Away with the boring city – kind of (a book review)

I recently wrote a review, in Finnish, of a book with an intriguing looking take on urban futures as re-industrialised. As I tend to do, I first wrote it in English, so here is the draft.

Urban Re-Industrialization, Krzysztof Nawratek, editor. punctum books, e-book. 2017

This intriguing volume of short texts (frustratingly short mostly) argues for the creation of more production-oriented or industrial rather than consumption-led spaces in urban areas. In his introduction, the editor Krzysztof Nawratek promises thinking to break neoliberal path-dependencies that have long enfeebled cities. The volume in fact contains some great deconstructions of the double-speak that offers improvement while instituting ever more exploitative systems of supervision and control deep into the social and technical systems underpinning ordinary life. (I particularly recommend Chapter 1 by Michael Edwards & Myfanwy Taylor). Indeed, the analyses and proposals put forward in the book are tantalizing – at times.

As a whole the book, however, is a strange ensemble. It offers sharp and well researched analysis on the one hand and surprisingly vacuous rhetoric from writers promoting supposedly “alternative” urbanism, on the other.

What is even more odd is that the critical analyses come first, followed  by several texts that these would seem to be perfectly poised to debunk. There is quite a lot there, of what, in his (critical) contribution to the volume, Jeffrey T. Kruth dubs the “re-invention of fads, ideas, technology and marketing strategies” related to “cappuccino culture”.

Arising out of teaching and two mini-conferences, Urban Re-Industrialization makes a plea for something more real and more just than the “cappuccino city”. In any case, argues Nawratek very reasonably, that was built on a fantasy of creative talent and spurred on by magical thinking that “doesn’t bother to ask questions about where the middle classes (or indeed their money) are coming from”.

Unfortunately, however, cappuccino culture remains promoted and often publicly supported, and, like gentrification, it too is  decried and promoted by the same actors. (At least this is the case in my home town of Helsinki, and my former home, London.)

But the volume’s practice-based texts aim for a “more just and more democratic” society (don’t we all?) by reproducing naïve rhetoric about, for instance, the possibilities of the Third Industrial Revolution of digital manufacturing and the personalized, customized, craft-based and always somehow environmentally benign consumer items it heralds. Even more irritatingly, sometimes they echo the biggest developers and construction firms, by using a vaguely declamatory future tense – “these developments will…” and asserting equally vaguely that the changes will have important implications for our cities and homes. We also hear of the attractions of a fuller sensory experience to be gained once work is returned from grim industrial zones on the edge of town into the hubbub of everyday life. Besides being platitudinous, such prose comes close to justifying the circus of vanity projects in arts and culture that still try to target struggling municipal governments with their promises of “global” visibility and streams of money-spending tourists.

Not, I should add, that any of the chapters would do anything so ghastly as promote the creation of staged spaces of consumer safety. And its contributions make an often compelling case for reinserting productive rather than consumptive functions back into urban areas, for stopping the deadly sanitizing of urban culture, in short.

Much of the book argues for some serious economic and institutional reorganization as well as rethinking. It is after all incredibly difficult if not impossible in public governance to prevent – and not just pretend to disapprove of – the perverse and enfeebling impacts of land speculation and wealth accumulation based on rent and transfers of wealth from public to private hands.

A strange mix of texts indeed, perhaps some of them will be developed further and published in more thorough treatments of a truly problematic contemporary condition!

 

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