Year XLVII, 2005, Number 3, Page 169

 

 

The Crisis of the Urban Order and the Thought of Jane Jacobs
 
MARIO ALBERTINI
 
 
Editor’s Introduction
 
The recent unrest on the outskirts of many cities, which began in France but spread to other European cities, has been interpreted in different ways. Some have focused on the social aspects, attributing these revolts, above all, to the problem of immigration, or more generally to that of social marginalization. Others have considered structural aspects, related to urban management.
Although, in reality, both these factors are present and interwoven, and although the understanding and the actions that are needed to tackle the problem of urban unrest must take both of them into account, on a purely analytical level, the strictly urban aspects and the broader social aspects (complete with their psychological, sociological, moral and historical implications) can, and must, be kept separate.
From this perspective, we feel that this is useful to propose to our readers an essay written by Mario Albertini in 1984 and which, at the time, enjoyed only limited exposure as a “Quaderno de Il Federalista” (a special paper for The Federalist). In it, Albertini identifies, taking as his starting point Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, an interesting connection between the conception and planning of cities, on the one hand, and the social behaviour of a city’s inhabitants on the other.
This connection allowed Albertini to relate this question — albeit as a preliminary reflection on a topic he does not develop here — to the community aspect of federalist thought, thereby linking the problem of city-planning with the sphere of politics. In considering Jacobs’ main themes — in particular, the neighbourhood and the spontaneous surveillance of the citizens in the streets and on the sidewalks — it is possible to see the feasibility of a “limited but real form of direct democracy, of informal self-government” at the level of power that is closest to the citizens, in the context of the federative model, based on a number of levels of government, that Albertini envisaged as an alternative to the traditional American bipolar model.
Indeed, in other writings, what Albertini refers to as “participatory democracy” and considers a guarantee of good government of cities, is based both on the distribution of power (different levels of government, independent and coordinated from district level up), and on information and communication; in other words, on that “flow of spontaneous information” that springs from the exchanges and contacts that take place in daily life and also from an urban order that, by not permitting the physical or psychological isolation of a city’s inhabitants, or of a section of them, favours the manifestation of feelings of identification and thus of participation.
 
***
 
I
 
Towns and cities, which by definition should be considered places of security, are nowadays characterized, particularly on their outskirts, in their run-down centres, and in other critical zones, by environmental situations in which insecurity, violence and fear prevail. As a result, in addition to dangerous streets that people cannot safely walk down at night, we now also have whole areas that are fenced off and closely monitored to protect them against the threat of violence — a threat that no longer comes from the outside, but rather from within the town or city. These new situations (new in relation to the elements of insecurity of the past) are often believed to derive from modern ideas on building and on the position of buildings in relation to each other. It is a view that merits serious consideration, seeming to be obvious and also to highlight the peculiar nature of today’s urban crisis, which cannot, therefore, simply be considered part of the crisis of the early industrial cities (mentioned by Engels as long ago as 1845 in the chapter of his work The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 that examines the problem of large towns and cities).
Indeed, while recognizing that caution is warranted, given that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the violence a town itself generates and the violence to which it is subjected, it nevertheless has to be admitted that one look at most of the new buildings erected in and around towns today is enough to make the normal observer liken the inhabitants of these buildings — stripped of all individuality and humanity — to rabbits, forcibly holed up in enormous, crazy warrens. There can be no ignoring this impression. And the incredible thing — and this only emphasizes the gravity of this situation — is that although such reactions are becoming increasingly common, this style of building continues to be accepted and adopted, the world over, as though it enjoyed general approval.
One situation, in particular, shows very clearly just how deep-rooted in our society this contradiction is: one need only consider the fact that the top political power can denounce these evils while at the same time continuing to produce them, thinking, as one does so, of France under the presidency of Giscard D’Estaing, for example, and reading the following affirmations in his 1976 book (or manifesto) Démocratie française: “Among the great achievements of the Fifth Republic we can count the considerable feat of building seven and a half million residences… But at the same time, how can we ignore the fact that many of these new buildings have generated deep dissatisfaction? The building industry over the past hundred years has not, with a few worthy exceptions, practised the policy it preaches. We have built, or we have allowed the building of, tenements inspired by collectivistic ideals — monotonous and oversized constructions that spawn violence and solitude. Today, we should be favouring ownership over rental, individual properties over tenement buildings, the renovation of old buildings over the construction of new ones, the small town over the megalopolis; equally importantly, we should be putting a stop to gigantism. In this way, men will be able to live in a framework that is tailored to their dimensions and respectful of that which exists, that favours the organization of life on an individual level, and that encourages the development of social communication and good neighbourhood relations.” He goes on: “In private life, it is a question of giving men access to individual dwelling places that look as little as possible like concrete rabbit warrens and as much as possible like homes.”[1]
Although this seems to be clear enough, and there appears to be nothing further to add, this is not the case at all. In fact, in this regard, in France, and elsewhere, absolutely nothing has changed. The very fact that a growing number of people can reach the conclusion that instead of creating “homes” we are erecting buildings “that spawn violence and solitude”, and that the new areas of towns and cities can no longer be regarded as frameworks “tailored” to the “dimensions” of men has served no purpose at all, not even to set alarm bells ringing. Must we, then, declare our towns and cities in danger and say that man, in his colonization of the territory, is no longer able to control the forces he himself generates — that we no longer have any means of distinguishing the city from its opposite, the non-city, that is growing up around us?
 
II
 
According to some scholars, the cause of urban decline is economic (and, on a secondary level, legal). Mitscherlich, for example, attributes it quite definitely to the “sacred character of ownership, particularly land ownership”.[2] But even were we to accept the validity of this interpretation (which is probably true only in part), the fact would nevertheless remain that those involved in city-planning need to know what they have to do — and what they must not do — in order to restore to cities and towns the physiological character they have lost; and this means that city-planning, like the study of all mankind’s important behaviours, must be granted relative autonomy.
On the other hand, if it were really true that land ownership is the root of all these evils, then surely we could have expected to see the best representatives of science and culture (in this case that of city-planning) coming out in opposition to the current approach to building and planning, and in support of the physiological development of towns and cities. But, in fact, this kind of opposition was not mounted, or not in these terms at least. To a great extent, the current approach to building stems directly from the ideas prevalent in city-planning (which thus emerges as a cultural sphere in crisis). The capacity, in terms of design, needed to rise to challenges of the current stage in the process of urbanization is lacking, and this is a statement of fact. What we need to do, then, is tackle, first, the aspects of the problem that are related specifically to city-planning, and only then, having decided which features of the city need to be safeguarded (or promoted, etc.), examine the aspects of urban policy — i.e., economic, legal, political and cultural — that are not related to city planning. In this regard, the contribution made by Jane Jacobs[3] is, in my view, decisive. 
 
III
 
It is worth looking briefly at the method adopted by Jane Jacobs. The urban crisis is a problem that can be tackled from one of two starting points: either from an idea of the city (whatever this may be) or from a close observation of real life. In the first case, the object of our reflection is established in advance. And there is more. Since, given the state of current thought, this idea cannot fail to assume the character of a historical typology, it will inevitably be highly complex in a cultural sense, and also highly abstract. In particular, this approach focuses on the social behaviours of a city’s inhabitants, that is, on the vehicle through which the urban crisis is actually expressed, without first examining these behaviours directly. In the second case (i.e., starting from a close observation of real life), these behaviours are, instead, the primary and preliminary object of our investigation, whose first stage becomes, as a result, empirical and descriptive; the aim is to get right inside the area we want to examine, so as to be able, later, to submit it — a reality closely observed and not merely intuited or, worse, prefigured — to rigorous theoretical analysis.
This is the approach of Jane Jacobs, and it is an approach that clashed with the ideas prevalent in city-planning. In her view, city-planning is still “in the same stage of elaborately learned superstition as medical science was early in the last century”; and she likens it to the ‘science of blood-letting’: “With blood-letting, it took years of learning to know precisely which veins, by what rituals, were to be opened for what symptoms. A superstructure of technical complication was erected in such dead-pan detail that the literature still sounds almost plausible.” She comes to the following conclusion: “As in the pseudo-science of blood-letting, just so in the pseudo-science of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense… Blood-letting could heal only by accident or in so far as it broke the rules, until the time when it was abandoned in favour of the hard, complex business of assembling, using, and testing, bit by bit, true descriptions of reality drawn not from how it ought to be, but from how it is. The pseudo-science of city planning and its companion, the art of city design, have not yet broken with the specious comfort of wishes, familiar superstitions, over-simplifications, and symbols, and have not yet embarked upon the adventure of probing the real world.”[4]
For the most part this is true (as the results show), albeit with a limitation that can be clarified later on; it is also true that what Jacobs embarked on was, in fact, the difficult but useful task of exploring reality. And it is precisely this that allowed her to see things to which habit usually renders us blind, that allowed her, in other words, to see what lies behind the tendency to confuse what is known with what is truly known. She writes: “The way to get at what goes on in the seemingly mysterious and perverse behaviour of cities is, I think, to look closely, and with as little previous expectation as is possible, at the most ordinary scenes and events, and attempt to see what they mean and whether any threads of principle emerge among them.” She goes on, “Most of the basic ideas in this book come from things I first noticed or was told in other cities [i.e., cities other than the one in which she lives, New York] …most of the material for these musings was at my own front door, but perhaps it is easiest to see things first where you don’t take them for granted.”[5]
 
IV
 
 On an empirical level, Jane Jacobs’ most important achievement was that she managed to demonstrate the existence of a close link between certain essential urban functions (urban in a broad sense, because not exclusively dependent on the urban factor) and certain characteristics of the city understood as a physical and organizational setting (in this case strictly urban because they do depend exclusively on the design of the city and on its intended uses). The functions in question — to be more precise, the ones that can immediately be fitted into this analytical scheme — are: security, the development of human relations, and the assimilation of young people, whereas the urban characteristics relate, first of all, to the streets and the sidewalks, or rather to the role they fulfil beyond that of merely allowing the flow of traffic and of pedestrians.[6]
The fact, clearly observable (and indeed universally noted, even if not expressly, given that it is considered obvious), is this: if there exists a clear demarcation between public and private places, in particular between sidewalks as places of collective life and houses as places of privacy (a demarcation that has been lost in large residential complexes where everything and nothing — and in the final analysis, nothing — is shared with others), if the streets are watched by their “natural owners”, traders and so on (therefore, if the streets are home to a sufficient number of shops and other public venues), and if the sidewalks are sufficiently full of people throughout the whole course of the day (not only because of the presence of a variety of public venues and commercial outlets, but also because a lively street will always attract people, who will not only use it, but will also want to look out onto it, and to stop on any benches it might have, etc.), then the streets will be safe, the potential for human interaction will be realized to the full, and the youngsters will naturally adopt the ways of life and habits of the city.[7]
But this is not enough. This relationship between social behaviours (examined within the context of the city, and thus as urban functions) and the urban characteristics mentioned above can and must be extended to the whole of city life. Indeed, in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs entitles the chapterthat contains this analysis “The Peculiar Nature of Cities”. And it is, in fact, on this basis that she manages to clarify the question of city parks (by which she means parks in a broad sense, including tree-lined squares), which can play a positive role only in the urban framework outlined above (i.e., only if they are within the range of action of the network that guarantees the safety of the sidewalks and streets), and also to set out, realistically, as we shall see, the function of the neighbourhood (that of the city, of the district or quarter, and of the street).
 
V
 
If one considers the life of the city from this perspective one finds that it is made up of a set of behaviours (urban functions), the possibility or impossibility of which depends on the urban order, and that these behaviours present two fundamental characteristics: organic unity and spontaneity. Furthermore, examination of these two characteristics allows one to begin to see, in concrete terms, the difference between that which is broadly urban (because it is not exclusively dependent on the urban factor) and that which is strictly urban (because it is exclusively dependent on the urban factor).
The urban behaviours highlighted can be viewed as an organic unit because, despite being perfectly distinguishable from one another and possessing their own peculiar natures, they only ever manifest themselves together. It is equally true that — in conditions universally present in daily life — these behaviours are unable, except in precarious, inadequate and distorted ways, to manifest themselves separately, or singly. It is important to remember that this set of behaviours derives not from the human inclinations that underlie the behaviours, but from the urban factor, in other words, a) from the fact that these behaviours cannot manifest themselves in the absence of an adequate city setting (in the absence of security there is no trust, without regular opportunities for general swapping of experiences there will be no general swapping of experiences, and so on), and b) from the fact that the city does not cater for each of these inclinationssingly, only providing, as we have seen, a single organic and unitary setting (the city as a whole) that can cater for all of them together.
It is thus the urban factor in a strict sense that, being characterized by organic unity, projects this unity onto human inclinationsat precisely the moment in which these inclinations are translated into effective behaviours and assume the character of urban functions. All this constitutes the field of those realities that depend on the urban network, and should thus be the focus of the science of city-planning.[8] This observation, in fact, allows a clear demarcation line to be drawn between that which should above all be studied (or examined, or designed, etc.) on an urban planning level (the design of the city and its intended uses, which at this point emerge as the material structure of certain human behaviours); and that which, despite having an urban dimension (i.e., a broadly urban character), must instead be studied, first of all, on a psychological, sociological, moral and historical level.
It is the confusion between these two levels that prevents rigorous, controlled thought in city-planning and keeps this cultural sphere bogged down in “elaborately learned superstition”. The city — in a concrete sense — is, at once, a strictly urban physical and organizational reality (this is, in a sense, the synchronic element of this analysis) and the life that flows through this network (and this, in a sense, the diachronic element). But clearly this network cannot be understood using the theoretical instruments needed to study the historical life of the city, and neither can this historical life be understood applying the theoretical instruments needed to study the urban network, even though any effective intervention on the city must take into account the results of both these analyses.[9]
 
VI
 
We come now to the other essential characteristic of urban behaviours: their spontaneity, and this is an aspect clearly highlighted by Jane Jacobs’ analysis of the problem of security. All that has been said in section IV about the relationship between urban characteristics and the social behaviours of citizens (urban functions) shows that security in towns and cities — and this includes security vis-à-vis strangers — depends at least in part on the existence of a spontaneous, and in many ways unconscious, surveillance network. I am referring to the network of traders and pedestrians who people the streets throughout the whole course of the day.
It must be remarked that this surveillance network can be defined spontaneous not only because it is not organized, but also because there is nothing specialized about it. Jane Jacobs writes: “On Hudson Street [which is where she lives], the same as in the North End of Boston or in any other animated neighbourhoods of great cities, we are not innately more competent at keeping the sidewalks safe than are the people who try to live off the hostile truce of Turf in a blind-eyed city. We are the lucky possessors of a city order that makes it relatively simple to keep the peace because there are plenty of eyes on the street. But there is nothing simple about that order itself, or the bewildering number of components that go into it. Most of those components are specialized in one way or another. They unite in their joint effect upon the sidewalk, which is not specialized in the least. That is its strength.”[10]
It must also be remarked that there exists no alternative to this type of surveillance. To appreciate the truth of this, one need only compare it to the level of surveillance that the police alone might be able to guarantee. Again, I quote Jane Jacobs: “The first thing to understand is that the public peace — the sidewalk and street peace — of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves. In some city areas — older public housing projects and streets with very high population turnover are often conspicuous examples — the keeping of public sidewalk law and order is left almost entirely to the police and special guards. Such places are jungles. No number of police can enforce civilization where the normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down.”[11]
 
VII
 
It can thus legitimately be affirmed that in the context of an efficient city order, urban surveillance, or the control of public behaviour, is, to a great extent (I am referring to the part where police intervention would be unnecessary and ineffective), carried out through the collaboration of everyone and without anyone being ordered to do anything: in other words, purely through the spontaneous and occasional expression of people’s inclinations.
It is also legitimate to affirm that this observation applies, in general, to all the important urban functions, which are also — at least in part — the result of spontaneous (i.e., unplanned) acts and behaviours. Having appreciated all this, one need only remember that these behaviours include those relating to the establishment of human contacts and the assimilation of young people to begin to perceive, in concrete terms, the relationship between the city and culture. The urban order (providing it is physiological) can be recognized as a great material and structural expression of culture precisely because it is the indispensable means of establishing contact between the greatest possible number and diversity of experiences and, through the assimilation of young people, of perpetuating this rational process over time and of guaranteeing it its spontaneous and therefore novel dimension, without keeping the swapping of experiences within pre-established boundaries (as occurs, for example, within cultural institutions).
Equally warranted is a series of considerations that takes us out of the cultural sphere and into the political one. We have seen that security, as an urban function, amounts to the exercising of control by all over all, without any distinction between the watchers and the watched (and without any loss of privacy, thanks to the demarcation between public and private places). In political-social terms, this means that people’s behaviour in the streets and on the sidewalks is largely controlled through a limited but real form of direct democracy, or informal self-government. And what makes this observation significant is that this, too, can be generalized.
Just as the absence of spontaneous surveillance allows only inadequate and distorted forms of security, if there is no informal, or spontaneous self-government there can be no efficient formal government of the city. This is easily demonstrated. The first point to consider is this: “There exists no inconceivable energetic and all-wise ‘They’ to take over and substitute for localized self-management… Among those responsible for cities at the top, there is much ignorance. This is inescapable, because big cities are just too big and too complex to be comprehended in detail from any vantage point — even if this vantage point is at the top — or to be comprehended by any human; yet detail is of the essence.”[12]
The problem then, in the first place, is one of information and communication, and secondly one of power. Good government of cities (which must include all aspects of city-planning) is clearly impossible in the absence of: a) a flow of spontaneous information relevant to everyone, in other words that springs directly from the contacts and actions of daily life, and b) a power situation that admits the possibility that formal government decisions might be made to coincide with the needs and problems highlighted by this kind of information. It is immediately clear that, when we talk about this spontaneous information and this widespread power, we are talking about something very similar to that which is conveyed by the term “neighbourhood”. And this impression is further strengthened if, like Jane Jacobs, we realize that it is through the concept of self-government that the nature of the “neighbourhood” can be defined.
Indeed, like the concept of self-government, the neighbourhood has three levels: the street (the information “database”), the district or quarter (the first level of power, which mediates between the neighbourhoods of the street or the city, etc.), and the city (the power). Moreover, one can immediately see that this classification corresponds to a real subdivision of the concept of neighbourhood, which is experienced by all at the level of the street, and by some also at the level of the district and of the city (in the case of those who regularly encounter one another at city level and establish relations at this level). At this point, on the other hand, it has to be borne in mind that (as our consideration of the problem from the perspective of urban order has allowed us to show) it is only through their integration that the various levels of the neighbourhood (the urban order’s organic unit) can fulfil their specific roles, also through the direct channels constituted by those who belong to the neighbourhood of the street (because they live there), and to that of the quarter or of the city (because of work or other forms of contact). Jane Jacobs also adds, correctly, that a proper neighbourhood of the street, fostering a sense of identification, is possible only if the street is not isolated, physically and psychologically, from the district and from the city.
These cultural and political references bring into view certain aspects that deserve further and close analysis, but this is not possible in the context of a preliminary reflection. My aim, after all, was just to draw attention to the fact that mankind’s colonization of his territory is another a process that seems to have escaped political control, and also to the fact that Jane Jacobs’ thought is, if I am not mistaken, one of the first important steps towards the development of the scientific approach that is needed in order to tackle rationally the urban crisis.


[1] V. Giscard D’Estaing, Démocratie française, Paris, Fayard, 1976 pp. 84-5 and 72.
[2] A. Mitscherlich, Die Unwirlichkeit unserer Städte. Frankfurt a.M., 1965.
[3] It is difficult to examine the broad debate that Jane Jacobs’ ideas provoked. Given that there still exists no clear theoretical framework within which to consider city-planning, no recourse can be had to definite, effective (and, potentially at least, broadly acceptable) criteria on the basis of which to form a judgment. Mumford’s attitude to Jane Jacobs constitutes a typical example of these difficulties. Despite recognizing this difficulty, he does not seem to have understood that Jane Jacobs is interested mainly in the urban fabric and its relationship with daily life (one might use the term microurbanistic) and he continues to set in opposition to Jacobs’ criteria facts (which she would not comprehend) and criteria that have nothing at all to do with the urban fabric but are, instead, related specifically to the problem of the current dimensions of the process of urbanization (and in this regard, one might use the term macrourbanistic). On the other hand, it is true that Jane Jacobs pays little attention to this problem (see L. Mumford, The Urban Prospect, New York, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968 in particular, the essay on Jacobs, entitled “Home Remedies for Urban Cancer”).
[4] J. Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1977 (the first edition appeared in 1961), pp. 22-3. This opinion, expressed by Jane Jacobs, is not paradoxical even though it might initially seem to be. It is worth recalling, in this regard, that similar opinions are also expressed in other studies, historical and sociological, of the city. Philip Abrams, for example, expressing a view shared by other scholars, regards city-planning as an “illusory theory” (see P. Abrams, “Towns and Economic Growth: Some Theories and Problems” in P. Abrams and E.A. Wrigley (ed.), Towns in Societies, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1978).
[5] J. Jacobs, op. cit., pp. 23 and 25.
[6] “A city sidewalk by itself is nothing. It is an abstraction. It means something only in conjunction with the buildings and other uses that border it, or border other sidewalks very near it.” (J. Jacobs, op. cit., p. 39).
[7] J. Jacobs, op. cit., pp. 44-5.
[8] J. Jacobs writes: “I think… that the science of city planning and the art of city design, in real life for real cities, must become the science and art of catalysing and nourishing these close-grained working relationships” (op. cit., p. 24).
[9] This interpretation finds direct confirmation in Abrams, in what can be considered the most coherent attempt to examine the theories of the city that does not draw a distinction between that which is broadly and that which is strictly urban. Abrams goes much further than Jane Jacobs, in the sense that: a) he calls into question not only city-planning, but also historical and sociological thought, and b) in his view, not only does there exist no theory of the city that can have “any degree of general application” (Towns in Societies, cit., p. 1), but no such theory is even possible, given that the city is not what it is believed to be “a social entity sui generis”, that is, something that can be theorized (p. 9).
Abrams’ thought is founded on the conviction that the term “city” is used without really knowing what it means. Having affirmed that “an authentic sociology of the town” should “reject the idea of the social reality of the town”, he goes on to say: “All this is not of course to deny that many people apart from sociologists and historians do treat towns as social realities — just as they treat magic as a real force and the national interest as a real interest” (p. 27).
Abrams clarifies his opinion thus: “Urban history, and to a greater degree urban sociology, have been haunted by the idea of generalizing about the town. To an impressive extent both types of work have rested on the belief that, as Braudel has it, ‘a town is a town wherever it is’. The material and especially the visual presence of towns seem to have impelled a reification in which the town as a physical object is turned into a taken-for-granted social object” (p. 9). This reification apart, there seems to be nothing that can be socially characterized, nothing, that is, save the physical reality of a collection of buildings and objects.
The framework within which Abrams believes he can prove this affirmation is vast, and in some ways pertinent. He begins by criticizing the idea of the separation of town and countryside (“Classical political economy, whether represented by Smith or by Marx, took it for granted that the foundation of the progress of the division of labour lay in the separation of town and countryside”), and points out that the town has been seen as both a stimulus for (Sombart, Pirenne etc.) and an obstacle to (in some aspects of Max Weber) the growth of capitalism. He also remarks that “Most younger English historians [he cites, in particular, Martin Daunton who appears in the volume of essays in question] have chosen to emphasize the ways in which the persistence of essentially feudal patterns of social control within towns acted as a decisive disincentive to economic innovation, stressing the rural rather than the urban origins of capitalism” (p. 1).
Having thus rejected the idea of the separation of town and countryside, which sets forth something that, according to the author, does not exist (the town as a “special social entity” purely because of its diversity from the countryside), he seeks to demonstrate that, with regard to the historians and sociologists who have studied the city to date, it is possible to make two observations: a) in attempting to theorize the processes examined in relation to the idea of the town as “a special social entity”, these scholars, in fact, ran into the idea of types of towns (classifying these, however, in order to explain the characteristics of historical processes rather than the reverse) and found themselves able neither to identify the nature of the town as such (given that “certain structural elements are universal for all urban centres”) (p. 14), nor to indicate anything “that could be accepted as empirically constituting a dual economy” (p. 4); b) on the other hand, in successfully reconstructing some historical-social facts they have however, consciously or otherwise, shifted the framing of the facts away from the idea of the city and towards historical-social frameworks of reference such as “the ‘society’, the ‘culture’, the ‘economy’ and the ‘mode of production’; or… ‘medieval Europe’, ‘Renaissance Italy’, ‘feudalism’, ‘capitalism’, ‘imperialism’, ‘pre-industrial England’ and so forth” (p. 31) (this is true of Max Weber, Dobb, Hoselitz, Sjoberg, and so on, and also of Braudel himself, according to whom, Abrams recalls, the town — despite being mistaken for a social entity — is, in fact, viewed as the reality that “society, economy and politics allow it to be”, p. 24).
Nevertheless, this is not enough to explain the global nature of Abrams’ demolition, which would appear quite inexplicable had he not cited, alongside evidence based on a critical examination of the literature on the city — which, strictly speaking, would allow him only to affirm that the problem of an adequate theorization of the city remains to be resolved —, other, far more radical evidence. He suggests that empirical evidence shows that cities, as social entities, do not exist: “But the task of social analysis is to say something about why and how such seeming realities are constructed socially, which is not likely to happen if they are accepted at their face value”(p. 27). At the same time, when examined extremely closely, the city does not emerge as a social entity, and, “when attended to, the town disappears to be replaced first by numerous particular towns and then by a complex of market, political and cultural relations which are as it were enacted in towns but not in any exclusive sense of the town” (p. 12).
In my view, it was on the basis of this supposed empirical evidence that Abrams felt able to affirm, quite clearly, what the city is not, and what it is. We may recall, in any case, with reference to the first point, that he praises Weber because — even though “he frequently appears to be engaged on the construction of a theory of towns” — he never considered the city as an “empirical entity”. (“The town appears in Economy and Society not as an empirical entity such as the party or the sect, not as a necessary analytical construct indicating a distinct type of social action such as the traditional legitimation of authority or rational economic action”, p. 28). Abrams also maintains that the city is not an “agent in its own right” (p. 19), nor a “historical factor” proper: it would thus appear to be “an explanandum, not an explanans” (p. 30); and even as such it would seem to amount to very little, given that Abrams questions the possibility that the city can be theorized as a “dependent”, and even “occasional variable” (p. 20). Moreover, with regard to the second point (i.e., what the city is), Abrams says only that cities are “sites for historical and sociological analysis” (p. 32) and that their reality is merely their reality as legal and institutional expressions — the exterior form of the real and concrete impositions of power agreed by clearly defined social groups (“the town is an institutional expression of power”, p. 25. On p. 24, he refers to London “as an arena for a particular system of class and status and party”).
All this is manifestly absurd. It is true that the city is the site of social phenomena whose origins are also to be found elsewhere, but it is certainly not true that human behaviours, within the context of the urban network, do not assume a specific character (do we not, justifiably, talk of urban physiology and urban pathology?); neither is it true to say that there do not exist human behaviours rooted in the city (the novelty and fecundity of Jane Jacobs’ analysis stem from this very point). But, that said, it must also be acknowledged that Abrams’ criticisms — and here we are perhaps looking beyond their intended message — in relation to the claim that it is possible to build a theory of the city that embraces both the reasons why the city is the result of historical processes and the reasons why it contributes to their creation are not only valid, but also help to show the extent to which this confusion has rendered contradictory the whole theoretical debate on the nature of the city. This is perhaps the reason why — as Abrams recalls — Wirth in 1938 stated that “in the rich literature on the city we look in vain for a theory systematizing the available knowledge concerning the city as a social entity” (p. 10), and why “actual urban history, and to a lesser degree actual urban sociology, have proved graveyards of generalizations about the town” (p. 9).
[10] J. Jacobs, op. cit., pp. 64-5.
[11] Ibidem, p. 41.
[12] Ibidem, pp. 127 and 131.

 

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