For a liveable city

Alberto García

The dictionary says it clearly: a city is “an ensemble of buildings and streets, governed by a town hall, whose dense and numerous population is generally dedicated to non-agricultural activities.” Spain’s Royal Academy of Language  thus attempts to synthesize what is a large space with a great number of people and synergies that are far removed from the scientific method. When it comes to human beings, two plus two is not always four. There are different ways of calculating the total and of reaching a result, but all these possible variations transform mathematical logic.

In this sense, the writer and urban theorist Jane Jacobs said that “when we deal with cities, we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense. Because this is so, there is a basic aesthetic limitation on what can be done with cities: a city cannot be a work of art.” She was referring –in 1961– to two important factors when seeking to organise something like that: the urge to do something ‘pretty’ without considering its function, and the urge to make something functional without knowing the customs or idiosyncrasy of the place.

We see this quite clearly in recent years: megalomaniacal constructions that have no use, architecture that is hostile to people, protests in favour of or against cars, etc. The republishing of The Right to the City, by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, demonstrates the need to consider a positive urban space, where human beings get along together and have a dialogue with the buildings, one that favours the integration of work and leisure. In short, a liveable city.

Everything from creating pedestrian areas in the city centre to promoting more life in the different neighbourhoods. Building a city is not just erecting buildings  without rhyme or reason or placing hospitals depending on the number of inhabitants; it also means thinking about what will be best for overall social progress. According to Lefebvre, everything began with the Industrial Revolution, in the 18th century. It was then that the term ‘urban fabric’ was born: a centre for leisure and a periphery dedicated to production, to greatly summarize his theories. To get to the point: what counts is nourishing a healthy ecosystem. And that –exclusive of the political or religious ideas of Lefebvre– means resolving the battle between a services area, an industrial area and a living area.

It implies, in short, finding a balanced mix of all the factors so that it will be something sustainable. If not, the result is what we’ve in so many current examples of imbalance: coastal ghost towns that only fill up in summer; cities like Detroit where unemployment is rampant; futuristic spaces like Dubai, which segregate people into avant-garde buildings and precarious suburbs. And it’s hard to think about anything in the medium term, in light of the way the world is moving so fast: things that were unthinkable just a few days ago are now common (as if going to work were just a question of reserving by cell phone a means of transport, or eating dinner depended on a delivery man on two wheels).

“Most of our projections of the city of the future revolve around some technological innovations that never cease to amaze and unsettle us. Nevertheless, most of the urban conflicts of the next 25 years won’t depend as much on these inventions as on the relationships of social forces among the groups that use them,” writes sociologist Daniel Sorando in a recent article. “In a setting of increasing robotization, the threat is that the benefits of technological innovation will not be equally distributed, but instead be privatized by some increasingly exclusive elites that hoard the planet’s natural and social resources. In a context of exhausted natural resources and a growing population that needs care, these elites can only maintain their standard of living through aggressive dynamics of expulsion,” he says.

In a period marked by air pollution and a lack of resources, it is essential to and put an end to that movement from the centre to the periphery (and vice versa) to work or live. And also to ensure social cohesion. “Faced with the individualisation caused by the mercantilization of life, whose clearest expression are the gated communities where the winners live, there must be a social alliance between the other urban groups,” writes the American activist Nancy Fraser.

It’s not enough to promote a routine that connects work, leisure and personal relations. Or move toward more ecological transportation or benches without spikes or parks without fountains. That “ensemble of buildings and streets” we mentioned at the start needs to be continually reviewed.  As Lefebvre puts it: “Theoretical reflection must redefine the forms, functions and structures of the city (economic, political, cultural, etc.) as well as the social needs inherent in urban society.” That right to a liveable city is also a right to “urban life” that will favour a just society and that produces energy for coming together and creating. Without what some people call “urbanising hypertrophy” and with useful public services. A city that thinks about its people rather than mathematical formulas.

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