City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Afternoon walk, Ljusterö 20 July 2020

Waiting it out will not deliver a just transition; Venice, Paris, Detroit and Melbourne as future cities; Slowdown cities can address social justice, health, and climate upstream and integrated

“I have read that the period of upheaval that journalists have begun to refer to as ‘the Apocalypse’ or more commonly, more bitterly, ‘The Pox’ lasted from 2015 through 2030—a decade and a half of chaos. This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment. It began well before 2015, perhaps even before the turn of the millennium. It has not ended.

I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with the obvious problems in those areas. We caused the problems; then we sat and watched as they grew into crises. I have heard people deny this, but I was born in 1970. I have seen enough privilege of the rich than the basic necessity that it must be if civilized society is to survive. I have watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation. I have watched poverty, hunger, and disease become inevitable for more and more people.”

—Excerpt from ‘Parable of the Talents’, Octavia Butler (1988)

The balance of engaged and active care with culture that Infield suggests is important, for the final passage in all this cannot be a misunderstanding of what Slowdown might mean, an implication that it means giving up. You can occasionally catch that in the tone of Danny Dorling’s prose; perhaps in his reference to places like Ottawa or Helsinki, and the stability he describes as a “a little boring”. Though many of us would take a good long stretch of boring stability about now, the sensibility he evokes could be misinterpreted as an indifference to making change happen.

In other words, Dorling’s narrative could be interpreted as one of stasis. He does not mean this. However, the data could suggest that we are firmly heading in this direction, no matter what—short of some genuinely Handmaid’s Tale-scale retrenchment on womens’ rights—and so perhaps ‘we’ simply need to wait for people to attune themselves to this deeper reality? Perhaps it is simply a matter of waiting it out; of people realising they may have the time to take care of each other, as well as our ecosystems, with a simple click of the mind, as Meadows had it.

Sadly, that seems unlikely, given that we have not really clicked on any of the existing broad challenges requiring a similar ‘wake-up’—most obviously, the climate crisis. Dorling does not suggest this ‘waiting it out’ at all, to be clear, and our language has been so infected by mental models of growth at (almost) all costs that a message like ‘slow down’ does almost feel like a failure, like a depressive motivated only to give up and withdraw. This only makes it harder to address coherently and proactively.

To be clear, waiting it out will not deliver a just transition. Frankly, that kind of transition will be brutal. In fact, the virus may well be acting as part of such a transition, which indicates how rough it would be—unless we take our heads out of the sand and address the transition deliberately, carefully, with some broader goals in mind.

The alternative would take too long, and as is now clear, it will cut deepest along the faultlines deliberately carved into our society. Without a radical transition of the type Büschler and Fletcher (and many others) suggest, waiting for change is only likely to expose us to further climate crisis-induced pandemics like COVID-19, alongside wildfires and other extreme weather, while continuing to expose increasingly large numbers of people to crushing inequality of every kind. The Slowdown may be where we are headed after the Great Acceleration, but it’s the form that the transition takes that will define us as a species.

This means, for me, that while Helsinki, Stockholm, Ottawa and Kyoto may describe one form of Slowdown City, there are others that can equally point to the next futures. These are unlikely to be the ‘drawbridge cities’ of London, New York, San Francisco, Singapore et al—though clearly there are patches of those cities where conflict, struggle, and invention is happening on different terms to the growth narratives those cities have embodied. There are other cities that have to address the stage beyond over-development, who have already reached a point of saturation, or crisis, or slowdown—and in some cases decades ago.

In the over-developed world, these would include deindustrialised slow-growth cities like Detroit and Manchester and post-tourist cities like New Orleans and Venice. Suburban sprawlers like Los Angeles, Toronto, and Melbourne must genuinely embark on large-scale retrofit programmes. Equally, however, we might finally see a swing back towards many smaller towns and cities in deindustrialised, telecommuting, or restorative-agricultural regions. Amongst larger cities, Tokyo and Paris, and possibly Shanghai and Qingdao, will be interesting to observe, as previously mentioned, given their head-starts on 15- Minute Cities which move them beyond their other big city peers. The Nordic Model cities alluded to above could write their own tunes—somewhat hummable, productive ‘middle way’ variations—if they can reconcile themselves with the need to change (the same can apply to other mittel-European cities.)

These are all places where various 20th century models ‘went to die’, in conventional terms (whether economic or environmental, infrastructural or built). Yet all these cities are still there. Watching and working in these cities may be just as instructive as learning from the Ottawas and Helsinkis Dorling refers to, and in many cases, as the struggle will be greater, they may produce a more diverse range of outcomes to learn from.

And as has been well-established, though sadly often ignored by development agencies, cities of the so-called developing world, or the Global South, have a chance to avoid driving down all these well-understood cul-de-sacs. In this, there is perhaps the greatest promise. Perhaps that should be the greatest imperative behind their development, no matter how attractive the short term gains otherwise may look. In others words, the design brief for these places could simply be: how, at all costs, not to be like New York, London, Sydney, San Francisco…?

The city’s use-value over exchange-value

I mentioned Venice in the early ‘casebook’ paper—#21: Clear skies, full parks, can’t lose—regarding COVID’s stiletto in the back of the tourism industry. I reproduced a passage from If Venice Dies by Salvatore Settis, a lovely small book on why the fight for Venice is important, and not only for Venice.

“Saving the historic city in Venice (and elsewhere) won’t happen simply by reviving memories of the city’s past or indulging in the pleasures of the present. Even protesting won’t be enough: the only effective move will be reenenergizing the active practice of citizenship and exercising the right to the city, to then come up with a plan to preserve its uniqueness and put firm rules into place that not only safeguard its framework and environment, but also prioritize the city’s use-value over its exchange-value, emphasizing the social function of property, the right of its citizens to gainful employment, and the right of its youngest to both a home and a future.” — Salvatore Settis, ‘If Venice Dies’ (2014)

In his book, Settis continues to explore what such a re-energising might involve. And there is much in the following paragraph that applies to cities well outside of Venice’s ambit, just as, in a perhaps unlikely repositioning, Venice can be seen as an extreme form of future city. Whilst not everything is applicable—and I certainly don’t agree with all of it, for what it’s worth—it describes the type of fundamental repositioning of the city required. This form of statement sets the scene for questions of everyday infrastructure, and for the participative design and political process that would begin to put flesh on these bones. Apologies for the lengthy quotation, but imagine it read out in one breath, as a broad sweep across the city’s conceptual landscape.

“In Venice’s case, this new pact will have to begin from a strong sense of commitment to spur politicians and public institutions to adopt a more creative outlook toward the city, to bring the history city back to life and gear it toward the future, the means to create a new kind of politics to stem the perverse logic causing the exodus of citizens, and to encourage the young to remain via strong incentives such as tax breaks. It would also mean curbing the rampant proliferation of second homes and the transformation of buildings into nothing more than hotels. It would mean encouraging manufacturing and private enterprise as well as generating opportunities for a wider range of creative jobs. It would mean reunifying the historic city, lagoon, and mainland by differentiating their functions, making more agricultural and available and investing in new fisheries, reutilising old, vacant buildings, incentivising research, launching new professional training schemes and apprenticeships and investing in universities, chiefly by making it affordable for students to actually live in the city. It would mean developing new models, analysing situations, evaluating options, and emphasising initiatives of a higher caliber (like the universities and the Biennale) and not just enslaving the city to ‘uncontrollable market forces’. It would mean enshrining the right to the city and the common good as our first priority.” — Salvatore Settis, ‘If Venice Dies’ (2014)

Again, not everything there is necessarily ‘a good idea’, or broadly applicable elsewhere (“tax breaks” rarely set the table for an equitable outcome, for example). As you can imagine by now, I would personally place a greater emphasis on restorative impact on the environment, reorienting around care for humans and nonhumans—it’s there in Settis’s text, but barely—and try to get at what’s going on behind those statements like “higher caliber”, just as his earlier prioritising the city’s “use-value over its exchange-value” feels promising, yet it depends what we are talking about when we talk about value.

Yet statements like this begin to describe some of the more diverse agenda a resilient city needs. From here, we can imagine starting points, and then begin to build local teams to start the groundwork. However, if you know anything at all about Venice, you will understand how difficult that work would be.

For Slowdown will not mean a comfortable middle age. It will be a fight. The stories represented in this set of Papers are all about struggle, in their own way. Many have lost that struggle; others are still in the scrap.

Of those small pieces, loosely joined, De Monchaux’s absorptive green pockets did not happen, despite their ‘better’ solution. Most of Van Eyck’s 700+ Amsterdam playgrounds have disappeared, just as East Kolkata’s Wetlands are being rapidly lost to rampant property development.

Evelyn’s Fumifugium proposals of 1661 clearly didn’t happen; some centuries later the Great Stink was solved temporarily, yet London still had the worst air quality in the world at the start of the 21st century.

Ditzler describes trying to develop ecofeminist pixel farming in an agricultural robotics world “occupied almost entirely by men who mostly operate in the familiar comfortable of the patriarchal and monocultural paradigms”.

Delivering the Swedish street mission is already an almighty struggle in a country that was the most car-dense in Europe by 1955, and built a long-lasting culture and set of infrastructures accordingly.

Ron Finley’s gardens are, in his words, about “defiance” as well as tomatoes and strawberries. Even viewing Derek Jarman’s completely different form of garden through these lenses opens up wider vista. Jarman’s garden, as with his films, represents a defiant struggle for social justice just as much as Finley’s work in South Central. Even the garden itself, never mind what it stands for, is continually threatened by property development (it survived just this year due to a crowdfunding effort.) In the excellent climate crisis magazine It’s Freezing in LA!, Alexander Harris writes:

“In its heroic attempts to create conditions for life to flourish in a supposedly barren setting, (Jarman’s) garden unites rebellious social and political tendencies cultivated over a lifetime with an open-ended ecological position, under the banner of a deliberately ethical and aesthetic life.”

Yet if a garden in a desert next to a nuclear power station can produce this balance of open-ended ecology alongside ethics and aesthetics, so can other types of everyday infrastructure, such as streets, squares, and blocks. Doing so may require more of a gardener’s sensibility: aware of the need for ongoing care and adaptation, balancing multiple timeframes simultaneously, for open and porous structures, for valuing and embracing ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty over the damaging reductions of efficiency. Suffice to say, this is more advanced than the dull, static, sanitised approaches to public and private spaces that urban planning produces.

On the Streets mission here in Sweden, I asked Brian Eno to contribute some design principles. One of them is “Think like a gardener, not an architect: design beginnings, not endings”, and “Unfinished = fertile”.

These are perennial themes of Eno’s, harking back to a talk at the Serpentine Pavilion in 2011, where he discussed ways of creating which recognise that what “one is doing is working in collaboration with the complex and unpredictable processes of nature”, and his ideas of a rebalancing of the roles of the composer, the architect, and the gardener, where for instance “the role of gardener as being equal in dignity to the role of architect.”

Few of the gardener’s instincts are about efficiency or non-resilient scaling or unsustainable extraction, yet a form of growth and reward, via care, engagement, and culture, is very much the point nonetheless.

Richard Sennett notes that efficiency is a basic prerequisite for certain aspects of urban life. But also, that efficiency is not the point, and it is often directly counter things that are perhaps the point.

“The need for efficiency comes into conflict constantly with the desire for sociability. The quest for efficiency aims at balance and harmony. Sociability in cities involves complex mixtures of people with diverging interests; they have to negotiate their relationships day by day, and the results are messy.”—Richard Sennett

That ‘messiness’ recalls Jane Jacobs’ famous line, which Sennett draws from time and again: “If density and diversity give life, the life they breed is disorderly”. That disorderly sensibility — the very opposite of what much urban policy and planning strives for, perhaps particularly in a non-confrontational Swedish context, dare I say — is what gives an open city its vitality and resilience. (It also reminds us that Jacobs’s four principles for a diverse and resilient city still cover most of what we need to know about urbanism and planning.) Similarly, Sassen’s complexity and incompleteness are relevant here too. There are echoes in all of this of Chantal Mouffe’s agonistics, perhaps, with its emphasis on conflict and confrontation: “Political questions are not mere technical issues to be solved by experts. Proper political questions always involve decisions that require making a choice between conflicting alternatives.”

“Playfully, stubbornly, ignoring boundaries, collaborating freely.”—Olivia Laing, on how to plant a garden

This emphasis on creative, resilient ‘everyday disorder’ necessitates engagement, negotiation, an involved life in the politics of the city, whether of the city of one minute or fifteen minutes, one kilometre or fifty kilometres, in order to make it work.

Bruno Latour, in his Down to Earth, repeatedly articulates the need to pull concepts like efficiency to the Terrestrial, where it can be wrestled down to the ground through this kind of involvement:

“To restore positive meaning to the words ‘realistic’, ‘objective’, ‘efficient’, or ‘rational’, we have to turn them away from the Global, where they have clearly failed, and toward the Terrestrial … The Terrestrial grasps the same structures from up close, as internal to the collectivities and sensitive to human actions, to which they react swiftly.”—Bruno Latour, Down To Earth (2018)

This language — up close, internal to collectivities, sensitive to human action, reacting swiftly — captures this more engaged mode required of us, to work these slowdown landscapes. It does not sound ‘slow’ in the sense of withdrawn, disengaged, self-centred; or “waiting it out” as Runciman described Japan and Greece.

Again, the garden or meadow or forest of slow growth timber— or the caring and repairing acts of tilling the soil, seeding, tending, growing, adapting, and harvesting of everyday nature — are both metaphors and realities here. This kind of engagement veers from the entirely unimportant and important; perhaps between labour, work, and action, in Hannah Arendt’s formulation in The Human Condition.

“In a fluid world, for social forms to emerge they require favourable conditions to be created, which then need to be taken care of. “Creating favorable conditions” and “taking care” are two activities that assume a fundamental role when we adopt this interpretive model, one that characterises human activity.”—Ezio Manzini, Politics of the Everyday: Designing in Dark Times (2019)

When Büscher and Fletcher write of ‘everyday nature’ being defined by “mundaneness rather than the spectacle”, they are rightly suggesting that a street given over to an urban meadow may, at points of the year, be entirely spectacular, as with heathers in full bloom on a moor, or Tegg’s Infield in early summer, and yet much of the time, given the traditional, narrow fields of aesthetics enshrined in most urban planning departments and popular media, that same ‘everyday nature’ may be appear to be drab, denuded, dry or even dead.

(Despite Sweden’s extremely close cultural relationship with ‘the outdoors’, for recreation at least, I’m often surprised by the narrow aesthetic frame that vegetation in cities ‘should’ exist within. For all the High Line’s negative impact on Manhattan, one positive outcome it did produce is to show how urban spaces can be engaging vegetative landscapes all year round, including in the occasionally fierce New York winter. Some exceptions aside, in the Nordics I often hear the position that greenery is not worth planting amidst the grey, given that it’s only flourishing in the few months of summer—which is odd, in countries that tend to be 70% covered in forest. This feels a little like the stories Jan Gehl tells of mid-century Copenhagen, when people would snort at the very idea of coffee shops and active streets, given the climate. “We’re not Italians!”, Danes would protest. Times change, sensibilities evolve.)

Those landscape aesthetics can be actively tuned, as there is nothing intrinsically “dull”, visually speaking, about a root system at earlier or later stages of growth. Büscher and Fletcher describe how helping to care for such systems is one of the more meaningful forms of engagement and understanding, no matter what month we are in. And should we need it, there is an increasingly large body of evidence for the mental and physical health and wellbeing benefits.

Beyond the literal street as garden, this sensibility of the mundane everyday would also apply to much of the participative decision-making made by a cooperative housing block, for example. No matter how rewarding — materially, psychologically, culturally — these conditions requires a form of enduring shared commitment that we cannot kid ourselves about, in terms of time, effort, and ongoing focus. The examples I’ve described in this series, whether chickens, playgrounds, or parking lot tomato farms, force a persistent, low-intensity engagement that it is key to spinning and folding social fabric.

Foregrounding the time and effort required presents a strong and obvious critique of many participative models; that they tend towards people who have the time and security to be able commit (the retired, the well-off, for example) rather than those who would perhaps have much to give and gain, but whose condition is too precarious to allow meaningful engagement. This, again, is where an equitable Slowdown condition could be profoundly interesting, in terms of making space, time, and security to engage.

“In short, our freedom requires that we can own the question of what to do with our time … An emancipated life is not a life that is free from work, but a life in which we pursue work on the basis of our own commitments.” — Martin Hägglund, This Life (2019)

Beyond the mundane everyday, there is also the ‘spectacular’ equivalent of long-term, mutually exclusive decisions, requiring major commitments but with significant value — socially, culturally, politically, environmentally. These more spectacular examples, like Theaster Gate’s projects or De Monchaux’s distributed not-sewer or Black Lives Matter, may grab the attention, and are hugely important in laying down statements of intent. but they could not exist without this substrate of more everyday work. One creates and invites space for the other.

Again, the street stands as an example here. A street can be quiet and mundane, or the site of a vibrant, potent protest. It can hold both conditions. Given our inclinations as a species, we are highly likely to counterpoint everyday nature with vivid culture. These same streets, squares, playgrounds, and parks are also sites for the cultural production of art, music, theatre, politics and protest.

How we do this is crucial. Who does this is fundamental.

Perhaps the most captivating artworks of the last few months have been those produced directly on the streets themselves: alongside the everyday culture of occupation, greening, and social life, the more explicit culural and political intervention of those 10 metre tall yellow letters declaring ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ on 16th Street in Washington DC. Positioned directly north of the White House, this is such a strong statement of intent, not least in its mode of production: an alliance of local activists supported by municipal workers, their sanctioned by Mayor Muriel Bowser.

That mural provokes further street painting: ‘END RACISM NOW’ and ‘DEFUND THE POLICE’, and in cities all over the world, transforming the temporarily empty streets into broadcast space and performance space, a civic canvas of enormous scale.

We used to denote scale on such landmarks by saying ‘It can be seen from space!’. We see scale differently now, and can track that image horizontally across social media whilst counting the time taken before we can say ‘It can be seen in Maps!’ Scale is a social, rather than simply physical. Yet the physical reality of the mural is what triggers the most meaningful response—as Timothy Snyder declares in On Tyranny, a book reflecting on the occupant of the nearby White House, “Nothing is not real that does not end on the streets.”

This Black Lives Matter street art exemplifies Slowdown landscapes just as much as rambunctious gardens do. They exemplify the shift in focus from divisive economic growth to cohesive social growth. Their radical vibrancy represents the battle for reparations, for both humans and nonhumans, as well as creating the space for a broader repairing of our culture.

That they take place in the street also means they implicitly represent a different kind of environment, alternate modes of everyday infrastructure as well as a happy substitution of traffic for art. They help repurpose the technology of the street for ethics, aesthetics, and environment.

They foreground the healthy, productive potential of streets—just as that Go Green grocery store in Englewood, Chicago or the More Than Housing cooperatives in Zürich can be seen as Green New Deals at the scale of a block—which in turn suggests upstream manoeuvres for policy, creating nurturing environments for care and culture, which in turn enables a defunding of police, of healthcare for healthcare’s sake, of inequity and iniquity in property ownership.

By articulating the One-Minute City of the street, as a place that necessitates care—triggering the gardening instincts, the immediate conviviality with neighbours, the creation of local cultures—it forces a Slowdown, a rebalancing of time and effort, onto the super-local. The infinite concentric rings of the 15-minute City that surround these small local loops—as many as there are people or desires—ensure that the super-local does not become the super-parochial, that the local community does not become the gated community.

These Slowdown landscapes facilitate elements of direct political action, networked to create global movements. In doing so, they simultaneously sketch out an implicit model for the transformation of our everyday infrastructures: a similarly organic and iterative ‘small pieces, loosely joined’ approach, based around movements, yet turning streets into meadows, gardens, canvases, agora, markets, a low-cost Lo-Tek alchemy of transforming parking into playgrounds into piazza into politics.

So Slowdown means a fight, a struggle; the fight for social progress, rather than the scrap for personal and individual wealth that characterised the end of the Great Acceleration. A fundamentally different kind of growth is in play, a more relational form focused on social and environmental progress; a slow growth, as in timber. The landscapes of the Slowdown are yet to fully emerge from our emergencies fast and slow. Yet emerging they are, and they are beginning to sprout and flower all around us.

Stockholm suburbs, June 2020

Previous: 40. Slowdown landscapes: Meadow
Intro to third batch: 19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: