Cities are man’s natural habitat. Humans created the city to make the environment they inhabit better and more suitable to their needs. They did this because by nature they care about their surroundings. They are city amateurs: lovers and makers of urban nature. But is the nature of urbanity today still true and close to the heart’s desire of most of the contemporary urban dwellers? Is the urban development now based on this cherished desire of creating a better environment or have we left this love behind and focused on something else instead? We think urban ecosystems need to be restored. Cities must be open to amateur experimentation.
In the last century cities have grown enormously in size and complexity, making both the relations between urban actors and their relationships with a broader global context so intricate, that we started to compare cities to their natural counterparts. And we employ the same methods to study the complexities of cities as those of natural systems. Whether it is about natural or man-made structures, biological theorists who study the origins of life and logics of self-organisation, like Stewart Kaufmann, argue that life evolves towards a regime that is poised between order and chaos. The processes that govern city development are likely based on the same logic that also drives cell development or organisation of ecosystems. Hence the rise of the term ‘urban ecology’ and the use of self-organisation and complexity theories in urban studies. That actually prompts us to ask the question: why on earth do we try to plan and control our cities so much? Have urban planners become thoughtless servants of the alpha-males dictating the relationships in the urban ecosystem?
“The city is man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city, man has remade himself” – Robert Park
People keep flocking into cities in search for a more suitable habitat, but that does not mean everyone is being granted the right to influence the space he inhabits and shape it according to their needs. If we continue the logic of understanding cities as men’s natural habitat we should also think of them as representations of who we want to be, how we seek to form relationships with others as well as with both the natural and the man-made environment. In short, cities are the spatial representations of the values we care for. If so, then we might say after Harvey that: the right to the city is more than just a right of an individual access to the resources that the city can offer, it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. We might also say that it is making it more collective, open and less centrally controlled, in other words: more natural.
Soaring development of commercial real estate disregards both the local context and the inhabitants instead focusing on maximising profit with grand, fast and cheap plans to accommodate millions. Effectively urban planning, by responding solely to the market demands, becomes the practice of establishing an order that renders millions of urban dwellers redundant. According to Zygmunt Baumann this seems inevitable, as modernity’s foundational incentives – order-building and economic progress – are condemned to continue producing redundancy. Both order-building and economic progress are inherently linked with urbanisation. Currently it is rather the private corporate interests that lay down the values that shape the contemporary city than those who were driven to live there with the actual need and hope for a better environment. This tension is very well demonstrated with the strong socio-economical polarisation especially visible in the rapidly growing cities of the developing countries. Whether that is the way to progress contemporary city development is not even a valid question.
But (and that is an optimistic one) the large-scale privatisation of urban planning in contemporary urbanisation seems to be more and more strongly counterbalanced by the (re)emergence of community based local engagement. Traditionally, communities have proven to be ingeniously able to adapt to changing conditions and to create sustainable responses to specific problems. Social and mobile media, which have become widely available, enable their users to map problems, propose solutions or express desires about their neighbourhoods, and empower them to come together and realise their needs. It is a positive trend, but the rapidly growing DIY culture, stimulated by the access to online media and information resources, still needs to be provided with a better habitat in order to thrive and improve the urban living for the plenty. If we are to restore our urban ecosystems and make our cities more ours, we need to make them more open to amateur experimentation. What is needed to achieve that is a better understanding of the processes taking place and the political will to change them, better assessment of needs, creation of tools and nurturing exchange between experts and amateurs.
Now that cities are home to most of us, it is the time to claim our right to collectively shape them. If we do not embrace this underlying call of nature, we will probably see how gradually our cities become dominated by interests that not only do not serve us, but also prioritise those qualities that bring us further away from what we intended to do – create improved environments – the better nature, for better living.
– Harvey, David, Rebel Cities – From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, Verso Books, 2012
– Baumann, Zygmunt, The Ambience of Uncertainty, Interview by ResetDoc, online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPRV8fTn3WQ#t=623
– Kaufmann, Stewart, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, Oxford University Press, 1995
Picture above: Lavasa, private city in Pune, India. An example of the many private new cities in India and beyond. Lavasa is located on the western part of the country between Mumbai and Pune. It is owned and managed by Lavasa Corporation Limited (LCL), a private enterprise, which fully controls nearly all aspects of the life of the residents. It collects taxes, determines the use and design of land, changes the governing body, evicts undesirable residents, it can unilaterally change the rules and restrict the rights of residents to object to these processes. (Photo: Part of Dasve Town by Cryongen, CC-BY-SA 3.0 )
Ania Molenda Researcher and curator
Ania Molenda is a Rotterdam-based independent researcher and curator. Her work to date has spanned academia, an experimental think-tank (The Why Factory, TU Delft, Faculty of Architecture) and the architectural practice (MVRDV, Powerhouse Company, SVESMI). She is interested in cross-fertilisation between spatial practices with other disciplines and the role openness and communication play in spatial, cultural and technological realms. Together with Cristina Ampatzidou she runs Amateur Cities, an online platform about emerging urban processes and a yearly magazine.
Cristina Ampatzidou Researcher
Cristina Ampatzidou is an independent researcher based in Rotterdam. She is an experienced researcher and writer, currently affiliated with UvA and a regular contributor to Uncube and Bettery magazines. Among others, she has collaborated with Play the City! foundation and the AFFR. Her work investigates the affordances of new media for ‘city making’ and the changing roles of professional designers, policy makers and citizens in that process. Together with Ania Molenda she runs Amateur Cities, an online platform about emerging urban processes and a yearly magazine.