A new urban politics II: the urban paradox — how determines what

“Most cities, like the rest of life, evolved gradually on the basis of trial and error, and what we have today, in every case, is the best solution to the problem, for the simple reason that speculation on other solutions, while entertaining, constitutes misguided Utopianism/essentialism and simply avoids the elementary facts of urban development.” — Alexander Cuthbert1

“An Army requires a theory of an Army… There must exist something in addition to its soldiers and tanks and guns — a concept, a strategy, a notion, of who it is and what it wants to be, of what it is about and what it wants to be about.” — Carl H. Builder2

“The distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” — Albert Einstein3


It goes without saying that in order to work out how to do something, one must first know what that something is. Indeed, ‘how?’ (question, e.g. “How will we make the city sustainable?”), is a relative term: to ‘what’ (defined purpose, or objective, e.g. “The city is to be sustainable by 2030”). But both ‘what’ and ‘how’ have different tenses too. ‘How’ can be not only question, but explanation (how cities exist, e.g. “Cities exist for exchange”). ‘What’ can also be a question, not just purpose, (e.g. “What are cities for?”).

But back to the original tense of the terms, and statement. It would follow that in order for a city, i.e. its people, to determine how they should live, make and re-make place, a purpose about living, making and re-making must be upheld (i.e. ‘what’, the intention). In order for us to work out how to make change we must first know what it is we seek. This expectation of ‘how’ relates to method, not explanation.

But if ‘how?’ (i.e. method) must follow ‘what’ (i.e. purpose), where does that ‘what’ come from? If it is to be generated, just how does it come about? Herein is the urban paradox: the question the world is asking as to how we should be making change cannot, counter-intuitively, be answered by determining what change it is we need, because determining firstly what to do requires its own process. Where there is no vision, the people perish, but how are people to determine vision?

The paradox exists because the essential property of cities is their cultural basis: people.

In space.

In time.

Constantly moving perceptions of past, present and future, in a slowing rotating and orbiting planet.

Space is shared with other life forms, and nature has its own cycles and rhythms, but both space and time are only understood as long as one exists to perceive them. And cities can only exist as long as there is more than just one person in space.

A city is alive as long as its people are alive. A city can die, if its entire people in its space no longer live, and only if there are other cities, or individuals, alive to perceive it. After all, nothing to humans exists without our perception.

As the world is only comprehensible to humans through their own perception, cities only emerge when numbers of people together occupy space and time and perceive each other.

But what draws people to be together rather than being alone? The answer, of course, is social, but simply being together to be together is not a reason enough to do so. At people’s most basic level, one can only continue to perceive the world — and others — as long as one is able to continue to perceive. And that requires life itself. Perception is relative — to survival. Choosing to be with others is choosing to survive.

In an age of modernity we have lost the knowledge of survival. Perhaps we have lost the sense of what it is to be living. Death is deferred through modern medicine, city planning has distanced us from nature, and food is now something we judge others by. “Liveability” is anything but living. That’s why I like to go camping. To fetch one’s own water from a running creek, boil it, and share it in drinking, cooking and cleaning is one of the essential joys of being alive.

By the time the first city formed, humans had already mastered the art of staying alive. The will and means to survival was established through family and tribe. But the wealth generated was limited. The laws of the former world would reason that more people would require more food, a simple demand-supply principle that the pre-urbanite would have instinctively understood, and perhaps feared. So the choice to be with more people could have only ever been purposeful — to advance one’s own wealth, not diminish it. Cities are social, and economics is a social pursuit. Cities exist for the production of wealth.

But survival, or wealth creation, are broad terms. And we only understand them in the abstract. People define cities. What conversations led to the formation of the first cities as we know of them? How did people convey among themselves, or with others, that they sought to live together, trade and survive? What enabled them to mutually consent to joint survival? How did they mutually commit to the wealth imperative? Language is only one consideration. How did they declare this intent? How did they decide?

This brings us to the other half of that which defines cities as cultural places (recognising people in space and time). The coming together of people to cohabit and produce wealth through economy was a social behaviour, but the means by which people were able to agree to their collective purpose to survive through a means of production was political. Cities exist for the production of wealth and they do so through social relations that are political in character. This purposeful activity through politics that defines cities can be defined as design. The fact that this design relates to production and social relations makes it urban design.

But what came — and comes — first? For a city, there must obviously be people. But what unites them? How can a discussion about ‘what’ (to do) be separate from ‘how’ (that discussion plays out)? An innate will to survive must be shared before discussing it and then deciding how to survive.

We can begin to understand this symbiotic interrelationship by comparing it with the brain/mind complex. The mind cannot exist without the brain, but the brain cannot function independent of the mind. They are like two sides of the one coin.

So too purpose and method, economics and politics in cities; the will for survival (economic), and the fight to do so (politics). Or is it the fight to exercise will?

Perhaps we can get close to unlocking this dilemma, by asking who we really are. Are we the product of what we think? Thoughts are brain functions, random at time, even uncontrollable as to what they are. Are we more than this? What about our observation of these thoughts? Observation is mind. The mind cannot be without the brain, but we are not humane without the mind. We are, indeed, the observers of our thoughts. Cities and (their) design are not, at their foremost, technical considerations.

So where does this leave the meaning of our urban paradox?

The cultural defining of cities will always be its most essential quality because everything else can only ‘emerge’ from that cultural ‘property’. Purpose can be tacit, implied, and instinctive even, within an individual or common to individuals, but the determination and declaration of that purpose among people can only occur through the social, and is political.

The essential meaning of the paradox is that for cities, declared purpose cannot be determined a priori, it can only be emergent from people, through politics.  For cities, ‘what’ (question) they are about, what they should do is, therefore, subordinate to a (different) ‘how’: not the relational question to purpose; not the method for some assumed intent; for it is the origin of purpose we seek; but from the realisation of the way things are (explanation).  How a city exists (politics) will explain both why it does so and how it can determine what it should therefore do. ‘How’ leads to the all important ‘why?’.

And this leads me to concluding with reference to the conclusion of my last post, and the reason for this expansion! Although this post is further elaboration of the ideas presented in the last post of the same title-prefix, that post ended with a statement consistent with the orthodox what-how logic sequence: that the determination of ‘what’ cities should be about was a more important consideration and priority than the demonstration of any ‘how’ that the world (says it) seeks, because discussion and realisation of the ‘what’ (cities are to be about) is absent in contemporary life and debate.

The elaboration here, developed from my RMIT #UPSTREAM studio last semester (Spring 2013), the work of which I nevertheless promised in my last post to provide as examples of the ‘how’, has suggested otherwise: I have come to learn that that there is no universal truth, no single irrefutable purpose that can determine what we should all be doing. Whose purpose? To people, there are only people: their perceptions, their space, their time. Their nature, their god, their survival. And perhaps this is why collective purpose — either as a general acknowledgment of a city’s most basic reason for being (i.e. production of wealth) or as a defined declaration of what that production is to be that we might devise methods of ‘how?’ — is entirely absent today. It is not (yet) a political consideration.

And so the creation of a ‘new urban politics’ is the preeminent challenge and opportunity to enable people to reflect on why they exist; on the collective intention that binds them. It is also the means for the city to define what that intention is to be: it is the ‘how’ (description and method) from which a ‘what’ (question and declaration) can (only) emerge. A new urban politics is a reflective description; an explanation; a condition; a capacity; the determinate, and the only measure, ultimately, all in one. It is a generative ‘solution’. It is only through a more critical questioning of the city that an understanding of their political nature can lead to a greater definition of the ‘what’ (we are to urgently do); it is only through defining purpose that we can pose new performance criteria for the creation of new forms of change the world is demanding. But this comes first from urban politics; ‘how?’ (question) follows ‘what’ (purpose) follows ‘how’ (politics). As always, the right question is more important than the right answer.

So without a new urban politics, a more agreeable, more humane, more equally distributed wealth in harmony with the rhythms of the planet our survival is, ultimately, dependent upon, is only my idea, or your dream, and is Utopian, and essentialist, to borrow Cuthbert’s terms.4 But what is meant by ‘new’? Does this imply some ‘other’ intervention driven by some ‘other’ person, and, therefore, a prior determination of the ‘what’? Does this suggest the breaking of this urban paradox? For exploration we can now turn to the work of the #UPSTREAM studio I promised to report on in the first of this series on a new urban politics. The studio work will form the introduction of the next post that I will write in quicker succession than the time taken for this second of the series. I hope this post clarifies the final footnote of the previous post, and serves as an introduction to the #UPSTREAM studio, and to the wonderful praxial strategic and pragmatic work of the students.

“To be is to learn” — Richard Bawden5

1. Alexander Cuthbert, Understanding Cities: Method in urban design, Routledge, (Oxon), 2011.

2. Carl H. Builder, The Masks of War, 1986, as quoted in “The Essential Service: The Future of the Australian Army in a Global Age”, Quadrant, Vol LVI, Number 10, (Balmain), October 2012.

3. Albert Einstein, (unsourced).

4. Cuthbert, Understanding Cities: Method in urban design, op cit.

5. Richard Bawden, The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less travelled, paper prepared for the “Workshop on New Directions in Agroecology Research and Education”, University of Wisconsin-Madison 29-31 May, 2002. Later published as: Bawden, R.J. (2005) “The Hawkesbury Experience: Tales from a road less travelled.” Chapter 14 in The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Agriculture, J. Pretty (ed), Earthscan (London).


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