To Be or Not To Be?

Portrait of a generation (Montfermeil, Frankrijk, 2004) by JR
See for more information of the artist JR on Artsy
It is already a couple of years ago that I interviewed my former coworker Leeke Reinders (TU Delft) on municipal policy in the French suburbs. In 1998 and 2001, he carried out an anthropological research in Paris into the relation between the city inhabitants and the developed surroundings in Sarcelles, a suburb 15 kilometres north of Paris. He investigated how the developed space (the hard city) transformed into a by people lived and experienced city (the soft city). When I asked him about the causes of the riots which occurred at the time, he referred mainly to the high youth unemployment and everything connected with this. ‘Besides the poor socio-economic prospects, many parts of the French society still have the idea that the youth are the primary causes of all social evils. As a result, young people feel strongly marginalized, which is a big source of frustration. Not being taken seriously, with in its worst way discrimination, causes a strong feeling of injustice. They step into the limelight in all kinds of ways to claim their right to exist, which they feel is denied to them by camera supervision and by patrolling and body-searching policemen.

This summer, I was reminded of this story when demonstrations and riots arose in British cities. A country in which the difference between rich and poor is only increasing. In spite of Tony Blair’s promises, the poorest people in this country earn on balance less than 30 years ago. And so the riots weren’t about politics, but about the gap between the privileged and the ones who are on the brink of ruin. They who do not feel like they are a part of the society, even though they also (stirred up by commercials) want the newest computer, sport shoes or cell phones. Therefore protest march didn’t go towards town hall, but immediately towards the shops to plunder them (see also the article by journalist Doug Saunders).

Wouter Vanstiphout (professor Design and Politics at TU Delft) wrote a nice opinion piece in Building Design Online on the riots in France and England. He also views the rebellions as an expression of the structural crisis of the underprivileged, which has been ignored for years by the elite and politics. He points out that in France, a debate arose after the riots. But they mainly tried to find the solution in the prestige project ‘Le Grand Paris’, for which Sarkozy invited a large number of international architects to consider Paris in the 21st century on the basis of urban development and planning!?! In his article, he concludes with some brilliant observations:
“Right now it has become very difficult to think of an urban politics, let alone an urban planning or design approach that would be able to take on the underlying problems of riots like the ones in the UK in a serious way. I do not think that the reason is that politics and planning have realized their limitations to shape society. I think that the reason is that urban politics and hence planning and urban design are too often treating the city with ulterior motives, instead of actually working for the city itself. The city has become a tool to achieve goals, political, cultural, economic or even environmental. Treating the city in this way means that we are constantly passing judgment on what the city should be, and who should be there, and what they should be doing, instead of trying to understand what the city actually is, who really lives there and what they are doing. This produces a dangerous process of idealization, denying whole areas, whole groups their place in the urban community, because they do not fit the picture.”
I don’t think it is possible to give a better definition of the planned and lived city.