Efficient or Sociable Cities?

This is an age of cities, a time when the mass of people in the world live in cities of a size never seen before in human history. The new city of 15 million or more people, like Shanghai, São Paulo, Mumbai, or Mexico City, has transformed the politics, economics, infrastructure and culture of everyday existence. Yet, as in the past, urbanites now have two basic desires: they want cities that are efficient, and they want cities full of life.

The need for efficiency comes into conflict constantly with the desire for sociability. The quest for efficiency aims at balance and harmony. Sociability in cities involves complex mixtures of people with diverging interests; they have to negotiate their relationships day by day, and the results are messy.

The distinction between efficient and sociable is particularly acute for a huge class of people to whom urbanists seem indifferent. This is the class that is neither poor nor bourgeois, the classes moyens, as French sociologists call them, or the lower-middle-class in English terms: small shopkeepers and salesmen, clerks and other low-level bureaucrats, skilled manual labourers. These are the people for whom efficiency means a safer, healthier environment than that of the dramatically poor. But they are just on the edge of experiencing a better-quality life; the spectre of poverty, which is just below them, which they may have just left, is haunting. This is the life evoked by Louis-Ferdinand Céline in the novel Voyage au Bout de la Nuit [Journey to the End of the Night], or by Truffaut’s film Les Quatre Cents Coups [The 400 Blows]. The experience of an efficient and workable everyday life feels fragile. Class consciousness puts those two words, efficient and fragile, together.

The sociability bred of this fragility is often hostile to those both above and below, and inward-turning. Sociologists label this kind of outlook ressentiment, a combination of resentment and withdrawal, and it possesses a right-wing political sting; numerous studies show that ressentiment animates racial prejudices, hostility to immigrants. Ressentiment is not urbane. And literally so, groups motivated by this passion have, as Michel de Certeau has documented, practised an intensely local form of excluding those below. But I’m convinced that it is not inevitable for people newly emerged from poverty, or living a cut above it. The physical conditions in which the classes moyennes live can orient people in a different, more positive, more integrated way.

As a visitor to Rio de Janeiro, I have been struck by how much of the city belongs to the classes moyennes. Particularly due to the growth of this class in recent years, poor people have moved just one or two steps up if they exit poverty – just as was the case in New York a century ago in boroughs like Queens and the Bronx, or today in the expansion of North-West Shanghai. Given the peculiar fabric of Rio, an archipelago of different socio-economic communities, the issue of integration is particularly difficult in terms of city planning. I am no expert on Rio, but I’d like to offer some ideas about how a more integrated approach could join efficiency to sociability.

The Edge Condition

Integration happens at the edges between communities. Urbanists have in general been very bad at creating edges of the ‘open’ sort; instead, the great urban growth spurt of recent decades has strengthened segregation. This is true not only of gated residential communities, but of places to work or consume – the office campus, the shopping mall – which are mono-functional in character. Segregation of function has become the planner’s yardstick of efficiency.

Edges come in two forms: the boundary and the border. Rigid controls over movement from country to country are meant to enforce the boundary condition, while the Schengen arrangements in Europe, for example, are meant to create more open borders between its member states. At the urban level, motorways create boundaries between communities, while spine-streets create more open borders. A more provocative distinction is the difference between a cell wall and a cell membrane. A cell wall serves mainly to conserve vital ingredients within the cell, while a membrane functions to exchange ingredients between a cell’s in- and outside. But the membrane is not, as it were, an open door; this edge is both porous and resistant, that is, it both admits new matter and also resists loss of its own substance.

Porosity and resistance combined tell something about the concept of integration, a concept all-important in urban planning. Too often, well-meaning planners confuse integration with erasure, a clearing flat of urban space, destroying traces of the past, leaving no physical markers of difference in the present. This is the story of much urban renewal in twentieth-century North American cities, and twenty-first century cities in China. Erasure does not stimulate integration, on the contrary; the result, in Shanghai as much as Chicago, has left people, particularly in the classes moyennes, feeling exposed and vulnerable.

An alternative way to create a living edge is embodied in the work that urbanists did on the reconstruction of Beirut after its long civil war ended in the 1990s. The ‘green line’ in the city was a zone where warring Christians and Muslims had fought each other for 14 years; by the war’s end, it had reverted to trees and weeds. The planners made use of this natural resurgence to carve out a shaded market extending along the line of former combat; the buildings on either side were left to local or family development. The market structures were themselves temporary constructions, quickly put up or taken down. People out shopping could mix with their former enemies, but as easily recoil and withdraw. Such an uneasy truce exemplifies the urban membrane, which was both porous and resistant. Admittedly this was an extreme case, but the membrane logic is a good one, and urbanists should apply it to more ordinary urban scenes. Could it apply in Rio, for instance, to the relations between the favelas and surrounding neighbourhoods?

Complex Public Space

Our received notions of public space are one reason membrane creation has failed. The design of good urban space is an endless subject, which has preoccupied me my entire professional life. I want to focus just on one aspect, one which relates to mono-functional and multiple-function spaces. In principle, an overlay of functions creates public space: the thicker the collage of functions, the more public a space becomes. To understand why this is so, we might contrast the agora of ancient Athens to modern Times Square in New York.

The agora, a six-hectare (nearly 15 acres) open space, contained all the elements of Athenian civic life in plain sight. The ancient Athenian visiting his banker at a table set out in the agora could see and hear the proceedings of a court of justice occurring in the same space, separated only by a low wall; if so minded he could shout out his own comment on the accused while counting his money. Several small shrines and a temple lining the agora permitted him to pray if the spirit moved him; he could dine and flirt in several private rooms whose doors gave directly onto the agora. Not only was this public space multi-functional, it was ambiguously defined, the edges between activities more borders rather than boundaries; the Athenian was constantly obliged to interpret what was happening in the agora.

Modern Times Square in New York on the other hand does not require that effort of interpreting. It has become pure tourist space, which is to say, its recent ‘renewal’ development has made the centre of New York’s central public space mono-functional, devoted to tourists serviced by cheap hotels and restaurants, and, of course, popular theatres. There are other sorts of commercial and civic activities near Times Square, but they are out of sight, occurring within heavily-guarded buildings. Few native New Yorkers frequent Times Square: it has become a void at the heart of the city.

The recipe for a live public realm in cities is more complicated than might first appear. Multiple functions generate ambiguity. Ambiguity requires interpretation. Interpretations are unstable in time. This recipe requires much unpacking. I simply want to stress that a live public space is not efficient, if we think of efficiency as a steady-state condition.

Quality of Life

I have touched on a number of principles of urban integration, in edges and public space. They stimulate exchange at the borders between territories, and they engage people in experiencing and interpreting complexity. These principles have a particular application to the fabric of ordinary life – that is, to people who are neither wealthy nor impoverished. They secure the quality of life by supplying, as it were, rules of engagement. They provide positive, sociable orientations to the city for people who may feel that class-bound kind of fragility that results in ressentiment.

Richard Sennett is Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science and University Professor of the Humanities, New York University. He is Chair of the Advisory Board of LSE Cities and a member of its Governing Board.