Our global urban bungles

Cities for a Small Planet
January 9, 1998

When asked what they think about cities, many people are more likely to talk about buildings and cars than streets and squares. Richard Rogers starts his journey through urban pollution, alienation and social division from this premise. It is a sad assumption, revealing how cities are mechanically associated with unpleasant noise, lack of space, fumes and segregation. In this association, the concepts "city" and "quality of life" are incompatible. In brief, the cities to which most of us are accustomed are "single-minded" spaces, where single functions are performed by residential suburbs, housing estates, business districts, car parks and shopping malls. The busy square and the lively street, the market, the park and the pavement cafe are instead "open-minded". As Rogers explains: "When we are in the first type of space we are generally in a hurry, but in the 'open-minded' places we are readier to meet people's gaze and to participate."

True, we do need both types of spaces, the former to cater for our private consumption and autonomy, the latter to fulfil our need for sociability and inclusion. However, the evolution of cities has mainly followed the patterns of private consumption, to the point that the very process of designing cities rules out the idea of inclusion. The emphasis is therefore on separation rather than contact. "In the new kinds of urban development, the activities that traditionally overlapped are organised for the purpose of maximising profit for developers or retailers."

Cities were originally built to celebrate what we have in common, whereas now they are built in order to keep us apart. Rogers describes the features of such separation in the cities of the developed as well as the developing world. In both worlds, whether epitomised by shanty towns or inner-city ghettos, the marks of separation are staggering. In militarised cities like Los Angeles such marks are the expression of fear, and private armies are in a sense a living warning that poverty will not be allowed to sprawl contagiously into the wealthy protected enclaves. In Houston an entire network of underground streets has been excavated beneath the business district. Financial institutions and oil companies are among the private owners of such a protected maze, which is riddled with classy shops. Access to the underground streets is selective: "The car-choked streets are left to the poor and unemployed, while the wealthy workers shop and do business in air-conditioned comfort and security."

Rogers's book is by no means a dystopian account of contemporary cities nor a catastrophic foresight of their future evolution. In a number of suggestions organised in the guise of a manifesto for action, the author identifies the features of sustainable planning and calls for the involvement of citizens in decision-making at all levels, with the aim of "finding more socially cohesive, economically efficient and ecologically sound ways of producing and distributing existing resources."

Perhaps Rogers is unaware of how this book is a potential classic, which may claim its own space in urban literature. I am using the word classic to allude to the Weberian tone of Rogers's argument, to its mixture of uncompromising realism and exalting utopianism. In Weber's "consumer city" a majority of labourers engaged in servile occupations makes life comfortable for a minority engaged in spending money. In his "producer city", where the increase in population and purchasing power is due to the presence of factories and manufacturing industries, the distribution of wealth is equally skewed, and profits flow to localities other than the place of earning.

Rogers's cities are reminiscent of the unaccomplished, conflictual cities studied by classic authors. They are human aggregates in which the awareness of the tensions inhabiting them does not hamper but encourage the will to change them. While waiting to admire the Millennium Dome Rogers is designing in London, which may or may not be an architectural classic, let us enjoy the sociological classicism of this remarkable little book.

Vincenzo Ruggiero is professor of sociology, Middlesex University.

Cities for a Small Planet

Author - Richard Rogers
ISBN - 0 571 17993 2
Publisher - Faber
Price - £9.99
Pages - 180

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