Urbanismo e Dignidade Humana II – Cities are centers of cultural and social transformation

Discussion prompts:

  1. Do you think there is a link between the economic power of cities and their ability to accelerate social change?
  2. This chapter gives a range of examples on how cities are sites of cultural experience and transformation. What societal changes have you witnessed in urban spaces near you? Specifically, what have you seen that demonstrates how cities can be re-imagined for a more sustainable and inclusive future?

Many of us see cities primarily as places of economic activity: of production, consumption and employment; commerce and finance; as places of residence of those engaged in these activities; or sometimes places in which power is exercised: capital cities and administrative centres.

This is a modern obsession with the city as an economic entity, an engine of growth and sometimes development. But a few contemporary cities are also sites of social, cultural and religious relevance such as Cairo in Egypt and Kyoto in Japan. But this is a very limited view of the city. One that glosses over a deeper and richer heritage, a 5,000-year old history of cities as crucibles of social and cultural accretion, cultural transmission and periodically of transformation. The great European migrations to the cities of New World in search of safety from religious and political persecution and escape from poverty are an interesting example from the past.

Dr. Ambedkar – one of the framers of India’s constitution made a call to Dalits who were deeply socially excluded communities in India to come to the cities to create a new future for themselves far from the caste oppression in Indian villages or the LGBT rights and environmental justice movements all speak to this role of cities.

In an earlier age, towns and cities were often seen and experienced as a part of a sacred landscape, that linked people and communities, the ruled and rulers; to the earth, to the heavens and the flow of life and energies in the universe that is so well experienced in Beijing.

As urbanisation sweeps across the globe, some cities such as Jerusalem, Varanasi, Mecca, Bodh Gaya, still remain sacred sites of perennial culture and religion; compared to new sites of secular power, manufacturing or trade.

Others like Rome, Baghdad, Constantinople- Istanbul and Imperial Xian have always combined both sacred and secular power, in a complex interplay of social, economic and political systems. Many cities like those, along with trading and commercial cities of the Old Silk Road like Tashkhent and Samarqand or ocean-based trading routes of the 20th century like Cape Town, Mombasa and Singapore bring together diverse sets of people, institutions and cultures; sometimes into contest and conflict; but often into a syncretic dialogue where each attempts to preserve their unique identity, their symbols, language, food, ways of dressing and cultural practices; some tend to accommodate the other; by taking from or contributing.

Historically, cities have provided safe spaces to many institutions that help preserve the knowledge, ways of working and culture of its citizens and the world, to enrich and transmit them from one generation to the next. Successful cities tend to concentrate and curate: centres of craft, manufacturing and innovation like historical Isfahan; universities, museum and, libraries like in Florence; sites of pilgrimage and religious instruction and even those that have centres of banking and enterprises.

Many cities like Jerusalem have served as centre of cultural reproduction and continuity, preserving and enrich our ideas of what life and the cosmos are about, what it is to be truly human? At times, cities such as Prague in 1989 also served as crucibles of social and cultural transformation where new ideas and movements of reform meet established regimes; in others where conservative and avant-garde spiritual and religious congregations converse and contested as historically in Cordoba leading to new social practices and cultural arrangements. It is here that we encounter rich conversations around new ideas of self and society; new social roles and forms of engagement; contests between old and new institutions; between the status quo and disruptive technology, media, mythology and popular culture.

As a counterfactual, villages and smaller towns, often serve similar social and cultural functions especially of maintaining and reproducing continuity. But they often don’t have the scale, the population, the institutional density and connectedness to play the important role that larger cities have in defining and framing ideas of development and progress, multiple imaginations of the future and how to get there.

Even a simple well accepted idea situated in Goals 1 and 2 of the SDGs – of the state taking responsibility to end poverty and hunger, was not mainstream even a century ago as we see in historical reflection, writing and art on the city: Engels wrote “The Condition of the Working Class in England” about industrial workers in Manchester; Kathe Kollwitz’s painting’s About the dire condition of the poor in Berlin; Dostoevsky and Gorky on “Moscow and St. Petersburg” or Bhattacharya’s paintings from the Famine in Bengal. It is important to note that the destruction and decay of city systems often leads the destruction of cultures and the decay of entire civilisations as when the Aztecs were pushed out of the Mexico city . On the other hand, we must not forget that cities also concentrate, are driven by and perpetuate inequality and exclusion.

Historically, elites residing within cities which are often walled extracted rents, tributes and lived off the labour of people in the villages and the countryside. Even within cities, like historically Athens, the crucible of Western democracy, only propertied males were entitled to become citizens. Women and slaves were clearly not seen worthy of any status, excepting as property. The economies of many European empires, their colonies and city systems were built on the enslavement of large populations and often the slave trade. This would be seen as completely unacceptable in a sustainable city by contemporary standards. Most forms of exclusion have been actively practised in cities across the world; and hence, form the basis of multiple identities, contests and violence that sit below the surface of many contemporary cities. Ironically, many of the ideas and movements that provide the moral, legal and operational foundation of the SDGs were born often in difficult circumstances and in cities across the world, and are contested even now. It is in cities that contests between classes are sharpest, the ability to mobilise and organise the easiest, the concentration of power and decision-making institutions that could be influenced the highest; and very often inequality and exploitation extremely harsh. It is also in cities that intellectuals, artists, musicians, activists and often revolutionaries congregate in large enough numbers to be able to share experiences and thoughts as in inter-war years in Berlin. Many ideas that helped frame our worldview; social and cultural practices were created in particular urban circumstances.

This ranges from ideas like that of a free people who can take the choice of their destiny into their hands and reclaim it from a monarchy with the divine right to rule that electrified Paris in the late 18th century; a breakaway from centuries of feudal domination to become a modern, educated and an industrial power that transformed Tokyo after the Meiji restoration; the acceptance of historical responsibility for the travesty of the Nazis and a commitment to unity and international responsibility that is expressed so strongly in the built fabric of Berlin after the 1989 reunification.

Is there a link between the economic power of cities and their ability to accelerate social change?

The power and attraction of cities is closely tied to the economic opportunities they often provide. Successful and sustainable cities tend to create wealth for their elites and livelihood opportunities for others.

Depending on the economic circumstances of the city, large a proportion of the population can expect to see significantly better living and working conditions in the contemporary world, as demonstrated in many parts of East Asia, especially in China. A smaller proportion can expect to see some degree of prosperity; and wealth, as the urbanisation of North America and many parts of Latin America suggest. At the core, the process of urbanisation dramatically increases the mobility of people. This is especially true of agrarian populations who are often tied to the land or a particularly location with limited occupational mobility, even between generations.

Cities fundamentally change the mobility of people, giving them choices that may not have existed, but exposing them to new challenges and risks. Often families and communal bonds tend them to weaken leading to ill nation and questions of identities in contemporary cities. This combined with education, and the creation of new employment opportunities in towns and cities, has a dramatic impact on poverty in rural and urban areas, as China has demonstrated since the 1990s. Cities however, can be very harsh on the poor and vulnerable. Almost everything needs to be paid for; home grown food cannot be taken for granted; work is difficult to get, often demeaning with low and uncertain wages.

Access to housing and basic services is poor and at a much higher price than that paid for my middle class and elite households. In short, the poor and the vulnerable, subsidise the city by living in abysmal living and working condition by accepting exceedingly poor wages. The good news is that vibrant and sustainable cities can provide occupational and social mobility. Probably more important, the opportunity for women to join the workforce, to become more educated, economically independent and participate more fully in social and political life as equal citizens.

This often involves many decades of struggle as can be seen in the womens vote and right movements in Europe and North America that started in the late 19th century, made significant progress through the 20th century, but still has a long way to go, even in advanced high-income countries.

Few cities are mythical cosmopolitan melting pots. Many however, are diverse enough to provide the opportunity for different ethnic, race and religious groups to encounter each other and work together at city, and sometimes neighborhood level. The connection between such rather diverse urban groups is a key enabler of a rich social and cultural life of the city and helps build the social capital, that enable a range of social and economic innovations. Cities of the 21st century provide a remarkable opportunity for people to connect with each other, often using new technologies and Internet access.

This development of a Network society is one of the key drivers of social innovation, of social enterprise and potentially a more sustainable new urban economy. Finally, cities as sites of cultural experience and innovation provide a critical space for re-imagination. Re-imagination of the asymmetries of the past, the challenges of the present and the opportunities of the future – an important role that cities can enable in the sustainable development saga.

The most important social transformations of the last 250-odd years have been born, anchored and realised in urban areas. In some cases, this involved, social movements; in others, non-violent political contests such as the fall of the Wall in Berlin and in others violent conflict and often bloody revolutions as in the case of Tehran. The end of slavery, the struggle for workers rights and better living conditions, the end of absolute monarchy, universal suffrage and the right to vote by women, decolonisation, the century long struggle for gender rights and equality, the ongoing battle against caste discrimination; are all examples of social transformation that could not be possible without cities.