Interaction in the Efficient, Capitalist City

Theories in city planning relating infrastructure to human behavior, work and leisure led to structuring arguments in two dimensional patterns. An exercise of comparison and contrast led to observations linking a few.

In The Neutral City, Richard Sennett says, “whenever Americans of the era of high capitalism thought of an alternative to the grid, they thought of bucolic relief, such as a park or a promenade, rather than a more arousing street, square or center in which to experience the complex life of the city” and describes the grid “as a space for economic competition to be played upon like a chessboard”.[1] Building anew and demolishing to rebuild existing structures with similar or different programs is a familiar strategy to enhance or keep intact the economic worth of the setting of new construction. The Slum Rehabilitation schemes in Mumbai and the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development project in New York are examples of revival in affordable housing and manufacturing respectively. The redevelopment plan of Times Square which took almost thirty years to realize, is the epitome of free-market capitalism, but its transformation is due more to government intervention than just about any other development in the country.[2] The mechanical city is described as one in which priority is placed on convenience, speed, flexibility, legibility, equality and speculation. However, Egyptian work camps, Greek colonial trading cities, Roman imperial towns, French Bastide towns, Spanish Law of the Indies, American Grid of Expediency, the Jeffersonian Grid and the 1811 Commissioner’s grid, had the power of the oppressor (economic) and subjugation of the work class. Equity and the equitable city are not a part of these stories.

Rational technocracy and the need for efficient cities that address work and residence extend to an additional dimension, which is leisure. There is a required understanding of “flexible capitalism”, which was defined as the New Economy by Sennett. “Today, the phrase flexible capitalism describes a system which is more than a permutation on an old theme. The emphasis is on flexibility. Rigid forms of bureaucracy are under attack, as are the evils of blind routine. Workers are asked to behave nimbly, to be open to change on short notice, to take risks continually and to become ever less dependent on regulations and formal procedures.”[3] The effects of flexible capitalism on city form include the manner in which people interact with others who are not like themselves. This aspect is most evident during leisure and is dependent upon the setting within the City which facilitates interaction – not necessarily ‘bucolic’.

Mumford wrote about the city as a network of connections and a theater in which “man’s more purposive activities are focused and work out, through conflicting and cooperating personalities, events, groups, into more significant culminations. . . more richly significant, as a stage-set, well-designed, intensifies and underlines the gestures of the actors and the action of the play.”[4] This leads us to question the impact of the design of individual clusters or buildings and the way in which people interact with that setting on city form as a whole. Densities in areas that cater to a certain typology or situation – like work or residence, encourage differences in the behaviour of people. Also, the social aspect of people interacting affects the experiential qualities of the place, which is influenced by an individual’s cultural perspective and their association with the space. Based on this understanding, there is a link that can be made with the definition of the term “proxemics”, as coined by Edward T. Hall, which is the study of space experientially understood in different ways by people from various backgrounds associating with it. “One of the unintended consequences of modern capitalism is that it has strengthened the value of place, aroused a longing for community. All the emotional conditions we have explored in the workplace animate that desire: the uncertainties of flexibility, the absence of deeply rooted trust and commitment, the superficiality of teamwork, most of all the spectre of failing to make something of oneself in the world, to get a life through one’s work. All these conditions impel people to look for some other scene of attachment and depth.”[5] For example, music, dance and the arts in public spaces justify the freedom to have an opinion. This could be any expression in activity or in the experience of interaction.

Lefebvre’s analyses of perception of space (‘le percu‘) in The Critique of Everyday Life that users have compared to the theoretical perception of professionals that speculate and map the space (‘le concu‘) to make policy decisions, is worth noting. Though the text seems to be a philosophical take on the usage and science of space, the success lies in his description of the advancement of technology and its inability to affect social relations in a positive manner.[6] This success is dependent upon economic power today and the ability to implement authority. The East Village is an example where the reflection of scale and material formulates a setting for interaction, unlike Midtown Manhattan. Leisure and work are dependent on each other when recreation is time dependent and leisure activities become “work” in a different sense. Here, an objective has to be achieved within a specified schedule. Besides this, art, literature, music, dance and sports when defined by time and have monetary compensation become professions or work. Leisure is when those activities are experienced without the restriction of time. For instance, visits to museums, city squares and parks for some are possible during leisure. The ‘mechanical city’ could perhaps be described as evolving into the inclusive city by accommodating leisure as activities or experiences and facilitating consequent interaction not related to the workplace or residence.

The influence of community on the trinity of work, residence and leisure is highlighted by Lefebvre, where he says that community regulated celebration, for example of festivals and leisure activities, almost every day. Festivals in agrarian societies were post the harvest season and communities participated in song, dance, prayers and fairs together. There were also celestial connections that communities had in common – like lunar positions in the calendar year that were celebrated in different ways. In modern societies, where people come from various cultural backgrounds, time for leisure is regulated by capitalist organizations in societies for the majority at large and holidays and celebration are controlled by governments. There is now a global structure to leisure that has become commodified because of the advent of the mechanical city.

Centers of information and culture unique to cities cease to exist, because there is now a global conglomerate of cities that follow a similar pattern in diversity and human interaction in association with place, changing the definition of socialism and its effect on city form. However, cities dominating world markets in terms of production like some in China can be a contrast to some cities in the United States, that dominate in terms of maximum consumption. “What is the relationship between, on the one hand, the entirety of that space which falls under the sway of ‘socialist’ relations of production and, on the other hand, the world market, generated by the capitalist mode of production, which weighs down so heavily upon the whole planet, imposing its division of labor on a worldwide scale and so governing the specific configurations of space, of the forces of production within that space, of sources of wealth and of economic fluctuations?”[7] Common examples to illustrate: India stays awake as a back office to many multinational companies located worldwide and China’s labour enhances productivity of globally located multinational companies.

These global interactions appear within the city as well. In The Stranger on the Green, Luke Wallin uses Barry Greenbie’s direction between Edward T Hall’s proxemics and dystemic spaces to illustrate the devaluation of public space. Proxemic spaces are expressions of local or tribal culture, whereas dystemic spaces are used for “more impersonal, abstract relationships that enable members of various social groups to deal with each other amicably.”[8]

Mumford referred to the ‘denial of tradition’ by the Bauhaus modernists. Lefebvre refers to “lived space of the imagination” referring to art literature. Both referred to similar aspects of the city. The scale, interaction and medium are different. Mumford to refers to the physical city and Lefebvre to the “people expression”. Both interact and contribute to enhance the exhilaration of a city thereby transcending the mundane work-residence connection and perhaps relating to the supernatural city.

[1] Richard Sennett, The Neutral City, Chapter 2 in The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities, W.W.Norton  & Company, 1992, pp. 41-68

[2] Charles V. Bagli, After 30 Years, Times Square Rebirth Is Complete, The New York Times, Dec.3, 2010

[3] Richard Sennett: The Corrosion of Character – The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011, p.9

[4] Lewis Mumford, “What is a City,” (first published in Architectural Record, 1937) The City Reader, (Fifth Edition) Richard T. Le Gates and Frederic Stout, eds., (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), pp. 91-95

[5] Richard Sennett: The Corrosion of Character – The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, W. Norton & Company, 2011, p.138

[6] Henri Lefebvre, ‘The Critique of Everyday Life’, Verso, 1991

[7] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Wiley-Blackwell; 1992

[8] Andrew Light, Jonathan M. Smith, Philosophy and Geography II: The Production of Public Space (Introduction), Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., p.9


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