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Camillo Boano - Giovanna Astolfo n.30/2015 - fig 0


The new urban question.
A conversation on the legacy of Bernardo Secchi with Paola Pellegrini

Camillo Boano, Giovanna Astolfo

Bernardo Secchi portrayed urban transformations in a vivid, lucid and contemporary accurate analysis utilizing theories as productive investigative tools to elucidate society and space rather than mere self-referred intellectual gestures. His death in September marks a great loss for urbanism, as he is one of its distinguished thinkers. Little of his work has been translated into English, so, this would serve as an opportunity to revisit and offer to a wider Anglophone audience his urban research exploring the intellectual production [3], critical pedagogy and practice, with a special focus on the emergence of a 'new urban question', and the formation of a reflexive urban research praxis. The 'new urban question' was addressed in his last book, although it has been undertaken many years ago, and is concerned with the increasing social inequalities and spatial injustice. His urban research praxis, shaped by long term practice and experience, voracious curiosity and acute observation, aimed to dismantle disciplinary boundaries and conventional scales, focusing on a certain idea of precision, accuracy and patience.

We conducted an interview with Paola Pellegrini, urbanist and scholar, and Secchi’s associate for 12 years, and asked him to offer a personal and professional reflection of Secchi’s intellectual legacy. ''The whole history of the city can be written keeping in mind the compatibility or incompatibility of the people [...] Intolerance denies proximity, it separates and creates distance between activities, buildings, public spaces, their inhabitants and users" (B. Secchi [4])

Bernardo Secchi wrote and reflected extensively on the democratization of urban space, the emergence of the ordinary, and, more recently [5], on the still-fundamental issue of 'comment vivre ensemble' (how to live together), a topic you developed in a recent work on proximity [6]. Can you further explain it?

The search for proximity is part of the patient search for the physical and feasible dimensions of individual and collective welfare, which was a major topic in Secchi's work, see his 'La città del XX secolo' [7], and which can be described, with his own words, as an “attempt to give a concrete dimension, physically perceptible to individual collective welfare/wellbeing [8] and to its distribution among the various social groups”[9].

But it also goes beyond this search and refers to the idea that new individual practices and the consequences on the ways of living together - such as individualization and the search for some kind of network very well explained by Richard Sennett, Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman in recent and less recent years - are the basis of new ideas of the city and territory. The search for independent and individual rhythm in the community – Barthes's comment vivre ensemble[10] and idiorrhythms –, the recent appearance of various ‘coexistence’ experiments in many European urban contexts, the revival of the notion of spatial proximity in urban design and planning practice are moments of this reasoning, trying to further articulate Webber's idea of 'urbanity without propinquity'[11]. As an example of this revival, all of the participants to the plan for the great Paris metropolitan area in 2008-2009, in their different proposed models or solutions, claim the city must grow upon itself and densify; a renouvellement of the idea of concentration, density, compact city, direct relations...

A challenging concept, related to the intellectual milieu that influenced Secchi’s research and practice (eg: Bourdieu, Barthes and Foucault) is that of the 'right distance' (between buildings, people, functions), but Secchi left it almost un-explained...

Quoting Tommaso D'Aquino's 'not everything has to be defined', Secchi has deliberately left the concept open to interpretations. Such openness enables to define the 'right distance' case by case, exploring the socio-spatial specificity and its political territories through any urban project. In fact, Secchi used to give great emphasis to the design practice; accordingly, in the Secchi-Viganò Studio's praxis, theories and hypothesis were constantly tested in urban context and viceversa, in a continuous process of feedbacks. The interpretation of Paris as a post-Kyoto 'porous city' can be regarded also as a question for the re-definition of spatial proximity, in which urban interstices operate to densify (for example in pavillonnaire[12]), build functional and social mixité (mix), and increase accessibility to the outer areas (by inserting an extensive network of public transport). Conceptually, the notion of porosity reviews and renews those of compactness and density.

In his late work [13], Secchi reflects again on socio-spatial distance, taking up Bourdieu's notion of distinction [14], multicultural existence and social inequalities as central to what he used to call 'the new urban question'. Can you elaborate on his notion?

A 'new' urban question raises in time of great crisis, with the disruption of the economic, social and institutional apparatuses. Secchi believed that the current global crisis, which he thought to be radical, and as meaningful and important as other crisis in the past, such as the massive urbanization post industrialization, shapes a 'new urban question'. Two other main questions shape it: increasing and increasingly visible spatial injustice; widening environmental problems and climate change vulnerability. Alongside these three issues, in the development of the idea, he further added the question of accessibility and mobility as part of the right to the city/right to citizenship[15]. These questions, particularly problematic within the major metropolitan areas, arose independently and over time became interdependent as suggested in many traditions of urban studies from Lefebvre to Merrifield.

According to Secchi, the crises of capitalist economy, as for example the housing crisis at the beginning of XIX Century, has been overcome by a stronger concentration of power. The same could occur now, with a stronger globalization. What impact will it have on our cities? First, it will probably cause a radical decrease in the public investment aimed at tackling the worsening of social inequalities, and will result in a reduction of public facilities and services (education, health, transport and housing); that is to say a progressive decline of welfare. Secondly, it will probably contribute to an increase of the 'territorial stigma' (etiquettage), quoting Bourdieu and his idea about the segregation of the 'misère du monde' [16]. In fact, even if cities have always been the place where difference is spatialized and therefore dramatically visible, today the phenomenon is even more evident, and the rich and the poor are less mingled than they used to be in the ancien régime city.

Since social inequality is central to the new urban question, the question then is, what is the responsibility of urbanism [17]?

Secchi argued that urbanism cannot impact inequality or poverty directly, but it rather governs those devices that are aimed to produce and reproduce inequality and poverty: spatial, juridical, procedural and institutional devices, widely mentioned in his texts, drawing from Foucault and Deleuze, include zoning, distribution of facilities, construction of qualitative-quantitative parameters, traffic and transport policy, just to mention a few. “What changes down the history of the city is much more the regulatory sense and role of each device rather than the catalogue of devices, and it is through this regulating action that the city becomes a machine for social integration or exclusion as the case may be”[18].

Often we reflected whether our skills and tools are useful and adequate to fight inequalities, marginalization and poverty. Although Secchi did not share the idea that a designer is a social or political activist, he was keen to the idea of devising open and flexible projects that people can appropriate and transform. A project should help people's aspirations and show the kind of space that people can aspire to, as he used to say. Ultimately, the role/potential of urban design/planning is to anticipate possible futures, improving the relation between people and space.

Figure 1 | Studio Secchi-Viganò, Strategisch Ruimtelijk Structuurplan Antwerpen, 2006. Courtesy of Paola Viganò.

Do you think that urbanism can be conceived as a device itself, with Foucault, as a biopolitical dispositif?

That Urbanism is a dispositif in itself is not a novelty. What is more interesting is precisely that it is a set of collated and coordinated devices, linked in some sort of organization or as Foucault’s termed 'apparatuses'. Planning policies and regulations, either holistic or selective, employ spatial devices - such as dimensions, location, separation, connection and housing typologies - that increase or decrease social difference and the distribution of welfare/wellbeing. In the Antwerp strategic plan, some urban devices were introduced for new dwelling and living together, learning from existing practices of individual infiltration and cohabitation, couples with children reused dismissed urban parcel in the historic dense urban center - place of immigrants, abandonment, old people and shops - to create housing solutions alternative to the suburban flee in the porousness that opens up in the multiethnic urban fabric [19].

The fear of the other, the poor and the stranger has often fostered the formulation of specific policies, while the history of the European city can be described as a succession of systems of intolerance, removal of the difference and normalisation efforts. The adoption of devices to prevent permeability and accessibility (such as walls, infrastructural and environmental barriers) in the past, has been replaced today by multiple and complex forms of segregation.

Secchi recalled the different experiences of the 'new urbanism', from the North American gated communities (where 10 to 16 million rich people live) to the South American condominos fechados, barrios cerrados and ciudad vallada, describing them as the 'negation of a city' where “the technical-spatial devices of the city play different functional and symbolic roles […] place suspended from the legal institutional order of the country they belong to, a limitation of its sovereignty [...] where new and specific forms of governance are created ad hoc and accepted in a pact of mutual solidarity with its inhabitants” [20]. So Foucault certainly inspired Secchi's urban visions but not only as analytical tool but as emancipatory possibility in a renewed and attentive urban practice.

Figure 2 | Studio Secchi-Viganò, Grand Pari(s), Paris, France. Consultation of research on the future of great Paris metropolitan area, 2008. Courtesy of Paola Viganò.

The vision for Paris widely reflects on the urban question (proximity, environmental problems and mobility), fostering inclusive, accessible and sustainable production of space, as the slogan you choose which makes it intelligible: 'la ville poreuse'. Can you explain it further?

Secchi used to recall Bourdieu's notion of social and cultural capital [21] and, more recently, Edward Soja's notion of spatial capital, related to the benefits derived from social (network), cultural (education) and spatial assets (housing/work location and mobility options). Secchi's way to address the urban question in the plan for Paris was to create, accumulate or redistribute (social, cultural and) spatial capital/assets, by increasing accessibility, improve mobility and access to environmental resources. In other words, by ensuring porosity and permeability.

The notion of porosity, borrowed from physics but also from literature, i.e. Benjamin, is as well analytical as a design tool, and refers to the percentage of open spaces in relation to built spaces and to the possibility to have different flows (of people, public transport, water, activities, practices, differences and vegetation). Porosity does not only include green areas and agricultural land, or abandoned, vacant and under-used lots; it rather implies the possibility to re-signify non-built areas as a whole, especially the space for mobility. Furthermore, porosity is strongly related to permeability, represented by the single connections between the 'pores'. A porous city is widely accessible thanks to a new structure of public transport (a network described by the metaphor of a sponge) and highly sustainable new biological corridors, as well as, more space for the water network/wet lands.

In one word, a porous city can be said to be 'isotropic', meaning that it can provide an equal distribution of infrastructural and environmental conditions, and therefore urban(ity) opportunities. Secchi's concept of isotropy, that was first employed by another Italian urbanist, Giuseppe Samonà, developed into a willingness to dissolve infrastructural segregation and 'destroy hierarchies'. It has to be remembered, though, that the project for Paris is conceptual and schematic, a tool to test some hypothesis and produce new knowledge, rather than a solution per se.

 “[...]The archive that I propose becomes testimony to this effort: to the attempt, for instance, to overcome the constraints of available resources and techniques, or those regarding relationships of power, of culture, of taste; to build a city in which different individuals and group cultures can represent themselves and find their own space [...]” (B.Secchi [22])     

Figure 3 | Studio Secchi-Viganò, Grand Pari(s), Paris, France. Consultation of research on the future of great Paris metropolitan area, 2008. Courtesy of Paola Viganò.

Recalling Secchi's definition of space as an archive [23], or a palimpsest, with Corboz [24], seems to regard urban space as a static reality, albeit complex, where social and political struggle is deposited or fossilized. Based also on your own experience as urbanist and pedagogist, what was Secchi's notion of space and territory?

Urban space was never imagined or described by Secchi as a static reality. The idea of palimpsest entails that the inhabited territory is the result of a process of selective accumulation, i.e. in the continuous process of transformation some elements are preserved for future generations, while some others are discarded, according to the local values, cultural and economic conditions. Similarly I dare say there was not one notion of space and territory for Secchi, but many, as many as the different realities he explored. It is possible though to recall three moments in which the idea of space has changed: the 'glorious thirty', the thirty years of development after the last world war, when middle class emerged and large peripheries were formed; the rise of individualism and the diffused city after the economic boom in the 1960s; some sort of return to the compact city in more recent years, which many claim is resilient or must be to face the crisis, the climate change, and the decline of welfare state.

 “[…] by urbanism I mean not so much a set of buildings, projects, theories uniformed around the common rules of a theme (urban), a language and discursive organization, much less I mean an academic discipline, but the traces of a large set practices: those of the continuous and conscious change the status of the territory and the city […]”  (B.Secchi [25])

Such notion of urban space, as the product of a multiple, complex and stratified agency, reveals the difficulty of a holistic understanding of current transformations, calling for a continuous reflection around disciplinary boundaries (architecture and urbanism) merging economic, social and geographical dimension. What was Secchi's definition for urbanism?

Secchi was very cautious about the possibility to get a holistic understanding of socio-spatial urban transformations as well as skeptical about any projects with holistic demands. Reality is getting more and more complex and the territory is constantly changing, so being holistic is greatly naive. In such uncertain frame, disciplinary boundaries were considered an obstacle for the real understanding of urban transformations, but also an obstacle for the design itself. Urbanism, according to Secchi, was a mixture of architecture, urban design and city planning, an act of formation/composition (composizione), that was differently conceived according to the specificity: in Antwerp it involved a selection of actions and interventions; in Paris and Brussels a vision about space.

An urbanist should not be a rispecchialista as some Russian artists in the 1920s who claimed that art can only mirror the contemporary social structure. Nevertheless, He/she should not think that the future is an extension of the past and present. An urbanist should rather design the future in order to increase the welfare and wellbeing of inhabitants. Secchi often mentioned the critique that Leonardo Benevolo, an Italian historian of architecture, addressed of the planners' lack of timing and the habit to intervene a posteriori rather than anticipate change; building on this, Benevolo also suggested that an urban intervention can be effective only by addressing its political content.

Facing the increasing difficulty in understanding and engaging with the complexity and multiplicity of phenomena, Secchi tried to elaborate an alternative approach to tackle inhabited urban territories, based on a reflexive and investigative method. Averse to heroic and exogenous plans (so popular in the current climate of urban super expert and archistars), he tried to reveal embedded socio-political processes, privileging accurate analysis, close observation and walking through. Walking in the city – which is not a metaphor, he walked for long periods in the cities he was planning and taught students to keep walking in the territories - means concrete experience, progressive understanding of aspects.

He was later criticized for such a 'weak', almost nihilist approach aimed to recognize intrinsic legitimacy to most urban phenomena, including sprawl. Such a weak, humble approach to urbanism appears to us as an important element to be disclosed to a wider public. Can you further elaborate?

Secchi's approach was neither humble nor weak, but rather elementarista, as resonates in the title of the Ph.D. thesis of Paola Viganò, his partner and associate for almost 25 years, published as 'La città elementare'. It advocates that the de-composition of a city into its elementary components is the starting point of the cognitive process as well as of the design process, which are considered a unity. The reason of this method stems from the recognition of the difficulty of understanding and grasping the contemporary city, which has radically changed – due to social changes and territorial expansions and contractions. Therefore there is a need to use the rilievo, that is to say the accurate survey and mapping of every single element of the urban territory encountered - buildings, roads, trees, fields, materials, signs, uses - their characteristics and relations; the very first lines of the first page of his 'Prima lezione di urbanistica' list these elements. This way, attention was given to ordinary objects, abandoning traditional grammar and syntax of description, in order to start a new understanding of the urban.

Secchi used to say that this method emerged also in reaction to a drift of the 1970s, when the hegemonic role of sociology and economics in city planning resulted in a detachment from physical reality; a renewal of content and methods was therefore necessary. In the 1990s each city plan developed by his equipe (team), the plan for Prato particularly, started with the rilievo of the whole municipality and its representation on boards at the scale of 1:2000. This inventory showed the not sequential, non-hierarchical character of the contemporary city and its often-fragmented random paratactic layout. In design, this method produced taxonomies and matrices and their collage, abandoning generalizing categories for a new urban palimpsest.

In conclusion, albeit being explicitly interested pre-eminently in European urban territories, Secchi visited [26] on several occasions South American megacities like São Paulo and Rio, giving lectures and interviews and participating in conferences, tackling topics of informality, vulnerable areas and urbanization of favelas. From your understanding, did those urban realities intrigue his thinking and influence his projects? In other words, did he find similar urban questions?

I think that the new urban question was greatly influenced by his recent getting to know South American megacities, which he considered to be of great relevance. He tutored some interesting Ph.D. thesis focused on inclusion-exclusion dynamics, the requests of urban space by the consuming middle class, the influence of catholic culture and politics on the realization of contemporary settlements in South American cities.

Also Asian and Russian megacities were very influential in his reasoning. The effort was often to make comparisons between well-known urban realities and new ones; fully aware of the different urban histories and models, he tried to produce generalization efforts to prevent the risk of being captured by the specificity of single situations.

Building on Paola's last reply, it is worth to recall that we increasingly live in a 'world of cities' where “cities are shaped by processes that stretch well beyond their physical extent”, as Robinson puts it [27]. As a result, it is possible to produce those generalisation efforts that Paola mentioned, to radically de-territorialize the urban, to have global conversations on the aspects of contemporary urban life and to formulate 'travelling theories' as Edward Said told us. It does appear tautological that the urban epicentre from which to explore urban theory is no longer located exclusively in the so called Global North, Europe or US, but in a much more fertile arena that results in the 'comparison as learning' [28], a multi-directional learning that might happen across different contexts, overcoming the impasse of the pioneering studies that were only focused on Western cities. "Lagos is not catching up with us. Rather, we may be catching up with Lagos..."[29]. The lesson of Bernardo Secchi can therefore open new research directions towards a new urban question able to stimulate intellectual and practical investigation in cities that “are embedded in multiple elsewheres” [30].


About the authors

Camillo Boano
is senior lecturer at the UCL - University College of London | The Bartlett DPU - Development Planning Unit
Giovanna Astolfo
is a teaching fellow at the UCL - University College of London | The Bartlett DPU - Development Planning Unit


The interview was earlier published on Society and Space on the 16th December 2014

[1] Secchi, B., Viganò, P., (2009) Antwerp, territory of a new modernity, SUN architecture
[2] Grand Pari(s), Paris, France. Consultation of research on the future of great Paris metropolitan area. Client: Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication de la République Française.
[3] (1984) Il racconto urbanistico, Einaudi, Torino; (2000) Prima lezione di urbanistica, Laterza, Roma-Bari; (2005) La città del XX secolo, Laterza, Roma-Bari; (2012) La città dei ricchi e dei poveri, Laterza, Roma-Bari
[4] (2012) La città dei ricchi e dei poveri, Laterza, Roma-Bari, p. 22 (translations by authors)
[5] Secchi, B., (2006), The rich and the poor, comment vivre (ou ne pas vivre) ensemble. In: Viganò, P., Pellegrini, P. (2006) Comment vivre ensemble, Officina (original in English), p.373-382
[6] Pellegrini, P. (2012), Prossimità. Declinazioni di una questione urbana, Mimesis, Udine-Milano
[7] Secchi, B.,(2005) La città del XX secolo, Laterza, Roma-Bari
[8] See also:
[9] Secchi, B., (2006), The rich and the poor, comment vivre (ou ne pas vivre) ensemble. In: Viganò, P., Pellegrini, P. (2006) Comment vivre ensemble, Officina (original in English), p.376
[10] Barthes, R., (2002) Comment vivre ensemble. Cours et seminaires au College de France 1976-77, Seuil Imec, Paris
[11] Webber, M, (1963) Order in Diversity: Community Without Propinquity
[12] Pavillonnaire is the low density settlement in the periphery of mainly single family houses with garden.
[13] Secchi, B., (2012) La città dei ricchi e dei poveri, Laterza, Roma-Bari; Secchi B., (2010) A new urban question. Understanding and planning the contemporary European city. Territorio, 53
[14] Bourdieu, P., (1984  [1979]) Distinction. A social critique of the Judgement of Taste
[15] Secchi, B., (2012) La città dei ricchi e dei poveri, Laterza, Roma-Bari, p. 6
[16] Bourdieu, P., (1993) La misere du monde, Seuil, Paris
[17]Urbanism has strong and specific responsibilities in the worsening of inequalities” Secchi, B., (2012) La città dei ricchi e dei poveri, ibidem (translation by authors)
[18] Secchi, B., (2006), The rich and the poor, comment vivre (ou ne pas vivre) ensemble. In: Viganò, P., Pellegrini, P. (2006) Comment vivre ensemble, Officina (original in English), p.374
[19] Fini, G., Pezzoni N., (2011) Il Piano Strutturale di Anversa. Un nuovo dispositivo di convivenza per la città contemporanea. Intervista a Bernardo Secchi e Paola Viganò, Urbanistica, 148, available at
[20] Secchi, B., (2006), "The rich and the poor, comment vivre (ou ne pas vivre) ensemble". In: Viganò, P., Pellegrini, P. (2006) Comment vivre ensemble, Officina (original in English), p.380
[21] “Rich not only denotes persons, families, groups that have a high income and/or conspicuous assets. The term rich is also used to define persons of a consistent cultural or social capital, with an extensive network of relation amongst the dominant groups of the society, that confer a status and often an income  that is equivalent to or above that of persons with high income capital.” Secchi, B., (2006), The rich and the poor, comment vivre (ou ne pas vivre) ensemble. In: Viganò, P., Pellegrini, P. (2006) Comment vivre ensemble, Officina (original in English), p.373
[22] B.Secchi, original in English
[23] See also:
[24] Corboz, A., (1983) The Land as Palimpsest, Diogenes 31 (121), p.12-34
[25] Translation by the authors
[26] Conference “Cidade informal no Seculo XXI”, 12 April 2010, São Paulo, Museu da Casa Brasileira. Conference "Arquitetura, Cidade, Metrópole - Democratizar Cidades Sustentáveis", 27 February-1 March 2013, IAB (Instituto de Arquitetos do Brasil), Rio de Janeiro
[27] Robinson, J., (2014) "New geographies of theorising the urban. Putting comparison to work for global urban studies", in Parnell, S., Oldfield, S., (2014) The Routledge handbook on cities of the Global South, Routledge
[28] McFarlane, C. (2010). The comparative city: knowledge, learning, urbanism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 34, pp. 725–742
[29] Rem Koolhaas' postulation in the film 'Lagos Wide & Close. An interactive Journey into an Exploding City', Netherlands 2005 Directed by Bregtje Van der Haak (120 min)
[30] Mbembe A., Nuttall, S. (2004), Writing the World from an African Metropolis, in Public Culture, 16(3)

Camillo Boano - Giovanna Astolfo n.30/2015 - fig 1 Camillo Boano - Giovanna Astolfo n.30/2015 - fig 2 Camillo Boano - Giovanna Astolfo n.30/2015 - fig 3