OC 58: Remaking Cities
Café Diplo is a sister discussion group of “Les Amis Le Monde Diplomatique” which supports writings and tradition evolved around Le Monde Diplomatic newspaper of which there exists an English edition. The debates are arranged around the Café-Diplo’s global anti neo-conservative liberal tradition which covers a wide range of issues. http://mondediplofriends.org.uk/index.htm
The future of urban policy?
Contributing to the broad subjects Allan Cochrane was invited to explore contemporary urban policy, a theme which should contribute food for thought to this blog about cities, their openness and issues of spatial and social equality. Professor Allan Cochrane is head of department of social policy and criminology at the UK Open University. His talks on 29 April 2013 was based on his book ‘Understanding Urban Policy, a critical approach,” 2007, Blackwell Oxford. Besides his interest in criminology, Cochrane is participating in Bob Colenutt’s research on “Tensions and future prospects for sustainable housing growth” and is working with researchers at the University of Leicester on “Living Multiculture, the new geographies of ethnicity and the changing formations of multiculture in England”. All in all a very wide range of interests.
It could be argued that ‘urban policy’ provides an umbrella for a wide range of academic strands to which Cochrane is contributing. Urban policy may cut across academic fields and their paradigmatic base and attract those interested in studying connections between sometimes narrowly defined academic bodies of knowledge. Their concern for the bigger picture corresponds to a generalist approach, usually on the fringe of sectoral advancement of knowledge. There may be a good reason why generalists are few and far between. They find themselves in a high risk place where they would need sufficient insight into a wide range of specialist fields to draw on such knowledge towards understanding - in this case - ‘the urban’ and ‘policy’ at a meta-level. Also there is no specific home for generalists in the academic world which is more at ease with established paradigms and methodologies in increasingly specialised subject matters. Not surprisingly, generalists are easily labelled off as utopians or cult figures, at best as fertile minds thriving on their personal creativity in a world of their own, akin to that of artists, with no place in academe.
Role of generalism
Henri Lefebvre dared trespass these unwritten conventional boundaries in his prolific writing, not least his endeavour at a new theory of space in “the production of space” (production de l’espace, 1974, Anthropos) and was criticised ever since in academic circles for it. It may not be by accident that Cochrane referred to Lefebvre in his talk, besides Florida who is seen by many as an outsider guru.
The problem with the generalist approach is that key concepts need redefining. So what is meant by ‘urban’? Already half a century ago Lefebvre made the case that the ‘urban’ was all pervasive, defying the traditional urban-rural dichotomy. For Cochrane the urban encompassed contradictory notions of concentration, conflict but living together, and the post world war welfare origin of urban policy needed revisiting simultaneously from a global and a bottom up perspective. This tallies uneasily with the polarising effect of globalism and localism imposed from above.
Raison d’etre of urban policy?
Refreshingly presented without a ‘powerpoint crutch’ Cochrane’s views on urban policy provoked wide ranging reactions. What was the role of economics and the competitiveness imperative in this new urban policy? Let alone land and property ownership increasingly concentrated in corporate hands? How would urban policy deal with the complexities and contradictions of ‘the urban’, with urban sprawl, dispersal and spatial and social segregation and gated hyper-concentration? Was there still a place for spatial planning and how effective could it be in shaping fast growing mega-cities? Would the same urban policy or planning - confounded in Cochrane’s view – be able to deal with shrinking cities? Where did the effects of climate change come in? Was there a role at all for good urban design? And what was the role of (urban) community, however that would be defined?
[see also IJRR Vol 37, Issue 1, January 2013, Beyond Urban Subcultures: Urban Subversions as Rhizomatic Social Formations, Maria Daskalaki and Oli Mould].
In the light of the state’s abdication of direct intervention and increasingly its regulatory role, has urban policy become a myth? A useful myth for the stakeholders who aim to replace the state? A distraction from the neo-liberal discourse of free market forces which are, and have always been risk averse, monopolistic and in pursuit of restrictive practices?
Is urban policy still required as a symbol of democracy to appease the tax paying citizens in times of ‘system failure’?