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). 

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.