Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Introduction to Henri Lefebvre's "Dissolving City, Planetary Metamorphosis"

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Introduction to Henri Lefebvre's "Dissolving City, Planetary Metamorphosis"

Article excerpt

Henri Lefebvre published this short, enigmatic essay in Le Monde diplomatique in 1989, two years before his death, presumably having written it at his family home in Navarrenx. At the time he was working with his circle of younger collaborators in the Groupe de Navarrenx on the volume subsequently published as Du contrat de citoyennete (Lefebvre and Groupe de Navarrenx, 1990). (1) Although "Dissolving city, planetary metamorphosis" is brief and intended for a broad readership, it is a rich document, both as a retrospective on Lefebvre's urban thought and as an intellectual and political reference point for contemporary debates on planetary urbanization. The essay was discussed at length in a provocative recent article by Andy Merrifield (2011); it likewise serves a framing role in a newly published volume on planetary urbanization (Brenner, 2013). Within our research group on urban theory, a small team translated the piece for internal circulation and discussion; we have now obtained permission from the French copyright holder to publish the translated text here. We are grateful to Stuart Elden for supporting this project and for offering us a venue for the release of this brief but suggestive text, which is among Lefebvre's final publications.

As a historical document, "Dissolving city" is an intriguing counterpoint to Lefebvre's classic urban books from earlier decades, especially The Right to the City (1996 [1968]) and The Urban Revolution (2003 [1970]). In some ways, "Dissolving city" reaffirms themes explored at length in these earlier works: the disjuncture between the actually existing technocratic 'urbanism' of neocapitalism and a possibly more liberatory, humanistic urban practice of the future; changing relations between centers and peripheries within urban, regional, and global spaces, mediated through destructive urban planning interventions and ineffectual strategies of state management; and the uncertain fate--if not obliteration--of the city as oeuvre while the urban form is generalized onto the world scale.

But, at the same time, the contrast between the energetic, pugnacious, and often hopeful pronouncements of The Urban Revolution and the gloomy assessments of "Dissolving city" nearly two decades later will be striking, if not disconcerting, for readers familiar with Lefebvre's previous urban writings. Indeed, "Dissolving city" is in some ways a melancholy retrospective on Lefebvre's own previous urban work, recasting familiar themes in a grim, fin-de-siecle tone. (2) What is the meaning of an urbanized planet, Lefebvre asks, if it fails to provide urbanity for its inhabitants? No longer does the city appear to be "the vehicle for new values and an alternative civilization" (page 203); it is instead simultaneously disappearing and being generalized, as an urban fabric is extended across the world, with destructive social and environmental consequences. The social relations of the city are deteriorating, Lefebvre argues; urban infrastructures are being degraded; and the rolling out of new information and transportation technologies is increasingly detrimental to urban life. Today, Lefebvre declares, the generalization--or "planetarization" (page 205)--of the urban has become a threat and a danger to all of humanity rather than holding the promise that was celebrated ecstatically by the modernist poets of the previous fin-de-siecle.

It is hard to escape a sense of nostalgia in Lefebvre's discussion of the traditional European industrial city. When the city had a strong, productive center, he declares, it "belonged to the workers" (page 203), but suburbanization, deindustrialization, and gentrification have more recently "deported" the working class into the peripheries while destroying the densely woven sociospatial fabric of working class districts (pages 203-204). Today, consequently, the city's historic center persists only as a museum--an ideological projection in a world of persistent spatial commodification; it is now dominated by "fake and artificial" (page 204) spaces of tourism, elite consumption, staged spectacle, and property speculation. …

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