Ethics for the city

Cities have inevitably become a huge part of human life. While accounting for only a small portion of land on the planet, they hold more than 50% of the human population and gorge  on resources for its sustenance. How well we manage our cities will determine in a large part how well we can live. World-over, cities have historically been bastions for democratic thinking and for new opportunities towards social and economic mobility. Yet they are also sites for deep inequalities and conflicts – all arising from the diversity that it holds. As cities expand, especially in the Global South and often beyond any perceivable control, they are becoming sites for growing inequality, transforming into divisive and fractured realities.
Sometime last year I read Richard Sennett’s book ‘Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City’. This book, apart from reassuring and nurturing my own views on urban dwelling has been a remarkable read for the multitude of topics Sennett draws lessons from. For anyone engaged with cities, even as an inhabitant, ‘Building and Dwelling’ offers valuable lessons as to how we might co-inhabit with others from diverse backgrounds, and how we might create inclusive livable cities.

Urban-Rural population | image source

I’ve been an urbanite for as long as I can remember. Throughout most of my adult life, I have been jumping from one city to another – five in total. As I turn through my memory’s pages, the experiences of these cities come back to me as feelings rather than as images – a sense of warmth and shared burden of living sort of feeling in Chennai; a confused metropolis sharply severed from its past and unsure of its future as in Bengaluru; the sensorial pleasures of Amdavad. For many people who have lived in different places, it has been a similar experience – feelings of a city precede definite images. In his book, Sennett differentiates this into two components – the Cité and the Ville. While the Cité could stand for the collective aspirations of people on how they want to live in the city, the Ville stands for the buildings and infrastructure and everything else. So while it is the growing notion of a lack of safety and desire to be isolated that is exploited to promote gated communities in cities, it is also a shared community consciousness that brings people out onto the streets to help each other in times of crisis – The Cité and the Ville are connected and the actual city is a push and pull of these two. City makers can help build a Ville that encourages this shared collective feelings than otherwise. For instance, as Sennett proclaims in the opening chapter, “The urbanist should go against the will of the people, refusing to build gated communities; prejudice should be denied in the name of justice”

Open Cities

‘Building and Dwelling’ is Richard Sennett’s call for, what he terms as, Open Cities. Open cities are not fully controlled, micromanaged, and perfect. Their qualities include an openness to diversity and differences that are inherent in a city, accommodating change, and promoting co-operation – more process-oriented than image-focused.
It is my fifth year having moved out of India to live in the Netherlands. Dutch cities and Indian cities are a far cry away from each other. Anyone who has been living in the Netherlands even for a short while will agree that living in the super-organized, efficient, and seamless Dutch cities is easy without much disruption. And yet it is precisely because of this that I also feel a sense of numbness creeping upon me – the city offers less stimulus, and certain kinds of disruptions to keep our experience grounded, alert and alive. It can become particularly difficult for someone like me who is used to the disruptions, and the constant stimuli that Indian cities have to offer. Dutch cities are closer to what can be called as smart cities and what most cities are aspiring to – seamless integration of technology and everyday life with everything prescribed and the wrinkles straightened out.

“Whatever virtues of efficiency, safety, or sociability people achieve, they achieve by virtue of their own agency. But just because a city brings together people who differ by class, ethnicity, religion, or sexual preference, in an open system, the city is to a degree incoherent. Dissonance marks the open way of life more than coherence, yet it is a dissonance for which people take ownership."

Richard Sennett, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the city (2018)

Richard Sennett elaborates on this feeling attacking the Silicon Valley culture of promoting seamless technology and ease of life translated to a city – through the data-driven concept of a smart city. In reality, city-making, especially making ones that are inclusive and just, is a messy job, and to straighten the wrinkles with technology is not only numbing but also negates representation, conversation, and co-operation that are required to make such cities.
“Prescription is meant to foresee, in advance, how the city will function, to lay out its workings precisely in space and built form. Smart cities (…) fear chance”
In one of his essays Sennett describes the Open City as a city where “whatever virtues of efficiency, safety, or sociability people achieve, they achieve by virtue of their own agency. But just because a city brings together people who differ by class, ethnicity, religion, or sexual preference, in an open system, the city is to a degree incoherent. Dissonance marks the open way of life more than coherence, yet it is a dissonance for which people take ownership.”

The migrant’s attitude

Every time I moved, I moved into cities where the language and culture were different and where I had to constantly re-adapt to some extent. The biggest change in that was when I moved to the Netherlands and found myself living and working with people from different European countries with their way of thinking that is totally different from what I was used to. Furthermore, working collaboratively on several academic projects – new to me because group projects back in India were a rarity – I noticed myself expressing my thoughts and opinions in a more suggestive way, or as Sennett describes as subjunctive, rather than as declarations. So instead of declaring my thoughts such as  “My idea is…”, “This is the right way…”, I found myself expressing them subjunctively with expressions such as  “What do you think if we…”, “Do you not think…”, “Perhaps this could…”, etc.
I was, I still am, self-conscious of my status as an immigrant (however temporary that would be), and in retrospect, this has been influential in the way I expressed my thoughts and worked together with people from backgrounds that are vastly different from mine. It is this migrant’s attitude that Richard Sennett celebrates and promotes as a key quality that an urbanite must adopt to make our cities tolerant and encourage conversation and co-operation. 
“(…) the subjunctive voice is a more sociable way to speak than the declarative. People can be more open, exchange more freely, (…) and behave less defensively (…) Put in other terms, ambiguity invites collaborative exchange; clarity invites competitive exchange”
By illustrating various examples, Sennett  asserts that a model urbanite is one who could adopt the immigrant’s attitude, becoming more aware of the differences of the place ‘we cannot command as our own’ and therefore becoming more open to listening and collaborating with others.

Opening the city

While in the first two parts Sennett lays down the qualities that open a city, in the last part he describes a few physical methods in the way we design cities which could encourage it. While the methods themselves are a subject to a separate post, the crux of it all is to create and promote urban forms that are porous physically and participatory in nature. Some of the measures are favouring borders over boundaries, type-form over fully detailed designs, and a few more. While prescriptive solutions with grand schemes and final complete designs are seductive on paper, they lack representation of the people who would be a part of it. Sennett urges for urban forms that are incomplete and process-oriented to accommodate change. As he puts it “Cities are not framed today. They are master-planned. (…) Instead of masterminding the whole, seed planning seeks to create ‘pocket of order’ in open-system terms. The essence of seed-planning is minimum specification of how form relates to function; this leaves room for maximum variation and innovation.”

“The ethical connection between the urbanist and urbanite lies in practising a certain kind of modesty: living one among many, engaged by a world which does not mirror oneself. Living one among many enables, in Robert Venturi’s words ’richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning’. That is the ethics of an open city”.

Richard Sennett, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the city (2018)

In the last chapter Sennett, drawing from his experience of working in the UN, reserves a great deal of importance on co-production as a glue to bring people together in a city despite social and cultural differences. His anecdotes from cities that have had violent pasts such as Medellin and Beirut about the kind of bonding that happens when people work and contribute to projects that they could be a part of and which they could take pride in could be a lesson as to how urban projects can be developed around dialogue and participation.

Using house models and other visual aids as tools for participatory design and promotes cluster development to enable consensus on rearrangements that will increase pathways and public space – Participatory design lead by SPARc, Mahila Milan and architects Filipe Balestra and Sara Göransson | image source

The book ends with a fitting paragraph that summarizes succinctly the plea that Sennett puts forward in his book.
“The ethical connection between the urbanist and urbanite lies in practising a certain kind of modesty: living one among many, engaged by a world which does not mirror oneself. Living one among many enables, in Robert Venturi’s words ’richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning’. That is the ethics of an open city”.

Cover image: Churchgate Railway Station in Mumbai
Photo by Randy Olson 2010 for National Geographic

 

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