would suggest that the state does have an important role to play in allowing different types of people to live together peacefully. Trite though that conclusion might sound, and however we may want to problematise the ‘peace’ which results, or the motivations behind its enforcement or facilitation, I can’t see that there’s much wrong in reminding ourselves of it.

 

9 July 2016, Singapore

 

References

Bannister, J. and Kearns, A. (2013). The Function and Foundations of Urban Tolerance: Encountering and Engaging with Difference in the City. Urban Studies. 50(13): 2700-2717.

Furedi, F. (2012). On Tolerance. Policy. 28(2): 30-37.

Hancock, L. and Matthews, R. (2001). Crime, community, safety and toleration. In: Matthews, R. and Pitts, J. (eds). Crime, Disorder and Community Safety. London: Routledge, 99-119

Wong, M. (2013). Estimating Ethnic Preferences Using Ethnic Housing Quotas in Singapore. The Review of Economic Studies, 80(3): 1178–1214.

Ye, J. (2016). Spatialising the politics of coexistence: gui ju (规矩) in Singapore. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 41(1): 91–103.

o

Men playing cards on Sunday morning in People’s Park, Shanghai

A work trip to China has got me thinking about what it would be like to live in a society where I never had the chance to vote. Or, rather, how a society might best be arranged if – for whatever reason – voting wasn’t on the menu. After all, from a global-historical perspective, decision-making through public votes is not the norm.

To think about this more imaginatively, I think the challenge might be to ignore what political theorists have to say on the matter.  In the same way, it might be a mistake to turn to a doctor in a discussion about the big questions around health and medicine; or to a teacher if you wanted to know about the significance of education.

t

Pudong, Shanghai

Shanghai, 17 May 2016

2000 Ton City

“2,000 Ton City, composed of cells each containing an individual whose brain impulses are continuously transmitted to an analyser which compares, selects and interprets the desires of each individual, programming the life of the entire city moment by moment. Each inhabitant lives eternally, but if he formulates thoughts of rebellion against this perfect life twice consecutively, the ceiling descends to crush him with its 2,000 ton force.”

 

City of the Splendid Houses

“City of the Splendid Houses, in which each citizen’s goal is the possession of the most beautiful house, to which end they spend all their leisure hours and spare wage coupons in decoration and embellishment.”

 

I came across these two images/text in Robert Sheckley’s (1978) Impossible Cities of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Futuropolis. Both visions were created by Italian conceptual architecture firm Superstudio.  I’ve been pulling together my paper for the Society of the History of Technology’s annual meeting in Singapore (22-26 June 2016), in the panel on ‘Technology for City, City for Technology’.

 

 

London, 30 April 2016

defetishing the city

You’d be welcome to come along to a workshop which I’ve organised, during the afternoon on 28 April 2016. It’s the final workshop in a series on ‘Living in the Anthropocene: Rethinking the Nature/Culture Divide’ which began in June last year.  To see details of the previous events, see here.

Defetishising the City

Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster
32-38 Wells Street, London, W1T 3UW (5 minutes walk from Oxford Circus tube station)
3:30-6:00 pm, Thursday 28 April 2016

The discursive rise of the anthropocene has been accompanied by the normalisation of the idea of the ‘urban age’. The city has come to constitute a powerful imaginary, simultaneously the locus of all manner of contemporary crises – ecological and otherwise – and the focus for our hopes of their resolution. While earlier visions of urban sustainability disrupted the nature/culture divide, the goal remained one of ‘balance’, to be achieved through intentional agency.  Such aspirations are increasingly augmented, or framed, by notions of ‘resilience’ and ‘smartness’, in which human agency becomes at best reactive, or even dissolves within a process of recursive co-adaptation.

But where does this leave our ability to ‘plan’ our (urban) future? And is this imagined ‘city’ in fact a multiple construct? Might its rhetorical singularity across different discourses be holding us back from reimagining the future in more productive ways?

With:

Clive Barnett (University of Exeter)
Federico Caprotti (King’s College London)
Simon Joss (University of Westminster)

This event is free and open to all, but registration is essential. Click here to register for a free ticket.

London, 13 March 2016
View of Aswan

Aswan

I’ve spent most of the last week at a workshop on ‘Rebuilding Communities for Resilient and Sustainable Development’ in Aswan (Egypt).  A marvellous event – many thanks to all involved in organising it.

So then: resilient and sustainable… Does it matter that these two terms seem to have become inseparable? That sustainability even seems to be increasingly playing second fiddle to resilience?

Policy-makers at least seem happy enough to speak of resilience and sustainability in the same breath. One of our first workshop exercises, however, was to think more closely about how they differ and relate to each other. Our group contrasted the two concepts in terms of time (sustainability as linear; resilience as iterative) and space (sustainability as extensive and global; resilience as inward-looking and local). We agreed that their relationship is not so much hierarchical (with one perhaps being a necessary condition for the other), as fundamentally characterised by mutual tension.

This tension is reflected in their different registers of societal organisation: while sustainability has always been oriented towards state-centric solutions, resilience looks more to ‘bottom-up’ agency. Depending on your perspective, then, resilience usefully fills a gap in the discourse of sustainability; or its rise can be read as problematic evidence of the ongoing ‘roll-back’ of the state. In any case, abandoning the ideal of sustainability in favour of resilience seems uncomfortably close to relinquishing the hope that our formal institutions of representative democracy can ever be revived.

While I tend towards hoping that our institutional democratic life can be revived, I also wonder if this type of ‘anti-neoliberal’ perspective is rather parochial. What does it really mean in places where there is no general assumption, or expectation – or illusion – that the state somehow ‘stands above’ the messy informality of everyday life? Where the state is clearly demarcated from the public only in terms of its elitism or authoritarian capacities? If Egypt falls into this category of place, it is certainly not unique; informal processes seem to dominate the conduct of everyday urban life around the world, including – to an extent not always recognised – in western countries. In fact, I would argue that the question of how sustainability policy-making might better encompass informality is a key one.

By ‘encompassing informality’, I don’t mean just improving living conditions for the marginalised or reducing ‘corruption’. Rather, I argue that there is a need for more direct acknowledgement in sustainability planning that real cities are held together by informal relations, and characterised by unpredictable, emergent and often transgressive public behaviour, as much as by compliance with formal regulations and dominant norms.

However, I’m not certain that this need is satisfied by the ways in which informality has been embraced in recent years as a source of inspiration for policy-makers and built environment professionals (ranging from the romanticisation of the self-organising principles of the slum through to the rise of ‘crowdsourcing’ in the west, and the adulation of ‘swarm’ or ‘hive’ intelligence). In practice, such thinking typically seems normatively underpinned by a goal of efficiency which necessarily excludes predetermined definitions of right and wrong. There would seem to be only a fine line between taking inspiration from informality on the one hand, and purposefully slumifying our collective future on the other.

 

Aswan, 16 December 2015

 

 

Design after planning

Might it be possible to go beyond the limitations of liberal-modernist policy-making and urban planning if we start thinking of governance at different scales as a process of design?

If you find this sort of question interesting, you may want to consider submitting an abstract for a one-day interdisciplinary conference we’re holding at the University of Westminster on Friday 5 February, 2016.

We have three confirmed keynote speakers – Filip De Boeck (KU Leuven), Nathaniel Tkacz (University of Warwick) and Erik Swyngedouw (University of Manchester), and plan to have three panels on:

  • disaster and risk design
  • designing with emergent urban systems
  • resilience versus sustainability

To find out more, or to sign up for updates, please visit the event website.

We have not yet released tickets for the event, but there will be no charge for attending (or registration fee for speakers).

London, 5 November 2015

UPDATE 5 APRIL 2016:  videos from this event are now online: https://designafterplanning.wordpress.com/videos/

 

Palazzo Ducale di Urbino

Palazzo Ducale di Urbino

Walking round the Ducal Palace in Urbino today, I was trying to think about how grandiose buildings more generally make me feel.

This one was built in the fifteenth century. From the outside: massive, silent walls. On the inside: high ceilings; great hall after great hall; floral embellishments; grand decorated fireplaces; latticed windows; unexplained symbols and coats of arms; sweeping staircases; geometric elegance.

The public face of the Duke's Palace

The public face of the Duke’s Palace

Sometimes, the architecture of power positions you as impotent; sometimes, as vulgar. This building does both. And yet, in being positioned in relation to the building, you are co-opted into its power structure. However aware you may be of the misery and bloodshed on which it was built, you can’t help feeling a grudging respect for its magnificence. It becomes hard to imagine that the building merely legitimates power. Surely, you think, it has a certain beauty, a certain significance, in excess of all that. But does it?

There seems to be little in the external public face of Urbino as a whole that hasn’t been determined from on high. The urban fabric is only coherent and normalising. I have had a marvellous four days here in any case, attending the RC-21 conference The Ideal City: Between Myth and Reality. I took part in a panel about public space – you can read about that, and download my paper, here. And, if you’re interested, I can report that, in terms of my paper, Urbino seems to display an exclusively ‘civic’ modality of publicness.

Piazza della Repubblica

Piazza della Repubblica, Urbino

29 August 2015, Urbino

Dialogues of Sustainable Urbanisation cover

A few months ago, I saw a call for contributors to a ‘book of blogs’. The idea was to create a “collection of short blog posts crowdsourced by, and from, our networks of social scientists working on sustainable urbanisation issues”. The editors – Jenna Condie (University of Western Sydney) and Anna Cooper (University of Salford) – were hoping for at least 50 contributions of up to 1,000 words, with no particular restrictions on content within the overall theme. It seemed like a good initiative, and I was curious. So I signed up, dutifully wrote my bit, and the whole thing has just been published.

In the event, more than 120 people from around the world agreed to take part, and the book has ended up containing around 70 short pieces. There is a varied mix of contributions – mostly I think from early-stage researchers, but also from established academics – grouped together into 11 sections: ‘Definitions of Sustainability’, ‘Urban Governance’, ‘Engaged Citizens’, ‘Urban Divides’, ‘Movement and Mobilities’, ‘China’, ‘Making Places’, ‘Environment’, ‘Low Carbon Futures’, ‘Alternative Economies’, ‘Digital Futures’.  The whole process took seven months from the original call up to publication.

Co-editor Jenna Condie reflects on the experience in the final section of the book: “The ‘traditional’ communication platforms of email and the mail lists of international organisations have realised this book into being. Without those networks, the range of posts would have been narrower and the contributions less varied. Whilst mail lists are great for sharing information, they function less well as dialogical spaces. We need more social online spaces to get to know one another given that we are located across the world, living great distances apart with many interests in common. The web presents a wealth of opportunities for networked researchers to create environments for dialogue, discussion, and research. Still, researchers need to want to get involved in those online discussions by putting their identities ‘out there’, and in turn, reap benefits from doing so.”

Will it succeed in its aim of encouraging dialogue? Blogs seem to work well as half-way houses for writing, without the pressure of peer review: they are public enough to make you put effort into what you write, and the process of writing helps you clarify your thoughts.  I admit that I get lots of ideas from other people’s blogs, but I’m concerned that I pilfer these rather than enter into dialogue with their authors. And, of course, there’s no guarantee that anybody will read or take seriously what’s written in a blog; perhaps they are more useful for the writer than anybody else. Anyway, it will be interesting to see what happens with this.

There’s a link to the pdf here, or you can read it as an e-book from a link here.  A print version should be available soon as well.

8 August 2015, Cornwall

Tomorrow's City Today

If you’re interested in urban sustainability, I’d like to invite you to a conference I’m co-organising.  We have a superb line-up of international speakers (academics, policy-makers and practitioners) as well a report launch to tempt you along.

Date: Friday 12 June 2015

Time: 10:00 am – 4:30 pm

Venue: Fyvie Hall, University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London W1B 2HW

Although sustainability principles are now firmly entrenched in urban policy making around the world, no clear agreement has ever emerged about what precisely the idea means or how it might be put into practice – and we seem to be further than ever away from the goal of building a sustainable future. Some critics argue that its lack of agreed definition leaves it open to abuse and encourages a ‘business as usual’ approach. So might some form of ‘standardisation’ lead to greater accountability and more substantive progress in future?

In fact, the evidence suggests that a process of standardisation may currently be taking place. Recent years seeing a global proliferation of different types of eco-city ‘frameworks’, which serve to define urban sustainability in particular ways. Many of these, crucially, aim to be replicable – and are implemented – in different locations internationally.

But, looking forwards, how might a process of standardisation work? How should these urban sustainability standards be defined and audited (and by who)? What critical questions need to be asked? And should we welcome this trend as a basis for future policy and practice development? Some would argue that any form of standardisation serves to stifle innovation in what should ideally be an open-ended process of real-world experimentation and ongoing critical reflection.

The report, which will be launched in the morning, draws on three years of cross-comparative research conducted by our Leverhulme Trust-funded international research network.

The provisional programme is shown below.  You can download a full version here, and book tickets on Eventbrite here (there’s no charge for attendance).

FINAL PROGRAMME:

Tomorrow's City Today FINAL PROGRAMME (19 May 2015)

3 March 2015, London

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