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). 

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.