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Make sense not war

Whilst I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that “everyone is an environmentalist” (in Helsinki or anywhere else), I do think it’s fair to suggest that folks in all walks of life are tending towards the activist. Many, many people are trying to change things.

And why not? I don’t remember a time in my almost 50-year-old life when things were in quite this much need of being otherwise. Judging by the text painted on the wall of the old gasworks in Suvilahti that I spotted today, I’m not alone.

Below are (still) more thoughts on why we need to think about what the craze for self-organizing means. Grassroots urbanism, DIY (do-it-yourself) cities, DIWO (do-it-with-others) actions, P2P (peer-to-peer) networks, design activism, urban prototyping, low-budget urban design should be enjoyed but also better understood.

I look forward to collective efforts to make changes for the better as Helsinki’s long cold spring shows signs of turning into a summer. So:

Locally initiated informal actions for “alternative” ways of making cities are an undisputed reality. Recently social scientists have mostly been framing this in relation to economic crisis, and seeing it as a diffuse but significant social movement (Bialski et al. 2015, Novy and Colomb 2013, Susser and Tonnelat 2013). Urban experiments are also often seen as responses, even partial solutions, to frightening problems of global scale, notably environmental unsustainability. Many are celebrated by the media and welcomed by urban governments as proof of citizens’ entrepreneurialism. And of course, they contribute to a creative and sociable “buzz”. They are a way of instrumentalizing [sic] culture and creativity that Helsinki’s urban managers are increasingly likely to support.

And so in the Finnish capital Helsinki the self-reliant and self-directed urbanite is both a critic of and an accomplice to creative city policy-making (Comedia 2010). Growing numbers of people who work in creative production (architecture, design, communications) and for whom environmental concern is a norm find DIY urbanism to come very naturally.

This is not surprising. Helsinki itself is a green city in many ways. Seen from the air, it almost looks like a large village at the edge of an endless forest. The Green party is prominent in municipal government. A green-tinged vocabulary of design thinking geared to transitioning into a sustainable future complements older discourses of managing the city. Helsinki today appears more than willing to experiment in the face of uncertain futures.

Change making of the most literal kind is also big business in today’s Helsinki. Noteworthy physical change has started to take place across Helsinki since a new cargo port was opened in the suburbs in 2008 leaving city centre sites free for residential and business development. Print and online publications and the Department of Planning’s own info and exhibition space, Laituri, provide an endless stream of information and imagery of the beautiful New Horizons for Helsinki.  Here, large-scale architectural and infrastructure projects are offered as keys to better futures not forgetting the importance, of course, of us participants.

Meanwhile controversies over prestige architecture animate public debate. The New York-based Guggenheim Foundation’s desire for a museum on a site in the city’s historic centre has seduced some and enraged others (some note here in Finnish), as have other combinations of footloose capital and showy architecture. The pattern is familiar across the world.

At issue is not just physical but also cultural and social change. One avenue has been to add the lexicon of design to that of urban development (Julier and Leerberg 2014). In Helsinki this imported trend is being grafted onto an older nature-loving self-image as well as a home-grown culture of practical action.

Just in the last few years a local ecology of self-organising grassroots initiatives has grown. Its success is usually attributed to Finns’ enthusiasm for technology and social media but also for a national tradition of mutual aid within the community, talkoot (Paterson 2010) as well as international fashions. Restaurant Day began as a gentle protest against laws that make it hard for people to go into the restaurant business and evolved into a celebration of a DIY-spirit but also a way for Helsinki’s ethnic minorities to come into public view in a positive way. Maker culture and artistic practices cross-fertilise each other producing smaller and larger gatherings of people, recycling, reusing and cooperation schemes in countless neighbourhood level projects (Botero et al. 2012, Berglund 2013).

Two low-tech greenhouses, where people put their skills to work in imagining but also literally building alternatives to an unsustainable present, serve as examples of a wider phenomenon. Although not everyone involved has considered themselves activist, both projects have been activist in the sense of seeking change and seeking to make a point. Designating them as critique let alone protest may not be quite accurate. This, however, does not make them automatic stooges of an all-consuming neoliberalism.

No authority but yourself

Gentle rebellion

(The text below has only two hyperlinks. Maybe more later).

The Oxygen Room was built for the summer of 2000 in shrubbery overlooked by the parliament building and not far from several venues for high culture. Helsinki was a European capital of culture, so it made sense for the city to grant permission for building a glass pavilion made of recycled materials here, in what had long been derelict land but was now becoming the edge of a temporary art garden. A private foundation financed the project, professionals and volunteers from a network called “Kvinnor i extas” (Swedish for “women in ecstasy”, Finland being a bilingual country) built and ran the beautiful pavilion, and tourists, locals and the media loved it. It eventually came into the hands of the Finnish chapter of o2, the international network for sustainable design whose varied summer programmes continued until 2007, to the surprise of many. As exhausting as they were, those who were involved speak of those years with great fondness. Ecologically and socially oriented, events at the Oxygen Room contrasted hugely with the commercial world around, and even more perhaps with the subsequent transformation of the area into standard-issue twenty-first-century office architecture, a process still underway.

The other greenhouse is the Turntable urban farm and vegan café a little to the north of where the Oxygen Room once stood. The Turntable started as squatting, but later an environmental organisation, Dodo ry, helped it get more established. With institutional backing and external funding activists were able to expand gardening into an old railway turntable near the original guerrilla plot. The turntable’s steel frame has been turned into a functioning greenhouse while the area around has been transformed into plantings of various kinds, where activists experiment with permaculture and closed-loop urban agriculture. There is also a café that runs from time to time, partly on a volunteer basis, and importantly, the space is used for educational events and parties, as a launch-pad for spreading ideas and skills.

As elements of urban culture, both greenhouses have been opportunities for people to experiment with techniques, with reorganising labour, forging alternative identities but they have also been sources of joy. Both sites have been places where global vocabularies of commoning and participating in making the future city have been rooted in local ways of thinking and doing. It is no surprise that design – a practice requiring conceptual and practical skills at the same time – offers a shorthand if vague language for articulating what is going on: people are designing a better world.

Creative policy and informational fog

Yet the creation of alternative spaces and practices is also part of, rather than simply opposed to, policy goals in Helsinki. In a sense there is a top-down commitment to the bottom-up here as elsewhere, most obviously manifest in an official enthusiasm for creativity (Comedia 2010). This is not entirely new, as both artistic and engineering creativity have been imagined as particularly Finnish achievements since before independence in 1917. Native creativity was integral to the narrative of how design developed in Finland after the second world war when urbanization and reliance on industrial products became a majority experience even though the economy remained overwhelmingly based on a natural resource, forests. Closeness to nature was turned into a cultural virtue with 1950s Finnish design associated with forested landscapes and bearded design geniuses were almost imagined to grow out of its soil. However, nature-loving as a virtue took new meanings in the late twentieth century and environmental values became particularly visible in 2012, when Helsinki became World Design Capital.[i] The programme was designed to show that Helsinki was perfectly placed to become a vanguard of global green knowledge, a pioneer of designing solutions to global problems.

The city’s bid to be World Design Capital built on the idea that in Helsinki:

… design has for decades been a pivotal enabler to building an open city. The concept of ‘Embedded Design’ has tied design to innovation and has enabled desirable solutions that have addressed the needs of its inhabitants. Helsinki Design is also part of world design – it is created together with the international design community and the people of the world. (World Design Capital, press release 25.11.2009)

The World Design Capital year could be seen as signalling the arrival in policy not just of creativity but specifically of design. In particular there were two institutions, the small but growing think-tank Demos Helsinki, and Helsinki Design Lab (HDL), a well-resourced but small team of design and engineering professionals working under the auspices of Sitra/the Finnish Fund for Innovation, that promoted design’s potential in helping to solve wicked problems of global scope if not actually save the world or even the Finnish economy. These two institutions were prominent promoters of the idea that Finland (and the world) needs to get rid of of “eighteenth century institutions” (Boyer et al. 2011) and make space for new expertise and new politics. They argued that specialist expertise was old-fashioned and that rather than compartmentalized knowledge filtering through hierarchies down to the grassroots, better tomorrows will come from horizontal collaborations that work bottom-up. Design and design thinking were said to offer the “joined up thinking” and “people-centred” solutions that would facilitate such a transformation. And so the idea of design – in all its vagueness and new uses – was promoted by these two organisations as something that Finnish policy making really needed.

It was often not clear whether the promoters of these innovations were making normative or empirical statements, after all, much of the time they were talking of the future and playing with future scenarios. However, many saw new hope in small entrepreneurship growing from the grassroots, and the city and the national government continued to promote economic policies based on adding value through creativity, innovation and design (Muotoile Suomi / National Design Program 2013). And so grassroots activism easily merged into profit-seeking entrepreneurial activity.

What kind of critique is this then?

This also means that although these greenhouse projects and other forms design-influenced activism have been critical in intent and self-consciously “alternative”, they could be – and they have been – dismissed as banal extensions of Helsinki’s creative city policies. In the first as adding value to Helsinki as European capital of culture in 2000, and in the second, adding value to Helsinki as World Design Capital in 2012.

The likelihood that critique voiced by urban “creatives” is prone to being co-opted has been highlighted by many social scientists (Novy and Colomb 2013, Taylor 2013). Their critique echoes the suggestion that the environmentalist argument has been used to shut down, rather than open up, political space (Swyngedouw 2009). What is one person’s environment-friendly design is more work for someone else who is already over-worked and under-paid. And what looks like activism may be little more than eco-chic or, at best, hipsters feeling radical while fuelling capitalism-as-usual.

There is of course also the danger that large scale collective services and decision making – the things that in Nordic welfare states used to help the poor become wealthier – will simply be lost in the enthusiasm for self-organising. Then there is the problem is scale, for instance the current support of city governments for temporary uses of under-exploited spaces. “Pop-up” or temporary uses and occupancy of formerly derelict land – like both the greenhouse examples – are often encouraged by authorities and developers. In the end, however, they lead to the same corporate glass and steel that activists are often against. These temporary solutions can even be seen as “cosmetic” supports of speculative urban development whose association with activism can be cynically exploited (Tonkiss 2014).

At a more abstract level, we might note how the “informational fog” (Thrift 2012) of contemporary capitalism confounds understandings of change as economic activity becomes an accelerated race to simultaneously produce and consume. Embedded within the urban infrastructure and people’s intimate lives, information technologies fuel endless feedback loops and a sense of perpetual forward motion that serves profit, not people. So maybe activists are contributing to a smokescreen circus of only seemingly wholesome and planet-loving activity. However, they are also doing much that a narrowly neoliberal imagination cannot comprehend because it cannot make it commensurate with its main measure of value: money.

But it still feels to me that these collective grassroots design experiments are too important a site of creative collaboration to be dismissed as unwitting supports of creative capitalism. They require but also reward hard work and ingenuity and many, many hours of volunteer work. And I’d not say this is in vain. The intellectual labour of activism – gentle or otherwise – has for a long time been an under-appreciated aspect of what passes for shared knowledge. And in many ways, today’s grassroots designers are truly denaturalising the normality that industrialism (and industrial design) put into place, making us ask more persistently: “why are we being so stupid?”.

Perhaps because we’re so used to normality as (or in) a rush and the subjective sense of blur this induces, that ordinary fog I alluded to earlier. In an activist mode we do get to step out of our habitual informational fog from time to time, into a greenhouse, for example. Things appear differently here.

Turntable April 2014 by EB

REFERENCES

Bialski, Paula; Heike Derwanz; Birke Otto; Hans Vollmer (2015) ‘”Saving the city: Collective low-budget organising and urban practice’, Ephemerajournal, online http://www.ephemerajournal.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/issue/15-1ephemera-feb15.pdf

Botero, A.; A.G.Paterson; J. Saad-Sulonen (eds) 2012. Towards Peer Production in Public Services: Cases from Finland, Helsinki: Aalto University.

Boyer, B.; J. W. Cook; M. Steinberg. 2011. In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change. Helsinki: Sitra.

Comedia ‘Helsinki as an Open and Intercultural City: Final Report’, Comedia/the City of Helsinki, March 2010.

Julier, Guy and Malene Leerberg (2014) ‘Kolding – We Design For Life: embedding a new design culture into urban regeneration’, Yhdyskuntasuunnittelu / Finnish Journal of Urban Studies, pp.39-56. Also online http://www.yss.fi/journal/kolding-we-design-for-life/

Muotoile Suomi / National Design Program (2013) www.tem.fi/innovaatiot/kysynta-_ja_kayttajalahtoinen_innovaatiotoiminta/kayttajalahtoinen_innovaatiopolitiikka/muotoilu/kansallinen_muotoiluohjelma [accessed 29.04.2015]

Novy, J. & Colomb, C. 2013. ‘Struggling for the Right to the Creative. City in Berlin and Hamburg: new urban social movements, new “spaces of hope”’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol.37(5): 1816-38.

Paterson, Andrew Gryf. 2010. ‘A Buzz between Rural Cooperation and the Online Swarm’, Affinities: Theory, Culture, Action (online http://p2pfoundation.net/Rural_Cooperation_and_the_Online_Swarm accessed April 2015)

Swyngedouw, E. 2009. ‘The Antinomies of the Postpolitical City: In Search of a Democratic Politics of Environmental Production’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Vol. 33.3: 601-20.

Taylor, B. (2013) ‘From alterglobalization to Occupy Wall Street: Neoanarchism and the new spirit of the left’, CITY, Vol.17(6): 729-747.

Thrift, N. (2012) ‘The insubstantial pageant: producing an untoward land’, Cultural Geographies, 19: 141-168.

[i] The status is granted every two years to a city by ICSID (International Council of Societies of Industrial Design): Turin 2008, Soeul 2010, Helsinki 2012, Cape Town 2014, Taipei 2016.

Although talk of ‘the self’ creates associations of selfishness or possessive individualism, a collective concept of self might be worth taking a bit more seriously as an agent of change. At the end of this post I’ve listed a few readings on the topic of self-directed or self-organised initiatives to establish alternative ‘normals’. Do, please help me build up a bigger list.

Otherwise this entry is a tiny record of my recent encounters with the remarkable rise of urban grassroots initiatives or direct action to change the world for the better. The phenomenon is widespread, prominent and full of hope. It’s poorly defined and highly diffuse, but most definitely it exists.

‘It’ is urbanism that is handmade, low-budget, grassroots, experimental, disruptive (mainly of neoliberal ways of treating the city) ways of arranging and trying to live in the city. It might include squatting, up-cycling and repairing resources that exist but that are under-valued or out of people’s reach. It involves decentralised and sometimes social-media supported groups of local people.

It’s about hijacking, hacking, repurposing and intervening in urban space for collective benefit, about treating the city as a commons (with the prolific geographer David Harvey offering inspirational ideas, still, on the topic).

I know it’s about doing more than thinking or writing, but I believe there’s still much scope to think harder about bottom-up or small-scale urban change. There’s certainly a need to continue (as Jamie Peck has been doing so brilliantly) figuring out how we can be innovative without running our cities into constant crises.

The Commons is one concept to start from, still productive for those who seek alternatives to the destructiveness of the mainstream.

The Commons was the theme for Helsinki-based art collective Pixelache’s international unconference or festival in early June. The venue was Vartiosaari, an island accessible only by boat not 10km from central Helsinki. I am surely not exaggerating when I claim that each one of the perhaps couple of hundred who came to discuss threats to the commons and creative ways to counter them, where awed by the beauty and fullness of cultural, natural and geological worlds of Vartiosaari.

Just as surely visitors were baffled bVartiosaari pathy the city of Helsinki’s recent decision to transform it into a suburb for the so-called good tax payers that Helsinki apparently so badly needs. One of the keynote speakers, Alain Ambrosi, went around filming people’s views on both the commons and the threat to the commons that is Vartiosaari. I was one of many who were happy to oblige.

Though the venue is perhaps a digression from the topic, it underscored brilliantly the topic of the commons and the threats to it worldwide. Almost everywhere the rich continue to get richer and to get more, while the poorer get even poorer and get less. In Finland the pressure is on for the local state to help rather than hinder this worldwide trend.

At the Pixelache festival experts of all kinds came to think about retaking the urban project, with walks, talks, dialogues and more. The unconference had a strikingly intellectual embedded element: 2-day scenario workshop on the Bio-Commons, hosted by the Finnish Society of Bioart.

This introduced us to almost mind-bending possibilities of citizen science in the realm of the life sciences. The workshop seemed to suggest that it is possible retake the future from the sociopathic and inhumane market imperatives of the corporate pharmaceutical sector. It also pointed out the terrifying possibilities should the life sciences continue to be captured by corporate ideals. Apparently, ‘despite a steady exponential increase of available scientific information in form of peer reviewed publications and digital database sizes, the number of new drugs which were introduced to the market per billion dollar spent fell exponentially’ (quoted in the ‘White Paper’ generated by the event).

Taking place in a wooden hut, on a jetty poking out into the water, under the trees and just the sky, the talking and listening and doing amounted to a concerted effort to think and imagine collectively. Invoking ethics and collaboration did not mean avoiding asking hard questions. There was critique here, and much politics.

One of the presentations at Pixelache talked about a now well-known intervention in Madrid, el Campo de Cebada. A public space left over and left vacant in the historic heart of the city, it may yet end up a shopping mall or some such, but at present it is an example of a new type of commons in the city, celebrated internationally as well as at home.

Campo de Cebada also featured in my encounters with urban change later in the summer, when in a noteworthy heat-wave, the European Association of Social Anthropologists gathered in Tallinn under the rubric of Collaboration, Intimacy and Revolution.

This conference title inspired many of us to translate our interest in practices of urban transformation into intellectual and anthropological debate. Panels discussed these topics under themes of shifts in democratic practices, urban commons, collective place-making and, the panel I was involved in myself, collective design experiments.

I hope to write more about our panel later, so will skip the details here. What I will note is that from a call for contributions that picked up quite simply on the relatively novel idea of making cities fit for the social needs of a somewhat stable population, we ended up with a great panel with many empirical accounts of how people around the world are dis-assembling and re-assembling the worlds around them as they strive for more meaningful lives. From the deserts of New Mexico or community experiments like Findhorn to people’s efforts to build just futures in mega-cities like Istanbul or where mega-events have left scars like the Olympic legacy areas of East London, people are working things out by making physical things not just jointly but in solidarity.

RioWhich brings me to my third encounter with designing a better world, the ENTREMEIOS symposium in Rio de Janeiro in early August. What a privilege to join these anthropologists and designers and their students, and to learn about the way our academic practices – in both design and anthropology – meet the realities of a remarkable city like Rio.

And indeed, what a contrast from the other venues. I fell in love with this city endowed with such unusual views and such a sense of cheer. This despite the ubiquitous police presence and apprehensions about restrictions on democratic freedoms so recently won. And I fell for it despite the crazy social structure, the incomprehensible economic inequality and the fear for personal safety.

It took a while to understand that taxis drive at speed through red lights in order to be safe, not to be reckless.

In Brazil everything informal or ‘self-service’ has a prominent presence in many people’s lives notably in the cities’ favelas. These cities within the city were temporarily brought under the spotlight – for both good and ill – during last summer’s World Cup Football.

On the other hand, using design and other professional skills to make the world more livable is a type of informality that, though obviously highly developed, fits easily into a global repertoire of urban activism today. For example the shape, atmosphere and features (the bicycles!) of the artists’ collective Casa Nuvem reminded me of initiatives in Helsinki and across Europe. There’s a good description on this blog.

Taking place at the Centro Carioca de Design on the edge of Tiradentes Square, the symposium focussed on ‘Ways of life and creative practices in the city’. Creativity in urban policy and creativity at the grassroots are both prominently at play, creating new opportunities for initiatives at the grassroots, but also fueling anxieties. There was much debate about the way alternative design projects get co-opted or cynically exploited for the usual fun-oriented but profit-seeking activities of urban elites, infatuated as some now are, with the edgy but productive vibe of the grassroots.

The symposium involved workshops for students as well as presentations by graduate students from the Laboratory of Design and Anthropology, and round tables on related topics. The impression I received was that while we in Europe are creating more unhelpful divisions, the anthropologically inflected design work taking place in Brazil is dismantling precisely the things that create cultural as well as economic barriers.

The intellectual work, as well as the practical and political interventions, done here is mostly in Portuguese for now, but I sincerely hope that more will become available in English as well. One hopeful example is Zoy Anatstassakis’ thoughtful commentary on why and how anthropology and design are good partners.

Over here in Helsinki, academic engagements with designing better cities appear more attuned to innovation as an economic good. More radical ideas circulate among networks of activists, artists and others. Partly this grassroots creativity can be accounted for by the rise in under-employed creative labour, or simply talented young people who would prefer to design for the real world than for profit. Partly it may be fashion, political and intellectual waves, perhaps even a necessary response to environmental catastrophe and the routine disasters of capitalism-as-usual in our times.

Compendium-style catalogues about the phenomenon continue to be published. These celebrate but also analyse it.

Marcos L. Rosa, one of the speakers at ENTREMEIOS, has edited one recently, Handmade Urbanism: From Community Initiatives to Participatory Models. Another to look out for is Make_Shift City, edited by Francesca Ferguson and also published by Jovis. An older but compendium that includes historical examples is Awan, Schneider and Till, Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture, published by Routledge in 2011, also online.

Having produced such a ridiculously long post merely to get to my adventures and discoveries in Rio, I will leave it there. Except to note some of the more academic analyses I’ve come across.

Ida Susser and Stéphane Tonnelat write about ‘Transformative cities’ that are built on the social needs of a population rather than those of profit-making (in Focaal–Journal of global and historical anthropology). Gordon Douglas surveys ‘Do-It-Yourself urban design’ in City & Community. In the journarl CITY Margit M The short commentaries in the Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, Vol. 38. No.4 last year, by Susana Narotzky, Michal Osterweil and Jane Collins, are also concerned with grassroots reactions to economic hardship.

I welcome suggestions for more resources!

p.s. And meanwhile, the good folks at Helsinki’s Turntable vegan cafe and vegetable garden were keeping busy and happy with making a better city. Some of us produced a short update (in Finnish), available here.

I am working up a review to send to a couple of places in a couple of languages, but in the mean time, here are some of my notes on David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the right to the city to the urban revolution, London & New York: Verso 2012.

David Harvey is one of the most cited critical urban scholars today.  Rebel Cities paints a grim picture of our times and our cities. Taking its cue on the one hand from urban rebels – activists – who are saying “no” to neoliberalism, and on the other from the depressing urban environments that capitalism so frenetically produces, the book is pretty much a call to arms: Capitalist normality is morally bankrupt not to mention materially disastrous. Where is “the left” when it could be articulating a better alternative?!

The book combines two insights, firstly that it is in the city that capitalism is at its most intense and secondly that it is in the city where it is definitely most contested. Rebel Cities shows how the economics of neoliberalism have been indelibly etched into the urban fabric. Everywhere, not only in the long-polarized developing world, cycles of boom and bust have produced not just new millionaires and new paupers, but an anti-social cocktail of Disneyfied authenticity, fortified fragmentation and ceaseless surveillance. The book also lays bare the costs of society’s fixation with private property – most tragically in the desire to own one’s home – and shows how this has crowded out other forms of politics.

Not, of course, that the process is linear or evenly distributed, as Harvey has been at pains to demonstrate throughout his career. It is the “rebel” perspective that Harvey develops, but it is clear that the mainstream can no longer pretend that all is well either. Post-2011 with its Arab Spring, Tel Aviv summer, London riots and global Occupy camps, we know that simmering discontent can and will crystallize into action. Despite the repressive efforts of capital-friendly states and municipal guardians of law and order (in the service of the propertied classes) autonomous actions have continued to flourish. They arise both in response to immediate needs – as in campaigns against entrenched homelessness or in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy – and in the guise of more or less utopian experiments that hark back to the countercultures of previous generations.

Harvey’s Marxist background provides ample tools for connecting the street level experience of urban space to the dynamics of capitalist expansion. The book scans the horizon for the real costs – environmental and human – of what convention still dubs “development”.  Its important contribution is in linking these to macroeconomic “disruptions”, the absurdities of bankers’ bonuses, freshly produced homelessness and the full scope of the speculative transformations unfolding in urban built environments. The cities we fight for turn out not to be under accidental or random assault. Rather, the relentless competition between cities and the equally relentless rearrangements of the built environment, are part of the same problem: capitalism.

The book takes a global view, arguing that capital’s drive to extract surplus operates against any sociable common goals. Capital appropriates not just physical production but the creation of cultural value. Everything comes under assault, but above all the environment and the people of the city, the laborers who, in body (labor) and spirit (culture), actually already produced and continue to produce that environment. Perhaps that is why there is something very understandable in the recent upsurge of interest in campaigns that claim a “right to the city”. The slogan, which was launched by Henri Lefebvre in the social upheavals of the late 1960s and which has been given recent exposure by Harvey’s own work, has almost become institutionalized. The Right to the City Alliance came into being in 2007, and continues to provide a shared language and a platform for a plethora of urban-based justice campaigns within the USA, and inspiration and resources for activists beyond. In Brazil a right to the city was incorporated into law in 2001. Despite the revolutionary tone of the slogan, it is not clear that struggles for urban rights really do challenge prevailing and essentially bourgeois concepts of rights, ones based on individualist and property-based notions of legality. And it is not clear whether the slogan’s apparent popularity is an academic illusion either.

Harvey does not elaborate much on urban movements, but he is probably on the right track in that many of them are struggling against privatization at a local level. (I’d hazard a guess that in practice whatever alternative to activists taking charge of Hietaniemi’s pavilion, see my previous post in Finnish, the results would lead to a privatized and visibly corporate result, perhaps in the shape of some “design yourself better”-sports facility that would suit the entrepreneurial, self-responsible and forever young values of Helsinki’s major political actors).

Hietsu2013

Claiming the right to the city is, as Harvey observes, actually often about wanting safe public spaces, wanting affordable housing, and demanding more say in the definition of what the city could be. It is necessary but it is reformist and does not strike at the real problem, just like a workers’ collective that ends up behaving like a capitalist firm is not exactly threatening the operations of the market, as he points out. There are many interesting points about urban struggles here, but though they are presented as core to the book, it is not quite clear how they connect to Harvey’s argument about capital and its urban character.

Much of the argument is rather abstract and assumes prior engagement with the histories of urban struggle. What is new and interesting is that a deepening respect for the generative powers of culture is evident throughout the book. Towards the end of Rebel Cities, empirical detail is put to work explicitly to support a more general argument for attending to cultural specifics. The example he offers is of El Alto in Bolivia, invoked to show that a city can be reclaimed for anti-capitalist struggle. Harvey relies almost exclusively on the work of two anthropologists, Leslie Gill and, in particular Sian Lazar, who both (separately) describe and analyze the mix of indigenous and class politics that brought El Alto to international attention as a “rebel city”, which successfully resisted neoliberal reforms in 2003. When subsequently Evo Morales was elected as president of Bolivia, many saw it as a sign of a totally new momentum to progressive left-wing politics. Harvey admits that since then Bolivia has been drawn into a kind of reconstituted neoliberalism, but he still sees in these accounts of El Alto important lessons for anti-capitalist struggle. The local ties of solidarity so carefully described by Lazar especially, offer Harvey a tantalizing glimpse of how the abstract need for an alternative to global capitalism fuses with local forces to produce real change and genuine hope.

There is a suggestion in the book that as more and more struggles come out into the open surely this should be telling us that the conditions are ripe for a break with capitalism. Whilst the activists are doing their bit the intellectuals are fainthearted, Harvey seems to be saying. For instance, he does not see that the noticeable and productive interest in the politics of the commons and the active pursuit of commoning is particularly well served by current academic debate. Of course Harvey’s primary targets are the architects of the new normal who insist on imposing austerity on the poor to save “the markets”, but even the Marxists whose theories are based on something called “historical materialism”, and the theorists of the commons for whom culture as well as materiality are already incorporated into economic analysis, fall short of the kind of radicalism he is seeking.

As a book Rebel Cities could be more robust and more thoughtfully edited. Each chapter is very different, as might be expected of a book put together from previously published articles. Still, in readable prose and with some impressive analysis, Harvey persuades that it is time to dislodge the dysfunctional and immoral Party of Wall Street and replace its intellectually incoherent model of “normal” with something else. He manages to weave together a compelling story about a global system, incoherent, crisis-ridden and raggedy as it is, whose impacts on social reproduction and the environment – built and unbuilt – are of the same destructive kind everywhere. The book left me unsure of how, exactly, the history of urban struggles is linked to the urban character of capitalism, but the terrain is worth more exploration.

Shantitown in SA at speedAnd in reading Rebel Cities I did often visualize the imagination-defying architectural gigantism of Shanghai and New York, felt the eeriness of China’s new ghost towns and conjured up some sense of life in a slum, based (unsurprisingly) on a few fleeting drive-by encounters. I also thought about Helsinki’s perhaps less spectacular but no less distressing “developments” and how they suit “the new normal” so much better than the old “human scale” that used to be so typical here.

Harvey’s book has its shortcomings then, yet in his hands the idea of “the city” as the locus of capitalism’s most voracious, even feral, powers makes sense. So does his claim that urban struggles are a force of history worth taking seriously. Thinking about these things in Harvey’s company might lead to more ambitious debate about why our cities are in such a mess.