Chicago 2010, by Eric Fischer (based on Census data).


Entrance to mosque in North Finchley, London

In his recently published book, Mark Purcell (2013) takes inspiration from Henri Lefebvre’s (2003) idea of the ‘urban society’, whose qualities he summarises as those of ‘encounter’, ‘cooperation’ and ‘self-realization’ – qualities which may one day “become pervasive, to be generalized throughout urban space” and “develop to the point where they occlude and even stifle the features of the capitalist city (segregation, competition, consumption)” (Purcell, 2013:83).

In short, then, Purcell sets up three binary oppositions (reordered below), each contrasting an urban vice with an urban virtue:

  • consumption vs. self-realisation;
  • competition vs. cooperation;
  • segregation vs. encounter.

I don’t want to engage with Purcell’s wider argument here; I am consciously detaching this normative framework from it. Having done so, however, I am troubled by the framework, for two reasons. First, in that these oppositions seem more rhetorical than inevitable: the latter term in each case has unquestionable appeal; the former has negative connotations. Second, because I am concerned that many visions of urban sustainability apparently fail to conceptualise satisfactorily the quality of ‘cityness’ – and the framework above chimes with the conceptual underpinning of many such visions. In fact, it strikes me that the three oppositions could be interestingly mapped onto the ‘three pillars’ of sustainability which have guided related thinking since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit: the environmental, the economic, and the social. Of these, the social has remained the least well understood, both in theory and practice, and interests me most – and is therefore the one I would like to focus on here, with reference to the ideas of segregation and encounter.

One aspect of the ‘unsustainability’ of many contemporary cities, it is often suggested, is their tendency towards increasing social separation. This separation is spatialised and often reinforced through such tendencies as the growth of ‘gated communities’, and the privatisation, regulation and securitisation of space which might otherwise be a common public good. In the envisioned sustainable city, conversely, all citizens will have equal access to all services and amenities; public spaces will unite the citizenry; the isolation of the private motor car will be rejected in favour of public transport, walking and cycling; and housing types and land uses will be mixed rather than mono-zoned. Necessarily, then, citizens will continually encounter the ‘other’ in their midst. The arguments in favour of such encounters are well rehearsed, and point to positive benefits for social cohesion and the quality of democracy. John Stuart Mill, in 1848, deemed it “hardly possible to overrate the value…of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar…Such communication has always been…one of the primary sources of progress” (Mill, 2004:174). More recently, John Parkinson (2012:67) argues that physical spaces “in which one can encounter the demos in all its variety have an important democratic function – they help us see and recognize others and make us more willing to take their right to make claims on us seriously when we encounter them in political debate”.  On their own terms, such arguments are difficult to disagree with.

And yet… perhaps a degree of segregation – if you will allow me to set aside the negative connotations of the term for a moment – is not necessarily in conflict with a goal of sustainable urbanity. ‘Segregation’ implies enforced physical separation, evoking phenomena such as ghettos and apartheid.  But where exactly should we draw a line between enforced separation and the more general existence of difference in society? To some extent, spatial segregation simply reflects difference. Difference should be understood as itself endlessly multiple. We differ from our fellow humans on any number of dimensions: economic, demographic, cultural, attitudinal, by gender, by personality type, etc etc. This differentiation is dynamic, unpredictable and an inevitable part of human society. Social and spatial exclusions which reflect our differences may be unwelcome to us, but may equally represent active choices that we make. In reviewing the literature on urban segregation and partitioning, Emily Talen (2006:235) quotes Suttles’ (1972) contention that “social homogeneity can strengthen social support networks, help protect against discrimination, and help to preserve cultural heritage”. Subaltern groups may benefit from creating their own segregated discursive spheres (Fraser, 1990; Sunstein, 2002) which are realised spatially (Parkinson, 2012). Segregated spaces may therefore be spaces of dissent – for better or worse. To ignore the possibility of dissent is to deny the political. And to deny the political is the hallmark of utopianism (Stavrakakis, 2007).

The default understanding of ‘encounter’ as necessarily positive has also been questioned. Susan Fainstein (2005) accepts the argument that “exposure to “the other” evokes greater understanding”, but qualifies this with the observation that “if lifestyles are too incompatible, it only heightens prejudice…it can, in fact, produce mutual loathing” (13). She suggests that the goal of ‘diversity’ is often too easily elided with, and replaces, that of equity, and that valorising diversity may therefore work to obscure the ongoing significance of “economic structure and the relations of production” in shaping social inequalities. She also takes issue with writers who display an unquestioning “nostalgia for a golden age when cities did nurture greater interaction” (11). She quotes Lofland (1998:238-9), who says of the preindustrial city that “given the clear, visual signalling of identities and a rigidly controlled system of hierarchy, diverse individuals and groups, despite sharing the same space at the same time, not only did not intersect socially, they often did not – in any meaningful sense – ‘see’ one another”. Similar observations have been made by Butler and Robson (2001:2157) with regard to contemporary Brixton (South London), where “relations between different social and ethnic groups … tend to be of a parallel rather than integrative nature”, despite the middle classes’ embrace of “multiculturalism as an ideal of city living”.

It seems to me inevitable that clusters of similarity will occur, socially and spatially, in an urban settlement – tied up with power relations though these may be. Our cities will never be socially and spatially ‘flat’ in this sense, with all imaginable personal attributes distributed in a perfectly random fashion. In fact, much of the interest of living in or visiting a big city derives from the way that individual locations are differentiated by the relative presence of different clusters of similarity. This is not merely an aesthetic consideration; it is a fundamental aspect of the nature of ‘place’. It is unappealing (and perhaps impossible) to imagine a city where all spatialised differences have been removed.

So what am I arguing for here then? Certainly not for enforced or regulated segregation, visited by the powerful upon the weak. Nor for the abandonment of the ideal of an inclusive public sphere, or of the spaces in which this sphere might ‘take place’. Rather, that we should embrace the idea that difference, friction and conflict are constitutive of cityness, rather than simply problems to be overcome. This seems to me to be an important part of the sustainability jigsaw that is currently missing. What I don’t know – and what nobody else seems to have proposed – is how we might go about planning for it.

29 May 2013, Portland, Oregon, USA


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Fainstein, S. (2005). Cities and Diversity: Should We Want It? Can We Plan For It? Urban Affairs Review, 41 (1):3–19.

Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy. Social Text, 25/26:56–80.

Lefebvre, H. (2003) [1970]. The Urban Revolution. London: University of Minnesota Press.

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Parkinson, J. (2012). Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Purcell, M. (2013). The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Stavrakakis, Y. (2007). Antinomies of Space: From the Representation of Space to a Topology of the Political. In: BAVO ed. Urban Politics Now: Reimagining Democracy in the Neoliberal City. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers:142–161.

Sunstein, C. (2002). The Law of Group Polarization. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 10 (2):175–195.

Suttles, G. (1972). The social construction of communities. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Talen, E. (2006). Design That Enables Diversity: The Complications of a Planning Ideal. Journal of Planning Literature, 20 (3):233–249.