Cities without Care or Connection

Article excerpt

New capitalism is destroying the richness of urban life, argues Richard Sennett

Cities can be badly run, crime-infested, dirty and decaying. Yet many people think it worth living even in the worst of them. Why? Because, I would suggest, they have the potential to make us more complex human beings.

A city is a place where people can learn to live with strangers, to enter into the experiences and interests of unfamiliar lives. Sameness stultifies the mind; diversity stimulates and expands it. The city can thus allow people to develop a richer, more complex sense of themselves. They are not just bankers or road-sweepers, Asians or Anglo-Saxons, speakers of English or of Spanish, bourgeois or proletarian: they can be some or all of these things, and more. They are not subject to a fixed, classificatory scheme of identity. People can develop multiple images of their identities, knowing that who they are shifts depending upon whom they are with.

This is the power of strangeness -- the freedom from arbitrary definition and identification. When the writer Will a Gather finally arrived in New York's Greenwich Village in 1906, she, who had been haunted in small-town America by the fear that her lesbianism would be discovered, wrote to a friend: "At last, in this indecipherable place, I can breathe." In public, the urbanite may don an impassive mask, act cool and indifferent to others on the street; in private, however, he or she is aroused by these strange contacts, his or her certainties shaken by the presence of others.

These virtues are not inevitable in the city. One of the big issues in urban life is how to make the complexities that a city contains actually interact -- so that people become cosmopolitans rather than simply city-dwellers -- and how to turn the crowded streets into places of self-knowledge rather than places of fear. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has referred to "the neigh-bourliness of strangers", and the phrase aptly captures the aspiration we ought to have in designing cities.

My argument is that a great change in capitalism has transformed the context of urban cultural values, that city designers and planners are faced with quite new challenges.

Capitalism has been changed not only by globalisation, but also by a transformation in production which allows people today to work more flexibly, less rigidly.

The 19th-century German sociologist Max Weber compared modern business organisations to military organisations. Both worked on the principle of a pyramid, with the general or boss at the apex and the soldiers or workers at the base. The division of labour minimised duplication and gave each group of workers at the base a distinct function. Thus, the corporation executive at the apex could determine how the assembly line or back office functioned, just as the general could strategically command platoons far from his command post. And, as the division of labour progressed, the need for different kinds of workers expanded far more rapidly than the need for more bosses.

In industrial production, Weber's pyramid became embodied in Fordism, a kind of military micro-management of a worker's time and effort which a few experts could dictate from the top. It was graphically illustrated by the General Motors' Willow Run auto plant in America, a mile-long, quarter-mile-wide edifice in which raw iron and glass entered at one end and a finished car exited at the other. Only a strict, controlling work regime could coordinate production on this giant scale. In the white-collar world, the strict controls of corporations such as IBM in the 1960s mirrored this industrial process.

A generation ago, businesses began to revolt against the Weberian triangle. They sought to "delayer" organisations, to remove levels of bureaucracy (using new information technologies in place of bureaucrats) and to destroy the practice of fixed-function work, substituting instead teams that work short-term on specific tasks. …