The urban paradox

Tom Cowan at openDemocracy:

Insurgent cityIn the current conjuncture, cities are sites of two counterposed tendencies. First, the city is upheld as the physical metonym of modernity, the unsurpassable form of human progress, wherein any manner of economic, social and environmental ills may be treated—where non-people become people, where technology and smartness come to govern political and social contestations, where human resilience and innovation (no matter how destitute such humans may be) can mitigate the oppressive character of capital-led urban growth. Against and yet within this, largely neo-liberal, imagination exists the global trend of urban retraction, of bordering, segregation, fragmentation, state withdrawal, enclave-ing. The traditional model of urban entrepreneurialism which David Harvey discussed in the 1980s is today optimised from particular, mostly elite fragments of accumulation, (the mega-event, the gated community, the mall, etc.) marginalising entire populations, entire ways of thinking and being deemed obsolete. These are two contradictory arms of neoliberal urbanism.

Cities, whether moving from established welfarist models or from longer heritages of fragmentation, are clenched in these two contradictory logics, of urban saviourism and of withdrawal. The space wherein the utopian conception of the city operates is getting smaller and smaller, higher and higher. There are examples all over the world—from India’s “Smart” Dholera and privately governed Gurgaon, to inner London’s property-led social cleansing of working-class, black and otherwise undesirable residents, to Durban’s brutal oppression and marginalisation of shack-dwellers and the privatised “charter” Cities of the US and Honduras. This is as true of older urban settings as the new developments (even if more acute in the latter) and is particularly pertinent given the mass capitalist urban productivism still predominating in China, India, South Africa and Nigeria.

Importantly this paradox breeds conflicts: the counter-logics of increasing fragmentation and mass influxes of urban population for example are necessarily complicit and intertwined, proliferating and confronting spaces of obstruction, contradiction and resistance. Conflicts over whom and what our urban environments are for, overthepervasive and destructive rhetorics of “renewal”, “regeneration”, “beautification”, “resilience” and “the modern”. Within these conflicts, and amid pervasive mass dispossessions, residents of the city are utilising their own produced spaces to obstruct, expel and resist the devastating effects of the urban paradox.

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