A Paradox of the Urban Condition

Gary Bridge once asked “Surely it is time to banish reason, with all it’s exclusivities and homogenisations, from the city, and to let difference in?” (Bridge, 2004: 1). A poignant issue, given that that more and more people are flooding into our cities. And yet, they continue to show signs of convergence – aesthetically, politically, sociologically and ideologically. Globalisation is often blamed for the homogenisation tendencies of world cities and with some justification; however to suggest that cities are buckling under pressure from an Adam Smith-esque invisible fist of global homogenising change is to underplay the role that cities themselves are performing in this very process. Sassen famously said that cities are the ‘command and control centres of the global economy’, and this being the case, then they are responsible for their own fate, and cannot be labeled as victims of the somehow ‘out-there’ global economy.

So, the modern urban condition is inherently paradoxical. Urban officialdom (and by this I include city and local councils, politicians, development agencies, quangos, private property companies, planners and security forces) is relentlessly restrictive on urbanites, with surveillance and restrictions on movement and behaviour increasingly commonplace. This restriction is a symptom of the capitalist society in which (the majority) of world cities are situated in, however, it is a truism that this constriction of urban practices prioritizes particular processes, usually profiteering, and marginalises a myriad of misdemeanors. Yet, with the inevitable increase in the urban population, the variety of our hobbies, pastimes, interests, likes and dislikes will increase the diversity and heterogeneity of the urban cultural and social fabric. There in lies a disproportionate and reductive paradox – the urban cultural milieu is broadening, while the law-makers and policy implementations are narrowing.

Counter-arguments in this regard are often leveed at the fact that this ‘narrowing’ is an illusion, indeed, we see policies that encourage cultural experimentation, as well as officialdom actively encouraging disparate and disruptive innovation. However, I would argue that these efforts are merely crystalising a more fluid and ephemeral ‘plasma’ of urban heterogeneity, into a more commercialised and ‘bite-sized’ version of ‘urban culture’. In other words, it is only skin-deep and creating a commercial veneer to a rhizomatic ether of urban activity.

A classic example (and one which I have recently published on) is that of the dualism that is parkour and free-running. This dichotomy is due a blog post (and then some) all of its own, but suffice to say, parkour was the original format of running, jumping, playing and experimenting with the urban terrain in new and innovative physical ways. It is less a ‘sport’ or a ‘sub-culture’ more a philosophy or way-of-life. ‘Free running’ is more ‘showy’, the people who partake in it perform more spectacular stunts, and there are free running world championships, sponsored by Barclaycard. The osmotic movement of parkour to free-running is indicative of the commercialisation tendencies that work at ‘centralisation’, i.e. bringing activities and disparate urban cultures into the realms of capitalism and profit-making.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad thing at all – free-running is fantastic to watch, and the athletes who partake in it are spreading fitness and healthy living to a society in dour need of it. The message here is that while there is a rhetoric of cities embracing alternative cultures and pastimes (in this case free-running), it comes diluted, detached and distanciated from the urban fabric. And anyone practicing parkour ‘illegally’ on private property or in a way that defies the health and safety leviathan, is immediately subjugated.

This march of the profiteer is clearly a logical prerequisite for cities, in that they are self-perpetuating machines with the lubricating grease of money coating their many gears. However, to limit the functionality of the urban topology to one cause is at best limiting, at worse, selfish. There are increasing and alternate ways in which the city can be reappropriated, and for examples, there are a number of information sources (you could do worse that join the Urban Subversion network , or follow them on Twitter). In answer to Gary Bridge’s question, the answer as you now forsee is a resounding ‘yes’. Difference and variety are essential for the proliferation and health of urban life, and by marginalising certain activities, we are at risk of essentially dividing the city – which is diagnostic of catastrophe.

Now, I appreciate that I now stand before you with an empty can and worms strewn all over the place, however, I am actively developing these arguments in future publications so watch this space – and feel free to comment/make suggestions/argue/shoot down as you see fit. However, take note from history…

“He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is destroyed, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand”.

(Matthew, 12: 25, International Standard Version)

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