Taking control of the future of the city

What are cities? How do they work? Ruth Lorimer asks basic questions that outline a fresh Marxist approach to grasping what neoliberal capitalism is doing to our urban spaces.

Strands running through urban space

Cities are inspiring and exciting places to be – but campaigns about housing, public space and gentrification are often not. Why is this? We have to defend council housing. We have to fight for piecemeal reforms in the housing market. We even have to physically prevent evictions on occasion. But this cannot be the end of the matter – we have to supplement this campaigning activity with a radical vision of cities, one that raises revolutionary possibilities in urban life.

Everyone knows there’s a housing crisis going on. Almost everyone is seriously worrying about it – they cannot afford to live in a decent flat, or dream of a secure home they “own” (and is in fact mortgaged). The roof over our heads is precarious in a very real sense: most young people expect either to live with their parents or to rent serially, moving every few months. Meanwhile gentrification is everywhere in major cities.

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Speedy Noodle, a fixture of Brixton Road, shut down last year to be replaced by a Foxtons estate agent branch – “yuppies out” soon appeared sprayed across the window. Brixton market now boasts a “champagne and fromage” outlet. At the same time and in the same place, people are being evicted from social housing, hit by the bedroom tax and squeezed out of decent living space in central London.

The urban crisis involves aspects that might seem unconnected to housing when they are raised by campaigners or by commentators. But closer inspection reveals they are intimately related. Recently architecture critics have started to raise the alarm at the transformation of London’s skyline. Due to spring up are 236 skyscrapers, towers of 20+ storeys, 80% highrise living, 55 in Tower Hamlets including two 75+ pinnacles, each one planned but with little thought put into their overall effect on the city.

In seemingly unrelated news: a rising militarisation of social control in urban spaces, for instance the constant threats that water cannons are on their way for policing of protest on mainland Britain; the more general rise of the security state. These processes are all linked, and tangled up with resistance to them.

If we’re to somehow galvanise and unify the politics around them, we have to go back to basic questions. What are cities? How do they work? If we start to get this right, we stand a hope of tying together three strands – resentment at gentrification, desire to live in a healthy and stimulating space, anger at police brutality – and start to productively resolve the tension between them.

Processes come before places

We think of cities as places, geographically fixed points in space. But cities are not just static containers for stuff that takes place within them, or people that live inside their borders. Cities are the results of processes running, inside, outside and across them, processes that change cities and reproduce them every day. If we look closely at these processes – especially ones that aren’t immediately apparent – we can see how they interact with and contradict one other. We can start to grasp how cities work.

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Some of these processes are obvious. Our daily commute depends upon transport infrastructure and transport workers. If London tube drivers go on strike, we don’t get our commute. But other processes are less immediately readable – and gentrification is one of them. Gentrification is typically imagined as involving a multitude of relatively small scale processes: middle classes moving into previously rundown areas, pricing out existing working class inhabitants by doing so.

This trend was first defined by Ruth Glass in 1964 and recently applied by Spike Lee to describe Brooklyn. In fact this image isn’t realistic and hasn’t been since the 1960s, when gentrification was first noticed in American cities. Even then the term failed to get under the skin and expose the economic factors that drove this surface phenomenon.

Gentrification today has morphed into something much bigger. It is a dominant factor in the reproduction of urban space and life. It is factored in by the state as part of a deliberate strategy for reshaping cities to the advantage of big capital. This becomes clear when we look at how capital accumulates in and circulates around the city, how it drives urban economies.

David Harvey’s spatial dynamics

David Harvey

A few Marxists have tried heading down this path. David Harvey is one of them. He focuses on the “spatial dynamics of capitalist accumulation” – how much capital accumulates and where. He shows how capital tends to cluster, attracted to economic benefits associated with centralisation. A factory with easy access to a market for its product is more profitable than one involving transport of goods over long distances.

But centralisation causes tensions – demand rises in central areas, pushing land prices up. This squeezes profit rates for capitalists who want to invest in central locations: the size of their investment rises relative to the amount of value they can produce from it. Decentralisation starts to become more attractive as the central market for space becomes saturated.

Tugged one way and another, investment can end up concentrated in unexpected areas and at uneven rates. There is no equilibrium between inward and outward pulls. Investment clusters in certain places for a while, only to shift elsewhere in a neverending search for new regions to develop. City centres can therefore lie abandoned for decades, then suddenly new generations of capitalist investors snap up what was once overpriced land at a fraction of its former value.

Run down areas become subject to intense bursts of regeneration – once the value of land has reduced far enough for investment to become viable again.There can be many centres of regeneration in any one city. Capital can move within cities as well as between them. London today starkly demonstrates the sheer speed of the devaluation and reinvestment cycle. A minimal drop in value for a building or plot can make it ripe for reinvestment. Swathes of the urban landscape are ripped up and rebuilt – even if they weren’t particularly run down to begin with.

Lefebvre and the dialectics of space

Centralisation v decentralisation is a key feature of Henri Lefebvre’s description of the “dialectics of urban space”. Centralisation of capital brings with it the centralisation of urban life: people move into cities to find jobs. More capital flows in behind them, attracted by urban crowds as both a source of labour power and a potential market for commodities. Cities thus become cultural as well as economic hubs of activity. And when decentralisation of capital kicks in, so does decentralisation of people.

Workers in major cities are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can’t afford to live in urban centres, so get pushed further and further out (or stay put but in worsening accommodation). But they can’t afford to move out either, because the city is the only place with jobs. We are starting to feel this contradiction in London. But look to the megacities of the Global South. Neil Smith points out in his 2002 paper New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy that daily commutes for poorest in Harare or São Paulo were four hours each way.

So the city spaces we live in end up entirely out of our control. This happens at many levels – we can’t settle into our homes because our landlords have ultimate control of our living spaces, we don’t know our neighbours because we move all the time, we don’t sense any local community because the boundaries of urban spaces are constantly changing. We don’t know the city any more, if we ever did. The landscape changes continuously, inexplicably.

Urban counterculture

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Sometimes these tensions get absorbed by people. Sometimes they erupt. London, August 2011: riots sparked by racist policing and the state killing of Mark Duggan, sparking a release of outrage at the total lack of control or even options for poor, young and often-as-not black urbanites of the neoliberal city. This all points to a radical potential inherent in the city – a “brilliance of urban life” perhaps in contrast to Marx’s “idiocy of rural life”.

Cities gather us all together, squashing us into complex, interconnected systems that all rely upon each other to function. Cities are reproduced by our labour and are thus part of what the urban working class can seize immediately. The city is one big factory: if one critical group of workers downs tools, or occupies a crucial space, everything everywhere grinds to a halt. Occupations of major symbolic institutions have a huge ideological impact, far exceeding any purely economic function they may have.

Tahrir Square speaks for itself. But even in London we saw students occupying Millbank or Parliament Square, or marauding through the City. This sight radicalised a generation of disillusioned young people, a generation now stripped of EMA and facing massive university fees, a generation swept up as riots went viral across England less than a year later.

The battlefield of class struggle: our spaces, not their cells

Workers’ struggles always involve gaining control of space. Class struggle takes place in all senses: it takes place somewhere, a battlefield, an occupied zone, a boundary picketline or barricade, a street riot as a flow through space. Any fight for control over our lives is a fight for control over our spaces. This insight and spirit can be brought into campaigns over housing or public space more generally. It could help inspire struggles where we go on the offensive rather than ones limited to defending what little remains of the housing and planning welfare state.

And just like in any other aspect of class struggle, fighting for an equal distribution of wealth is not enough – to overcome the alienation of class society we need to gain collective control of the products of our labour. This applies to space just as it does everything else produced under capitalism.

Human beings shape the world we live in. Yet the limits of our imagination far exceed the actual technical limits on what we could possibly do. Capitalism imposes bounds upon that imagination at every turn, stunting it and leaving us with squalid, dirty, boring, hemmed-in, constrained, restricted cells not spaces.

There is a longstanding socialist current of utopian or visionary thinking, of imagining the society we want. That current should be revived and enriched through the great urban achievements of the 20th and 21st centuries – and certainly not through reviving a William Morris style rural idyll.

Somewhere along the line, the urban socialist future has gone missing. If we found it again we could fire our imaginations and start to redefine the relationship between human society and our material surroundings . Connections to our environment are heading to a disastrous and destructive rift. Taking control of the future of the city couldn’t be more urgent.

There are 6 comments

  1. Janos

    I really enjoyed this article, thanks for writing it. It’s great the way it explains theories in everyday language and connects them with concrete examples we can all relate too.
    A couple of things I would add:
    * this is the experience of big (meg) cities, but things play out differently in smaller urban spaces (where most of us live). It’s not that these struggles don’t exist, but they materialise in a different way. it’s not so much a critique of your article, as 90% of the writing on cities which don’t look beyond New York, London, Paris, Mumbai etc.
    * I think it is much a question of time as it is about space. Cities are more and more the deployment of time (a capitalistic time, which is measured, calcuated). I think as much as we need to struggle to take back our spaces we need to do the same with time (young black men should not fear the police for being out at night, we should not have to travel 2 hours to work and work all day, we should not be forced into ‘flexible’ time so we can’t plan to have social time). Time and space are very much connected.
    Thanks again.

  2. Ian Allinson

    I think this is an article about London, not about cities. Gentrification isn’t a big issue in Manchester, where there are plenty of places to live within easy reach of the city centre where you can get a 3 bed house for under £100K. The rich tend to live far out of the city here not in it, though there are small clumps of wealth. Similarly the transport issue is real in other cities, but nothing like it is in London.
    I think the points about centralisation are much more interesting. I’m just reading Beverly Silver’s excellent “Forces of Labour” where she touches on the way the supposedly location-independent workplaces such as big offices are actually reliant on city infrastructures (workforce, transport, telecomms etc).

  3. Amy

    I’m not sure its right to say its a London rather than a cities thing, Ian. If we look internationally, San Francisco is just one example where there is a similar trend. There there’s been protests in the last few months over evictions and the Google buses. Here there are other cities which show some of the same trends – in other cities in the south east (Oxford and Cambridge spring to mind) house prices are unaffordable for the vast majority of workers – if you use the Shelter metric for calculating affordability you’d have to have an income of £80k+ to afford to buy the average house in Cambridge. Rents are about the same as London too.
    Manchester is interesting. I’d personally say there’ve been massive changes and some degree of gentrification in the last 10 years, especially in the city centre. Most notable is the large increase in population (there’s a figure in the Owen Hathetley book but I can’t find it at the moment – something like from 300 to 10,000)

  4. Gabriel Levy

    Thanks for this useful article. I think you are dead right about control over space. In my view socialist thinking on cities needs also to consider the history of the relationship between cities and the countryside – something that Marx and Engels wrote about, but which was pretty much sidelined by socialists in the 20th century. You might be interested in this http://peopleandnature.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/cities-working-out-a-socialist-critique/

  5. Ruth Lorimer

    Thanks for the link Gabriel – looks interesting and will give it a read for sure. I’ve been debating the town / country divide thing too, my view is that it’s no good to just envisage a universal suburbia where the two are merged together (which has often been proposed and sounds ever so boring), but a more dynamic scenario where the urban and the rural are both transformed. Would love to read more work on this.

    Really like the thing about time as well – Harvey does a lot on the ‘annihilation of space by time’ and this has been on my reading list for ages: http://arpbooks.org/books/detail/time-and-the-suburbs/.

    Not sure about the mega-cities question. What goes on in capital cities does have an impact elsewhere, and the trends that are most stark in London are visible elsewhere too. The pressures aren’t as acute but look at developments like the HS train link, companies moving their headquarters to Birmingham / Manchester etc – the same forces are at work.

  6. Douglas Cruickshank

    Nice clear reading of the subject of the City. Marx talks about what will it be like after the existing system of Capital, given a socialist revolution, that world he claims’ can’t be imagined because we lack the tools to understand how it may form. But any discussion now on how we fight back to, as you say, “redefine the relationship between human society and our material surroundings” can’t be bad and very necessary today.

    I like the Book ‘All that is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity’ by Marshall Berman – he very clearly brings across the changing dynamic nature of the city and the factors that control it/them.

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