Reclaim the city

16 November 2022
April Holcombe

“The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be”, Marxist geographer David Harvey writes in his book Rebel Cities. “What kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold”.

Cities are not just the place where capitalism happens. Cities are capitalism taking place. Their very shape and functioning embody the core characteristics of capitalist society: sharp segregation between poor and rich suburbs; indigestible peak-hour traffic jams; disorderly expansion of suburban sprawl; soulless urban renewal projects in gentrified postcodes, and vacuums of unusable concrete-covered space.

Take Sydney as an example. Half of its most famous landmarks—from Westfield’s Centrepoint Tower to the Queen Victoria Building shopping mall—are shrines to commerce, whilst others, such as the Sydney Opera House, sustain themselves with the promise of “a better class of culture” after an overpriced meal at a nearby restaurant.

The wealthy suburbs of Sydney’s east and north are lined with trees and buttressed with beaches. The working-class west is cut through with hot, noisy, dusty highways flanked by fast-food chains and industrial zones. The inner-city suburbs—once home for workers and struggling students—have become “ghettos of rich people”, in the words of French architect Jean-Philippe Vassal.

Our task, as Harvey describes it, is “to imagine and reconstitute a totally different kind of city out of the disgusting mess of a globalizing, urbanizing capital run amok”. So, if the city were an embodiment of a socialist logic, how might it look?

Socialism means the collective control by the working class and the oppressed over the entire economy. In a socialist city, urban development would be determined through democratic debate and majority rule. From daily neighbourhood initiatives to the most far-reaching global projects, bottom-up decision-making would be responsible for remaking the world around us.

A socialist society would put all our productive capacities into serving human needs, not private profit. Consider the colossal waste of labour and resources currently ploughed into casinos, skyscrapers, shoebox apartment blocks and toll roads. A city under workers’ control could redirect those resources into quality housing, door-to-door public transport, parks and urban scrub, libraries, hospitals, skate parks and playgrounds, community gardens and public theatres. Rents, mortgages, bills and fares would be a thing of the past.

Under capitalism, suburban life narrows and privatises our daily lives, isolating us from all but our closest neighbours. We have been pushed further and further away from our places of work.

In a socialist city, where employment and housing are the guaranteed rights of every individual, housing and workplaces would be organised to minimise travel time between them. Might a solar panel factory be the centre of a neighbourhood, with housing forming concentric rings around it? Under capitalism—where such workplaces are disfigured by car parks and barbed wire fences and shrouded in pollutants—the idea does not seem appealing. A boss makes no profit in surrounding a workplace with beautiful gardens or splashing its exterior with public art. Yet would workers in charge of their city, spending their daily lives in such places, settle for this? Workplaces playing so vital a social role might occupy pride of place, with effort made to make them commensurately beautiful.

High-density, low-rise housing could provide people with privacy, comfort and connection and still be capable of maintaining substantial populations. Communal laundries, kitchens and kindergartens would mean that the drudgery of household work—an unpaid burden overwhelmingly borne by women—would be work like any other, performed on a more efficient and meaningful scale, freeing up time for leisure, social and political engagement.

The growth of suburban sprawl has fed the mass dependency on cars, which have a voracious appetite for city space. Streets that once had ample pedestrian sidewalks and a strip of road are now four or five lanes with cars parked on every inch of the curb. After trees are cut down to make room for more lanes and parking, walking down the street stops being a pleasant experience and becomes a noisy, hot, exhaust-riddled chore. We save ourselves the trouble and drive.

The private car can provide a sense of freedom and convenience, yet by and large, this is an illusion. Every week we spend hours in congestion, on toll roads and searching for a parking spot, and we pay thousands of dollars on petrol each year. This only seems convenient compared to our underfunded public transport systems.

If public transport were properly designed and invested in, we would save huge amounts of time and money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Our health and well-being would improve by reducing smog and noise around our homes and freeing the streets up for socialising and play.

Roads could be reduced and replaced with wide footpaths and bush tracks. The thousands of car parks above, below and around every major building could be turned into sporting fields, open-air cinemas, libraries, or anything else. Beeline high-speed rail could take over from tolled, congested commutes into city centres.

Over the past decades, work life has become increasingly sedentary, and time spent in cars or public transport increasingly long. Capitalism’s attempt to fill this exercise void is the gym. It is the best most of us can do with our precious little time and space for exercise. Yet when humans have such remarkable capacities to run, jump, climb, clamber, carry, dance, dive, and swim, it is quintessential capitalism for these powers only to be exerted after money changes hands. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels noted in 1848: “No sooner is the exploitation of the labourer by the manufacturer at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.”. They were too early to the game to include “gym owner”.

A socialist city would recognise and celebrate humans as physical creatures who need to use and challenge their bodies intelligently and with others to feel fully alive. This means not only laying down more walking and cycling paths from A to B. The city’s design should entice people to engage in spontaneous activities such as climbing, jumping, running up hills, and more. People should have plenty of time to engage in recreational team sports, and state-of-the-art facilities should be provided. Children should feel safe and free to play imaginatively in open, undefined spaces. The creative ways that young people already physically engage with the built environment—skateboarding, parkour, inventing their own games—serve as a fantastic template for a socialist culture that would welcome physical interaction with a city that belongs to you. Too bad that under capitalism, most of these youth are instead harassed or criminalised for “loitering” or “trespassing”.

People will spend more time outdoors when it is a nice place to exist. A socialist city would grow more greenery, canopy and native scrub in every neighbourhood. As it stands, whilst the streets of affluent suburbs are leafy and mild, working-class areas suffer through hotter summers with barely a tree to provide shade. Dealing with the climate crisis requires a radical reduction in concrete heat sinks, using the natural cool of plant shade and grass groundcover to reduce reliance on air conditioning. Humanity could even begin to break down the strict divide between nature and the urban built environment by embedding gardens and farming into the very design of buildings.

In a modern city done right, the opportunities for cultural and artistic expression and experience are limitless. Because the capitalist city pushes so many people out of the centre and offers few meaningful cultural events, people are relegated to their living rooms for culture and entertainment.

In a socialist reconstruction, huge amounts of money would be poured into the arts to expand access to the whole population. Every pub could be turned over to the performance of live music and theatre, moving the purpose away from bludgeoning our brains with booze, pokies and unbearably loud music. Countless spaces in central business districts would be perfect for outdoor seating, with films projected onto the side of buildings at night.

Advertising would be eliminated: every inch of bare wall, foot of pavement, power box and billboard could be a blank canvas for ordinary people to practice their artistic craft and express themselves. Prime spots could be subject to public deliberation, offering more people input into the aesthetics of their cities.

Architecture would no longer be a corporate prerogative but worked out by the public. Buildings would be designed with both beauty and meaningful social use in mind. The modern city’s skyline seems to boast of the productive prowess of the capitalist system. Yet the fact that central business districts are littered with narrow, ugly skyscrapers (how many times have you thought: whose idea was that?) is a sign of how much ground space is wasted on roads and car parks.

A socialist system, whilst devolving many aspects of local living to neighbourhood control, would not shy away from building big. Skyscrapers would be trifling bores by comparison. In eliminating wasted space from the city centre, a democratically controlled city could construct truly gigantic structures, not upwards in narrow sticks, but outwards over large areas. These structures could prioritise the mixing of people, access to sunlight and fresh air, and multipurpose use, such as festivals, sporting events, artistic entertainment, scientific experiments, town hall meetings and political debates. In a socialist society, the profit motive would no longer limit what we could do with our cities.

Positive urban developments can occur short of the fall of capitalism, especially if we fight for them. Cities such as Oslo and Madrid have removed cars from city centres and re-established pedestrian zones. This has made these areas more pleasant and liveable. Yet such projects do not bring about meaningful transformation to life in capitalist cities because they are informed and constrained by commercial interests.

In the case of these car-free city centres, the space remains in a state of siege by businesses looking to capitalise on the urban restoration, with customer-only outdoor seating, ugly new high-rises or advertising eyesores in prime positions. Its veneer of liveability belies that, under capitalism, this living is only for buying stuff.

Necessary for a genuine reconstruction of the city is the formation of masses of people into a collective agent. When ordinary people begin to participate in political struggle, protest, and industrial action, they necessarily claim physical space and make it public in a meaningful sense of the word. In radical upheavals, workers and the oppressed have found plenty of room to start creating a new world, by taking over the streets and public squares, organising communal kitchens and makeshift accommodation, with mass, participatory meetings to plan it all.

The city is one of the defining developments in the history of humankind. When millions of humans come together, our built environment physically represents what we are collectively capable of. The capitalist city reflects that humanity has acquired immense productive powers, but that these are not under our rational collective control. Town planning follows the profit motive at the most terrible cost to the oppressed and exploited and the entire ecosystem. Under socialism, the city would exalt human potential, the value of each human life, and our interdependence on each other to be who we are.

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