A new urban politics

Fisherman, Moonee Ponds Creek
 No one place: a lone fisherman beside a forest of columns that support the CitiLink motorway over the Moonee Ponds Creek.
Photograph: Martin Rowland (martyr_67)
“Design is political, otherwise it’s just building” — Ingo Kumic 1

The trouble with the p-word, in city-thinking, is a little like the trouble with the e-word: economics. Both are narrowly defined when it comes to cities because the city itself is narrowly explained. And it seems politics and economics are considered to be somewhat “dirty” words in the contemporary fascination with the city aesthetic. Yet politics and economics are fundamental to cities; the former explaining how they exist, the latter why they exist.

Let us be clear. By politics, I’m not referring simply to the big parties — or big personalities — that run countries, states, localities; or to their respective “party politics”. I’m referring to politics as in the power relations among people — all people, citizens.

By economics, I’m neither referring to economics as some separate discipline, or to the economics associated with discrete, individual enterprise — what they individually require or deliver — I’m referring to economics as in the social capacity of citizens to address themselves — the city as a whole — that concern for the performance of a city may be a measure for determining the individual investments within it. And in saying the reason why cities exist is economic is to recognise that the discretionary coming together of people just to be with other people is not reason enough, alone, for them to do so. The reason for cities is purposeful; to produce wealth. Economics is social, fundamentally; it exists as, and for, people.

So in understanding that cities exist through the exchange of culture and commerce for the production of wealth, the real consideration in thinking about cities is no different to that of any other critical enquiry; the vital consideration is just what type (of subject) are we talking about? Just what type of politics concerning what type of economics do we have — or need? What forms of wealth are to be generated, and for whom?

In a design studio I am running at RMIT (entitled #UPSTREAM), I am trying to help Landscape Architecture students adopt a political economic lens to their investigation of the Moonee Ponds Creek, a 28-km length (approx.) waterway in Melbourne. In so doing, I’m hoping that this will give them new ways to understand and make sense of the technical/ physical, enabling comprehensive ways of defining the “creek” itself, and enhanced ways of defining and bringing about “improvement”. (I hope to report on this here, at EnvisagedCity, at the conclusion of the semester.)

In considering Moonee Ponds Creek it has been impossible not to enquire into the Victorian State government’s proposal to build the East West Link, a road tunnel project that will connect perpendicularly to the existing above-ground motorway (CitiLink) that currently runs parallel and alongside the lower reaches of the creek — a condition which is to be duplicated on the opposite side of the creek in Stage 2 (“planning”) of the project. The proposal has captured much attention in the media, causing concern among many local residents, local schools and local businesses, not least those whose properties will be compulsory acquired. Debate has focused on how the project will be funded, the lack community consultation among locals and local authorities, the absence of a disclosed business case and cost-benefit analysis for the project, the priorities of government spending (roads versus trains), and the impacts of the proposed infrastructure on parkland. Also contentious has been the intention of the Victorian state government to secure the project contract just in time before the next state election scheduled for November, 2014, reducing the capacity of the state government opposition who oppose it, to prevent it. The divide in the state’s capital-P Politics was mirrored in the division of the nation’s capital-P Politics in the lead-up to the recent federal election on 9th September. That election was won by the conservative Liberal/ National coalition party who, unlike their Labour predecessor, has pledged $1.5 billion in support for the estimated $6-8 billion project.

What this state government infrastructure proposal so clearly demonstrates, for students of the city, is the political economy of transportation. And two things are revealed:

  1. That space is produced through social relations that are political, and
  2. These social relations are the design-defining challenge for, and the design-defining role of, the urban designer.
Production of space

Whilst it is beyond the scope and purpose of this post to explain the meaning of production and the various meanings of space (for this refer Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space),2 the essential learning here is that in opposition to the contemporary urban design practice of examining the city as a physical, formal entity (that is wholly dependent on, and generates some form of economic activity, among other things), I’m suggesting that a more meaningful way to understand the city (and, indeed, its physical spatiality) and make effective change, is to understand that physical space is but one type of space — a formal/ technical one — that is determined by an entirely different spatiality: what Lefebvre refers to as the social space that is the product of  social relations which are, ultimately, political in character.3

And so to read the city in entirely formal terms is some four steps removed from reality! Form is built from the building trades that are employed by building contractors who may be working to a design required by principals — public and private — who are commissioning this building work from their sector of society — the space they occupy that is determined through particular social relations. In this sense, the notion of seeking to improve the city through suggestions about form alone, and especially at the outset as is custom in contemporary urban design, is a non sequitur. The true determinate of all space — formal and social — are the social relations among people: urban politics and what Dan Hill refers to as “the cultures of decision-making”.4

Because the reason for cities is economic, the ownership of power is a social pursuit, making politics and economics two sides of the one coin. But in the pursuit of power for only short periods of tenure, capital-P Politics has become the dominant spatiality of the city. Moreover, its hegemony has meant that it has become something unto itself: big Politics has become the city’s reason and the city’s means; a self-referential cycle that has essentially transgressed the inherent socially democratic nature of cities.

City "Gateway Artwork" and channelised Moonee Ponds Creek

Image of the city:  City “gateway artwork” beside a section of the Moonee Ponds Creek that was channelised in concert with the construction of the CitiLink motorway.
Photograph: Martin Rowland (martyr_67)

In skewing the reason for cities toward their own survival, big Politics supports the economics that supports them. And the economics supported give physical shape to the city — form fashioned for a political aesthetic: a new celebrated motorway (with an even greater celebrated “gateway”, but a lesser known channelised watercourse); a higher tower; a new “green” park. The image of the city generates political capital, for political tenure. The city as a social activity is not considered because the social has become a by-product of investments that have an entirely different purpose: the accumulation of power. Any notion of liveability, sustainability, productivity, therefore, is entirely irrelevant because the city is never conceived of in terms where these performance criteria could ever be applied. Just what city do we refer when we say, for example, that Melbourne is the World’s Most Liveable City for the 3rd year running? Moreover, what social space quickly claims this title? What city aesthetic promotes and is promoted by this title, and for what purpose? What economics is this politics dependent upon?  What politics do these economics require? And, most concerning of all, how resilient to change is the economics that this liveability is dependent upon?

And so it is with an understanding that cities are cultural, and the city’s social spatiality is the product of social relations of political economy that we can better explain that which produces what we see and experience. The critical measure for cities is not their world liveability ranking, or whether they invest in roads or trains (the big-party Political issue in the East West Link debate), or whether a naturalistic watercourse is further channelised (the impending fate of Moonee Ponds Creek if fashioned after precedent — see image, above), but their ability as social spaces, to produce, through social relations, the broad forms of wealth their survival is dependent upon.

Where is the understanding today that the city, as a collective of social relations with economic purpose, needs to be productive in delivering on that purpose: to generate its own production of wealth for those who are vested in the production? That the wealth produced can be broadly defined, and that the production and sharing of multiple forms of capital are defining criteria for investment?

If we cannot attend to these fundamental considerations, then what ensures the whole (the city’s fate) adds up to being supported by, yet entirely greater than, the sum of its parts? Who is concerned about the essential social relations that are required to produce the collectives upon which society relies? How and where do these relations take place?

Urban designers for a new urban politics

It is this very lacuna in a healthy politics concerning the fate of cities that defines the scope of urban design and, therefore, the role of an urban designer. And in the absence of any collective urban politics about collective ends, it is in the very making of a new urban politics where the challenge of, and hope for, our cities lies.

So the role of an urban designer is to facilitate new conversations around shared intentions — a new urban politics of and for the city. A politics where sustainability is a criterion for living and, therefore, a criterion in decision-making, not an abstract measure applied to the consequences of decisions made independent of any sustainability consideration; where the economics considered in decisions is about people exchanging to produce broadly defined forms of wealth, from within the city, that have collective value, not some separate, independent engine to be kept fuelled; where, say, Moonee Ponds Creek is a tactic in mediating such discussions, not a by-product of other specific and disparate projects or simply a physical space, alone, to be technically re-designed, and where infrastructure contributes to the city, rather than the city contributing infrastructure.

And in all this, and in the context of current big party Politics, it is the urban designer that needs to conduct themselves in ways where their own capability affords political capital! To be sought out as a trusted agent of change is the designer’s greatest brand. This requires the designer to be impartial, open and, most of all, strategically minded concerning what constitutes success.

In the case of the East West Link, specifically, the urban designer isn’t interested in debating cars versus trains, or measuring the likely impacts of its location; the urban designer, instead, seeks to understand why that proposal should exist. For this reason, the urban designer is neither “for” nor “against” such propositions; at least not without involvement in its reason — and among the communities of interest that are beyond those with only an interest in its infrastructure capital works.

So we need to reposition the city in its cultural definition, and in its culture’s defining economics. We need productive intentions for our cities, and for our cities to be productive in delivering on their intentions. This calls for a new urban politics, one where new conversations are held with new players about a different motive and outcome. This is vital to ensure the city’s economic engine is understood as a human exchange process to drive the generation of newly defined outcomes linked to the health of society and the earth that society inhabits.

To this end, we need urban designers who are capable of questioning that which is proposed. Designers who, at the outset, are able to forgo the design of the object and, instead, design the context (urban politics) within which objects (the physical) exists. For this we need urban designers who are Change Agents, not authors; designers who are leaders in the facilitation of change among those who make decisions: a new urban politics that is, ultimately, the responsibility of, and opportunity for, everybody.5

1. Ingo Kumic, ‘Simplicity on the Other Side of Complexity’, article in Free Range Vol. 5: ‘Dangerous and Wrong’, Freerange Press (Australia).

2. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Blackwell Publishing (Carlton, Victoria), 1991.

3. Henri Lefebvre, ibid.

4. Dan Hill, ‘Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: a Vocabulary’, lecture at University of Melbourne, 2012.

5. Whilst the greatest challenge is, of course, to imagine how to do such things, I am strongly of the opinion that recognising what it is we should aim for, critically, is almost entirely lacking in contemporary urban politics and in contemporary design discourse concerning the city. Unless there is strong intention — for something else — then there can be no real re-design. (Our current circumstance is an outcome of design!)  Nevertheless, I hope that the RMIT design studio project I mention will yield some examples of the “how”, which I will be able to share.

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