Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Within the City Limits: Tolerance and the Negotiation of Difference

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Within the City Limits: Tolerance and the Negotiation of Difference

Article excerpt

While progressive thought often hides behind platitudes, the construction of tolerant multi-cultural cities in Europe at the beginning of the twenty-first century remains difficult work in progress. In the Netherlands, a famous liberal model of multiculturalism is now in retreat. The contrasting French model of cultural assimilation, which has also failed to deliver integration, is under question following the eruption of urban violence in ethnic estates in Autumn 2005 and with ripple effects to the present. Signposts are needed for the resolution of a problem that finds intense expression in cities and will ultimately define the character of the European city in the twenty-first century. Is the planning profession really doing enough to point the way through informed debate on this crucial issue for future urban living?

This Viewpoint reflects on the historical narrative of the European city and the challenges now posed in an information age of new migrant milieus and a neo-liberal economic framework. The negotiation of accommodation between differences - in what can seem like a cultural minefield where some fear to tread for fear of giving offence - is examined. A contrary view is taken to an ideal recently posited by one planning theorist:

If we as spatial planners really want to move towards a multiethnic society, where place making is negotiated and inclusive, then transformation cannot only be concerned with 'them', the 'others'; it must also dislocate the position and rupture the prerogative of 'us' (Hillier, 2007, 84).

The argument is made that decentring has boundaries (a lesson discovered by the Archbishop of Canterbury in England in 2008, when suggesting that the incorporation of Muslim religion law into the British legal system was unavoidable) and that, in the last instance, tolerance within the city has its limits. Here the dilemma presents itself that in confronting intolerance, it is sometimes not possible to reply with tolerance. With this caveat in mind, the Viewpoint returns to the need to craft a more inclusive and participatory urban civic culture and argues that the planning profession needs to raise its profile in this respect.

The narrative of the European city

In a recent contribution, Akbar and Kremer (2005, 30) usefully point out that Max Weber saw the special contribution of Europe to the history of the city as residing in its political and cultural character rather than in its physical form. Central to this was the concept of citizen, the city as the cohabitation of strangers, but embodying a solidarity coming out of mutual recognition of equals in a common place. Dealing with the strange and foreign was part of the condition, a view shared by Georg Simmel. In this reconstruction of the city discourse of the Enlightenment:

[T]he great narrative of the European city begins with Greek antiquity and the polis, cites the Roman republic, the virtuous citizen, and the free imperial cities of the Middle Ages, and it has continued to write these traditions without interruption until the present day - the agora, the polis and the forum are cited again and again in sketches, essays and studies by architects and urban researchers (Akbar and Kremer, 2005, 31).

This view is powerful, as Schäfers has recently restated:

An important basis for the European city can be found in the cities of Ancient Greece and Rome. They became a precondition of the European city after a consciousness of Europe as an occidental and Christian cultural area had developed and after the medieval city had emerged in the eleventh century (Schäfers, 2008, 1).

Criticism of the perspective articulated by Weber and Simmel includes the accusation of a limiting 'Eurocentricity', with Weber developing the identity of the European city within a symbolic field contrasting Occident and Orient (and Asian despotic forms of government in particular), in a narrative with a background dichotomy between civilisation and the primitive - ignoring the fact that the European city has also been shaped by non-European, foreign cultures. …

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