Gian Piero de Bellis
Polyarchy : a Paradigm
(2002 - 2013)
From congested agglomerations to convivial habitats
The rural world (^)
In the absence of historical evidence, it is plausible to assume that, in the beginning of time, most human beings were like wandering animals, not attached for long to any specific location but searching everywhere for edible resources and protective shelters.
In other words, the primeval human being was, first of all, a picker of fruits and a hunter of small animals, always on the alert with respect to fierce beasts and dangerous natural phenomena.
It was only in the course of time, with the invention of appropriate devices (spears, arrows, etc.) and the development of better cooperative skills for chasing and bringing down larger animals, that the nomadic or semi-nomadic individual and his family or small group of kin, were able to start a more sedentary life.
This sedentary or quasi-sedentary existence became, afterwards, a strong cultural feature with the invention-discovery of agriculture and the domestication of animals. The more skilful individuals became then capable of balancing production and consumption, away from the vagaries of an unsuccessful hunting or of occasional natural scarcities.
The agricultural revolution was the necessary preliminary phase for what the archeologist Gordon Childe has called the Urban Revolution (http://faculty.washington.edu/plape/citiesaut11/readings/Childe-urban%20revolution%201950.pdf).
The urban revolution (^)
Small settlements of people existed already in prehistoric time and some of them developed into relatively large agglomerations. However, the sheer number of individuals congregating together in a place is not a sign of the existence of a town. Something more is required to transform a mass of people living in close contact into a urban reality. And this is what happened in the course of time.
The Urban Revolution that took place during the Neolithic Era is considered an important phase of the civilizing process. This aspect emerges clearly from the fact that the root of the word civilization is civis (latin = citizen) and civilis (latin = belonging or proper to citizens).
During the Neolithic Era, the simplicity of the rural world was replaced, in some geographical places, by a much more complex type of organization characterised by:
- the production of an agricultural surplus;
- the concentration of people and the specialization of labour;
- the centralization of power and the rise of lasting leaders/rulers.
The invention of the city relied also on the emergence of new social needs that were fulfilled through:
- the elaboration of symbolic tools (writing, arithmetic, geometry, etc.) for representing and mastering reality;
- the construction of important structures for functional (e.g. granaries) or devotional (e.g. temples) uses;
- the establishment of long-distance trade and cultural exchanges as the city became the magnet for all sorts of artisans and merchants from far away.
The fact that civilization (progress) and domination (power) both emerged in the development of cities is the sign, right from the beginning, of the ambivalent aspect of the new social organization brought about by the urban revolution. The clearest examples, with their positive and negative implications, are the famous cities of the ancient world: Athens, Alexandria, Rome.
The urban reality (^)
The urban reality of the ancient world presented aspects that were to be recurrent features of many large cities in later years.
First of all, a city becomes important in so far as it is the centre of power (military, political, administrative, religious) and it attracts people looking for social prestige, cultural life and economic opportunities.
Secondly, in order to satisfy a large population and reinforce their political power, the rulers aim at controlling and channelling towards the city the surplus of production extracted from nearby and further afield.
There is, for instance, the case of the city-state of Athens. During the time of Pericles, Athens became an imperial power, dominating the association of Greek city-states known as the Delian League and appropriating its treasury. It seems that Pericles used those resources, which belonged to all citizens of the League, in order to finance grandiose public works and to support state functionaries and state patronage.
The famous Athenian democracy was, actually, a political regime based on the work of numerous slaves (around 100.000 out of a population of 300.000, according to the historian R. E. Wycherley). Athens achieved also imperialistic supremacy over and exploitation of other Greek city-states. (see Lewis Mumford, The City in History, 1961)
The dominion of Athens could last only as long as the exploitative imperialistic policy had not extended its corruptive effects to the majority of its inhabitants, and the envy and rage of the submitted populations had not been pushed into forming a coalition to free themselves from the oppressor.
The Peloponnesian War
(431-404 B.C.) marked the end of the power of Athens.
After that, the trial and poisoning by the state rulers of Socrates in 399 B.C. could have marked also the end of Athens as a cultural centre if it were not that the teachings of Socrates survived and were saved for posterity by his disciple, Plato, and then continued and developed by Plato's disciple, Aristotle. Aristotle was the preceptor of Alexander the Macedon, the founder of another large city: Alexandria in Egypt.
In the winter of 332-331 B.C., Alexander instructed the architect Dinocrates
of Rhodes to lay the plan for a city on a strip of land between the Mediterranean
sea and the lake Mareotis. And so Alexandria came into existence, attracting,
in a brief span of time, an interesting mixture of people (Jews, Greeks,
Egyptians) that contributed to its splendour as a cultural centre and a
trading port. The Museum in which scientific research was organized and
the famous Library in which knowledge documents were stored and preserved,
were the clearest examples of the civilizing force engendered by the city
as a place where people with different cultural backgrounds could connect
and construct all sorts of artefacts.
The city and the entire country of Egypt later on fell under the control of Rome which took formal jurisdiction of all those territories in 80 B.C.
In considering the rising and long
dominance of Rome, all the positive and negative aspects intrinsic to the
development of a large city were exposed in the clearest way.
From a humble beginning as a collection of pastoral settlements on the hills, Rome grew continuously, moving from Republican Rome to Imperial Rome, attracting an ever larger number of people and absorbing an increasing quantity of resources.
In the words of Lewis Mumford: "This people [The Romans] began as a nation of sturdy farmers, close to the earth, abstemious, hard-working, strong-muscled delvers and hewers, becoming through their very capacity for enduring hardship and taking blows the strongest people in antiquity. But their very strength and their unflagging industry turned them into a nation of grabbers and cadgers, living off their neighbours, converting their mother city into a gigantic mouth and stomach." (The City in History, 1961).
Imperialism begot parasitism. At a certain point in time some 200.000 inhabitants (out of a population of over 1 million) lived on public funds and were kept occupied with extravagant past-times during the 159 days marked as public holidays during the reign of Claudius (41-54 A.D.). So that panem et circenses was really all which filled their lives.
Rome is the classic example of the trends associated with gigantism and imperialism. The energy necessary to grow and dominate, gives way, in the course of time, to flaccidity and complacency; so that, when new energetic individuals arrive, they are bound to take over, destroying the current power and preparing the ground for future developments.
This is what happened with Rome when
the so-called barbarians (the Germans) entered the peninsula.
After almost seven centuries in which Rome was the most important city of the western world, in the year 330 the capital of the Roman Empire was moved to Constantinople and in 410 the Visigoths, under Alaric, sacked the city. It was the first of two other sacks (in 455 and in 472) that sanctioned the end of Rome as a powerful urban centre. The population of Rome dwindled from over a million inhabitants (in the 1st century A.D.) to less than 50.000 people (in the 7th century).
The impossibility of relying as in the past, on the
channelling of resources towards the imperial centre, encouraged the people
to abandon the city and to start a productive life in the countryside.
Following the decaying of Rome and until the turn of the first millennium, life in Western Europe revolved in the countryside and focused on agricultural occupations. For many historians this was a long period of suspended urban life and civilization and perhaps, for this reason, they called it the Middle Ages.
The agricultural scene (^)
The decadence and final collapse of the Roman Empire in the West brought about the end of those relationships in which the bureaucracy and the aristocracy, living in Rome and in the towns of the Empire, dominated the rural population, through the army, and enjoyed the surplus extracted. This dynamic had lasted for several centuries and had been made possible by the continuous appropriation of new territories and new subjects to control and exploit.
When the imperialistic expansion ended and the people in the new provinces strove to become more autonomous, keeping for themselves a bigger quota of the surplus produced, the people of Rome were unable to carry on with their unproductive style of life.
Many aristocrats left Rome and settled in their properties in the countryside, finding there the necessary means of sustenance. It could be said that it was not just the sack of towns by the barbarians, but also the end of the pillage of the rural world by the imperial bureaucracy and aristocracy, that pushed people towards the countryside. Whatever the main cause, the fact remains that many urban inhabitants had to move back to nature and engage in a more productive way of life.
The western world became then, once again, a mainly rural world characterized by two types of social organization:
- the villa, in the Italian peninsula and in the southern part of Gallia (Gaul);
- the marca, in the territories of the Germans.
These new settlements were both centres of agricultural production, with lands cultivated individually or in common, rented by the master to the serf in exchange for part of the crop, usually ten per cent, or owned by the whole community that shared the fruits of production amongst its members.
We see, in the social organization emerging after the end of the Roman Empire, the beginning of those feudal and communitarian relationships that characterized the Middle Ages, at least until the turn of the millennium.
On the whole, the Middle Ages, far from being an age of obscurantism, lacking in civilization, saw the vast reclamation of new lands and the introduction of new implements (e.g. the heavy wheeled plough) and new methods (the three-year crop rotation) in the cultivation of the fields. All this led to a rise in productivity and to the formation of surpluses of agricultural goods that, in its turn, made possible a new social division of labour, increasing the number of artisans and merchants.
The commercial revolution, that started during the tenth century, was then preceded by a growth of agricultural production. These surpluses of production found, generally, three destinations. They were:
- partly absorbed by the masters as a payment of rents or services provided (e.g. protection);
- partly exchanged with other goods produced by the artisans or imported via the merchants from far away (e.g. spices);
- partly used for financing community buildings (e.g. a church, a market) or for the improvement of personal situations (e.g. better housing).
In all these cases we can see some of the factors leading to the revival of the towns and of the urban life.
The medieval town (^)
The urban renewal that started around the turn of the first millennium, had then a common basis, namely the growth of agricultural production that made possible a wider division of labour. Out of this common underpinning emerged a variety of urban forms like:
- the old settlements, i.e. the civitates of Roman origin (in central and southern Europe) that were kept alive by the presence of ecclesiastic power. These were given a new lease of life by the arrival of new inhabitants from the countryside, like farmers that became artisans and landowners that became urban rentiers;
- the parallel settlements, i.e. those settlements that started and grew next to a point of attraction or a resting stop, like a castle, an abbey, a convent. Towards these places gravitated, regularly or occasionally, merchants and pilgrims. The best sites in terms of transport (e.g. on a river), or the best protected agglomerations (e.g. within walls) became not only places of passage but also crowded settlements, reaching a point when the growing population had to be accommodated on the outside, foris burgus, in the suburb.
- the new settlements, i.e. the villae novae or free burghs, started in many cases by the rural masters that saw, in populating new lands (terrae novae), the opportunity to increase their power and wealth. In order to attract people, the landowners had to grant exemption from certain exactions and ensure other privileges and liberties (e.g. hunting and fishing rights).
Whatever the origin of the medieval towns, the animating force was represented by "new" individuals endowed with a vast amount of energy and the desire to explore and express new ways of life. We are referring here to:
- The artisans. Following the growth of production in the countryside, resulting from better cultivation practices and the use of more efficient implements, a certain number of peasants moved to the towns and concentrated their efforts in making tools and objects to be exchanged with the surplus food. The artisan workshop was not only a place of production but also for the sale of artefacts for town people and rural folks.
- The merchants. With the growth of craft production and the revival of long-distance trade, a further division of labour emerged with the reappearance of numerous merchants. They crisscrossed Europe with their wares to display and sell in the fairs that took place in many different localities, the most famous being the Champagne fairs in the region currently known as Île de France (south-east of Paris).
Both the artisans and the merchants played an increasingly important role in the socio-economic life of the Middle Ages. Their influence and power was due also, in a large measure, to the fact that they were organized in associations, variously called according to their geographical location (corporations, guilds, hansa), and were able to dictate terms of production and commerce and protect the interests and security of their members.
In the course of time, these associations became closed institutions, regulating all sorts of aspects concerning, for instance, the conditions of access, the requirements for apprenticeship, the quantity and the price of goods produced, the level of wages, the introduction of new technology, and so on and so forth.
At the same time, the association was a fraternity caring for the well-being of the members, protecting their security against foreigners and outsiders, and helping to settle internal controversies.
These various features of the associations, as institutions and as fraternities, expressed the positive and the negative side of this new form of social organization. The positive side referred, for instance, to the aspect of mutual assistance and to the autonomous solution of internal problems (e.g. the administration of justice through the lex mercatoria), without the need for external interventions. The negative side consisted in the fact that those organizations tried to dominate the urban scene and to impose their power on the people living in the countryside. In other words, the associations aimed at dictating trading conditions, both to the town dwellers (e.g. by the prohibition to import artisanal goods from the outside) and to the rural peasants (e.g. by the obligation for the peasants to sell their produces on the town market at a controlled price).
The prevailing preoccupation of the wealthy families of the medieval towns was that of controlling not only the countryside but also other towns that could become competitors for economic success. And so we have, for instance, in the Italian peninsula, the struggles between Genoa and Pisa, Pisa and Amalfi, Genoa and Venice. In the final instance, the political aspect of territorial and maritime supremacy became more important than the economic aspect of productive capacity and trading skill.
If we add to this change of mentality and objectives, the introduction of new weapons (e.g. cannons), more expensive to manufacture and capable of destroying the protective walls of a castle and of a town, we have some explanation why a world composed of many aristocratic fiefdoms and independent towns went into decline and was taken over by a world made of large territorial sovereign realities characterized by one dominant master (the king) and one dominant city (the capital).
The capital city (^)
The decline of the original free towns of the Middle Ages and their incorporation into big territorial states, whose inhabitants were homogenized into national subjects, was the result of long process of which the town folks themselves were in large part responsible, even if not always in a conscious or willing way.
The change took place in different epochs in Europe, starting with France and England where the centralizing forces were stronger and appeared earlier with respect to other realities. The Italian peninsula and the German territories were, in fact, characterized by a proliferation of cities, principalities, dukedoms that lasted, more or less, until the middle of the 19th century.
This transformation was the result of other changes in the spheres of culture, economy, technology. The dynamics of this change is briefly touched on below. The members of the corporations played on the contrast between the king (the strongest feudal master) and the local masters (ecclesiastical or secular), often putting themselves under the protection of the former and giving to him a sort of formal allegiance. In this way they obtained, in exchange, certain privileges like for instance, the exemption from some taxes and monopolistic rights of sale in a certain area.
In so doing, the leading exponents of the economic life of the city were abandoning the possibility of playing an autonomous role and were content with exploiting the surrounding countryside and other urban strata, and of becoming wealthier under the shield of a distant master. However, this did not bode well as it compromised definitively their political and administrative independence.
The centralisation of power in the hands of a powerful master, with considerable means at his disposal, was also greatly favoured, as previously pointed out, by the introduction of more sophisticated and more expensive weapons, first of all the cannon with cast-iron projectiles (replacing stone projectiles) that could perforate almost any fortification that, up to them, granted the security of the local master in his castle or of the urban community within the city walls. In the words of Lewis Mumford, "the introduction of gunpowder early in the fourteenth century sounded the death knell of the free cities." (The Culture of Cities, 1938)
In addition, the survival of many separate local powers trying to impose their taxes (i.e. road tolls, bridge tolls, river tolls, town tolls), their parameters of measurement and weight, and their means of payment, became increasingly unacceptable to those rising economic strata that were in favour of the free flow of goods at a time in which production and trade were growing and spreading. So that, the unification of a large territory under a unique master, i.e. in a central state, represented progress because it meant the end of local particularism. The central state also prevailed by offering a functional organisation more in tune with the evolving needs of the time and with the development of technology.
The free towns of the early Middle Ages could have survived and prospered if their inhabitants had worked with the country folk on a productive co-operative basis and had behaved towards the other towns and principalities in a productive competitive manner. The result could have been a universally expanding federalism, with economic development and cultural progress affecting and being diffused over all the territories and all the people.
This is what happened, albeit after a period of fighting and only to a certain extent, in the Swiss Confederation where no king emerged or was allowed to emerge, but the towns and the country decided to confederate on an equal basis and organised the territory in the form of many largely autonomous cantons, with no domineering centre.
Elsewhere, on the contrary, with the rise of the central state, power and wealth began to be concentrated in the capital city. While the medieval city was growing slowly, in an organic and almost spontaneous way, the capital city and the subordinate peripheral towns started to become objects of formal planning by the architects and engineers at the service of the powerful.
In London, the Great Fire of 1666 that destroyed two thirds of the City, offered the opportunity for rebuilding on a vast scale on the basis of plans made by Christopher Wren, the newly appointed King's Surveyor of Works (1669).
In Berlin, Philipp Gerlach, royal architect and planner (from 1707) was commissioned, by Frederick William I, to extend the city development westward with the planning of Pariser Platz.
Paris was, in this respect and in later times, an exemplary case, namely when Baron Haussmann was the prefect of the city (1853-1870) and supervised its radical transformation and extraordinary growth (from 1.2 to 2 million inhabitants). The Parisians called him Attila because of the massive demolition of buildings and entire quarters in order to implement his urban projects.
The narrow streets of the medieval cities were eliminated in favour of large avenues and boulevards that were more functional to the passing of a parading army; the sober sturdy buildings of the medieval town became the baroque palaces and the imposing edifices where the rich aristocrats and bourgeois spent their time and their incomes.
Eventually, the central state and the capital city became the model to follow in structuring power and dominating a large territory. The more this model was implemented and succeeded, in France and in England, the more other relatively small powers (e.g. the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, the kingdom of Prussia) followed, until it became the way of organising society.
And, within the large territory controlled by the central state, towards the middle of the 18th century, the industrial society and the industrial centre started to emerge.
The industrial centre (^)
The industrial society coming out of free-entrepreneurship and free-trade (laissez-faire, laissez-passer) existent, to a certain measure, in some regions of Europe, was not the result of the central state but was certainly made possible also because the central state had erased some of the most blatant feudal and corporative restrictions and impediments to free economic activity.
The main features of the industrial society were:
- organisation of production based on the division of labour and the introduction of mechanical tools and machines;
- augmentation of production as the result of a more intense and more efficient utilisation of human and mechanical energy;
- concentration of production in factories where the owner of capital (i.e. of the productive machinery) could better control the workers.
This concentration of production, with movement of population from the countryside to the localities were factories were built for functional reasons of manufacturing (e.g. near sources of hydraulic energy), or trade (e.g. near navigable rivers, within existing agglomerations), gave rise to industrial centres, first of all in England where the Industrial Revolution started, and then in other European countries.
For instance, Manchester which was a large village of 12,000 inhabitants (around 1760) became a town of 95,000 in 1800 and of 400,000 inhabitants in 1850. Liverpool grew from 26,000 inhabitants (1670) to 77,000 (1800) and then to 375,000 (1850). Leeds moved from 17,000 inhabitants in 1775 to 172,000 in 1850. In Scotland, Glasgow went from 30,000 to 300,000 inhabitants between 1750 and 1850. (Pierre Lavedan, Histoire de l'Urbanisme, vol. III, 1952)
The towns became industrial centres where people flocked for various reasons, but mainly to earn a living (the industrial workers) or to spend their wealth (the affluent rentiers). In the industrial centres, the best palaces and the worst shelters could be found within walking distance.
This massive growth of urban population that started in the age of industrialization and got increasingly common with the passing of time, led, in many cases, to a sharp division between town and country.
As remarked by J.L. and Barbara Hammond in their survey of the town labourer:
“Formerly, the men and women who lived in the English towns ... were never far from the open country: their town life was fringed with orchards and gardens. But as the Industrial Revolution advanced, a Manchester was growing up in which the workmen would find it harder and harder to escape out of the wide web of smoke and squalor that enveloped their daily lives.” (The Town Labourer 1760-1832, 1925)
The quite sudden and growing concentration of people and the presence of industries polluting the air and the water, made the towns a place of filth and congestion, where living conditions were, for many people, quite miserable. During the 19th century a series of social surveys were made to document the situation of the working class and of the paupers in the towns. The most famous were The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population (1842) by Edwin Chadwick and The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) by Friedrich Engels.
The picture presented was one of desolation and distress. According to the conclusions drawn by Engels
"The dwellings of the workers are everywhere badly planned, badly built, and kept in the worst condition, badly ventilated, damp, and unwholesome. The inhabitants are confined to the smallest possible space, and at least one family usually sleeps in each room. The interior arrangement of the dwellings is poverty-stricken in various degrees, down to the utter absence of even the most necessary furniture. The clothing of the workers, too, is generally scanty, and that of great multitudes is in rags. The food is, in general, bad; often almost unfit for use, and in many cases, at least at times, insufficient in quantity, so that, in extreme cases, death by starvation results." (The condition of the working class in England, 1844)
Certainly, poverty and bad sanitary conditions were not something new with respect to the countryside or the urban agglomerations of the past. What was new was the scale of the phenomenon and the fact that it could give rise to epidemics (e.g. cholera) that might not be circumscribed but affected a vast number of people. The same can be said about bad fumes and smells that could not be constrained within a specific area.
So, by way of an improved technology, and facing social criticism and the widespread desire for better living condition, many European towns went through a period of transformation, often promoted and carried out by enlightened individuals that aimed at reducing and often succeeded in repairing the major faults existent in the industrial centres.
The time of Queen Victoria in England and of Napoleon III in France was a period of vast productive expansion that was widely imitated and affected other countries like Germany and the USA and put the foundation of what will be, in the big states, the imperial megalopolis.
The imperial megalopolis (^)
The industrial centres of the period of the early industrialization (middle of the 18th century onwards) gave way, towards the end of the 19th century, to the rise, in the countries of Western Europe, of a dominant megalopolis that was the seat of an imperial political power. We are here referring, in particular, to three capital cities: London, Paris and Berlin.
London was already a city of around one million inhabitants at the beginning
of the 19th century, and of 2.3 million inhabitants in 1850. This figure would
almost double before the end of the century (1890) to 4.2 million inhabitants.
(Adna Ferrin Weber, The Growth of Cities in the Nineteenth Century, 1899)
Paris had half a million inhabitants in 1800, over a million in 1850, and 2.4 million in 1890 (Adna Ferrin Weber).
Berlin was a medium size town of 173,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 19th century when it was the capital of Prussia. Towards the middle of the century it doubled the population (378,000 in 1850) (Adna Ferrin Weber). The dramatic growth came when Berlin became the capital of the German Empire (1871): from a population of 826,000 in 1871 it went to almost 2 million at the end of the century. (Berlin Population Statistics - Wikipedia)
The extraordinary growth of these cities can be explained only if we assume
a causal link between the fact of being the capital of an Empire and what that
meant in terms of attracting and supporting a vast number of people.
In fact, an abnormal urban growth is understandable only because of the presence of three magnets,
(1) power, (2) prestige (3) pleasure, that constitute the motives why all sorts of people converge or install themselves in the capitals. We have then:
- political lobbies, party and trade unions headquarters, company main offices;
- foreign embassies and consulates;
- communication services : radio, TV, newspapers.
- financial institutions : banks, insurance companies, the stock exchange.;
- educational facilities : universities, museums, research centres.
- mega stores, shopping centres, luxurious boutiques;
- restaurants, hotels, cinemas, theatres, entertainment places.
These three magnets became even stronger when the states, of which these cities were the capitals, embarked on the road to imperialism. That meant that even more resources were channelled towards the imperial megalopolis to feed an expanding bureaucracy, and the people for which power, prestige and pleasure were the life motives.
London, the Greater London, was, in 1931, a megalopolis of over 8 million
Paris, with its urban agglomeration, reached the 5.6 million inhabitants in 1931 (Agglomération Parisienne – Wikipedia).
The Greater Berlin, instituted in 1920 following the introduction of the Greater Berlin Act, became, even after the loss of colonies, an agglomeration of 4.2 million inhabitants (1933) (Berlin Population Statistics - Wikipedia).
Besides these three megalopolis, new world cities emerged like New York (almost 7 million inhabitants in 1930) and Tokyo (6.3 million inhabitants in 1935). In every case we find the same dynamics: the drawing of resources from nearby or far away areas into a central point (the imperial megalopolis) where the sources of power, prestige and pleasure are concentrated to the highest degree.
Eventually, it reached such a point of imbalance that, in 1947, a French geographer, Jean-François Gravier, had plenty of materials to write his seminal book, Paris et le désert français, in which he documented a situation in which, in terms of concentration of services and decisional power, the megalopolis was (almost) everything and the rest of France was (almost) nothing.
In the following years, the growing urbanisation of the world, with some urban areas, even in semi-developed countries, reaching (2012) several million inhabitants (Delhi, 22 million; Mexico City, almost 20 million; Cairo, almost 17 million) (en.wikipedia.org―List_of_urban_areas_by_population) has made evident the existence of serious problems connected with the urbanisation.
It was and it is quite clear that this trend cannot continue indefinitely.
The urban crisis (^)
The existence of some large cities is a very old reality, but the phenomenon of world urbanisation, i.e. the fact that a high percentage of world population lives in towns, is a quite recent development.
World urbanisation has taken place mainly during the nineteenth and twentieth
During the nineteenth century we had:
(a) an increase in the number of European cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants (from 42 in 1850 with aggregate population of 9 million, to 120 in 1895 with aggregate population of 37 million);
(b) a world growth of urban population (people living in cities with over 20,000 inhabitants) whose percentage went from 2.4% in 1800 to 9.2% in 1900 (Kingsley Davis, The Origin and Growth of Urbanization in the World, 1955).
This trend continued and was accentuated during the 20th century. By 1950 around 34% of world population was living in cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants (Kingsley Davis, 1955). In some countries the percentages of urban population were much higher; in the USA, for instance, in 1950, 60% of population was urbanized. (Kingsley Davis, Human Society, 1966)
The authors of the United Nations report on World Urbanization Prospects
state that the urban population in the world increased from 220 million in
1900 to 732 million in 1950, and is estimated to have reached 3.2 billion in
2005 (49% of world population), thus more than quadrupling in the second half
of the 20th century. (http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/WUP2005/2005WUPHighlights_Final_Report.pdf)
In this process of urbanisation, the less developed regions are taking a preponderant role. In fact "by 1968 the urban population of the less developed regions surpassed for the first time that of the more developed regions and continued to do so thereafter." (U.N. Report on World Urbanization Prospects, The 2005 Revision, 2006) (see also: http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/pdf/WUP2011_Highlights.pdf)
The urbanisation phenomenon contains both positive and negative aspects. Generally, the cities, especially in the past, have represented the place where a more dynamic life can take shape, mainly because a variety of resources are attracted or drained there, allowing for a higher level of social services and cultural possibilities.
On a theoretical level, a healthy and flourishing town is a productive place where, besides other aspects, industrial goods are designed, made and then freely exchanged with goods produced in the countryside. Instead, what has happened, in many cases, is the fact that urbanization has meant the growth of parasitic strata living in the capital and in the main urban centres, feeding on the productive work of those living in the countryside or in small agglomerations or in the peripheries and ghettos of the world. This is quite apparent in the megalopolis of the advanced world, that have become bureaucratic-financial hubs; and also, in a more evident way, in the mega-cities of the less developed world (Dhaka, Lagos, Lima, Abidjan, Kabul, etc.) that have become bureaucratic-parasitocratic entities.
The abnormal growth of cities, not justified by their productive functions,
has led to the rise and spread of unpalatable and obnoxious realities that
combine to generate what has been called the “urban crisis.”
The urban crisis manifests itself mainly through three phenomena:
Congestion. The sheer density of people living in a city would not be a problem (up to a point) if it were not accompanied by a level of consumption of goods and use of means of transport that generate effects challenging the resources of human beings to the limit and the capacity of physical space to absorb its impact. For instance:
- the number of cars circulating in a city makes movement from one point to the other, during certain times of the day, slower than in past ages;
- the number of people looking for accommodation increases tremendously the price of houses and leads to more housing programs and housing density, making the problem of congestion even more intractable.
Pollution. A high density of people that consume an increasing volume of goods is likely to result in high level of:
- air pollution, produced by the exhaust fumes of motor cars and emissions from heating systems;
- water pollution, discharging pollutants into rivers or the soil, affecting the water-bearing stratum;
- noise pollution, namely, a continuous noise level that generates overall discomfort, even if not always perceived in a conscious way;
- solid waste pollution, i.e. the amount of rubbish that piles up in the city streets and is disposed of with increased difficulty.
Stress. Congestion and pollution lead, often, to various types of stress, i.e. mental and physical problems, that manifest themselves as:
- irritation: the person reacts angrily to all sorts of inconveniences that make urban daily life pretty unpleasant;
- alienation: the person is not, any longer, a versatile human being but somebody wearing a mask and playing a specific role, chosen or given;
- isolation: people have the feeling of just being a lonely face in an anonymous crowd. The more the individuals feel isolated, the more likely they are to insulate themselves from the others who are seen as strangers.
These aspects of the urban crisis have been portrayed in many books, films, articles and social researches. The amount of materials presenting and supporting the case of the human predicament and malaise associated with urban crisis is quite relevant.
Nevertheless, cities in the developed world remain important centres of power and prestige and cities in the less developed regions keep growing because that is where resources are conveyed.
However, new cultural patterns and new technological devices combine nowadays in such a way that it seems finally possible to move away from the urban crisis without abandoning the best aspects of life in the town/city and, moreover, uniting them with the best aspects of life in the countryside.
The recomposition of space (^)
During the age of industrialisation and urbanisation (from 18th to 20th century)
a certain number of social thinkers and planners have put forward a series
of proposals and even formulated detailed projects with the aim of overcoming
the negative aspects of industrial and urban life.
Those negative aspects, already previously sketched, can be summed up as:
- Exploitation. The big cities, all throughout history, have been the place where resources have been drained, mainly from the countryside or from minor towns. In modern time the imperial megalopolis has heightened this reality.
- Concentration. The concentration of people and resources on specific points of territory has generated huge spatial and social imbalances that reflect negatively on the quality of human life and of the social intercourses.
- Isolation. The rural isolation has been the other face of the urban concentration. The peasants have been portrayed, sometimes correctly albeit, often, not of their choosing, as backward individuals, cut off from modern progress.
In the past, social critics have pointed the finger at the exploitation and alienation of industrial workers amassed in towns and the idiocy of rural life caused by the lack of amenities and cultural opportunities. At the same time, some other critics have extolled industry and the city as the symbols of progress and cultural innovation, or celebrated the countryside as the place where healthy lives and human virtues could better develop.
It was then quite appropriate that a recomposition of the space (town and country) was advocated by the most farsighted critics, a recomposition that, clearly, would associate the best aspects of the two worlds (urban and rural) and produce a new, highly desirable, reality.
This intention appears, for instance, in the writings of Friedrich Engels when he affirmed that:
"[Accordingly,] abolition of the antithesis between town and country is not merely possible. It has become a direct necessity of industrial production itself, just as it has become a necessity of agricultural production and, besides, of public health. The present poisoning of the air, water and land can be put an end to only by the fusion of town and country; and only such fusion will change the situation of the masses now languishing in the towns, and enable their excrement to be used for the production of plants instead of for the production of disease." (Antidühring, 1878)
Breaking down the division between town and country was advocated and articulated, in more precise terms, by Piotr Kropotkin in Fields, Factories and Workshops (1899). His leading ideas revolved around the decentralization of industry and the combination of industrial and agricultural activities:
"The scattering of industries over the country - so as to bring the factory amidst the fields, to make agriculture derive all those profits which it always finds in being combined with industry and to produce a combination of industrial with agricultural work - is surely the next step to be made, as soon as a reorganization of our present conditions is possible.”
This rural-industrial recomposition would allow overcome the division between country and town. Kropotkin, for instance, envisaged that many town-dwellers would become agriculturists, tending horticultural gardens and producing vegetables to be sold on the town market.
The times were so ripe for this idea of the recomposition of the space that, in those same years, a self-taught amateur planner, Ebenezer Howard, came out with the proposal of garden-cities in a book titled To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Social Reform (1898) that was re-issued, a few years late, as Garden Cities of To-morrow (1902). The wide acceptance of his idea led to the setting up of a Garden Cities Association (1899) that, in 1903, was in the position of acquiring some land in order to implement those proposals. In this way the garden city of Letchworth was born, followed (1919-1920) by Welwyn Garden City.
However, quite soon, this interesting vision and the related projects of polyvalent communities offering the best of both worlds (country and town) were side-tracked, in actual fact, by two subsequent developments:
- The Suburbs. An easy option, in order to get away from urban congestion and noise and to recreate a semi-rural environment, was the planning of garden suburbs of which Hampstead Garden Suburb in London was one of the first. The movement towards the suburbs grew because of the improvement in the means of transport and the ever present desire for the town folks to live more in contact with nature, even if it was just a small home garden. Nonetheless, the movement towards the suburbs contributed to the enlargement of big cities and to an increase of traffic, as many people moved daily to and from the city centres. In so many cases, suburbs became dormitory towns or dormitory villages, totally depending on the big city centre for work and cultural amenities. Often the result was the formation of a space neither urban nor rural, and of "a new kind of community ... which caricatured both the historic city and the archetypal suburban refuge." (Lewis Mumford, The City in History, 1961)
- The New Towns. In England, the Garden Cities movement was transformed into the New Towns Movement. This happened when the Government intervened in the post Second World War reconstruction and planning of the environment. The guiding lines for this intervention were those of the Barlow Report (1940) that advocated a planned decentralisation of population. In 1945, in the aftermath of the war, the New Towns Committee was instituted. In 1946 the Committee produced a study containing recommendations for the construction of New Towns. The difference with respect to the ideas of Ebenezer Howard was that the aim was not, any longer, to create a new type of environment that was a fusion of rural and urban qualities, but a more modest one: to relieve the pressure on big cities, first of all London, and to provide new housing and proper urban services, satisfying old and new exigences. In this case too, the improvement in transport (especially the rail) affecting the large agglomerations, meant that many people were still working in the big cities and living in the New Towns, that were then used as dormitory towns.
These two developments were also made possible by the fact that, during the second half of the twentieth century, with the full expansion of the welfare dirigist state made possible by a growth in productivity, there was a marked increase of state or state-linked personnel living in the capital cities and in the regional centres. The enlargement of the state in terms of power and number of people working for the state, meant, as previously pointed out, that the cities, where the central and regional bureaucracies lived, swelled beyond their productive and cultural function. And this phenomenon, practically, put a stop to those ideas and experiments of recomposition of the space (town-country) aiming at overcoming both urban congestion and rural isolation.
However these ideas and aspirations have not been totally forgotten as they re-appeared, for example, in the writings of Lewis Mumford and in the actions of those alternative movements advocating, during the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the abandonment of the cities and a return to the land.
All this could have remained an elitist and romantic aspiration, if it were not for the fact that technological progress in the area of production and communication has been changing completely the relationship between individuals and space. This makes possible the exploration and implementation of what can be called the “rurban” (rural + urban) alternative, in which not only the limitations of the past can be overcome but the promises of a better future, personally satisfying, socially attractive and economically viable, can be reaped on a large scale.
The rurban alternative (^)
Many social critics of the past, as previously pointed out, have portrayed the rural and urban realities through the use of powerful images that were, sometimes, only stereotypes. For instance, they depicted:
- the countryside as the place of either rural idiocy or rural arcadia;
- the cities as the scene of either urban inferno or urban excitement.
Going beyond these stereotyped visions, it is possible to see that country and town can offer a full range of experiences to the human being in search of nature and culture, seclusion and connection, tranquillity and liveliness.
To be confined to only one side of this spectrum, or to have to spend time and effort in order to move from one side to the other of the spectrum in order to satisfy all those deep human longings, might represent, for many, a sort of personal loss or forced deprivation.
During the 20th century, that was a time characterized by the presence of
the masses, of industrial concentration and bureaucratic centralization, the
sharp contrast between urban (hyper-developed) and rural (under-developed)
realities seemed, in too many cases, an unavoidable outcome.
Nevertheless, this scenario has totally changed following at least two deep transformations:
- the breaking down of old ideological straitjackets that impeded, practically and psychologically, bold experimentations;
- the advent of personal instantaneous-ubiquitous communication on a world scale that favours the ever wider circulation of ideas.
The first hints of this new reality were already given, several decades ago, by one of the most farsighted of the social analysts, Marshall McLuhan, when he depicted the world like a Global Village and not like a Global Megalopolis. The choice of the terms used was indicative also of a change of approach that, nowadays, is not only hopeful but also needful.
In the past it was assumed that a very big city, like a huge complicated machine, had to be under the control of professional experts for its growth and management. As Baron Haussmann designed the Paris of the 19th century, so planners and architects like Abercrombie, Le Corbusier or Lucio Costa where meant to design the big cities of the 20th century as commissioned by the political masters.
In the first chapter of a booklet published in 1933 (Town and Country Planning), Sir Patrick Abercrombie, the most famous of the English town planners, defined, very clearly, the terms of the problem, as perceived in those times: “Planning or Laissez-Faire.”
Only much later, following cultural and technological transformations, has
it become evident that such an alternative is non-existent, and that the problem
is simply: who is doing the planning.
In other words, if an alternative really exists, that is between a reality in which the people are simply obliged to delegate (i.e. laisser-faire) the planning to some professionals who think they know best, and a reality in which everyone concerned (i.e. individuals and communities) is free to plan his/her life and environment through personal decisions and common agreements.
If the latter is the case, it is highly likely that, in a matter of time, we will see the disappearance of huge concentration of people in the megalopolis. This concentration, as repeatedly highlighted, is the unavoidable result of the drainage of resources from the peripheral territories towards the mega-urban centres, on the basis of the decisions taken by those wielding political power and implemented by the bureaucracies subservient to that power.
In their stead, we are likely to witness, everywhere, the spread of population and a diffusion of resources. This should be facilitated by the fact that, with the end of capital cities and political centralization, the people in every locality will strive to make their community attractive, functional and viable in all sorts of respects (services, amenities, activities, communications, transports, energy, etc.).
In so doing, the old contrapositions and unbalances should disappear and new fascinating realities that transcend the town and country division should emerge like, for instance, those advocated and practiced by and through:
- urban farmers : tending horticultural gardens on rooftops;
- transition towns : moving to a sustainable and viable environment, based on permaculture, recycling and energy saving;
- aquaponics : raising fish (aquaculture) in symbiosis with water-grown vegetables (hydroponics).
- green architecture: designing and building structures that are environmentally-sound and resource-efficient throughout their entire life-cycle.
The development of a spontaneous and multifarious order emerging from the people directly affected by a problem, represents the most promising option, in clear contrast to unsatisfactory imposed solutions and new problems generated by planners, even when they are animated with the best of possible intentions.
At the end of a large survey into housing conducted in England in the early nineteen eighties, a researcher confronted with dysfunctional environments produced by many official plans of urban regeneration or housing improvement to wrote that "the more any aspect of housing is subjected to official interference, the more retrograde has been its change in quality. New slums have been created on an unprecedented scale." "Our vast housing-problems machine [the author refers here to the Department of Environment of the British State, and in particular to the Housing Development Directorate] has committed one blunder after another in the name of social betterment." (Alice Coleman, Utopia on Trial, 1985)
In fact, at the same time when state capitals engendered centralization, state housing gave rise to concentration of people in mega-structures that, in some cases, had to be pulled down after some years (like the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in Saint Louis, Missouri) because of the incredible levels of physical vandalism and psychological rejection by the tenants.
For these reasons we need new visions and experimentations in the development
of new realities.
The rurban alternative of the XXI century should be in the form of a space that is:
- open : that means the end of large territories controlled by nation states (the so-called state territorial sovereignty) so that individuals, whatever their place of birth, can move freely and install themselves in new regions as they have done in the past, opening new vistas and contributing to the development of new spaces;
- linked: that means that, wherever a person finds a suitable place to live and decides to move there, it doesn’t matter how far away from existing settlements it might be, he/she can be in touch with the rest of the world given the current state of technology. This is because previous material or psychological constraints (e.g. energy, communications, etc.), operating against a full decentralization of population, have now practically disappeared;
- self-managed: that means that the space, being such an important component in the life of individuals and communities, cannot be left to bureaucrats or professional experts, to be shaped according to their partial views or contingent interests. The space has to be like a canvas where the needs, desires and aspirations of individuals and groups are expressed in a compatible, sustainable and functional way.
Let us then list briefly the aspects and components that, within the rurban space, would make for convivial habitats.
Towards convivial habitats (^)
The productive machine set up in the course of previous centuries and the communication network that has grown, especially during the last decades, have contributed to beget two main results:
- freeing people's time from menial repetitive tasks in favour of more creative and more engaging activities;
- enlarging people's horizons and knowledge by connecting them with many individuals and a wealth of data at the touch of a button.
Freedom (availability of free time) and knowledge (availability of structured
data) are two basic requirements for people to be able and capable to shape
their lives and their living environments.
In fact, only the active involvement of the users can lead to the development of convivial habitats. These convivial habitats, in their turn, can favour and promote the further active involvement of the users.
Let us then see what might be the features that, following the suggestions
of various scholars and practitioners, characterise convivial habitats.
If we examine the topic in an analytic way, we can divide it into three aspects:
- General : the principles
- Substantial: the agents
- Formal : the criteria.
General. The guiding principles for convivial habitats can be summed up as:
- The overcoming of the division between country and town. The aim is to go beyond the stereotyped but sometimes so real images of city concentration-cum-anonymity (the lonely crowd) and country isolation-cum-apathy (the rural idiocy). This can be achieved, for instance, at a basic level, with the cities gaining in village atmosphere and horticultural activities, and the countryside attracting high-tech industries and research centres that need only good communication facilities to operate effectively. In any case, the options in terms of density of population and of types of activity can be represented like on a continuum, with the stress put, in some realities, more on the urban, and in others, more on the rural side. What needs to be avoided is the fact that the density or the dispersion of population be the result of political decisions and not of personal choices.
- The overcoming of the opposition between individual and community. The aim is to produce a reality in which the satisfaction of the needs of one individual is not in opposition to the satisfaction of needs of many individuals living nearby (the local community) or even far-away (the global community). For choices affecting many people this requires (a) on the part of the individual to stress rational (not whimsical) and long-term (not short-lived) needs and (b) on the part of everybody (the community) the openness and willingness to accept pertinent adjustments and, in the final instance, binding arbitrations. What is excluded is the current process of political imposition by so-called representatives of a supposed political majority.
- The overcoming of the subordination between designers and doers. The aim is to produce the conditions for everybody to be free to intervene to shape the environment, individually if that refers to personal spaces, or in a communitarian way if that refers to common spaces. This means the end of the professional expert that takes decisions commissioned by or associated with political leaders, and the resumption of the role of designers by the active members of the community. The latter (the doers) might refer and rely on the advice and suggestions of the former (the designers) but, in the final instance, they are the only ones responsible for taking the decisions and accountable for the decisions taken.
Substantial. The agents promoting and animating convivial habitats are the individuals and the communities. With reference to the built and natural environment that means, in particular:
- Housing by people. In the past the built environment has been shaped mainly by people building their own houses. It is a relatively quite recent phenomenon where families have started living in houses and districts built totally beyond their control. In the case of huge blocks of flats built by the state to accommodate people with low income or on public support, the outcome has often been tenants' alienation and vandalism, if not riots and gratuitous destruction. Instead, as pointed out by John Turner et alii: "When dwellers control the major decisions and are free to make their own contribution to the design, construction or management of their housing, both this process and the environment produced stimulate individual and social well-being." (Freedom to Build, 1972)
- Planning by communities. In the Middle Ages, the big significant landmarks of the town such as the Cathedral and the Market Hall were buildings and places where the entire population took an active part in the development, even to the extent of offering a financial or working contribution. In more recent times, the local community has again made its voice heard when it wanted to save areas meant for destruction like the Covent Garden in London. So, the community can and should be the protagonist of planning the natural and built environment because the individuals forming the community are the ones who will bear the cost of any future planning blight. Only if they are the ones directly responsible for making the decisions, even unfortunate planning decisions, can they learn from the experience and try to find a solution instead of just venting their frustration and rage against the "experts" that came from outside. As remarked by Christopher Alexander: “It is impossible, utterly impossible, to make a building or a town which is alive by control from above.” (The Timeless Way of Building, 1979)
- Managing by associates. During the previous centuries, when it was possible to satisfy a collective need from the fruition of new technologies, a company was formed to provide for it. This has been, for instance, the case of electricity and gas, in American towns. In other instances the municipality (local government) took the lead, especially with reference to public hygiene and urban sanitation. Nowadays, with the main infrastructures in place, utilities and amenities existing in a region could very well be managed by individuals (users) associating in the form of co-operatives. This is more likely to result in the provision of better services (users-oriented) at a reduced price (cost-friendly).
Formal. The criteria that make for a convivial habitat have been highlighted by some designers on the basis of the experience of past centuries. They should be introduced and tested in actual projects and improved, adapted or changed whenever needed. In the 1980's a group of urban designers listed the following criteria as conducive to what they called a "responsive environment" (VV.AA. Responsive Environments, 1985):
- Permeability: the extent of choice of access (accessibility) to a certain space. That is facilitated, for instance, by designing blocks of buildings of small size.
- Variety: the existence of a plurality of forms, uses and relative meanings, attracting people towards a certain space. Variety (as opposed to the zoning that separates work and home) makes also the place alive from early morning to late evening.
- Legibility: the easy comprehension by the people of the physical form (layout) and of the activity patterns (use) of a place. This aim is enhanced by the presence of some physical features (nodes, edges, paths, districts, landmarks) as highlighted in the studies of Kevin Lynch (The Image of the City, 1975).
- Robustness: the capability of a place to offer, in an easy practicable way, a variety of potential choices; for instance, the possibility of a change of use of a large building or of a specific area within it.
- Visual appropriateness: this quality is linked to the legibility of a place and of a building, and means that the visual form should contain cultural or other specific cues that indicate, quite easily, its function.
- Richness: the environment should involve and satisfy the various sensory receptors of a human being (sight, smell, hearing, touch, motion) and this is possible only if uniformity and anonymity, i.e. plainness, gives way to a rich variety of forms and colours, i.e. richness.
- Personalisation: this aspect represents the possibility and capability of putting a mark on the place where one lives, contributing, with other residents, to shaping the common space.
The full dynamic resulting from implementing the principles, by the agents on the basis of the criteria, should result in the development of convivial habitats that satisfy and cherish:
- all types of people (e.g. from children and old-age people in need of care to self-sufficient adults);
- all tastes of living styles (e.g. from total seclusion and quiet to full participation and animation);
- all times of the historical experience (e.g. from being citizens in a medieval town or inhabitants of a futuristic environment).
In other words, conviviality is, to a very large extent, a matter of variety and choices, because only through the respect of variety and the existence of choices, can we really look forward to the formation and development of convivial habitats.