Monthly Archives: January 2013

Manchester Piccadilly Vertical Gardens

Manchester Piccadilly Vertical Gardens

Manchester Piccadilly Vertical Gardens

by Piccadilly People / Manchester Piccadilly Vertical Gardens

As a stakeholder in the local area, I am writing to enquire whether you would be interested in supporting the following idea for the improvement to Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester.

For Manchester, it seems a terrible shame that the first/last and most dramatic view of the city for the majority of visitors and residents remains Piccadilly Gardens. As an area which has been existed for over a century as a Manchester hotspot and has been immortalised by Lowry, it has fallen into a rather humble existence. Although there is some wonderful architecture, dramatic water fountains and some fabulous street performers, unfortunately the most eye-catching part of the area is the drab imposing wall that splits the public space with the aim to reduce the negative effects of the bus interchange. Erected in 2002, the wall is 130m long and over 4m tall, mostly as one part curving around the central pedestrianised area, but also with another part separated by a footpath.

Wouldn’t it be brilliant to significantly improve this structure by adding a vertical garden? This is a well-tested technique that has been used from Paris to Hong Kong, both indoors and outdoors. A vertical garden is also an efficient way to clean up the air and improve the general environment. In addition to the leaves absorbing carbon dioxide to release oxygen, the roots are also able to trap and help decompose pollutant particles.

The vertical garden could be trialled on the standalone part of the wall, where it would consist of a metal frame mounted onto the wall, so avoiding any root-damage to the existing concrete. The plants would grow on a felt layer built into the metal frame. The plants on the bus interchange side would consist of a range of bushy, evergreen plants. But the real treat could be on the pedestrianised side, where the garden could be planted full of vigorous growing strawberry plants that can thrive in the Manchester urban climate.

Once the trial wall was established, the remaining bare grey concrete could also be given a vertical garden cover, for the more space covered, the better the absorption of not only pollutants, but also traffic noise.

examples of vertical gardens

Piccadilly Gardens has a great potential to return to former glories. We hope that you are as excited as we are by this idea. We would appreciate if you would support this idea in some way, from pledging your support, to your time and expertise, or maybe even some funding to contribute with other partners who also wish to bring back some of the former charm of Piccadilly Gardens.

Thank you for taking the time to read this through. Let’s hope that many people support Manchester and Piccadilly Gardens so that we get it up and growing!

Kind regards,

Piccadilly People

Email: McrPiccVerticalGrdns@gmail.com

Find us on Facebook: Manchester Piccadilly Vertical Gardens

Find us on Twitter:  @McrPiccVerticalGrdns

For more information about vertical gardens, go to:

www.patrickblanc.com

www.verticalgardendesign.com

www.vertigarden.co.uk

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Garbage, the City and Sustainable Transitions

via flickr by Editor B

via flickr by Editor B

by Sally Gee, David Evans and Elvira Uyarra.

At certain times of the year, ‘rubbish’ can replace the weather as the go-to topic of light and polite conversation.  Christmas is certainly one of those times that we start to worry about the scheduling of bin collections, debate whether or not it is possible to recycle wrapping paper and revisit the time honoured predicament of just how to get rid of that Christmas tree (we are firm believers in putting it outside until it goes brown and dealing with it later!) Of course, rather more fundamental anxieties come to the fore as we confront the consequences of our own material abundance – and gluttony! It is probably no accident that the Institution of Mechanical Engineers chose the middle of January to launch its report – and startling figures – about the amount of food that we waste[1].  Yes, even during record-breaking levels of rainfall and a particularly unpleasant cold snap, rubbish, waste, garbage, excess – call it what you will – is something that friends, neighbours and colleagues appear to be talking about. Maybe this seasonal vogue will pass, maybe it won’t but for some of us – waste is something that occupies our thoughts throughout the year. Although the effective management of waste is deeply un-sexy and almost invisible in the day-to-day running of things; the ‘water cooler’ chattering mentioned above holds some clues as to its significance. I mean, think of the inconvenience and mild irritation that unfolds when bin collections are delayed or rescheduled during the holiday period. Now imagine what would happen if taken for granted infrastructures of waste collection and disposal were to disappear for good and its place, we were left with overflowing bins. Just how big a step would it be to civil unrest, a decline in public hygiene and outright chaos? Our point is this: waste and its effective management is critical to the economic, social and environmental welfare of cities, and as such is an exciting topic for academic research.

The development of appropriate infrastructures of waste management are intimately linked to the growth of cities, and it is at the urban level where challenges associated with waste collection (including recycling), disposal (e.g. landfill shortages) and treatment (e.g. incineration) are most clearly felt. But cities also play a critical role in shaping infrastructures more generally. They can provide the scale, institutional arrangements (including intermediaries) and political leadership to enable transitions towards more sustainable forms of waste management. Sally Gee and Elvira Uyarra have recently conducted an in-depth case study on the emergence of a recycling-based waste infrastructure in Greater Manchester that tries to understand the various dimensions (institutional, political, governance, social and technological) underpinning the transformation of urban waste infrastructures. In the course of this research, they have developed close contacts with the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority (GMWDA) and other key stakeholders in waste policy both at the national and local levels. From the case study it emerged that one major challenge for waste practitioners is managing the dynamic relationship between household practices and the physical waste infrastructure. The active participation of consumers and households is key to the transformation of waste infrastructure. Yet understandings of household behaviour are seldom informed by understandings of what people actually do ‘behind closed doors’.  Indeed, research exploring home consumption, material culture and everyday life rarely ‘talks’ to waste policy and research. David Evans has recently finished a project looking at the everyday waste practices of Manchester households and reached the conclusion that bins are fascinating, not least because they signal the importance of understanding what goes on at the intersection of domestic spaces and public systems of waste management.

Through various discussions of our respective projects, we realised that ‘waste’ might just provide a useful hook through which a range of academic perspectives (from urban studies, innovation studies, material culture, the sociology of consumption etcetera) might be brought together to address a practical and real-world problem. And so an idea was born. With the generous support of cities@manchester and the Sustainable Consumption Institute, we have been able to get our heads together and start thinking this through. We recently organised a workshop ‘Urban waste transitions: connecting innovation, infrastructure and households’[2] to involve other experts and stakeholders in our discussions.

In the morning Professors Frank Geels, Mike Hodson and Simon Marvin gave fascinating talks on how to conceptualise and understand the governance of sustainability transitions at the urban level.  Professor Nuno Gil complemented this ‘macro’ analysis with insights into the development of infrastructure and its relationship to the wider socio-technical system.  All speakers emphasised that innovation in complex systems is protracted, spatially embedded and contested. They also reflected on the challenges of governing sustainable transitions.  These presentations invited pointed questions about how these insights, tools and perspectives might be turned to the analysis of waste.  In the afternoon, it was time for the ‘wasters’ (if only there were a better collectively noun for people who specialise in waste!) to take to the stage and bring us up to date with what’s happening in waste scholarship and waste management.  Professor Nicky Gregson argued that ‘waste’ is not open to obvious or static definitions but an outcome of socio-economic processes, and emphasised the efforts to marketise outputs of resource recovery processes where waste becomes a commodity to be transacted.  Reflecting on this Professor Catherine Alexander explored the classification and re-classification of waste, highlighting the importance of challenging waste categories and understanding what they include as well as exclude.  She argued that the current focus on “bankable” volumes of waste collection redirects attention away from waste reduction and the reality of household processes.  Dr Tom Quested from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) discussed immediate policy issues and emphasised the importance of problem-orientated and multi-disciplinary research to support policy makers in their efforts to affect change.  John Bland (Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority) shared the GMWDAs experience of governing a sustainable waste transition in Greater Manchester involving not only the construction of new physical infrastructure in a complex political, organisational and economic environment, but also the authority’s efforts to promote behaviour change in households.  The speakers all reflected on the questions posed by the presentations given in the morning sessions and the ways in which these perspectives might be extended (or not) to waste.

A number of insights came out of this lively and well attended workshop.  Different speakers tackled different aspects of this dialogue and demonstrated the complex interconnections between innovation, infrastructure and consumption practices – and emphasised the spatial, temporal and economic dimensions to sustainable urban waste transitions.  There was unanimous agreement that technology and society are inseparable, and although this may appear obvious, it challenges some popular perceptions that transforming systems is merely a matter of matching supply and demand, or that sustainable transitions are simply a matter of technological fixes and/or straight forward changes in household behaviours.

This workshop was the first step in what we hope is an on-going process, helping us to identify gaps in research, as well as questions of academic interest and policy relevance.  So watch this space!  As Christmas festivities fade to a distant memory and our attention turns to failed resolutions for the New Year, tidying up the garden (including that brown Christmas tree) and the steady munching of Easter eggs.  As you struggle to remember which bin to put out this week, or how to fit all that cardboard into the cupboard under the sink; spare a thought for how your waste is created, who collects it and where it goes.  There is a whole system out there (and you – we all – are part of it) transforming waste in a variety of ways; some of which are more sustainable than others.


[2] http://www.sci.manchester.ac.uk/events/sci/urban-waste-transitions

Uyarra, E. and Gee, S. (2013) Transforming urban waste into sustainable material and energy usage: the case of Greater Manchester, Journal of Cleaner Production, at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652612006403 .

Gee, S. and Uyarra, E. (2013) A role for public procurement in system innovation:  The transformation of the Greater Manchester (UK) waste system, Technology Assessment and Strategic Management (in press).

Evans, D. (2012) Binning, gifting and recovery: the conduits of disposal in household food consumption Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30(6): pp. 1123-1137

Evans, D. (2012) Beyond the throwaway society: ordinary domestic practice and a sociological approach to household food waste, Sociology 46(1): 43-58

Evans, D. (2011) Blaming the consumer – once again: the social and material contexts of everyday food waste practices in some English households Critical Public Health 21(4): 429-44

Strategic Embellishment and Civil War: More Notes on the New Urban Question

via flickr by jgarber

via flickr by jgarber

by Andy Merrifield, Leverhulme Visiting Professor, Geography, University of Manchester

No matter how many times you read Walter Benjamin’s musings on Paris they never disappoint. They never sound worn; there are always new nuggets buried within, lurking between the lines, little sparkling gems you never expected to find, nor saw upon your first reading. There is always something, too, that speaks as much about our century as the fabled nineteenth, over which Paris, Benjamin said, majestically presided. He spent hours upon hours — years and years in fact — scribbling away under “the painted sky of summer,” beneath the huge ceiling mural of Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF), amassing piles of notes (some still apparently lying unpublished, gathering dust in BNF’s vaults) on the arcades projects that so mesmerized him, on Fourier and Marx, on Baudelaire and Blanqui, on Haussmann and insurrection. Those latter two themes — Haussmannization and insurrection — have piqued my interest recently, helped me frame my thinking about what I’ve been calling (for want of a better term) “the new urban question.”

“Speculation on the stock-exchange,” says Benjamin, commenting on “Haussmann or the Barricades,” “pushed into the background the forms of gambling that had come down from feudal society.” Gambling transformed time, he says, into a heady narcotic, into an orgy of speculation over space, seemingly addictive for the wealthy and indispensable for the fraudulent. (The two, unsurprisingly, fed off one another then and still do.) Finance capital began to make its sleazy entrée into the urban experience; beforehand the urban was simply the backdrop of a great capitalist drama unfolding around the time Marx wrote the Manifesto. It was simply the seat of the stock market; suddenly, though, the urban itself became a stock market, another asset, now for a wheeling and dealing in space, for state-sponsored real estate promotion, for investing in new space and expropriating old space. The passionate embrace between politics and economics underwent its modern consecration.

Benjamin underscores two principal characteristics of Louis-Bonaparte’s master-builder Baron Haussmann — who, remember, prided himself on his self-anointed nickname: “l’artiste démolisseur” [“demolition artist”]. (“Baron,” too, was likewise a purely egotistical creation, having no official credence.) First was Haussmann’s immense hatred of the masses, of the poor, rootless homeless populations, the wretched and ragged victims of his giant wreckers-ball, immortalized by Baudelaire’s “Eyes of the Poor” Spleen poem. Benjamin recalls a speech Haussmann made in 1864 at the National Assembly, fulminating about the stepchildren his grand works had actively created. “This population kept increasing as a result of his works,” Benjamin says. “The increase in rents drove the proletariat into the suburbs.” Central Paris thereby lost its “popular” base, “lost its characteristic physiognomy.” Typical of so many tyrant-visionaries (like Robert Moses, who admired his gallic antecedent), Haussmann was a bundle of contradictions: publicly-minded (his underground sewers and macadamized boulevards replaced shitty overground drains and boggy lanes) yet scornful of real people; a lover of Paris, “the city of all Frenchmen,” yet  suspicious of democratic elections and progressive taxation; Haussmann saw it all as his God-given duty, his natural right “to expropriate for the cause of public utility.”

Yet, for Benjamin, there was something else behind Haussmann’s works, a second, perhaps more important theme: “the securing of the city against civil war,” a desperate desire to prevent the barricades going up across the city’s streets. A red fear. The breadth of those new boulevards would, it was thought, make future barricade building trickier, more onerous and protracted an ordeal in the heat of any revolt; besides, “the new streets,” says Benjamin, “were to provide the shortest route between the barracks and the working-class areas.” Hence the forces of order could more quickly mobilize themselves, more rapidly crush a popular insurrection. Urban space was concurrently profitable and pragmatic, aesthetically edifying yet militarily convenient; “strategic embellishment,” Benjamin labels it, a vocation eagerly practiced to this very day, though with new twists.

*  *  *

The new twist is the scale of this dialectic, the depth and breadth of the twin forces of strategic embellishment and insurrection. This dialectic is immanent in the our current urban-global condition, and respective antagonists feed off one another in dramatic ways. They are both immanent within the upheaval of our neoliberal market economy, just as Marx said that a relative surplus population was immanent in the accumulation of capital; and therein, borrowing Benjamin’s valedictory words, “we can begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.” While we can pinpoint Haussmann-like acts in every city across the globe, North and South, East and West, it’s nonetheless vital to see all this as a process that engineers planetary urban space. We need, in other words, to open out our vista, to see the global urban wood rather than just the city trees, to see an individual despotic program as a generalized class imperative, as a process of neo-Haussmannization, as something consciously planned as well as unconsciously initiated, pretty much everywhere.

Our planetary urban fabric — the terrestrial texturing of our urban universe — is woven by a ruling class that sees cities as purely speculative entities, as sites for gentrifying schemes and upscale redevelopments, as machines for making clean, quick money in, and for dispossessing erstwhile public goods. Cities therein are microcosmic entities embedded in a macrocosmic urban system, discrete atoms with their own inner laws of quantum gravity, responsive to a general theory of global relativity. Splitting city molecules reveal elemental charges within: let’s call them “centers” and “peripheries,” complementarities of attraction and repulsion, of speculative particles and insurrectional waves. Is there a master-builder therein, some great God presiding over these heavenly bodies, a living Baron Haussmann? Yes and No.

Yes, because there are particular prime movers in making deals, actual class embodiments of finance capital and speculative real estate interests, real lenders and borrows, actual developers and builders, breathing architects and administrators, some of whom are moguls who mobilize their might like the Baron of old; all, too, have their own local flavoring and place-specific ways of doing things, culturally conditioned dependent on where you are, and what you can get away with.

No, in the sense that although there are complicit individuals, both in public and private office, with varying degrees of competence, who may even be cognizant of one another, in explicit cahoots with one another, it would be mistaken to see it all as one great conspiracy — a “Great Game,” as Kipling quipped of English imperialism in India — as a single coordinated global conspiracy undertaken by an omnipotent ruling class. Indeed, that would attribute too much to this aristocratic elite, over-estimate their sway over the entirety of urban space.

To peripheralize en masse necessitates the insulation of centers. Insulation means controlling borders, patrolling risk, damming leakiness, keeping people out as well as in; “control,” the Invisible Committee say in The Coming Insurrection, “has a wonderful way of integrating itself into the commodity landscape, showing its authoritarian face to anyone who wants to see it. It’s an age of fusions, of muzak, telescopic police batons and cotton candy. Equal parts police surveillance and enchantment!” That’s the nub of neo-Haussmannization, its law of social physics. Thus aristocrats in our age of Enlightenment acknowledge their fear of the sans-culottes they help create, the citizens they disenfranchise, the deracinated they banish to the global banlieues.

Thus the civil war is everyday, is about strategic security in the face of economic volatility; and the stakes have ratcheted up since 9/11. In fact, 9/11 set the terms of whole new set of odds about what is now permissible. The “war of terrorism” gets reenacted on the everyday civilian urban street, where “low intensity conflicts” justify paramilitary policing and counter-insurgency tactics — just in case. (For a graphic survey, we need look no further than Steve Graham’s brilliant exposé, Cities under Siege [2010]. “The war on terror operations in London,” says Graham, “efforts to securitize and militarize cities during G-20 summits an other mega-events, the counter-drug and counter-terror efforts in the favelas of Rio… link very closely to the full-scale counterinsurgency warfare and colonial control operations in places like Baghdad or the West Bank.”)

The fragmented shards of global neo-Haussmannization are likewise reassembled as a singular narrative in Eric Hazan’s Chronique de la guerre civile (2003): “nonstop wail of police sirens on the boulevard Barbès, the whistling of F16s high in the sky over Palestine, rumbling tanks rattling the earth in Grozny and Tikrit, armored bulldozers crushing houses in Rafah, bombs exploding over Baghdad and on buses in Jerusalem, barking attack dogs accompanying security forces on the Paris metro” — all provide testimony of a business-as-usual battle scene in an ongoing global urban civil war. In fact, paramilitary policing in Palestine, says Hazan, serves as something of a model everywhere for “the war of the banlieue.” Jerusalem isn’t any further from Ramallah than Drancy is from Notre-Dame; yet it’s a war in the periphery that’s rendered invisible from the standpoint of the center. (“In Tel-Aviv, you can live as peacefully as in Vésinet or in Deauville.”) And behind all the din and shocks, the bombs and barking, global centers experiment with new depersonalized high-technology, unleashing democracy at 30,000 ft, modern warfare orchestrated on a computer keyboard. (High-tech Israelis are closely linked with American research institutes and with the military-industrial complex; arms trade and patents are worth billions of dollars. “The military and the monetary get together when it’s necessary,” rapped the late Gil-Scott Heron; he left out the academy, or “the academary,” which goes together with the military and the monetary when it’s necessary.)

*  *  *

A force is a push or pull exerted upon an object resultant from its interaction with another object. Centers and peripheries emanate from such interaction, from such contact interaction, from a Newtonian Third Law of Motion: that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. We can name that oppositional reaction insurrection, even if, in the Third Law of Newtonian Social and Political Motion, that reaction is opposite but never equal; it is a minority reaction despite being voiced by a majority; it is a reaction that creates its own action, or, as The Coming Insurrection suggests, its own resonance. Insurrection resonates from the impact of the shock waves summoned up by bombs and banishment, all of which unleash reactive and active waves of friction and opposition, alternative vibrations that spread from the banlieues, that ripple through the periphery and seep into the center.

If there are twin powers of insurrection, one internal, another an external, outer propulsive energy, then it’s the latter which might hold the key in any battle to come, in any global intifada. And here it’s not so much a solidarity between Palestinian kids lobbing rocks and casseurs in Seine-Saint-Denis, between jobless Spaniards and Greeks taking over Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and Athen’s Syntagma Square, between school kids in Chile and looters in Croydon, nor even between the Occupy movement in the US and its sister cells across the globe; it’s more that each of these groups somehow see themselves in different camps of the same civil war, fighting as territorial foot soldiers, as relative surplus populations sharing a common language and, significantly, a common enemy.

The war of the banlieue is a special kind of war, the scene of military maneuvering different from Clausewitzian warfare of old, staged on an open battlefield. This war no longer comprises grandiose campaigns by troops but is rather a micro-everydayness of peacetime intervention, a dogged affair in which the police and the paramilitary play interchangeable roles, indiscernible roles. Maintaining order and destabilizing order require new urban tactics, different from past warfare and previous insurrections. The terrain of the civil war is now at once more claustrophobic and more fluid, more intensive as well as more extensive. The urban needs to be theorized as a tissue with capillaries and arteries through which blood and energy circulate to nourish this tissue, to keep its cells alive, or sometimes to leave them partly dead from under-nutrition or blockage. This understanding let’s us see the urban’s complex circuit card, its networked patterning, its mosaic and fractal form, stitched together with pieces of delicate fabric; an organism massively complex yet strikingly vulnerable.

Insurrectional forces must enter into its flow, into the capillaries and arteries of urban power and wealth, enter into its global network to interrupt that circulation, to unwind its webbing and infrastructure, to occupy its nodes at the weakest and most powerful points. In a sense, given the global interconnectivity of everything, this can be done almost anywhere, accepting there are nodes that assume relative priority in the system’s overall functioning. Just as cybernetic information can be hacked, so too can acts of subversion interrupt and hack flows of money, goods and transport. The system can be stymied, symbolically, like outside Wall Street or St. Paul’s Cathedral; and really, like when, in December 2011, Occupy Oakland took over the US’s fifth-largest port, “Wall Street on the waterfront,” crippling operating revenues that amount to a hefty annual $27 billion, striking aristocrats hard where it hurts them most: in their pockets.

Perhaps sabotage is a valid retribution for the incivilities that reign in our streets. “The police are not invincible in the streets,” the Invisible Committee write, “they simply have the means to organize, train, and continually test new weapons. Our weapons, on the other hand, are always rudimentary, cobbled together, and often improvised on the spot.” The power of surprise, of secret organization, of rebelling, of demonstrating and plotting covertly, of striking invisibly, and in multiple sites at once, is the key element in confronting a power whose firepower is vastly superior. Once, in the past, sabotaging and thwarting work, slowing down the speed of work, breaking up the machines and working-to-rule comprised a valid modus operandi, an effective weapon for hindering production and lock-jamming the economy; now, the space of twenty-first-century urban circulation, of the ceaseless and often mindless current of commodities and people, of information and energy, of cars and communication, becomes the broadened dimension of the “whole social factory” to which the principle of sabotage can be applied.

Thus “jam everything” becomes a reflex principle of critical negativity, of Bartlebyism brought back to radical life, of Newton’s Third Law of Political Motion. Ironically, the more the economy has rendered itself virtual, and the more “delocalized,” “dematerialized” and “just-in-time” is its infrastructural base, the easier it is to take down locally, to create apoplexy, to redirect and reappropriate. Several years ago, insurrections in France against CPE bill (contrat première embauche), the first of a series of state laws to make job contracts for young people more insecure, “did not hesitate to block train stations, ring roads, factories, highways, supermarkets and even airports. In Rennes,” the Invisible Committee recall, “only three hundred people were needed to shut down the main access road to the town for hours and cause a 40-kilometer long traffic jam.” Blanqui, too, that professional insurrectionist, the shady conspiratorial figure who so fascinated Benjamin (and Baudelaire), likewise recognized how urban space isn’t simply the theater of confrontation; it’s also the means and stake in an insurrection, the battleground of a guerrilla warfare that builds barricades and gun turrets, that occupies buildings and strategic spaces, that employs the methodology of moving through walls.

But barricades today aren’t there simply to defend inwardly. They need to be flexible and portable, and outward looking. They need to move between nodes to disrupt and block, and to foster new life within. They need to be mobilized to tear down other barricades that keep people apart, that trap people in, that peripheralize. Those latter sort of barricades are walls of fear that need smashing down like the veritable storming of the Bastille, so that new spaces of encounter can be formed — new agoras for assemblies of the people, for peoples’ Assembly.

Benjamin was mesmerized by the spirit of Blanqui haunting Haussmann’s boulevards, Blanqui the antidote to Haussmannization, Blanqui the live fuse for igniting civil war, for catalyzing insurrectional eruption. And although Blanqui’s secret cells of revolutionary agents — those hardened, fully-committed professional conspirators — had an inherent mistrust of the masses, Benjamin nonetheless saw in them a capacity to organize and propagandize, to spread the insurrectional word, to figure out a plan and give that plan definition and purpose. They could even help guide an activism that seizes territories and schemes mass desertion; that could, in our day, reinvent a neo-Blanquism (neo-Jacobinism?) to confront intensifying neo-Haussmannization, an opposite and almost equal reaction. Indeed, perhaps the thing that most fascinated Benjamin was Blanqui’s notion of “eternal recurrence,” that stuff comes around full circle, including revolutions, that democratic passions don’t disappear: they crop up again and again in new forms and in different guises, with new tricks and covert tactics, with new participants whose prescient ability is to imagine the dominant order as ruins even before it has crumbled.

The New Urban Question

via flickr by Marco Garofalo

via flickr by Marco Garofalo

by Andy Merrifield, Leverhulme Visiting Professor, Geography, University of Manchester

The form of a city changes quicker, alas, than the human heart

— Baudelaire

“I am tempted to the belief that what are called necessary institutions are only institutions to which one is accustomed, and that in matters of social constitution the field of possibilities is much wider than people living within each society imagine”

— de Tocqueville

In a remarkable series of essays, bundled together under the rubric Paris sous tension (La fabrique, Paris, 2011), popular historian and organic intellectual Eric Hazan sings a paean for his hometown under fire, his Paris under tension; the pressure gauge is edging toward danger level and seems about to blow anytime. Hazan, who trained as a cardiologist and in the 1970s worked as a surgeon in poor Palestinian refugee camps in the Lebanon, now fronts the Left publishing house he founded in 1998: La fabrique. He takes leave from one of Balzac’s remarks: “old Paris is disappearing with a frightening rapidity.” Yet while Hazan’s pages are full of a long lineage of Parisians who, like Balzac, lamented this disappearance — Hugo, Chateaubriand, Baudelaire, Chevalier, Debord — he’s over his grief for a lost loved one; he’s sobered up, detests nostalgia, and embraces a future that looks a lot different from a once glorious past.

In this sequel to L’invention de Paris (2002) [The Invention of Paris], Hazan evokes another Paris, a popular Paris; his dandies and flâneurs have darker skins and many don’t speak native French; his Paris lies beyond the center, is even a Paris without a center, one he invents in his head and out on the streets. (Is there any living urbanist who knows their city so intimately? Hazan seems to know all the names on doorbells, let alone buildings and inner courtyards.) Hazan bids adieu to the dead Paris inside the boulevard périphérique, regretting nothing and seemingly fearing nothing. His Paris isn’t the two million denizens of the predominantly white, bourgeois core, dancing to the tune of rapacious real estate interests on the one side, and a spectacular tourist market — a Disneyland for the cultivated — on the other, each consciously and unconsciously conspiring to rid the grand capital of the poor.

It’s assorted banlieues that hold the collective key, the outer “red belts” of eight million predominantly black and Arab peoples, throbbing with sometimes scary and impoverished life yet always hustling on the edge. Forever the optimist, Hazan sees all this as the source of great energy and potential for renewed urban vitality; this is where a new radiant Paris will reemerge, if it ever reemerges. Forget about the center. Parisian ruling classes have banished so many people to the outside that now the periphery is somehow central to the city’s urban future, to an urban form beyond the traditional city norm. Tourists come to gape at Paris’s lovely museums, at the museumified quartiers, at the beautiful buildings and monuments, at an entombed, cold history; but the real living history, the real Paris as a living organism, breathing and palpitating, ain’t so regal, and lies beyond the breach, beyond Pompidou’s peripheral barrier. Even so, amid these changes some things don’t change: “my conviction,” says Hazan, “is that Paris still is what it has been for two-centuries: a great battleground of a civil war between aristocrats and sans-culottes.”

*  *  *

Hazan mightn’t know it — though I suspect he does — but what he’s sketching out here is a new urban question. It’s new — or relatively new — for two reasons. The first is how Paris, we know, gave us that prototypical urban practice in the 1850s — Haussmannization — an infamous process of divide and rule, of class expulsion through spatial transformation, of social polarization through economic and political gerrymandering. It was a ruthless counter-revolution that tore into medieval Paris and old working class neighborhoods, mobilizing public monies to prime the private real estate pump, enabling investors to find new speculative outlets in the built landscape of the city. The sense of loss, the sense of dispossession, was apparent for many poor Parisians and is still felt by their counterparts one hundred and fifty years down the line. Today, though, Paris is no longer paradigmatic of but microcosmic in a new process of divide and rule, a new global process: neo-Haussmannization.

Haussmannization and neo-Haussmannization share a historical and geographical lineage. But the primal scene of its progeny needs updating and upgrading. Those grand boulevards still flow with people and traffic, even if the boulevard is now reincarnated in the highway, and that highway is more often at a standstill, log-jammed at every hour. Twenty-first-century grand boulevards now flow with energy and finance, with information and communication, and they’re frequently fiber-optic and digitalized, ripping through cyber-space as well as physical space. Neo-Haussmannization is a global-urban strategy that has peripheralized millions of people everywhere to the extent that it makes no sense anymore to talk about these peoples being peripheral. As cities have exploded into mega-cities, and as urban centers — even in the poorest countries — have gotten de-centered, gotten glitzy and internationalized, “Bonapartism” projects its urban tradition onto planetary space.

What’s happening in Paris, then, is a revealing microcosm of a larger macrocosm. Paris is a cell-form of a bigger urban tissuing that’s constituted by a mosaic of centers and peripheries scattered all over the globe, a patchwork quilt of socio-spatial and racial apartheid that goes for Paris as for Palestine, for London as for Rio, for Johannesburg as for New York. Differences are differences of degree not substance, not in the essential unity of process, engineered as it is by a global ruling class intent on business. Nowadays, the poor global South exists in North-East Paris, or in Queens and Tower Hamlets. And the rich global North lives high above the streets of Mumbai, and flies home in helicopters to its penthouses in Jardins and Morumbi, Sao Paulo.

This spatial apartheid has now begotten a new paradox in which centers and peripheries oppose one another; the fault lines and frontiers between the two worlds aren’t some straightforward urban-suburban divide, nor necessarily anything North-South. Rather, centers and peripheries are immanent within global accumulation of capital, immanent within what Lefebvre called “secondary circuit of capital.” Profitable locations get pillaged as secondary circuit flows become torrential, just as other sectors and places are asphyxiated through disinvestment. Therein centrality creates its own periphery, crisis-ridden on both flanks. The two worlds — center and periphery — exist side-by-side, everywhere, cordoned off from one other, everywhere.

The second theme that Hazan mischievously pinpoints, following just as immanently from the first, is insurrection, one of his favorite words. Little surprise that La fabrique first made public that most incendiary of insurrectional tracts, L’insurrection qui vient [The Coming Insurrection]. (After its publication in 2007 and the subsequent arrest of the “Tarnac Nine,” anti-terrorist police called Hazan in for questioning at Le quai des orfèvres, subjecting him to four hours of abusive interrogation about the author’s identity. He remained tight-lipped throughout.) Hazan’s idea about insurrection is twin-pronged (even if he never says so explicitly), dramatized by both an inner energy and an outer compulsion — or rather an outer propulsion.

The inner energy is a burning desire to live on the margins, to rebuild the margins, to make one’s neighborhood a livable neighborhood — the center of one’s life. It’s a familiar immigrants tale, even if these immigrants are sometimes born in this foreign land and carry its passport. In certain peripheral Parisian spaces, Hazan spots the germ of an artisanal, spontaneous and collective rebuilding program in action, reminiscent of what’s going on in Ramallah. There’s even something inventive happening in the core, too, at the corner of rue Morand and rue de l’Orillon in the XIe arrondissement, he says, involving Arab and Malian masons and carpenters who scavenge breeze-block and wood and bricks from God knows where to quasi-legally rehab an entire building. Atypical for Paris, the architecture is vernacular rather than spectacular, serving local needs and nobly integrating itself within a “healthy” urban tissuing. (An ex-surgeon, Hazan knows all about dead and live tissue.)

Here we have the urban as use-value not exchange-value, as a lived not ripped off realm, with integrative not speculative housing; it’s a project, too, that has plenty of scope for scaling up after the insurrection, after an inner energy to rebuild erupts into an expansive and propulsive momentum to democratize. In that sense it’s very likely, Hazan thinks, that l’insurrection qui vient won’t erupt in central Paris: The coming insurrection will erupt on the periphery, out on the global periphery, where dispossessed and marginalized denizens — “the dangerous classes” — will organize and mobilize themselves to create a truly “popular” urbanism, generating at the same time tensions at the centers they surround; and maybe, just maybe, one day actually “recuperating” that center. Hazan doesn’t speak of a “right to the city” as his organizing banner. For him, it’s the political insurrection that finds its expression in any outer propulsion; not a desire to change the government or the municipality, but to change the existing nature of society — “to change life,” as Lefebvre might have said.

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Nowhere in Paris sous tension does Hazan adopt the vocabulary of “Occupy,” either; but it’s not too hard to nudge him along in that direction. Like Occupy, Hazan’s notion of insurrection represents a hypothesis, a daring hunch that, for people who care about democracy, for people who know our economic and political system is kaput, change is likely to come from within, from within excluded and impoverished communities, through collective experimentation and struggle, through action and activism that overcomes its own limits, that experiments with itself and the world.

Doubtless this spells more self-initiated rehabs and rebuilding of peripheral banlieues, of rundown HLMs and grands ensembles, as well as more occupations of vacant buildings and lots the world over, those foreclosed and abandoned speculative properties, unused patches of land awaiting private plunder; even whole strip malls in the United States lie empty, over-built and under-used. That’s a lot of steady work for sans-culottes to wage war on two flanks, on those inner and outer flanks that Hazan identifies: on the one hand, occupy these vacant spaces, squat them and take them back, rebuild them in a new communal image, reinventing them as spaces in which people can encounter one another and new affinities can be forged; there, small-scale retailing might flourish within over-accumulated and devalued giant retailing. These devalued spaces can revalorize as new Main Streets on the edge, new centers of urban life with green space, with organic small-holdings, with social housing, self-organized by people for people rather than for profit. Creative destruction, at last, might allow for non-patented creativity.

On the other hand, the outer propulsion of the insurrection must continue to occupy the spaces of the 1%, of our financial and corporate aristocracy, fighting the banks, financial institutions and corporations who spearhead neo-Haussmannization, protest and denounce them on their own turf, downtown, at the centers of their wealth and power, making a racket while liberating the spaces these shysters have foreclosed, abandoned and repelled. It’s not so farfetched to call this global ruling class an “aristocracy” because they have much in common with the parasitic elites of yesteryear. For one thing, their profits and capital accumulation have arisen from a marketed penchant for dispossession; they’ve shown zilch commitment to investing in living labor in actual production.

Much wealth comes from titles to rent, resultant of land monopolization and real estate speculation, and from interest accruing from financial assets, many of which are purely fictitious and extortionately make-believe, including make-believe service charges and transaction fees incurred on borrowers. Profits have little to do with corporations investing in salaried workers and making quality products at lower prices than their competitors, doing all the things “good” capitalists are supposed to do. Invariably, it’s more to do with scrounging corporate welfare, tax avoidance and monopolization, with destroying competition within a given field. The enormous growth in wealth means more and more redundant workers; living labor is a species en route to extinction, thus sans-culottes — sans travail as well as often sans papiers.

 In the “old” urban question, Manuel Castells suggested that the urban wasn’t an arena of production as such, since production increasingly operated over regional and global scales. A better point of entry into the urban was, à la Althusser, reproduction. The urban was, Castells said, “a specific articulation of the instances of the social structure within a spatial unit of the reproduction of labor-power.” The urban was vital, in other words, for expanded accumulation because it was vital for reproducing labor (and hence, it was thought, value), vital as a unit of “collective consumption” — of collective goods and public services outside the wage-relation, outside of variable capital, stuff provided by the state, like public housing, public utilities, transport infrastructure, schools, hospitals, etc. But in the “new” urban question the state has done something Castells could never have imagined: it has decoupled from its duties relating to social reproduction and to the reproduction of labor-power, and actively repossessed items of collective consumption, privatized them, sold them off at bargain basement prices to private capital — or else freely given them away. All of which heralds an explicit subsidization of capital, an emphasis on the reproduction of “productive” consumption, even if “productive” rarely equates to actual production.

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Hazan’s great inspiration for insurrection is the “June Days” of 1848, more so than the Commune itself, because the latter, says Hazan in his foreword to Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune, started off as “a patriotic upsurge, a gesture of national pride, before being a revolutionary social movement.” The June Days of 1848 were a truly authentic insurrection of the sans-culottes, one that can set the terms for l’insurrection qui vient (or qui viendrait) in our day. Even the voice of Order, the conservative-liberal commentator Alexis de Tocqueville, marveled in his Recollections (staple reading for Guy Debord) at those June Days, “the greatest and strangest insurrection that had ever taken place in our history.” Tocqueville could almost be describing Occupy, circa September 2011: “the greatest [insurrection] because insurgents were fighting without a battle cry, leaders, or flag, and yet they showed wonderful powers of coordination.” Yet if Tocqueville is brilliant and surprisingly generous at analyzing what insurgents did between February and June 1848, he’s also damning about what they failed to do after assuming power, and after la Garde mobile marched into town. (The CRS and the privatized security force of the RATP are La Garde mobile’s latter-day reincarnations.)

The June Days were a revolt of the “unknown,” initiated by an anonymous rank-and-file, by a nobody urban proletariat, ordinary men and women “who gave events their color and explain in part why they’re now forgotten.” 1848 is the most important insurrection in working class history, says Hazan, because it “marked the severing of an implicit pact, or, if you like, the end of an illusion: that the people and the bourgeoisie, hand-in-hand, were going to finish what they’d started in the Revolution [of 1789].” Today, we’ve seen another illusion put to an end, punctured, a rupturing with our own post-war consensus (and dissensus): that of paternal capitalism giving ordinary people a break, of a bourgeoisie and workers establishing a just social contract together. All bets are now summarily off. What we’ve seen instead is the end of an era of expectations: expectations of steady jobs, with decent pay, with benefits, with security and pensions; the whole bit.

Experiments in living today necessarily mean having no expectations in life, except those you create yourself, invent yourself, including the insurrection — an insurrection in which economic self-empowerment encounters political collective-empowerment; the favelas as well as financial districts, banlieues as well as bidonvilles, the malls as well as Main streets would all get occupied then, democratized by an inexorable and an insatiable swarming, by a sheer numbers-game asserting itself as a political subjects-game. At that point, the barricades wouldn’t so much go up in the center of the city (à la Commune) as those barricades that separate centers from peripheries would get torn down, removed within the tissuing of global urban space. Such is my wish-image for the coming New Year, for the new civil war unfolding across the planet, the new urban question. For the moment, though, Hazan knows, just as I know — just as Tocqueville knew back in 1848 — that the fighting has stopped, even if it is due to start again any day soon. “The insurrection was everywhere contained,” says Tocqueville, “but nowhere tamed.”