Public Space/Gentrification Joaquín Barriendos Rodríguez
With the turn of the century, the growth in the global population was accompanied by an explosion of megacities. The appearance of 17 megalopoleis at the beginning of the 21st century—each one with more than ten million inhabitants—represents a significant transformation of the planet’s physiognomy. Paradoxically, the global urban space is concentrated into just two percent of the total territory, while almost half the total population is precariously congregated inside or on the outskirts of cities, often in extreme living conditions.
Many of these urban complexes answer to what Rem Koolhaas has described as urban cores, that is to say, large corridors across which urban nuclei with extremely high population densities are connected, forming conglomerates of intersecting cities that stretch out interminably. Synoecism (synoikism), the process of grouping and organizing neighboring poleis with the intention of joining forces and political qualities—which Edward Soja defines as urban DNA—takes on a “Gulliverian” dimension on the macro scale of these cities in which macropolitics seem to be completely disconnected from the public space and its everyday micropolitics. As a consequence, in urban anthropology, in visual studies, in the epistemology of social space, in the politics of intercultural mobility, and in the management of translocal identities, what is being discussed is the existence of a new ultra- or postcitizen space, the emergence of a new urban dynamics that cross and transfer the physical, urban, political, and symbolic limits of cities.
The immediate result of these dynamics of urban growth, megalopolization, and demographic overcrowding in many of the cities of the so-called Third World has been the increase in the processes of “favelization” or “slumization” of inhabited space. The degradation of large built-up areas and the outbreak of new and extensive suburbs lacking basic services have defined in the last few years the characteristic substandard level of living conditions of many megacities. The urban imaginary on one hand and architectural and town-planning ideals on the other are currently sustained by, and for the similar reasons, different grammars of the public sphere. To some extent, physical places and symbolic places in the megacities have stopped agreeing and coinciding on expectations, uses, and subscriptions. The increase of what are (euphemistically) called “lost cities” in the Third World is therefore due to the fault lines that have opened between habitability for survival and habitability as an expectation of urban planning.
The political powers of the urban imaginary—that is to say, the shared images that give coherence, meaning, and relevance to the everyday practices and dynamics of the public space—seem to be diluted inside this complex and apparently inherent density of social codes of the macrocity. Taking up again the words of Kevin Lynch in his book The Image of the City to refer to these expanded forms of citizenship, macro-metropolises involve a weakening of the symbolic “legibility” of social space. This semantic impoverishment of the idea of “inhabiting a city” is clearly discernable if one observes the links of citizenship of the inhabitants where there has been a clear displacement in the mechanics of connection between the various levels of community involvement (from the immediate surroundings of neighborhood, work or education, to spaces for leisure and tourist corridors). This situation has been defined by sociology, human geography, and the theories of perception and production of public space as a “diffuse neighborhood,” which has important repercussions on the subject of the city as a collective image.
The theories of so-called urban environmentalism, which argued that a well-designed city, well-thought-out urban growth, and a coherent spatial structure with a preestablished image of the social surroundings would lead to unique, manageable, and predictable forms of urbanism and citizenry, are now no longer perceived as acceptable models on which to articulate and think about the postcitizen. Faced with the same city design, what we find is both a multiplicity of different and unexpected urban dynamics and a series of all-purpose strategies for suburban appropriation, generally responding to the rational expectations of the compliance of coherent public spaces and supposedly inclusive environments for citizens.
In the context of macrocities, therefore, if the postmetropolis suggests a kind of overcoming of the central/periphery binomial, the juxtaposition of the urban with the suburban renews ways of polarizing and segregating areas of marginal infrastructures. This process of the homeostasis of social inequality is one of the quotas that, under the drive for obligatory modernization, was inherited by the traditional cities of the Third World after large periods of centralist urbanism based on economic developmentalism. This is why these gigantic cities adapt very well both to the flexible market and production structures, as well as to the hypermobility of large, highly precarious labor sectors, but not to the need for the recognition and equidistance of the subjectivities and collective imaginary that give life to its varied compilations.
The city—understood in Platonic terms as the place where the relationship between the state and the individual is measured by institutions that clearly differentiate the public from the private—is no longer the natural habitat of the human being, but the extreme resource of habitability. Like the old quarters of walled cities, today’s macrocities retain only remnants of the ideal civitas (buttresses, sun-breakers, lintels, cornices, etc.) overlaid by postmodern architecture, intertwining ethnoscapes (as Appadurai has called the urban landscapes made up of tourists, temporary workers, refugees, exiles, etc.) and multifamily urban complexes (in a time when the family has stopped being the productive, affective, civil unit par excellence).
Together with the surge of different definitions of the postcitizen, the approach of urban planning to megapoleis becomes increasingly like a constant expectation of the gentrification of underdevelopment that neither the state, nor architecture, nor public policy seem to be able to rationalize democratically. These have been developed in the shadow of the fierce growth of the urban stain, which is usually made up of a mixture of constant overcrowding, the centralization of politics and social equipment, and centripetal migratory flows followed by the segregation or peripherization of some sectors of the population and an ultrabureaucratization of the civil service.
Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1986.
Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City, The MIT Press, Cambridge 1960.
Rem Koolhaas, Content, Taschen, Cologne 2004.
Rem Koolhaas,. S,M.L,XL, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam 1995.
Edward Soja, Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions, Blackwell, Oxford 2000.