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Un mondo di città - Review - Postmodern urban studies, I presume?

On Giorgio Piccinato's, Un mondo di città, Comunità, Torino, 2002

by Marco Cremaschi

This short note does not try to summarise a book, which is not devoted to the impossible task of deconstructing the city in the five continents. Even more, it does not review a book, which does not fit the academic moods, and charges the scientific culture with a substantial inadequacy in dealing with the present state of the city.
Seemingly, this book is mainly a description, and denies a strong interpretative structure: it may even appear vague at a superficial glance, and deprived of sound conclusions, a criticism subtly anticipated by the author in the preface.

An old conjecture and a gloomy outlook
I will tackle the book the other way around. A strong hypothesis underlies the weightless narrative of the book (in a way similar to Hobsbawm's last book), a concealed framework that I shall briefly sum up in four "pillars";
a) the idea of the (contemporary) city was born in Europe during the process of modernisation (though the book carefully depicts the multiple birthplaces and biographies of cities across the word);
b) the city is made up of solid social bricks (such as proximity and density), and shares with modernity the melting-pot effect; the main outcome of this social mechanism is that social barriers and rank or status "melt into air";
c) the height of globalisation coincides with the extension of the urban field, yet segregation and inequality prevail contrariwise to the modern project;
d) urban planning, born in 1848 as the technique of egalitarian politics, ends up in its opposite, and even its better achievements epitomise the social polarisation of the global cities.
This framework implies in turn a number of beliefs: the globalisation process has mostly deleterious effects (such as an increase in inequality); late modernity does not imply more democracy; the Asian cities epitomise the parallel between urban growth and despotism). Moreover it implies a correspondence between public space (the spaces and streets of the European city) and the public sphere (the public opinion of the European Enlightenment).
It is needless to recall that conjecture of this kind has been developed by eminent scholars, such as Pirenne, Weber and Habermas. To put it very shortly, solidarity and social identity -either provided by exchange, hierarchy or communication- are supported by social processes nurtured by proximity and concentration. More precisely, the physical infrastructure of cities have been - not by chance- the magnet and repository of bourgeois rationality.

I will not discuss here the validity of the conjecture, and whether this might apply to cities across the world. What is at the stake here is whether such conjecture has been influential on the elaboration of planning, and of other social techniques in the last two centuries.
Instead I suggest discussing three features of the book which are at the core of urban research:
a) First, the thesis that city has regressed in the last two centuries. The European city (object of a forthcoming companion book by Secchi) is contrasted with the rest of the world: this opposition is posited as the starting point of the book, and as the explication of the failure of planning.
b) Second, the methodology of taking "just" a look at the subject. This is a conceptual turn; the planner's "gaze" is the only tool retrieved by Piccinato (whose Department is called Urban Studies, a rather unusual name in the Italian academy) from the whole history of modern planning. The art of visual 'probing' (à la Lindblom) seems to be a crucial part of the research watermarked in the book.
c) Last, the prospective agenda of the contemporary city: I will break the 'law of gravity' - pushing a review exercise where it is not meant to go- and tentatively excavate a few hints from the case-studies.
Such inspection matches with the three-tier structure of the book: a) the regression concept is expounded in the introductory chapters , which deal with the worsening of cities caused by the globalisation process, the increasing poverty, and the rapid rate of grow (mainly in Asian cities); b) the 'probing' gaze corresponds to the chapters dealing with the uses of history and the history of urban form; c) and finally, the reconstruction of the prospective agenda derives from the six case studies (two cities from both Americas, and two from Asia).

Inequality and the European city
A first general remark on the book concerns the question whether such an interpretation -linking democracy and the city in Europe- may be generalised effectively in the rest of the word. A vague influence is out of question. In this paradigm, however, the expansion of the democratisation process and the shrinking of the public sphere mean that a critical point has been reached. Contemporary societies show the pejorative effects of late modernity: the outcomes of the process of individualisation have undermined social ties and ultimately social integration.
Social research has brought to light a few unexpected consequences. Pre-modern identities (tribe, religion and nation) have sometimes revived; public action is often weak and ineffective; collective identities are vaguely defined at the crossroads of a new urban phenomenology (where proximity and concentration are lost).
On the other hand, cities seem no longer to support the expansion of the public sphere, which justified the progressive idea of planning that we had become accustomed to.
This is of course a complex issue, and a few remarks may be kept in mind.
Whether welfare democracy might have coincided with the shape of the (European) city is an historical accident. On the other hand, it may be objected that cities such as those described by Pepys, Engels, and Pasolini were not precisely an enlightened melting pot. Besides, globalisation may deserve a less critical assessment.
However, evidence about the consequence of globalisation and the growth of inequality is still being questioned.
Finally, this explanation links spatial forms and social processes. Yet, it may be objected that democracy does not necessarily imply concentration; and, vice versa, sprawl may not necessarily lead to political apathy.

Gaze and imaginary
However, the book is less interested in debating this hypothesis than enlarging the provincial views of the urban realm we perceive from the European corner of the world. What is crucial to Madrid and Budapest may be seen differently in the cruel light of the slums of Caracas, or from the precincts of S. Paulo do Brazil. Such a reading of the narrative of cities is the soundest part of the book, and is quite different from the standard European historicism. City history and urban structure are depicted through a narrative of spatial form, with a bit more of postmodern taste.
Thus, the link between public space and public opinion is inspected in a (less) structural way, i.e. with an idea of a flexible structure, one that is close to the manifold world of social practices (as suggested by the chapter on the reworking of circulation networks and connective space in Tokyo). Movement and gathering are than viewed as contributors to the production of collective identities: spatial phenomena, which affect -sometimes indirectly- social facts. The urbanist's gaze possibly helps -which may be the conclusion- to identify how form and identities merge and combine.
Such a merging actually defies the technical capacity to design the city. "We are now more able to read the city than we were when trying to frame it in a rational order. Yet, we do not claim to design it anymore"(p. 82). The city is losing boundaries, forms and meaning; features that modernism enthusiastically subdued to the celebration of the anonymous energy of industrial civilisation. The other way around, the city resumes natural vitality and autonomy corresponding to -and ideologically representing- the menial act of mass consumption. What modernism tried to evict post-modern cities re-enact: new rituals develop identity systems for consumption niches.
The late history of the city of Singapore teaches us that geographical and economic ties may be reworked in a dynamic spatial policy. Waterfront, satellite cities, gated communities are new recipes often taken up in such aggressive policies. Such emerging spatial 'concepts' are backed by élites able to frame an agreed urban agenda. However, they do not mean to integrate, rather they blend segregation and inequality.
The game of 'gaze' make it possible to probe the circular making of rationalities, urban realm, and policy agenda: in short, the 'imagery' of the city. Gaze and imagery -one may conclude- are the core of the a research programme bridging narrativity and the making of spatial concepts, ultimately influencing the policies of the city.

Towards an Urban Agenda
Finally, the book offers a few selected operative hints. Usually, urban studies are fascinated by the aleatory fabric of city strategies: from this point of view, links between political attitudes, development scenarios, and spatial concepts appear precarious. Piccinato stresses, on the contrary, the links between events. Toronto, for instance, emphasises the balance between caring for localities and framing urban policies around sound 'spatial concepts' such as centres, corridors, re-urbanisation, etc. Singapore and Hong-Kong exemplify the case of a successful comprehensive planning, integrating private initiatives in a strong top-down model. New York suggests how to merge energizing and restrictive rules. Further suggestions concern consultation, administrative continuity, mobility... Hints for a global territorial agenda elaborating upon a new vocabulary for the 21° Century urbanism.
In conclusion, inequality is on the increase, and the modern project is impossible. On the other hand, nothing but the state can curb market inequalities. Methodologically post-modern, Piccinato ties up to modern values. Such a mix between methods and values come to the surface when he tackles the urban identity. The book seems to conclude that identity is a vulnerable yet powerful outcome: change, reconstruction, counterfeit, globalisation, even the unlikely doctrine of the high-priests of authenticity (those that want to build an impossible "authentic" old).
Tourism is the social practice that models places, more than cultural criticism. Tourism is also a good example of the decentralisation of post-modern place-making. It is unquestionably part of the contemporary word, such as the change explored by Meyerowitz in "No sense of place": the disappearing sociality of streets, or the moulding of political leadership by the mass media. Modernity is unable to face such changes.
Identity and place are objects of a research programme, one that Piccinato seems to be pursuing and that will focus on the actors and their practices. Such a prospective research would allow a deeper understanding of the local "uses" of cities; and the mix -in the hardly encouraging postmodern configuration of powers - of innovative practices, a resistance life-style, and experiments in empowerment.

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