Tag Archives: urbanism

From a wilderness island

The autumn’s dark evenings are closing in and the island cabin from where I’ve worked so much in recent months will soon be but a memory. Poised between the teaching to come and the summer just gone, here some thoughts inspired by the island, but also by the Urban Environments Initiative symposium of July 2021. There I joined a great bunch of people to discuss the “irritations and unforeseen consequences of ‘the urban’”.

My presentation was included in the session on Futures, focussed as it was on the planning controversy around Vartiosaari, Helsinki, that I’ve written about more than once on this blog.

It was the “unforeseen consequences” of the urban in the conference title though that had piqued my interest. The threatened urban oasis that is Vartiosaari island (the 70 hectares are within Helsinki’s municipal boundaries) is definitely an urban product (among other things).

Here’s one description:

“So close but a world away. Vartiosaari feels like it’s somewhere deep in the countryside, where the natural landscape is still intact. The island is located in the inner archipelago of Eastern Helsinki […] 7 km as the crow flies East from the city centre. […] The whole area is important habitat for bats and includes the only spot in Finland where the critically endangered plant petasites spurious (also known as ‘Wooly [sic] Butterbur’, or ‘Rantaruttojuuri ‘ in Finnish) has been found. Interesting geological features include large boulders, rocky remnants of the ancient shoreline and the Litorina sea. Over 50 villas, the oldest dating back to the late 19th century, form part of Vartiosaari’s cultural equity…”

(Villistadi n.d.)

Over 100 years ago, it was developed to be a special place, a haven of relaxation and recreation, and some of that luxury still remains.

Sailing around Eastern Helsinki’s suburbs in 2021

Vartiosaari’s villas and cottages were designed to be near, but not too near, to central Helsinki. The idea was that heads of households might travel to work in the city centre, while their women and children and no doubt some domestic help, could stay by the sea and enjoy its many delights. In other words, this paradise island came about thanks to bourgeois and industrial histories.

But I began writing this post at an island cabin. While there, I occasionally ventured into debates –in person, in text, online – around the more-than-human and multispecies sustainability. (I’ll list some of the sources that have inspired me at the end of this text.)

Multispecies and more-than-human

For me, those are comparative terms, part of a language that scholars, and perhaps policy makers and activists of different kinds, draw upon to make things visible and debatable, and in doing so, make them part of a bigger issue – environmental threats of pretty awesome scope. I’ve seen how artists and activists in Vartiosaari (and elsewhere) have used them to help notice pattern and nuance and to ask better questions. This often happens in some polyglot language, mixing Finnish or Swedish vernacular, say, with English or French academese. Basically, art and activism easily merge in efforts to remind us all that we are all entangled in and dependent on nature.

Going back to our island cabin, multispecies life is a more hands-, eyes- and noses-on concern. In my last post I noted how flows between insides and outsides of bodies are particularly felt on the island. For one thing, drinking water must be carried there in canisters, but I dwelt more on how dealing with human waste concretizes the interest in microbial life that Anthropocene-sensibilities have stimulated.

I’m no ecologist, but in seeking some grasp of how my environment works – the island – I’ve been able to sense without too many gadgets quite a few troubles accumulating for us humans as well as for the nonhumans.

A pipe, a path and some poorly bilberries, June 2021

It wasn’t just people who got hot this past summer. It turns out that Baltic herring did not cope well in the warm temperatures. Simply using my eyes, every day I got to wondering whether the definitely dead bilberry bushes might be climate change in action – a long-term disaster for humanity as a whole – and not just a local and short-term phenomenon of little interest to anyone, it seemed, but me. As the heat wave (?) continued, like everyone else, we innovated for thermal comfort, not with AC, I’m happy to report, but by rigging up sails to create shade. The drought, the ticks (carried in particular by the newly abundant as well as bolshy deer), the blue-green algae, the disappearing wrack and the Baltic Sea as a whole, all added to my discomforts.

They are evidence of changes of many kinds. In my childhood there would never have been a deer’s hoofprints by our cabin, pressed into the same mud as the tread of our wheelbarrow and my rubber boot.

Boot and hoofprints August 2021

But this is above all an urban world

All this, to me, justifies talk of the more-than-human and multispecies, in connection with sustainability and justice. I am among the lucky whose environments generally change slowest (think of most cities’ richest neighbourhoods, or our island, for intance.) Yet even the world I inhabit, and most of those with whom I dialogue, is being lost. I am not sure anyone, human or nonhuman, will adjust very well to the ecological or the moral or political shifts this entails.

And yet, when invoking nonhumans remains a micro-level critique of Western dualism and colonial violence – which it can be – its political as well as intellectual force won’t be that strong. Better to contextualize it in discussions that make more explicit links to political, infrastructural and economic commitments. (For commitments are something to work with as well as against).

There’s also been a lot of talk, not to say hype, about how cities are the culprits and the solutions to global problems. When this translates into the idea that urbanization, as the growth of cities and the construction of ever new capital-intensive environments, is a Good Thing and should be supported by right-thinking, particularly environmentalist types, this scares me. (And when it happens in my town it also angers me, even when undertaken on brownfield, as below). Instead, I would highlight how species entanglements and urbanization, and the extractivism and exploitation that now inevitably goes with it, shape each other.

Kalasatama, Helsinki, September 2021

Geographers are busy debating planetary urbanization in their conferences and journals. And, as far as I can work out, right now common sense and a growing body of research on the mass (literally) of anthropogenic stuff on the planet, indicates that “the urban” has engulfed or colonized everything. Environmental social sciences and humanities report on countless places around the world, given over to the needs of urbanized life (well, profit making as a justification for existence) that millions of humans and non-humans are being forced to flee from or avoid.

I noted that on our island paradise the animals are getting closer and closer to us humans because, as Anna Tsing has pointed out in this relevant dialogue with Donna Haraway, they are displaced, have nowhere else to go. Indeedever closer encounters of animals and humans are demanding more and more attention, increasingly in the city as well.

Our cabin life then is urban. It is a flipside of the industrial and urban political economy that brought comforts once only imaginable as luxuries – full bellies, health, fulfilled lives, and so on – to millions.  Urbanites needed something other than the city, a hinterland that would support the town physically and emotionally. Romanticizing the not-city was part of how urbanization as a modern phenomenon developed (say, from around 1840 when Chicago’s population was less than 5000!). With thanks to Raymond Williams and William Cronon in their different ways, scholars know very well that the mutual dependencies between centres and peripheries became more intense and consequential with industrial capitalism.

So the not-city, the countryside, the wilderness or other rural nature, emerged as a natural [sic!] remedy for growing numbers of urbanites to find relaxation. This perhaps helped hide the reality, also well known to activists and scholars, of how much and how badly the not-city and its life has been plundered. Environmental defenders around the world know only too well that extraction from and dumping in the hinterlands is not novel. But it is getting worse. Though some say it’s a price “we” must pay if we want to beat climate chaos with technology, it is likely to lead to more ruin everywhere.

Back to Finland though, where centre (big city, or at best big cities) and periphery (rural areas) also need to be thought together again. Sketching with a very broad brush, I’d say landscapes all over Finland were made over in ever more industrial processes, to service an export economy based on forest products. Finland’s forests aren’t exactly plantations, but nor are they havens of diverse life. As the forests were simplified, cities grew, bringing people away from livelihoods and communities around the country. Capital-intensive infrastructures were created for expanding trade and strengthening consumer culture, constituting the material basis of modern society.

These developments were very clear to see in Finland in the last century. My guess is that as modernization progressed, the winners and the losers came to believe in the inevitability of this, and the price paid in the landscape. The wealth that got channelled into summer residences, like those at issue in Vartiosaari, likely came from one or another form of extractivism, from forests, mines and workers within Finland, probably also from places far away. And the same for our island cabin. To buy that kind of property you needed to be rich. And that has meant being part of and servicing an urban world.

Finland is a super lucky place, a “comfortable slot” (as written about in this fine book) for a great many, and so it’s hard sometimes to persuade folks here that the extracting of goods and the dumping of bads at the accelerated rate that our so-called economy is doing, is bringing misery not just to the poor or the far-away, but to us wealthy folks. Totally devastated by floods, the German towns we saw in the news this past summer, are sufficiently “like us” that they might shock us out of our own misguided belief that cyclones and droughts are for the “others” and such terrible things could not happen to us.

So with worsening global environmental degradation, it’s time to combine histories, urban history and environmental history, for instance. This was one of my take-aways from the Urban Environments Initiative event, a view also posted online by Simone Mueller, here. It turns out many are already working on putting together accounts of things that have so far been kept mostly separate in academia (urban versus environmental). This is also enhancing our learning, enriching understanding with ordinarily hidden and ignored stories, such as feminist history and labour histories. Such research makes it utterly clear that entanglement is real and ubiquitous. Furthermore, for the most part and probably in most cultures, it is also noticed.

So I wonder if I am overly romantic if I get a sense that Finnish cultures of nature, such as our summer cabin habits, allow a bit more noticing than might otherwise be the case. Maybe Finland’s “young” modernity still allows a range of reactions to scary environmental change. That is, whilst there is ample hype about technological solutions here, there is, thanks to the heightened bodily awareness that Finnish cabin life can bring about, an always-already accessible appreciation that we depend on others and that none get out of here alive.

That, for me, is actually a source of joy.

Some references, folks, that are woven into these thoughts:

Angelo, H., & Goh, K. (2021) Out in space: difference and abstraction in planetary urbanization. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 45(4), 732-744.

Cadena, M. ., & Blaser, M. (2018) A world of many worlds.

Celermajer, D., Schlosberg, D., Rickards, L., Stewart-Harawira, M., Thaler, M., Tschakert, P., … & Winter, C. (2021) Multispecies justice: theories, challenges, and a research agenda for environmental politics. Environmental Politics, 30(1-2), 119-140.

Hetherington, Kregg. 2019. Infrastructure, environment, and life in the Anthropocene. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rupprecht, C. D., Vervoort, J., Berthelsen, C., Mangnus, A., Osborne, N., Thompson, K., … & Kawai, A. (2020). Multispecies sustainability. Global Sustainability, 3.

Whyte, Kyle (2018) Critical Investigations of Resilience: A Brief Introduction to Indigenous Environmental Studies & Sciences, Daedalus 147:2, 136-147,

And, though I have not received my hard copy yet, Max Liboiron’s (2021) Pollution is colonialism. Duke University Press, whose introduction I found online.

City life thrives on pamphlets and manifestos, like the 1970 classic, Kenen Helsinki? or Whose Helsinki, which arguably prevented wholesale demolition of many places Helsinkians still love.

We just got another pamphlet.

Kenen Kaupunki? Helsingin Kaupunkisuunnittelu ja kulttuuriympäristö törmäyskurssilla – Whose City? Helsinki urban planning and cultural heritage on a collision course (my translation) – was published this spring.

The authors are architectural experts, deeply unhappy with current planning in Helsinki. They view it as participation-washed as well as green-washed, and even more opaque and conflict-ridden than before. Worse still (perhaps), the environment it produces is not up to the standard that Finnish architecture has historically aspired to – and often achieved.

As we gear up to local elections on June 13th, people and the media really are interested. What the administration’s growth ambitions and the needs [sic] of foreign capital mean for life in future Helsinki are, it seems, finally news.

The book approaches current planning through fifteen controversial proposals in or close to the city centre. If these go ahead, the book suggests, they will smother and spoil the low-rise and breathable cityscape Helsinki now enjoys. The iconic South Harbour is a particular area of concern, the surroundings of our equally iconic main railway station another. The authors also point out that the city’s plans are often contrary either to the international principles of heritage preservation, for instance, we have signed up to or actually illegal.

Echoing the book, letters to editors and online commentary by citizens is overwhelmingly opposed to the city’s visions. People don’t like the scale and the bling. A prominent example concerns building over the open-air but covered bus terminus between the former main post office and the railways station: below a screenshot from the city’s online consultation.

It’s not just the buildings people oppose, it’s how they will block out the sky and slowly suffocate life at street level. The pamphlet is in fact refreshingly alert to the pedestrian experience of a place. This is a welcome feature in its architectural approach, it is after all, jointly published by Docomomo Finland, Icomos, the Finnish Association of Architects SAFA and the society for built heritage (my translation).

The old pamphlet is now a precious antiquarian collector’s item.

The new pamphlet is available in not just neat print but also as handy pdf, in Finnish, as it should be, and I am certainly hoping it will have a similar impact to the 1970 publication.

The problems are neither unique nor new, but imaginations and hopes for good futures have been clawed back since 1970. The institutional structures for making good cities are simply wrong (some references as they relate to Helsinki can be found in a paper I co-wrote here). Any city now deemed successful has to cope with financialization and its costs on people and lively surroundings. As the documentary film Push showed so nicely, heavyweight lobbying and dominant financial practices push people out while pulling investors in. Democratic accountability and social fabric suffer, as does built heritage.

What’s strange is how long it took the public in Helsinki to notice that this is also happening here.

A slow waking up was prompted by the rather unhappy process of drawing up Helsinki’s City Plan or the 2016 development plan. This plan explicitly encourages finance-led construction: dense, high, efficient and efficiently built, remorselessly marketed, where the new squeezes out the old. The atmosphere will be less that of Helsinki’s low-rise cityscape, which suits our peculiar light conditions so well. What is in the pipeline also threatens the quiet elegance of the city centre and many suburbs, and in cramming formatted and over-designed novelties across the city, will weaken the quirky attractions Helsinki still nurtures. So much of this place-based good has already been replaced by bland sameness because this is what big investors and their accomplices want.

British architecture critic Jonathan Glancey reflected on the effects of this on Helsinki in wistful language back in 2015, in the book Cindy Kohtala and I edited. Helsinki, which Glancey had once experienced as a gem, had started losing its shine. Cheap global brands had displaced a dear local uniqueness. What, Glancey mused, was the point of coming to Helsinki at all.

If the public were unconcerned in 2015, things have changed. I was told that the first print run of Kenen Kaupunki? quickly sold out. I did get mine – eventually.

Caring for the neighbourhood and following planning is still hard work. The outpouring of property porn (as in a picture I’ve used before, flogging Kalasatama, below) and populist talk of housing shortage constantly narrows down public debate. Large and ever more complex development proposals are presented to council representatives as black boxes too complicated to be opened up (to use one councillor’s term). With these black boxes in hand, the construction sector and its friends, offer great futures but also make demands that, the pamphlet argues, go against any notion of the greater good. They allow our parks, protected cultural heritage, our streets and squares to be turned into construction sites while private interests usually trample over public value.

Harri Hautajärvi, one of the editors, does a great job of linking the troubles in our city to global patterns, calling out as he does so, the falseness of any claims to save the planet with “efficient” construction. The other editors, Timo Tuomi and Juhana Heikonen, write chapters detailing just how, exactly, the tensions between short-termism and historical values affect planning in Helsinki today. Now that Helsinki is recognized as an excellent place to invest, telling this story is more important than ever. Indeed, a great strength of the pamphlet is that it zooms out to comparative situations from other places and other times.

The fact is that cities everywhere have to worry about how “form follows finance”. Most municipalities probably struggle against economic imaginaries that make it impossible or difficult to support the social good, like publicly financed homes or inspiring school buildings. And, as the book notes, the anarchy of markets has never been known to solve housing crisis. Of course, when we look back into history, as Maria Kaika and Korinna Thielen argued (in 2006), we do find that of course architecture has long glorified power, individual companies, for example. Think in Helsinki of the corporate headquarters like the telephone company, HPY, or the insurance company, Pohjola. But now, what gets built in your town now simply glorifies big-companies-in-general, the point being to extract rent from businesses that are passing through more than putting down roots.

Helsinki’s administration, and even its Green Party representatives, do not actually deny the main criticisms made in the pamphlet, appealing simply to the TINA-doctrine (there-is-no-alternative) or stereotyping opponents as backward. It is indeed city strategy to “to enable private interests access to those places they want” (our outgoing mayor Jan Vapaavuori, who is about to start working for an international property developer, as quoted on p. 18).

It’s a complicated thing, running a city. Talking about its planning in an era of grave Earth Systems imbalances and other novel vulnerabilities, one can’t ignore the nonhumans that are also part of the complex kaleidoscope of social relations and urban metabolisms. (Which point gives me the excuse to nod towards Helsinki’s Sustainability Science Days last week, where we enjoyed a viewing of Matthew Gandy’s wonderful documentary, Natura Urbana, about Berlin and its politically generated ecology).

By concentrating on built form, the Kenen Kaupunki? pamphlet turns a messy reality into a compelling and important story. It also opens up the terrain for wider and deeper treatment of the issues, and for different approaches.

Understandably its authority lies largely in the writers’ and publishers’ professional status and appeals to international treaties on cultural heritage and interpretations of planning law and policy. Hence the many references to how decision making has run roughshod over cultural heritage values, policy on historic buildings (weak as it is in Finland), and so on. Several chapters are about the histories of the old, largely 19th century, buildings still here for us to enjoy, low-rise, wooden and appreciated not just by the connoisseur but by all of us who live here.

The expert-lay divide matters here, because the city’s built form, which is overseen by the planning system and architects, is everybody’s world. No wonder they can tend towards the arrogant, their work concerns nothing less than the environment in which we Helsinkians dwell. Bearing this in mind, the rather social angle in the pamphlet is a welcome exception in Finnish architectural discourse, I would say. It also addresses another Helsinki blind-spot, the way our troubles are connected to world-wide issues.

For it is the case that people around the world, in many social movements, are spending inordinate energies simply preserving what they love and need, in the global North (a shrinking German town, say) as much as the South (as environmental defenders, say). Heritage is shared and extends beyond individual stories, and so gives meaning to place and to life. It grounds shared future horizons. Writing about heritage as a current issue, the pamphlet has already encouraged a lively local debate.

The thing is, the city (of Helsinki) is an experience. But this is not the brief encounter you can sell to a tourist, nor is it the nicely formatted spatial configurations created by today’s huge urban development projects. Like any city worth the visit – for tourist or other – Helsinki is above all made up of people who are committed to being here rather than somewhere else.

What is so great about the pamphlet is how it is inspiring people to share diverse ways of knowing and breathing life into the city. These are out there in letters to and copy in newspapers, online discussions and countless exchanges people are having in their daily encounters. It’s also the case that Helsinki is becoming big enough and its people perhaps self-confident enough, that there is room for many Helsinkis (as we put it with Cindy and the contributors to our book back in 2015). Different people and different publics make visible different aspects of Helsinki.

I’m hoping to see more stories of people valuing Helsinki simply because it is our home, whether ancestral (which in Helsinki means about three generations) or recent. These stories aren’t opposed to those of architectural historians, but they are different. Importantly, they are not the stories of the “demands” made by large-scale development companies or retail conglomerates. When city leaders cosying up to big money talk about supply and demand, they are talking about the need for big companies to make profits and please their shareholders. Meanwhile we Helsinkians need accessible and affordable places to live, but we also need beautiful and meaningful surroundings, to support everyday life and to nurture our physical, social and mental health. We need places like the Lapinlahti former asylum (above), frequently discussed on this blog and one of the cases in the pamphlet.

Delightfully, the complex development situation with Lappari, as I call it, was also a topic taken up in a panel debate in anticipation of those elections. In that discussion the debate did not, I’m pleased to report, get flattened into the lazy binary – for versus against – that the city and too many developers tend towards.

Thank you to the creators! Kenen Kaupunki? helps us non-experts be bolder about our demands for good living in our cherished city and for everyone to start debating with more depth and breadth.

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).


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.

You can only understand the built environment through the senses – whether you are being swept up by the organised bustle of New York’s Grand Central Station or stunned by the sensitive monumentalism of the cathedral in Chartres. But if you want to really appreciate architecture and to be aware of its deep impact on our lives, it helps to be guided by the written word.

Pulitzer-prize winner Paul Goldberger is aware of the limitations of capturing architecture through the written word, and that may help explain why his recent book, Why Architecture Matters, is such a lively and readable tour of architecture. Written for the non-specialist it discusses great buildings and wonderful cityscapes, largely but by no means exclusively from an American, specifically a New Yorker’s perspective. It challenges the reader to approach them with something like a citizen’s responsibility to make the world a better place. To guide the interested reader further, it has a helpful glossary of terms and an annotated bibliography.

It draws particularly on the fact that while we can’t pay attention to architecture all the time – today’s built environment is too ubiquitous and overwhelming for us to do that – we are inevitably shaped by it. Published in 2009 the book comes at a time when global architecture could reasonably be judged for giving in to hyperactivity and vulgar excess. But the critics and publics have already had their say and made their complaint. This allows Goldberger to survey the scene with assured and good-humoured hindsight. The result alternates between the relaxed and the excited, a pleasing effect which probably owes a lot to his explicit focus on the good rather than the bad.

Goldberger’s passion for buildings is really a passion for the urban, for the social exchanges that cities make possible. His life’s work as critic at the New York Times and then New Yorker magazine is a celebration of cities, the most precious collective invention of civilization after language as the American urban historian Lewis Mumford put it. Goldberger repeatedly emphasises the view that architecture is above all a contextual art. It is the street as a whole, not the individual building, that produces the delight we feel when we appreciate good architecture.

Throughout Why Architecture Matters he returns to the argument that our built heritage is not composed of individual works of genius, but is a collective project. “Like dancers, architects follow one another’s lead and endeavor not to step on any toes,” he writes. Of course he is talking about good architecture, the kind that produces delight and a strong sense of place. To value what he calls “background” buildings is not to argue that the urban fabric should be monotonous let alone made up of mediocre buildings – though he notes that some of the most enjoyable urban walks are products of ordinariness – but to say that architects and planners must respect each other just as they must recognise the difference between foreground and background. As an example of a failure to achieve this he mentions Beijing, which surely deserves Goldberger’s disapproval. Even when the smog clears, and despite its vaunted Olympic constructions, Beijing has become a confusion of undistinguished as well as undistinguishable large-scale mediocrity as he puts it.

It is somewhat surprising then that one of the most referenced architects in the book is Eero Saarinen, Finnish-born pioneer of flamboyant architecture whom many credit with – or accuse of – initiating the architectural scourge of our times, the iconic landmark building, and the “cacophony of ego” that goes with it. But for Goldberger Saarinen’s experimental TWA terminal at John F Kennedy airport was fit for purpose as well as sensual and comforting and, in its utterly apt evocation of movement and flight, a direct successor of the best of Baroque architecture.

Goldberger offers equally cogent arguments to support some later exemplars of iconic building. He is a fan of Frank Gehry’s hugely successful – in all respects – Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which has sent city fathers all over the world scrambling to reproduce he “Bilbao effect” in their home towns. As Goldberger explains, Gehry certainly wanted the building to stand out, but its way of standing out came “not from indifference to what was around him but from a deep understanding of what was there and how a different kind of building might play off against it”.

Just as there can be no formula for successful architectural commissions, there can be no shortcuts to good critique. Goldberger is master of well argued judgement and nimble language. The book’s one weakness is that it takes a while to get going, wasting pages at the beginning to wax vague about architecture’s need to balance seemingly contradictory goals – beauty versus practicality or conservative classicism versus path-breaking novelty. But its commentary on individual buildings as well as on architecture generally rests on a long, thoughtful and impressive career as one of America’s most respected critics of architecture. It is not surprising then that some of the most engaging parts of the book are personal recollections, for example about how as a child he was inspired to pay attention to his surroundings, ordinary as his New Jersey home was.

In its tour of great architecture – understood both as individual buildings and composite environments – the book provides a mostly comforting image. But in his concluding chapter Goldberger reverts to a distinctly sombre tone. Today’s architecture, he argues, is stamped by a suburban mindset which is rooted in privacy rather than in the public encounters that shape life on a city street. Suburban architecture, now being built well beyond the suburbs themselves, shows indifference if not disrespect for the street. And it is the street, according to Goldberger, which is the building block of urban, that is, civic life. Alas, as the tourist economy rules urban politics, architecture is increasingly being served up in a theme-park like sanitised version that resembles suburban efforts at creating excitement. The results are likely to be friendly and harmless but risk averse and shallow.

As if this retreat from the delights of the street were not bad enough Goldberger adds, then came along so-called communications technology, making further exclusions and indifferences not just possible but likely.

If there is a redeeming lesson in Golberger’s vision, it is that 3000 years of city life is not that easy to demolish. The wonder is still there if we choose to look.