Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Steve is the co-founder of 3rd Space.

Hymn to the City Imaginary

Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Steve is the co-founder of 3rd Space.

I have to admit, I am fascinated by big cities, at least most of the ones I have visited or stayed in for any length of time. I often feel most alive in the midst of their bruising, ebullient dynamism. As someone who is generally critical of modernity, I have sometimes wondered about this. But then cities are not just a modern phenomenon. They have been around for at least six thousand years. Most of my friends want to move out of the city these days for a simple life and maybe a garden. I understand. Cities in the West, at least, can seem to epitomise the lonely isolation of hyper individualism and the harshness of the monotonous drive to survive in a world where, as Daniel Pinchbeck writes, “myriad strangers linked by proximity, effortlessly dodge the ever-unspoken question: “What’s the point?” But this is only one side of the story.

What sets the city apart from a rural or small-town existence for me, is the fullness of humanity it celebrates, its cosmopolitan diversity, and the exponential life-force this engenders. “A kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness” as Baudelaire described it. For diversity generates life as much in human culture, as it does in nature. Before we lived in cities, we lived in small villages where more or less everyone knew everyone else. The life-world of a village, rich in its own traditions, was inevitably confined, and to a great extent predictable. And for me it still is. The spirit of the city is different. I think of Whitman. “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

In a more specific sense, in a cosmopolitan space, as Gerard Delanty writes, “Individuals and the groups to which they belong have obligations to others beyond their immediate context.” Cosmopolitanism according to Ulrich Beck, “involves two things: on the one hand, situating and relativizing one’s own form of life within other horizons of possibility; on the other, the capacity to see oneself from the perspective of cultural others and to give this practical effect in one’s own experience through the exercise of boundary-transcending imagination.” This is what I call the city imaginary.

In a post by Jordan Hall, From City to Civium, he begins by describing a study by the theoretical physicist Geoffrey West, in which systems such as the growth of cells, animals, and plants, develop according to certain principles called “sublinear scaling”. For example, “if you increase the mass of a mouse you don’t increase its energetic needs at the same rate. Instead, if you increase the mass by a factor of 10, you increase the metabolic rate by only about 5.6.” In this study they noticed that sublinear scaling was a major factor in how life, from cells to forests and eco-systems operates and develops.

But when they looked at cities in relationship to things like innovation, productivity and wages, they noticed a completely different kind of scaling relationship: which they called “superlinear scaling”. This means that doubling the population of a city, increases the productivity of the city by more than double.

Fascinating. But increasing productivity is a way of measuring metabolic rate in cities, that only follows the reductive logic of capitalism. It is the unparalleled space for collaboration and imagination that cities provide, which generates culture. Even though the vast majority of city inhabitants are strangers to us, we rub up against them, often hundreds of times in a single day. We are constantly recording impressions of others with other ideas, world-views, languages, histories, and ethnicities than our own. The city is also unique as a place in which past, present, and future exist and permeate our consciousness, simultaneously. From the great bridges and skyscrapers and the badass engineering of iron and steel, to the sweeping streets and rivers, the cathedrals, the street markets, the constant pulse of revolving ideas and re-configurative innovation in art, film, activism, social theory, politics and fashion.

We can also note as Daniel Pinchbeck writes, that “Wealthy European capitals….conceal beneath their well-heeled surfaces the colonialist history of domination and exploitation which created much of their splendour.” Indeed. The statues of one-time celebrated war heroes and colonial masters stand alongside the graffiti that mocks them; and the virtually non-existent statues of women tells its own story. And everywhere we see immigrants who carry the West’s imperialist history within them in their experience of dislocation and upheaval, and in the belief that we ‘over here’, hold the good life, even if in certain contexts this might be true. The past speaks to us every day in the city, urging examination. This is the city imaginary. The continuous beat of deeply concentrated human energy, constantly contextualising our relationship with others and the longue durée of human history and experience. The city is the pulse of the modern world, at once global and local, the churning heart of this precise moment in time, as we stand on the brink of an ever more uncertain and dangerous future.

The toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston into the Bristol harbour in The UK.

In his article Jordan Hall believes that since the introduction of the internet, we are now reaching a point where digital and other technologies are “providing an adequately rich possibility of relationship in which the centre of collaboration will move from the physical to the virtual…replacing “the cultural logic of the city”. I don’t believe so. We are already experiencing, to the extent we understand it, the downsides of an exponentially developing mediated world. And as Hall himself points out, these digital networks are mostly built by corporations that are sublinear in nature, whereas ‘the city imaginary’ is built by people themselves.

I don’t believe digital communication will ever adequately replace the unmediated nature of person-to- person connection and reciprocity. At the same time, as once was true of ancient cities, the modern city needs to grasp the logic and necessity for more communitarian and more-than-human, and nature-based unmediated spaces. How do we create this? How do we begin to recapture a communitarianism buried beneath our highly-developed cognitive brains, and return to an economy not grounded in scarcity and separation, but in the richness of community, of local reciprocity and exchange. This is an open question that our future might depend upon.

Fortunately, this is beginning to happen, like the whispers of a forgotten language. For example, in Phoebe Tickell’s work with Camden Council in London. The QUESTion project in New York. The Kebradas UniDiversity project in San Paolo, Brazil, Manish Jain’s work in Shikshantar in Udaipur, India, and even the eco-cities burgeoning in China. And historically, there is so much to draw upon.

For example, as Surinder S. Jodhka explains, when the British began to write about India, after they established their rule in the subcontinent during the eighteenth century, they rarely highlighted the native urban culture, the architecture, art, and music that flourished here. Nor did they speak of the urban economic riches, social diversities, the flourishing religious shrines of a wide range of faiths visited by followers from across the subcontinent, including from its far-flung interiors.”

Visiting Ahmedabad in India recently we learn about a city where as Mary Adams recently described,  “…a unique architectural urban design reflects the cosmopolitan nature of this medieval walled city built at a time when cultures and religions intermingled in rich co-existence; when sacred art and architecture were not distinct from the utilitarian, and city planning met the communitarian values of society.”

The Old City of Ahmedabad

Thomas de Zengotita, the author of the book Mediated, writes: “Cities no longer belong to the soulful flaneur, but to the wired-up voyeur in his soundproof Lexus. Behind his tinted windows, with his cell phone and CDs, he gets more input, with less static, from more channels, than Baudelaire ever dreamed of.” This might be true of New York City today. But as yet this phenomenon has not silenced the seemingly timeless communitarianism of a Mumbai or Hong Kong. Here the modern and ancient, the mediated and unmediated, seem to work seamlessly together rather than in opposition. Recently, on arriving in Mumbai, I visited a bookshop in the Fort area, and was struck by how different it was to the homogenous bookshops of the high streets of Britain, where I rarely find a book I want to read. Here in Kitab Khana, books are categorised in the generic way, but there is an intellectual aliveness in the air beyond any corporate or commercial overtone. This is reflected both in the diversity of the customers around me, sitting in corners reading, and in the selection of books displayed, which indicate someone genuinely wanting to stimulate my intellectual interest, as well my humanity and concern for the world.

So, let’s sing the hymn and create the stories of the city imaginary, while we still have time.

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