Browsing this web site you accept techinical and statistical cookies. close [ more info ]

Diary of a Planner by Bernardo Secchi | Planum 2002-2013

Diary 05 | Modification

by Bernardo Secchi

 Italian Version

European society, its economy, and political and institutional order are undergoing a phase of profound restructuring. Much of this process regards the city and territory and is manifested in the serious modification of their character, role and meaning, not only of their single parts or materials but of entire regions. As occurs most often, those who daily experience this change, swamped by detail, cannot always grasp its more general sense. But this should not prevent us from offering some hypotheses that might, one day, be falsified but which could also end up being correct and help guide our actions in the short and medium terms. It is my impression and conviction that the city and territory, in all their dimensions, must hold more central positions in European policy; in other words, that the higher rates of overall growth and increases in levels of collective well-being and democracy will, in a not-too-distant future, belong to those European regions and nations best able to face and correctly resolve the issues regarding city and territory. In even other words, city and territory and their modifications are not only the consequences of the restructuring of the economic, social, institutional and political systems but are, in great measure, at their origins. They define, at the very least, the conditions within which this restructuring can take on virtuous or perverse directions. For this reason their destiny cannot totally and only be left to local policy, as occurs in most European countries, but calls for reflection and wider and more specific political orientation.

The main reasons why I proffer these hypotheses are the following:

1. In Europe there are no large megalopolises. The great impressionist metropolises of the nineteenth and the twentieth century are today relatively small if compared to those on other continents. Europe's long urban history has given way, in spite of appearances and in comparison to other parts of the world, to great resistance to hyper-urbanization processes. The traditional urban network, made up, above all, of cities of average and small dimensions, each with its own profound history and perhaps with its own large or small modern outskirts, posed, and does still, significant resistance to the supremacy of the national capital and of the more important cities. Thus, all thought regarding the European city necessarily ends up being broken down into an innumerable series of specific distinctions and considerations that more and more relegate to the background more general and equally important aspects.

2. As banal as it might be, it seems to me that the lifestyles and behavior of the urban population are the real changes that came about in the European city during the last few decades of the twentieth century. This new urban culture is profoundly different from the modern one. And these differences can be summarized as follows:
- a strong preference for the single family house, if possible with garden, corresponding to an equally strong and not-very-generous refusal of the city built during modernity's last era - the first part of the twentieth century; a refusal that appears that much stronger in relation to the clarity of expression of the planning and architecture programs undertaken during that period and demonstrated in the many publicly funded neighborhoods;
- increased and non-systematic mobility make commuter mobility, and more generally, the city's temporality, seem something of a distant past; in the contemporary city, time and space seem to have lost the coherence reached in the modern one; for most of the urban population, the spatial machine no longer organizes or represents time;
- an extended use of the territory with a consequent slackening of all limits, barriers or borders; immense urban sprawl whose own independent geography influences vaster regional territories, intersecting, in different ways, various agricultural landscapes, including small and medium urban centers, encountering and devouring some metropolitan outskirts;
- accentuated flexibility in the labor market subjectively interpreted as a search for instantly increased income through personalized and atypical programs based upon short-term and changing temporal horizons regarding the capacities mobilized;
- the substitution of the terms and rigid procedures of the welfare state with an individualistic and positive welfare that justifies the high levels of income invested in property, the home and durable consumer goods, also accompanied, however, by insistent attention to the "care of oneself" and, in particular, to one's body;
- a pervasive rhetoric of individualism expressed as a search for real and symbolic distinction where progressive distance is taken from the "other," and above all from what appears to have a public and collective dimension.
In many urban enclaves, especially where extra-European immigration has been more significant, these lifestyles cannot have been, and cannot now be, attained. After the progressive attenuation of differences during the period of formation and consolidation of the social state, it is as though European society, especially in the large cities, has been "stretched" both towards the top as well as towards the bottom. The rich have become richer and more distant from the poor who at the same time have become poorer and more numerous. An analogous "stretching" phenomenon has also taken place in terms of the substance of citizenship rights. This has led, and still leads, to cumulative phenomena of physical decay, incivility, violence, insecurity and filtering down of entire neighborhoods in vast parts of the European city. This has also consequently led to the "leakage" and dispersion of the wealthy urban population throughout the territory of urban sprawl, or to its concentration in specific filtering up neighborhoods. Surely the reasons are numerous for this substantial modification, for its inertias, for the time lapses between economic, social, institutional and political restructuring and the city's modification. And they are probably different in the different European regions and situations, just as the period in which the sprawl phenomenon began, peaked and perhaps ended is different in the different regions and situations. Only now, and with great delay, are some studies attempting to examine and compare them.

3. The restructuring of the European city has a great deal to do with the restructuring of power - both political and economic: this restructuring is often described as more extensive local democracy corresponding to greater concentration of power, outside the bounds of political institutions, on national, supra-national and global levels.
Multiplication, starting in the 1960s, of decisional centers, each searching for its own public and visibility - mutually neutralizing one another - on a local level; at the summit, the reduction and integration of an ever stronger power even if less visible. Increasingly structured participation on a local level, and on the other hand, the removal from the debate within the principal democratic institutions of policies that are important for economic and social growth. An attempt to institutionalize conflict on a local level, based upon on breaking it down into many specific and minor conflicts and an increasingly distanced (from the general citizenry) management of the general conditions within which the process of social reproduction takes place.
Obviously these issues do only not regard the city and urban policy, but modifications in the city and territory stimulate their consideration. The emergence, over the last century, of the subject and its autonomy, the emergence of the importance of the everyday dimension and the progressive democratization of society and urban space, have led the citizen to concentrate more attention upon what is close-at-hand and what seems to be effectively modifiable by his/her own action or behavior. At the same time, he/she has also been led to nurture deep suspicion regarding the possibility of contributing to the government of more general phenomena: economic trends, but also important environmental issues or the character of urban and territorial growth within which he/she lives. Those who have observed instances of participation can have no doubts about this. Many issues, whose importance is known to everyone, are judged by the average citizen as being out of his/her control and for this reason are rarely evaluated with an open and critical spirit. In facing them, there is the tendency to adopt radical or rhetorical attitudes, often as terrifying as they are ineffective. The case of extra-European immigration is an obvious example, but many issues facing environmental or agricultural policy are similar.

4. Many local administrations have attempted to transcend this impasse through a policy of renovatio urbis: a series of precise interventions, especially in abandoned or vacant areas, whose task it was to colonize and redefine the role and position of entire parts of the city or of an entire city within broader contexts. Architecture has played an important communicative role in these policies, which, while in the beginning enjoyed a certain success, soon found their limits: the abandoned areas and the capital assets connected to them were, and are still, too immense. Their simultaneous introduction into the marketplace could have destabilizing consequences in many economic sectors. Many projects seem like celibates, reduced like colonial troops to a citadel that is extraneous to its context - extraneous above all to the solution for the immediate problems dear to the average citizen, as well as to the broader ones which stimulate more radical positions. Because of the activities and the functions that they house, more than instruments of integration, these projects become images of the social "stretching" to which I alluded before, where the more favored part of a society, and of an economy, is represented as extraneous to the articulation of the different situations that I spoke of earlier. The voter's lack of approval has, in many cases, rotated the political axis by many degrees. 

5. What European reform probably needs, in terms of these issues, is to abandon some of the false dichotomies and oppositions that frequently recurred in the past: concentration vs. dispersion; project vs. plan; urban planning vs. architecture; design vs. policy, etc and to resume, in more profound ways, a more general and fundamental reflection upon the relationships that these terms might have with the new situation of the European city and territory. This cannot today be based on a single forecast. No single variable in the pertinent and relevant world can guide all the others in a stable way to allow us to predict now what will happen later. No policy can be so powerful as to prevent multiple and alternative outcomes. The consideration must start from a different viewpoint. Much of welfare state policy has held the city as its field of application. In the nineteenth century, the city was the great mechanism for the creation of the industrial worker and, by analogy, of every type of work relationship; just as, in the first decades of the post WWII period - the "glorious thirty years" - the city was the main place within which the social state was constructed. It would not be useless to ask about role played by welfare policy, until the 1970s, in the prodigious increase in hourly productivity through the improvement of human capital and workforce conditions. In an analogous way, it would be interesting to understand: how the progressive decrease in the guarantees offered by the social state, how the decrease, due to flexibility, in specific competencies and motivations of many temporary workers, and how the increase in the unemployment of old and young people, and again how deteriorating environmental conditions in many parts of the European city, are today influencing the productivity of the entire workforce. In recent years, it has probably seriously diminished. And that is why I say that the faster pace of combined economic growth, the increase in levels of collective well-being and democracy, will belong, in a not-too-distant future, to the European regions and nations that have been best able to face, and correctly resolve, the problems of the city and territory.

6. However, the welfare state cannot be reconstructed based on old premises. Above all it can no longer be entrusted to a set of monetary transfers with their complicated procedures to large aggregations of the population. The connotations of work, of settlements, of lifestyles no longer allow thinking about large spatial and social aggregations. If we want to reconstruct something that has the same consequences first in terms of the global productivity of available resources and work and then of income and well-being, it is necessary to think again in real rather than monetary terms, in physical rather than virtual terms, in terms of concrete plans and of budgetary positions. And this not easily compatible with the behavior models of bureaucracies which are held to act on the basis of transparent and valid criteria erga omnes or almost. In recent years, excessive attention has been concentrated on the book-keeping aspects of most policy. The main and exclusive goal of every administration has become the reorganization of its budget, as if this -albeit - important action could not be carried out while simultaneously paying attention to real social, economic and urban dynamics. In recent years, plan and project have become vague, rhetorical and covering terms - labels of a particular literary genre rather than concrete technical activities. A generalized inability follows, with very few exceptions, to face both the issues that are close at hand, as well as those that are more general and long-term. The project for the city and the territory - conceived once again (even if in different ways from the past) as comprehensive, as precise in its conceptual lines as much as in its details, open and available to partial or total revocations, in continuous oscillation between issues proposed by the policy of proximity and the articulation dictated by different long-term scenarios and situations - perhaps today becomes the only possibility for the construction of new reformist policy that guarantees higher rates of combined economic growth together with an increase in levels of collective well-being and of democracy.