Potsdamer Platz, Berlin - Photo by Fabio Testa on Unsplash
What city for what future?A look at post-modern and contemporary metropoles
In recent years, cities, and the large metropolitan areas in particular, have taken on a new leadership and are subjected to increasingly complex dynamics difficult to govern from the social, economic and environmental points of view. As an irreplaceable centre of development and innovation, the metropolis has always featured a much larger range of potential and services for its residents than smaller urban agglomerations. However, the demand that citizens make, and to govern its complexity, has also changed over time and the metropolis now has to be known from within, examining its relationship with residents through many different points of view.
We interviewed Giandomenico Amendola, former Professor of Urban Sociology in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Florence and previously at the Politecnico of Bari, on these points.
Professor Amendola, what contribution can different people such as sociologists, urban planners, writers and artists make to the interpretation of the current conditions and the evolutionary path of the contemporary city?
I think that each of them can make an important contribution as long as they don’t sit in their respective ivory towers, as often happens. The complexity of the city can’t be reduced to the categories and tools of a single disciplinary approach. Very often a writer can see what the urban planner overlooks.
F: Four compelling metaphors describing the modern city at the crossroads of the 19th and 20th centuries are quoted in your recent book ‘Sguardi sulla città moderna’ (A look at the modern city, Dedalo 2019) – the ‘souk city’, the ‘machine city’, the ‘jungle city’ and the ‘organism city’. Which of these is effective in depicting the complexity of the metropoles today and anticipating future changes?
GA: The metaphor of the organism city has not been used for more than 50 years, since the idea, of Renaissance origin, that the city worked like a human body with clear laws to discover and respect encountered a difficult period. Only the terminology remains today (e.g. circulation, arteries, etc.).
The idea of the machine city is still alive although used reductively in the analysis, for example, of the operation of transport, production and energy distribution, the creation of wealth, etc. The idea of the machine implies its ability to operate correctly and achieve given objectives.
Today, the idea of the souk city in the consumer city is more alive than ever. The city and the experiences it produces are the subject of a skilfully constructed offer to meet both growing individual and collective demand.
The jungle city metaphor is certainly less used than in the 19th century. Nevertheless, today, fear is spreading in cities, often purposely fanned and the widespread feeling of insecurity pervades not only large metropoles but also small and medium-sized centres of what was once the calm Europe.
F: Speaking of which, it’s natural to reflect on the impact that the migratory flows from developing countries to western metropoles have and will continue to have on the delicate balances of our urban systems in the near future. How will the contemporary city face (or endure) the ‘culture clash’?
GA: It’s difficult to think of a halt or even a considerable slowing in the migratory flows to Europe. You only have to look at the birth rate in Europe and compare it with Africa to realise the enormous difference, difficult to change, between the slow or even non-existent growth in population in European countries and its ultra-exponential speeds in countries once called the ‘Third World’. The culture clash will certainly create problems, particularly in countries like Italy which have, historically, experienced the emigration of their people and so ‘others’, whether that’s for ethnic, religious or cultural reasons, are still an unknown for many people.
Nevertheless, the ‘others’ have to be taken into account and resources, not just problems, or even enemies, found in them. Nathan Glazer, an American academic who died in January, introduced the concept of Salad Bowl in recent years, comparing it to that of Melting Pot, rooted in the USA. While the melting pot reduces all differences to a single element (the dominant one) through integration processes, the salad bowl keeps the differences in all the elements making it up and takes its flavour from the variety. In Glazer’s opinion, the city should have the salad bowl as its model, even though passing from theory to practice isn’t always easy.
F: The industrial revolution drew the boundary with ancient times and marked the beginning and assertion of modern metropoles. What are the implications for the post-modern and contemporary city of digital disruption processes, now increasingly arrogantly forcing themselves on the attention of researchers into urban phenomena?
GA: The post-modern or contemporaneous city is founded on demand; it’s no longer the city defined in the 19th century that a citizen has to adapt to, even changing features of their own personality. Globalisation and deindustrialisation mean that now cities have to compete, even reinventing themselves. The future no longer comes from the past, as for the modern-industrial city, but has to be built, even physically, on the ruins of old factories. A widely circulating principle in Europe is “the cities with a future are those which have already made a choice”. The competition among cities is in the ability to respond first and better than others to the demands of businesses, families and visitors.
The problem of the digital revolution and smart city should be seen from this standpoint. Today, there is the great business of smart cities to which programmes and equipment are sold, often irrespective of the needs of the cities in question, in the name of innovation. A few years ago, IBM published a page in leading American newspapers stating that a good solution for…., would be a good one in other cities, too. When the inventor of the Laser presented it, he said, “This is the answer, now it’s up to you to find the questions.” The same principle applies to the digital city – the starting point should be the demands and specific needs of each city to give them a state of the art response that is, to use a slogan of a research centre at Harvard, Ash Center, “Better, Faster, Cheaper”.
“the cities with a future are those which have already made a choice”
F: In your experience, which are the European cities best prepared to deal with the challenges of the changes in store for us, in terms of new planning and propensity to innovation, particularly in the mobility sector?
GA: Most European cities are now true experimental workshops. Starting from mobility problems which, connected to growing pollution is at the top of the list for attention and experimentation. There are plenty of good examples from the cities of northern Europe to Spain and, more recently, also in France. Overall, Italy is limping along – although Milan and Turin are moving well, Rome is considered nothing more than a tragic example, starting with the shambles of public and private mobility.
F: Sustainability and sharing choices from the viewpoint of public engagement are some of the new paradigms of urban planning attentive to generational responsibility, meaning the ‘right to the city’ of future generations. What indications do you think you can give on this to engineers, architects and urbanists? What advice do you have for young designers coming into the profession today?
GA: The Right to the city, launched by Henri Lefebvre in 1968, wasn’t just experimental utopia or, in his words, concrete utopia, but the statement of a renewed right to a different, better urban life, to a better society and world. It was a concrete, processual utopia, i.e. it was an idea, to be renewed and adapted day after day, which enabled the latent possibilities of the present, able to project us into the future, to be explored. “Il faut penser l’impossible pour saisir tout le champ du possible.” The Right to the city is still valid because the right to justice or a just city have always been a guiding principle, at least rhetorically, for those who design cities or govern them. It’s an increasingly complex right because of the diversification of the demands in a city which, because it’s founded on demand, is legitimised in Italo Calvino’s words, “You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours”. The same widespread guiding idea of sustainability refers to the requirement for constant mediation between the sometimes contrasting questions without cancelling any. There can be many examples of compression and crushing, starting with the road roller of the demand for security.
Today, as yesterday, the Right to the city is a cry from the resident calling for fairness, democracy and diversity; it’s always a question because the Right to the city in the contemporaneous city contains and expresses a growing range of rights. Rights which have also been produced by the fight, protest and growing, not maintained, political promises; they are rights which, Lefebvre foresaw, are generated by custom. These, without thinking to name them all, are the right to inclusion, including that of space, to diversity, identity, health, loisir (leisure), cultural growth, habitat (more extended than the home, e.g., neighbourhood), sociality and beauty. And also law and a healthy environment. The new citizenry that Lefebvre talked about in his last works is the Right to the city of the newly arrived.
These are the rights that designers, particularly the youngest, must take account of, reinforcing a precious, often ignored, feature of their profession – listening.