Good Urbanism and Inadequacy

Run a google search for the term “good urbanism” and you run into a bevy of blog posts, articles, and even books all proclaiming to know the secret to making good places through adhering to the principles of “good urbanism”. Invariably, the recommendations touted are almost all design-based or centered on modifying the urban form. The interventions offered usually focus on making cities “human scale”, encouraging multiple modes of transit etc...what’s wrong with this? It misses an essential facet of cities; they are the physical representations of social relations. Buildings, blocks, transportation systems represent the political, economic, and social relations of the time of their construction. Nothing about that statement is novel or particularly deep but it seems that many mainstream “urbanists” seem to elide over or entirely forget that cities are not solely objects but a set or array of social relations.

Roy 2011 has a piece where she says that the central role for planning theorists is to take seriously the question of the production of urban space-- or urbanism. She then goes on to introduce the four processes that make up urbanism, at least in the studies she is introducing. The first process she identifies is the role that capitalism and the flow of capital plays in the production of space and how capitalist market relations play upon issues of neoliberal style urban development and governance and post-colonialism. The second focuses on the struggle over urban space. Succinctly, highlighting the multiple contradictions and conflicts that play out everyday as different people go about living and creating urban space. The third aspect is that of urbanism as a “constituted object” that is produced through planning-- i.e. the built environment and how this built environment embodies, bolsters, or conflicts with the other processes. Lastly, she observes that urbanism is a global process that is manifested through the uneven flows of global capital, migration, and massive urban growth in the Global South. That calls for recognizing these new, incredibly large and increasingly powerful cities that exist in entirely different historical, economic, and political contexts than Western cities requiring a new theorization of cities founded upon a serious study of urbanism-- or the production of urban space.

I find these four aspects of urbanism to be incredibly enlightening. Specifically, Roy points to the physical ordering buildings through planning as one of at least four aspects of urbanism. More importantly, she instructs us to examine the many relations that they embody within space. Planning here speaks directly to the three processes, but it does not dominate. This is something that many mainstream urban commentators seem to forget or do not adequately explore. To say that a certain kind of development embodies “good urbanism” versus “bad urbanism”, often framed as idealized dense central city living vs a more sprawled suburban design or lifestyle, is an absurd statement. The central city and the suburb both embody a set of social relations that dictate how that area came to be developed and how people currently live within it and create their own spaces. There’s nothing a priori better about the social relations in a central city than one found in the suburbs. Both areas can be sites of oppression, exploitation, sinks or sources of capital or, conversely, sites of liberation, fulfillment conflict etc...

We can critique certain building patterns as being inefficient in terms of budgetary restraints, ecological impact, concentrating poverty etc but those are all results of a particular set of social and political relations that stand semi-independently of the built environment. The essential point is that a particular configuration of buildings is neither “good” nor “bad” in absence of a serious examination of the social relations responsible for the construction of those buildings and the greater social processes that continue to shape the greater community in which those buildings exist. In other words, urbanism is not about an object, but about a set of overlapping, constitutive processes that produce a wide range of physical forms. The physical form is largely a reflection of these greater processes and forces.

Insisting on ascribing a particular physical configuration with the moniker of “good urbanism” or, even worse, labeling individuals and institutions as good or bad urbanists based primarily on their physical design decisions obscures and depoliticizes the processes of the production of urban space, rendering critique to now-repetitive laments over building decisions. Commentators are more concerned over developers and corporations being good neighbors than giving a more full review of not just office placement and design, but in trying to situate the process in a fuller context of urban redevelopment and planning, regional and global economic change, and eternal conflicts over the claims to certain spaces.

To this end, it is absurd some of the more recent laments we have seen over the role of tech companies as “good” urbanists as demonstrated by how they re-shape neighborhoods. Such a label would assume that these companies are engaging in actions that are out of the ordinary or contrary to the goals of, at minimum, city and regional planners and policymakers. But a cursory reflection over how our cities, in the US at least, have grown not just in this past decade but over the past century, shows us the folly behind such assumptions. Urban development largely follows the dictates of social and economic elites, is based around uneven development, and exclusion. In a country with stubborn racial segregation, increasing economic segregation, and increased income and social inequality that is, in turn, reinforced by our city and regional governments uncritical embrace of economic growth as the only viable solution, why are we surprised that for-profit corporations act like for-profit corporations? And, more important for folks who proclaim to study and love cities, how are you so unfamiliar with the pattern of urban development, in the first place?

Let us stop the limited, and unproductive framing of “urbanism” as an object to be judged based principally on design and let us, in the spirit of Ananya Roy, see urbanism as the confluence of multiple processes in the production of urban space. This can move us beyond facile laments over twitter’s seeming lack of community engagement and show us how absurd it is to expect values not rooted in profit and accumulation to be expressed by profit seeking tech firms.

Photo Credit: "Good" Urbanism/shutterstock