The shape of things to come

The detail plan for the area of Västra Mark in the city of Örebro (1941) has the following to say about cutting architectural corners (p. 4):

Built corners facing the intersection of two streets shall be cut, so as to allow the public passage by foot; the cut is to be made to a height of no less than three meters. The result should either be a straight line (no less than three meters in length) between two equally angled corners, or a rounded shape whose extent is no more than 30 centimeters beyond such a line. Minor exceptions to this are to be allowed on a case by case basis.

The rationale behind this very detailed ordinance can be intuited from the phrasing of allowing foot traffic – this is at once both an instruction and an explanation. The point is not to cut corners just for the sake of cutting corners, but to allow more space for pedestrians to navigate street corners and avoid the proximity of moving cars. The shape of buildings is regulated to shape the flow of traffic, in this case quite literally. Form follows function, and vice versa.

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The plan also details the form and function of buildings in the various parts of the area. At its most general, it disallows the construction of industrial facilities or other workshops altogether, no exceptions allowed. At its most specific, it regulated the height of buildings, the angle of slope on roofs, whether windows are allowed in cases where one building overlooks another, and the minimum distance between detached housing units. In this collection of details, it is easy to lose track of the big important fact staring readers in the face: that the grand total of all these small ordinances is a thoroughly regulated, mapped and legible cityscape where every building is known, indexed and accounted for. There are no blind spots or buildings simply labelled “unknown”. The implication of the cut corners is, ironically, the utter lack of cut corners when it comes to city planning.

It should be mentioned that this document dates back to 1941, and is thus part of a continuity of planning efforts spanning decades. This continuity is to be understood in both directions from its 1941 instantiation – the document makes reference to a 1936 iteration which in large part conforms to its present shape; it has also been supplemented since with smaller, more locally applicable documents, detailing new constructions and changes to the street layout. These newer local documents assume a continuity with the 1941 plan even as it changes the physical appearance of the city – the same cut corners are visible in new buildings, in the same manner as the old ones. The terrain is mapped, but the maps are more multiplicitious than the terrain; the same neighborhood can be affected by a series of overlapping planning documents, where any specific physical feature may be traced to one or several of these. The 1941 document is inaccurate in its specifics, but necessary to have read in order to accurately understand the context of present documents. To sum up this complex situation, it might be said that a map of the various maps would help immensely.

Very little of this is visible to the naked eye when beholding one of these cut corners. Indeed, those walking the streets would be hard pressed to even consider the vast amount of ink and paper that has been put into making the built environment what it is. They are, in all likelihood, busy attending more personal matters: running errands, getting to and from work, visiting friends, etc. In as much as the increased size of the sidewalk makes it easier to traverse the cityscape in order to accomplish these goals, its design is invisible to its users. They read the city in a different way than in the manner in which planning documents are written. When moving to and fro, a person sees layers of memories, emotional connotations and past experiences. The cut corner signifies not a municipal ambition to allow the public safer passage; rather, this is the place where a long-lost first love once made a surprise move with a first kiss. It is also, conveniently, the shortest path to the greatest kebab joint in the city.

DSC00032de Certeau (1984) conceptualizes this difference in perspectives by differentiating between “strategies” and “tactics”. Strategies are the wide-ranging, long-term planning techniques “made possible by the flattening out of all the data in a plane projection” (p. 94). Tactics are the local, informal ways in which residents of a particular location navigate their physical and social environment as it presents itself. The detailed map of Västra Mark described above is an example of a series of strategies (accumulated over decades), whereas the knowledge of how to find the best kebab joint is an archetypical tactic. These two modes of thinking do not correspond to each other in a direct manner, but they do nevertheless interact indirectly. To use an example I have used elsewhere: building a subway line is an application of strategy, whilst knowing to get off at a particular stop rather than another to avoid rush hour congestion – is an application of tactics.

de Certeau also points to how “the city” comes to emerge as “a universal and anonymous subject” (p. 94). Again, we saw this in the example above, where new plans amend old ones; as the city grows and changes, so too must its planning documents grow and change. Very few of those involved in the creation of the 1941 document are alive and active today (much less its 1936 predecessor), yet the document itself imposes a kind of subjectivity. The city, as such, by means of inertia, impels its residents to cut corners, despite its inhabitants having lived through three generations and everything that entails. While there is no metaphysical entity guiding the inhabitants in their actions, the city does act as a Durkheimian social fact. Not taking it and its imperatives into account would miss crucial aspects of what actually takes place in the actual lives of its inhabitants.

Thus, the importance of there being no white spots or buildings labelled “unknown”. The city administrates itself, and thus it must know itself. The strategies employed by the city necessitates the elimination of such known unknowns, in order that all variables can be taken into account and, if possible, mobilized. The universal character of the subject position of the city relies on it knowing itself; in this, it follows the famous advice from the oracle of Delphi.

An observant reader will have noted the implied tension between strategies and tactics. The former is formal, explicit, literally mapped out; the latter is informal, implicit and often invisible even to those who happen to embody its practices. Nothing says that the tactics employed by residents of an area conform with the carefully laid out plans on display in the strategic documentation. Indeed, it is the fate of many such strategies that they fail by virtue of not taking the already existing tactical ecology into account. Grand plans are made, which then fail equally as grand when locals simply do not do as they are expected or – as the case might be – told. The map is not the terrain, despite the idealistic hopes of the mapmakers.

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Jane Jacobs (1961) is primarily interested in these ecologies of tactics, and describe them a great length in her treatment of why certain cities thrive and others wither. She uses the sidewalk as a topos in illustrating how these take place during the day. On an ordinary day on her street, there is activity afoot at almost all hours, differing only in its particulars. In the early morn, various deliverymen make their rounds to the many stores, post boxes and the many other places that needs something delivered. Slightly later, those working the early shifts make their way to cars, buses or subway stations. Ever so slightly later, schoolchildren make their way to school, at times accompanied by parents. And so on throughout the day, each time the domain of a different category of people, each with its own distinct character and rhythms. At any given time, people would recognize each other, stop to chat for a while and share news about local happenings. These frequent, informal and spontaneous interactions, rather than being isolated incidents, were the glue that held the local community together. The sidewalks were where the tactics of social cohesion played out.

For Jacobs, the point of this description is not to describe local city life for its own sake, but to illustrate the multi-faceted nature of the sidewalk and how it can not be reduced to simply a vector for moving from point A to point B. It is a site where significant social activity takes place, and has to be understood as such. No map can convey this information; as a social phenomenon, it can only be accessed by being physically present and paying attention. de Certeau suggests the method of walking around[1].

After pointing to the multiplicity of functions of the sidewalk, Jacobs generalizes these informal yet constitutive conversations and uses them as a measure of how well cities fare. A city rich with places wherein frequent informal, low stakes, low effort congregations can and do gather is a thriving city; a city without such places is destined to wither and face social ills. Sidewalks is one such potential place, but by no means the only one. The key to making a city thrive is thus to provide a plethora of such places, in as much as it is possible to do so.

Lefebvre (1995), in describing the construction of a new town, laments the very lack of such places. It is worth quoting at length (p. 119):

Mourenx has taught me many things. Here, objects wear their social credentials: their function. Every object has its use, and declares it. Every object has a distinct and specific function. In the best diagnosis, when the new town has been successfully completed, everything in it will be functional, and every object in it will have a specific function: its own. Every object indicates what this function is, signifying it, proclaiming it to the neighbourhood. It repeats itself endlessly. When an object is reduced to nothing but its own function, it is also reduced to signifying itself and nothing else; there is virtually no difference between it and a signal, and to all intents and purposes a group of these objects becomes a signaling system.

What he describes is a totally legible built environment, both in terms of its strategic functions and in terms of lived experience. There are housing units to live in, shopping units to shop in. playground units to play in. it is all well-designed, well-ordered and well-thought out. Everything has a place and a function, which can be performed with excellent efficiency by virtue of this spatial specialization. Everything, that is, except, the informal gatherings Jacobs spoke of.

One of the side-effects of the specialization of functional units in Mourenx is that production happens elsewhere. This is a residential area, where residing takes place. Production and – by implication – jobs take place elsewhere, and thus the residents have to move from here to there in order to work. Mourenx is a commuter town, where the streets are silent during the day and remain silent in the evening (the restaurants and nightlife being located in their own specialized part of the city). There are no spontaneous social gatherings, no ambient noise of daily activity, no city life. A person following de Certeau’s methodological advice would find themselves walking around in a built environment strangely devoid of people. Socializing, too, happens elsewhere. Or, as Jacobs fears, not at all. To quote Lefebvre again (p. 120-1):

Everything which could be has been separated and differentiated: not only specific spheres and types of behaviour, but also places and people. All those things which have made up the interwoven texture of the spontaneous places of social living since the neolithic village have been hurled one by one into time and space. Consequently, the intermediaries between these disjointed elements (when there are any, which is always a good thing: means of communication, streets and roads, signals and codes, commercial agents, etc.) take on an exaggerated importance. The links become more important than the ‘beings’ who are being linked. But in no way does this importance endow these intermediaries with active life. Streets and highways are becoming more necessary, but their incessant, unchanging, ever-repeated traffic is turning them into wastelands.

Streets becoming wastelands seems a fate as far away from Jacobs’ thriving cities as we might imagine. Rather than becoming the shining beacon of modernity envisioned in the planning documents, this new part of town seems destined to become a miserable place to be, with miserable life outcomes for those who happen to end up there. Without spaces to spontaneously gather, Jacobs argues, local social life dwindles to a select few persons you already know, and no one else; despite the physical proximity of others, there are no real opportunities to connect with them in a socially meaningful way. It is a lonely experience, and the few scraps of social life eked out against the odds are insufficient to infuse the town with the vitality so thoroughly described by Jacobs.

Ironically, these empty streets are conceived of as unsafe places. This is not due to the presence of strangers, but rather their absence. Jabocs uses the phrase “eyes on the street” to convey what the presence of a non-trivial amount of strangers has on places such as sidewalks. The more eyes there are on the street (the more people are watching what transpires), the safer that place becomes. Not only because there are people around who can intervene if something happens, but also because the sheer presence of a multitude generates the kinds of spontaneous interactions described above. Safety is a function of the presence of others; strangers, in their Simmelian aspect, are what keeps order a social reality.

Jacobs makes a point of underscoring that “eyes on the street” does not merely mean people watching. It also connotes that the people in question have a social reason to be there, i.e. because they live, work or have business there. Those present on the street are not merely passers-by, but people who have a connection to the area and feel it to be their home (to varying degrees). Should something occur – an accident, a crime – they feel socially empowered to intervene and render aid. The unfolding events are not just something that occurs to other people, but part of the social fabric that makes up their lives. “Eyes on the streets” connotes this whole social arrangement and the spatial affinities that go along with it.

In the light of this, Lefebvre’s lament over the construction of the new town takes on tones other than mere nostalgia for old French rural town life. The functional division he describes seems almost specifically designed to remove eyes from the streets – literally and figuratively. There are no school children walking home on their break break to grab a quick snack, or workers having a quick lunch at a local restaurant, or a store owner rearranging their store front, or any of the other eyes which would have had a reason to be there right there right then. With schools, jobs and stores relocated to their specific places – elsewhere – there simply is no reason for anyone to be there. There are no eyes to witness what transpires, and thus no safety in numbers.

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This raises the question of who would build these places. It is not a question posed to those who come to inhabit them; the functional division of labor in modern societies has rendered town planning a specialized field requiring proper credentials to fully participate in. Thus, it becomes a dialogue between specialists and the discourses of their field – competing strategies, in de Certeau’s sense. In the Swedish context, the Million Programme serves as a paradigmatic example – big, specialized projects specifically designed to house a large number of people, with a careful eye to the living standards within the apartments, but less so when it comes to ensuring the emergence of eyes on the street. The planning documents speak more of Lefebvre than of Jacobs.

The concept of strategies, as de Certeau uses it, is useful in pointing towards the radical difference between planning documents and lived experience, but it only goes so far when it comes to determining who the actual planners composing these documents are, and what they do when they do what they do. The same goes for his conception of the city as an eternal, anonymous subject; while useful as a shorthand, it becomes difficult to apply in a systematic fashion when analyzing real cities above and beyond its surface features. The phenomenology of the city is different than the ontology implied in its official description, to be sure, but this difference needs to be articulated with a slightly higher level of specificity to be analytically useful.

Beauregard (2013) proposes we adopt a more material framework when analyzing the planning process. A first step is, as you might imagine, to examine the place the plans are about, as a sort of baseline stepping stone to get a sense of what the proposed changes would entail. Beauregard then proposes to examine the sites wherein the various parts of the planning process occurs – from architectural offices to the conference rooms of planning committees to town hall meetings where new plans are made public – everywhere that in some way has an impact. This in order to demystify “planning” and to bring it down to the level of something that can be understood and analyzed – a practice.

A key assumption in this methodological suggestion is that the physical environment shapes and influences the activities that take place within it. Planning as a practice is not exempt from this, and should if anything be more illuminated by this assumption than other practices. Yet, Beauregard argues, the analytical focus tends to fall squarely on the places about which plans are made or the contexts within which these places are situated. Less attention is paid to those doing the planning and where they are situated. This mystifies the planning process and frames it as a steady progression of carefully iterated strategies gradually assuming the form they were always-already going to adopt, rather than as a local, contingent and multiplicitous accumulation of specific adjustments to the physical environment humans find themselves in. Methodologically, this has the side-effect of elevating the ideals of utopian town planners from centuries past (Le Corbusier not least among them), rather than the slightly more material pragmatics of whomever happens to be in power in city hall. And, indeed, how the physical layout of the city hall shapes and influences the decisions made therein.

A similar, albeit slightly less explicitly methodological, approach is adopted by Ananya Roy (2012) in her analysis of planning practices in large cities in the global south. These practices varies from place to place (naturally), but have in common a high degree of undecidedness and informality when it comes to shaping the built environment. Rather than the extensively mapped planning experience indicated above in the description of Västra Mark’s detail plan, the big cities of the south are characterized by large areas wherein details are both unknown and unmapped. This is, Roy argues, not a failure of city planning, but an explicit strategy employed to informally foster certain kinds of development and discourage others. In the absence of comprehensive maps detailing what goes where, it is up to the locals to decide (as best they can, using the tactics available to them) what to do with the built environment they find themselves in. When certain areas develop in the desired way, the city (as defined by Beauregard above) can step in and confer legitimacy to these areas by acknowledging them in formal documents and public statements. When areas develop in an undesired way, the city can step in and claim that, since they do not confirm to code, comprehensive redevelopment and rebuilding is necessary.

Roy argues that the only difference between these kinds of areas is whether city hall finds them inconvenient or not. Should the building codes be interpreted strictly, just about every district of the city would be found lacking and in need of corrective renovation. But – and this is key – these standards are only ever enforced selectively, when other concerns impose themselves on the planning process. Much of the city is informally acknowledged as-is, leaving status quo unchanged until further notice. But when need arises, the city can always find legal justification for doing what it wants done anyway. The interplay between accepted informality and enforced formality is, according to Roy, a vital strategic component in the development of the city; the analyst who does not take it into account misses vital aspects of what actually takes place in the real lives of real people[2].

As an example of this, Roy describes the demolishing of an area designated as a slum in Mumbai, and the subsequent rebuilding and rebranding of this area as a prime example of what a “world class city” looks like. The slum, indistinguishable from many other parts of the city, had the unfortunate quality of being located on prime real estate worth much more in terms of what could be there than in terms of the built environment that was actually there. Thus, using the contrast between the concepts of a “slum” and a “world class city” – both notoriously underdefined concepts – the city was able to evict almost half a million residents in order to realize the construction of a modern, photogenic and globally marketable district. The property rights, or indeed even the most basic democratic considerations, of the previous inhabitants were effectively swept under the rug in the process. Formally, this was an illegitimate move, but by strategically employing the informal aspects of the situation, the city was able to bypass this inconvenient detail and proceed anyway.

This is a far cry from the cut corners described at the beginning of this essay, but it is nevertheless an expression of the same tendency. City planning requires someone to do the planning, and whomever is put in charge of this process is able to wield a non-trivial amount of power, both formally and informally, be the cut corners phrased in terms of architecture or entire city districts. As Örebro continues to expand into its role as regional capital and becomes more populous, it will inevitably find itself in a situation where the built environment does not correspond to the needs of its prospective residents. It is, as of yet, anyone’s guess which low-density residential area close to the city center will be the first to be demolished and redeveloped into a high-density area characterized by all aspects of modern urban architecture (cut corners included). Whether these new areas are best described by Lefebvre, Jacobs or Roy remains to be seen.

References

Beauregard, R. (2013). The neglected places of practice. In Fainstein & DeFilippis (ed) (2016): Readings in planning theory. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Becker, H. S. (1966). Outsiders : studies in the sociology of deviance. New York: Free Press.

de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. New York: Penguin Books.

Lefebvre, H. (1995). Introduction to modernity. London: Verso.

Mills, C. (2000). The sociological imagination. Oxford: Oxford university press.

Roy, A. (2012). Urban informality: the production of space and practice of planning. In Fainstein & DeFilippis (ed) (2016): Readings in planning theory. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Örebro stad (1941). Örebro stadsfullmäktiges protokoll och handlingar 1941. Serien A. Nr 141. Kungl. Maj:ts brev den 1 augusti 1941 angående ändring av stadsplanen för västra delen av Örebro Olaus Petri församling. Örebro: Örebro. http://karta2.orebro.se/planpdf/1880K-A75.pdf

 

 

[1] The extent of this advice differs if you take it at face value or if you roll with the implications. At face value, as a short imperative to simply walk around in the built populated environment, it lacks the hallmarks of methodological verboseness and explicitness that characterizes academic modes of thinking. The implication of this is, of course, that much of the effort spilled on methodological rigor can be better put to use by leaving one’s desk and pounding the pavement. Not only does it get you much needed physical exercise, it also allows you direct access to certain kinds of empirical data which said methodological verboseness does not. de Certeau is, to put it mildly, rather coy about this; it echoes what Mills (2000) had to say about abstracted empiricism.

[2] A similar point is made by Becker (1966), albeit on a more local scale. Social contexts are defined by the formal arrangements regulating their continued practices, but are equally governed by the informal institutions that are gradually built up in compensatory or complementary parallel. The boss of a workplace might be formally in charge, but the discussions that informs her decisions might very well take place in the break room during off time. I imagine both Beauregard and de Certeau would find it methodologically imperative to discreetly insert oneself into these situations during one’s investigations.

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