Cities may be exploitative – but they're the only place the non-waste economy can develop

The shadow of Lenin looming over Moscow. Image: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty.

In the 1920s Soviet planners disputing over the model of a new, socialist city were divided into two camps.

One group, the “super-urbanists”, led by Leonid Sabsovich, proclaimed the glory of the city as a place where the working class were born – but they were, nonetheless, planning its gradual decentralisation. The second group, the “dis-urbanists”, led by Mikhail Okhitovich and Moisei Ginzburg, proclaimed the need for a radical shift into the next, post-urban, model of the city. This, they saw as an effect of the victory of a proletarian revolution.


Super-urbanists designed a linear, dense, urban structure; dis-urbanists suggested the development of small industrial settlements, evenly distributed across the country, and connected by railway lines. Both groups – although in varying degrees –had a dismissive attitude towards cities existing at the beginning of twentieth century.

There’s been some debate on CityMetric, about whether the city is an area of ​​exploitation (the view of Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield), or whether it’s a  democratic space providing its residents with the opportunity of equalitarian emancipation (the view of James O’Malley). To me, this debate looks a little bit like this old dispute between communist planners.

And just as Stalinist urbanisation shattered the visions of super-urbanists and dis-ubanists alike, so the transformation of late capitalism, I think, nullifies the dispute presented in those earlier columns.

Modern cities have not emerged as a result of a conspiracy by the “urban industry”; instead they’re the result of industrial revolution and the Fordist organization of production. Nowadays, cities in Europe and the US are often described as “post-industrial” – but it was industry that decided how they look today, and it’s industry that’ll decide on their future.

More modern cities are still more fallen industrial cities, rather than new entities based on a new mechanism of development. This makes contemporary cities weak. And it is that weakness – not strength – that is their problem.

Today's criticism of the city from the anti-capitalist position seems to forget that, in the Soviet bloc, cities were built as industrial cities: their deindustrialisation has begun in exactly the moment when neoliberal capitalism was accepted as a model of their future development.

We need to take over our cities, not escape into some anti-urban utopia

This relationship between contemporary global capitalism and the collapse of industrial cities is crucial to understanding today's crisis. Industrial cities were obviously built on the exploitation of the working classes. But at the same moment, these cities provided spaces – factories – where working class solidarity was born. Neither socialists nor communists suggested the destruction of these factories; they just wanted to take control and ownership over them.

Today there is a very similar task in front of us: we need to take over our cities, not escape into some anti-urban utopia.

But if the industrial city created, as a byproduct, solidarity between workers, the contemporary post-industrial city is destroying it. The neoliberal city is spatially and socially fragmented. But there is a clear meta-narrative, organising it as a whole from outside: the mechanism of financial speculation. Where once workers were exploited in factories, today they are exploited through the housing market.

This speculation and exploitation is possible exactly because the city is fragmented and weak. The post-neoliberal city must therefore be based on what is spatial and what is material.

This post-neo-liberal model of the economy can be born only in the cities. And it will be a model associated with the idea of ​​re-industrialisation – understood not as a return of factories into the cities, but as a socio-economic project, inspired by the ideas of industrial ecology, based on the principle of closing the chains of production and consumption.

Such anti-capitalist re-industrialisation could be economically effective – its development is not producing any waste. Such industrialization means full employment (such as existed in Japan when the country became an economic power). It means comprehensive use of waste (in Sweden at the moment, 99 per cent of household waste is recycled). And it means synergistic cooperation between different economic actors. It is a model of a society based on cooperation and not on competition, on an economy with optimised consumption, breaking away from the dominance of the financial sector.

This is a model of society progressives should be fighting for – and it could only be built in cities.

Krzysztof Nawratek is a lecturer and Master of Architecture programme leader in the School of Architecture, Design & Environment at Plymouth University. He is an author of “The City as a Political Idea” (2011) and “Holes in the Whole: Introduction to Urban Revolutions” (2012). 

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.