Saskia Sassen Richard Sennett

Global City into Perspective

"New York City", Creative Commons

When they acknowledged the global urban boom at the turn of the twenty-first century, Western observers were dumbfounded by the sheer magnitude of the revolution that was unfolding. A small number of thinkers such as Saskia Sassen and Rem Koolhaas have nevertheless tried to grasp the phenomenon through concepts such as the “generic city” and the “global city.” After nearly fifteen years, this urbanization of the world is still advancing at full speed, even though a number of critical factors seem to have come into play. For this issue of Stream, Saskia Sassen looks back on our urban condition and on the evolutions of the “global city,” highlighting the increasing importance of social issues. More than ever before, she believes that the complexity of the city makes it the right scale for formulating sustainable strategies by repositioning our relationship with the biosphere.

Saskia Sassen is a sociologist. Specialist of globalization, migrations and the sociology of the world’s largest cities, she teaches at Columbia University.

Richard Sennett is the Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and a professor of the humanities at New York University.

The global city

Two decades after the publication of your book, The Global City, and ten years after Mutations by Rem Koolhaas, what is your feeling about the evolution of the contemporary city? Do you think that generalization of the “global city” has become the symbol of our urban condition?

Saskia Sassen: I cannot say, “this is a city,” or “that isn’t a city”.I always define the city as a complex, incomplete system that is sufficiently indeterminate to keep reinventing itself. It can outlive other systems that may also be complex, but are complete, like a formal government structure. Kingdoms, republics, multinational corporations, financial firms, they all end. But can a city be destroyed? Is it remade or rebuilt? That is partly because of non-city issues, such as the choice of the original site where a city is founded. There is a whole logic at play that has to do with a much larger ecology of meanings, possibilities, temporalities, spatialities—a lot of the non-urban plays a critical role in how the urban is constituted. It is urgent that we recognize these dimensions.

I’ve done a lot of research on land grabs. Millions and millions of acres of land on which there are small farms can be wiped out in order to make a palm or soy plantation. Where do these people go? They go to the cities. The fact that there are more people than ever before living in cities is partly related to a history of non-urban violence that produces an urban population. You need to remember who those non-urban subjects are who keep adding to the urban population. Yet in ten years we will have forgotten. They will be urban subjects without any trace of their past. For me, this is a very ambiguous and unsettling period.

Right now, I think of the city as a heuristic space. Although I’ve written a lot about cities, I’m not really an urbanist. I have written so much because cities are very strategic intersections: they are spaces where issues occurring in non-urban areas become material, such as the juxtaposition of the poor and the rich. The city is an extraordinary space that makes it all visible. When I wrote The Global City, I brought the words “global” and “city” together for two reasons. One was to unsettle both the meaning of city and of the traditional hierarchy—the national government, the region, and then the city—to suggest that there are transfers of power that cut across and exist outside those older hierarchies. The main idea of the book was that the global city is an analytic construct. It is something that seeks to capture a new formation inside a city. I argue that the making of a very particular type of territory located inside a national state territory, multi-sited globally and interlinked, that is a strategic zone for certain economic and political production functions then winds up generating new geographies of centrality that cut across all divides: north-south, east-west. It’s a territorial formation, multi-sited, highly networked and specialized; a strategic platform that is ready to act. The global city is really a kind of new territorial formation inside the traditional territories. It is a core formation within the emerging global economy with digital technology, and the like.

I think that we are now in stasis. This phase—the formation of this type of terrain for action—has more or less been completed. For example Luanda, the capital of Angola, has become one of the most expensive cities in a country that has some of the most extreme poverty. But it is also making itself the most expensive city for a businessperson to go to.

Over the past twenty-five years or so, the global city has emerged as a frontier space for the encounter of two types of actors: the increasingly standardized global actor—the business actor—and a fixed national economy. The frontier space for me is a space where actors from different worlds encounter each other. However, there are no established rules for that engagement, but rather a space for that encounter and that’s the global city. Everything has been standardized in terms of standards for financial reporting, accounting, good business, good investments, and it’s a mess. Right now, this space—a very extreme space, today’s frontier space—is not at the edge of the empire, but right there inside the city.

The social question is now what this space makes visible, what is its strategic function, what makes it different from others spaces? It’s a very specific social question that, on a rhetorical level, could be asked of a national space, but in practice concerns a subnational space. This relates to the exhaustion of the liberal social contract, which has functioned, albeit imperfectly, but which is now broken as it is leading to the impoverishment of the modest middle class, which historically was the strategic social actor.

The occupy movements that have happened involving the sons and daughters of the middle class are losing ground. Now, the city, and especially those cities that have been the sites for extreme avant-garde economic transformations, has become the place for that type of encounter. We are in stasis economically and architecturally speaking, and the new possible vanguard phase, the phase where you really break new terrain, really has to do with the social question. This would also mean different types of architecture, a different organization, a material organization of urban space.

The city as a rallying space

The city has emerged again in recent years as a place of mobilization to transform society. The Arab revolutions, Taksim Square in Istanbul, the Occupy movement in Spain, Occupy New York or the Maple Spring in Montreal are all protests reevaluating the political dimension of public spaces. Is this the sign of renewed demands for the “right to the city,” in the words of Henri Lefebvre? 

Saskia Sassen: For me these events were about the street as an indeterminate space. The piazza is a space for encoded rituals. You know how to conduct yourself in the piazza, its ideal version, what we call civilized urbanity. The street is the space of indeterminacy.

Richard Sennett: Were you surprised that in supposedly technologized social spaces, it was so important to people to recover the idea of the piazza and the reality of it? That people actually had to go to Tahrir Square? Technology was not the politics, politics was physical presence.

Saskia Sassen: These are two extremes: the materiality of bodies in a material space and then the technology.

Richard Sennett: That reminds me of Combs' theory that a long time ago you needed physical presence in order to release the energy of physical action. Unless you have that physical presence, there’s no release of energy, it’s just communication.

Saskia Sassen: I love the scale-up that occurs between a mass of people on a square and technology. The technology alone is not enough. I want to mention one thing, which I think of as a little natural experiment. When the protests in Tahrir Square finished, a very small group of about three hundred people assembled in the square. The global media was there. Now those people could have tweeted one million tweets, they would not have gotten the attention of the global media. Their material presence—those bodies in that square—was already a code in a way too, right? And the global media picked up on it. I thought that was a very interesting kind of fact: the global media came because they were assembled there.

Richard Sennett: That's how a small little movement such as Occupy has this fantastic knock-on-effect because people want the physical, they want place. It is called assembly.

Virtual and physical

In fact, the more we are in the virtual, the more desire there is for real physical interaction.

Richard Sennett: In my view, urbanism really went wrong, and Lefebvre has a lot to answer for, in the idea that the urban is primarily spatial. It’s built, it’s solid, it’s construction. It’s something other than the spatial relationship. After all, space is not a physical experience. The relationship between things and space is visceral. Urbanism got too map-oriented.

What do we mean by an urban architecture? It’s very hard to answer that question. We can talk about urban space but to me that’s an exhaustive discourse. What does a “just” building look like? Designers couldn’t answer those questions. You could have Lefebvre or David Harvey talk about spatial justice but we couldn’t talk about whether a physical construction embodies things like justice or equality.

Saskia Sassen: I think the way to frame this is to recognize that, in a way, Harvey and Lefebvre have covered a lot of ground. We have decoded some of those issues through their work and I really believe that is an important point. There is a very difficult question that we have not addressed in many ways, which is how do you build justice into a system? We have the huge debate about the Internet, but what about buildings? That is a very difficult, tricky notion. If we are in stasis in these global cities and the social question is going to partly shape the city, then this notion of new types of architecture, new types of buildings and built environments, is very interesting. On this we are way behind. We have battalions who now know the language of spatial justice: very beautiful, very rhetoricized, very powerful, theoretically speaking. However, I fully agree with Richard that the new vanguard of social movements is going to totally reshape our cities and buildings and it’s going to be tough because no one in the architectural world is ready for that. In a way we are more advanced in that debate when it comes to the Internet. It’s easier to have that debate with the Internet than it is with architecture because it’s binary: open access versus control. The question of a practical application of spatial justice is well known, but no critical theorist has really tackled that issue as of yet. It’s that which remains unnamed, unrecognized, under-articulated. It's still there. I think that this remains the critical question in architecture and in cities now.

It’s a combat zone in the same way that rebuilding these cities was a combat zone. It wasn’t presented as a combat zone, but as an upgrade. Yet it led to brutal displacements, lots of homeless people, the destruction of neighborhoods. Right now, what I’m arguing is that the social question has become preeminent. Partly because there is room for it, and partly because this previous era has generated a social question of its own.

These big issues don’t just fall out of the sky you know, they are made, they are the result of a process. The first phase is the global city, when global capital inserts itself into territories all over the world. Out of that comes thirty years of upgrading and we are now in a place with so much inequality and overdetermined outcomes. Right now I think the question is social because the rest is in stasis: the financial crisis, the limits of the economic growth model, of financialization. The occupy movement is a little indicator of this. The fact that a mayor like de Blasio came after Bloomberg in New York. I think that it will also play out in the restructuring of built environments. In very elementary terms this will mean more modest built environments, more evenly distributed built environments. If it succeeds, it would democratize the built environment, urban space, etc.

How do you envision the process of developing these environments?

Richard Sennett: There are cities that have quite consciously rejected the notion of the “grand projet.” This goes back to the issue of just building. There’s a question of whether a grand projet is inherently unjust. It’s a question that goes back to Versailles, which bankrupted the state.

When I think about Latin American or African cities now, the notion that we want a symbolic architecture of dominance, with its own opera house, is the wrong way to proceed with building in new cities. Even the Chinese, who seem to have an inexhaustible amount of money for grand projets, have become tired of the idea in the last couple of years because it doesn’t deal with inclusion. A grand projet is not inclusive, it can’t be. It comes back to the ethics of building. What I've been thinking about as an alternative to masterplanning is a different way of understanding, almost like planting seeds in different places. We do lots of rather smaller scale things in a city, particularly planting seeds in poorer communities. That is part of the problem with the banlieue [suburbs] for you: they were a grand projet, which is one of the reasons they are uninhabitable, because of their scale and the necessity for them to be an impressive object. You have fifty huge rectangular boxes in the northeast of Paris, one after the other, and people have to live there. What’s being dramatized to them is that there’s no way to take ownership of this. It belongs to an idea.

What future for new towns ?  

However, in the name of ecological, social, or economic innovations, major urban projects or new towns have appeared (such as smart cities like Songdo, Masdar, etc.). Can they really become more inclusive cities?

Richard Sennett: The question is can we learn what to do with old cities from starting new cities? In my view we cannot. I think that an environment that has been used up or injured over time has to incorporate elements of its history and any efforts that have been made to revitalize it. I’m thinking for instance of the shikumen in Shanghai—an old courtyard form. The Chinese have destroyed so much of their urban fabric and are now rebuilding. These are simulacra in which the form has no meaning, because they used to be places of the most abject misery. Their physical form is a reflection of generation after generation of desperately poor Chinese people finding a way to dwell in a deprived space. There are Starbucks stores in the remade Shikumen. They’re very chic, they’ve got plumbing.

I think that learning from new cities is a way of forgetting people’s suffering in the old cities. When our friend David Chipperfield rebuilt the Neues Museum in Berlin, he faced exactly this problem. This was where the German Reich, before Hitler, accumulated things it stole from Africa and Asia, principally Egyptian antiquities. Hitler then used it for his purposes. Afterwards it became a site for warfare between the Russians and the Germans and then something else under the communists. People said, “We want to take down all the physical scars on this building. It’s too much history.” He responded, “No, we’re going to keep the machine gun bullet marks.” There was a torture chamber in the basement. He decided not to get rid of it. In fact he put the cafeteria next to it. He didn’t put any scenes of torture there, but he did put up a little sign.

An environment where people have suffered should not remove the traces of its own suffering. In China, this obsession with the new and this absence of the past has led to the construction of replicas of European cities (new German villages, Dutch canals in Hudong, etc.). This involves learning how to make a simulacrum. I’m really opposed to that, particularly in China because it doesn’t allow them to learn from the mistakes. They destroyed so much and their answer has been to apply whatever they’re doing in the new cities to the old cities.

The city as solution  

Nowadays, equality cannot be limited to social issues, environmental concerns should also be taken into account in contemporary urban production. Although it is often considered the cause of these problems, could the city be a solution?

Saskia Sassen: The scale of the city is suited to a certain kind of environmental sustainability. This is because of the city’s complexity, not just in its size, but its diversity. I believe in policy, but current policies are not going to get us very far. International policy on carbon trading is a joke. It basically redistributes the right to pollute. It creates a very regressive international politics whereby national governments claim more rights to pollute which they either then want to use themselves or sell on to those who want to pollute. That is a kind of stasis which is not going to get us ahead of anything. I think that one of the strategies for exploring an alternative approach—not in opposition to policy, but in a completely different domain—lies in the city, which is also one of the major direct and indirect sources of environmental destruction. If there is to be a solution, the city is going to have to be one part of the solution.

I argue that since we’ve been on Earth we’ve been destructive, but the biosphere was able to absorb this. The evidence is very clear that in the last thirty years we have gone beyond the capacity of the biosphere to neutralize our damage, beyond the recovery process. I think this is enormously significant. This is where my position comes from: the city must be a source of solutions. What nation states are debating internationally is not going to lead to a solution at all and is certainly not going to make a difference for the city.

The city, de facto, has multiple interactions with the biosphere. Right now they are negative, but I want to stand back and say, “here is a capability, we are actually connected to the biosphere.” The challenge is, how do we turn a negative into a positive? That’s different from saying, “Here is the city, there is nature, what do we do now?” I want to work from the ground level, to detheorize. Right now my main research focus is in getting data from biologists interested in the environment (most of them are not). To give you an example, a bunch of scientists at the University of Copenhagen discovered that a bacteria has additional capacities when it is added into groundwater (the organic water we produce in kitchens and bathrooms, which is a huge challenge for cities to handle). When you add this bacteria to organic water it generates a molecule of plastic that is durable and resistant, but also biodegradable. In other words, what is currently a huge negative for cities can become a positive: the city can directly make plastic and then export it. The fact is, we need plastic in everything.

The challenge is to discover and return to older forms of knowledge to understand what the biosphere can actually do that we’re now doing with synthetics in more destructive ways. Another example I like is a bacteria that acts like a paint that you put on concrete. As it lives its life, which takes a bit of time—the temporality of the biosphere is very different from that of the chemical factory—it deposits a calcium which seals off the wall and stops greenhouse gas emissions. Eventually, it begins to actively purify the air around it. If you then take a bird’s eye view of the city, everything that is concrete can become a positive of sorts.

We already know that algae are the best way to clean up a large, polluted body of water. They have tried to do that with chemicals and it didn’t work. If you multiply that it can go far beyond recycling rainwater. From a birds eye view you can see that what was red can actually become a positive, a green. For example, Chicago has an ordinance now that all new roofs have to be green. In Norway they are developing mechanisms that allow you to capture the energy you produce as you move through your house. Everything in the city should be working. Besides its primary function, each thing should be working for the environment. Much of it is pretty simple, some of it can get very complicated, but that’s the aspiration.

I always say these are like trajectories. You do step one, then step two, and eventually more and more people will want to use bikes, for example. Even five years ago we were saying bikes wouldn’t work here. And now they’re working.

The interventions that are involved should all be made visible, so that the city can become a space of knowledge, of knowledge-making, of accessing. I was on the directorate of the IBA and we did some of this. The IBA is a huge project involving billions of euros over seven years. Instead of the usual thing they do which is build housing, this was a half of a big island of Hamburg that had toxic sides as part of the port and a lot of very degraded buildings. We launched sixty-one international competitions for architects, engineers, etc. to build small housing. A lot of it is experimental in model so people can come check it out and then replicate. We have walls that are filled with algae that have a layer of water with algae. We mixed biological knowledge and architectural knowledge. One of them was a huge bunker that they tried to dynamite. We discovered that beneath the island there is thermal energy. So the bunker is now a huge container of thermal energy which provides hot water and electricity. At the top is a museum of the history of the place, which is stunning. So when you think about a dense space like a city, even a part of a city, I see possibilities for repositioning, for using existing knowledge. Now that’s a zone that policy will never reach. These are all connections. These are all ways in which you are seeing biosphere. What I always emphasize is that this is not a return to nature. That is a fiction. It’s a total repositioning.

(This article was published in Stream 03 in 2014)