The Forth Megacities lecture:
Possible Urban Worlds
The full text of 'Possible Urban Worlds' by David Harvey can be
downloaded as pdf-file.
report on the lecture, co-review and discussion
David Harvey's lecture 'Possible Urban Worlds'
The fourth Megacities Lecture took place in the Rolzaal in The Hague. The lecture was given by professor David Harvey, who teaches at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore (USA). Mr. Harvey, who wrote 'The condition of postmodernity' and 'Spaces of hope', is one of the best known representatives of the materialistic urban theory. The lecture, 'Possible Urban Worlds', was based upon his book with the same title, published by the Megacities Foundation on the occasion of this lecture.
How is it that we have become such puppets of the world we inhabit? Can't we think of alternatives any more, since Margaret Thatcher de-clared 'that there is no alternative'? With these considerations professor David Harvey began his Megacities Lecture. To illustrate the paradox that expresses the impotence towards what is happening in our cities, Mr. Harvey quoted the sociologist Robert Park: "If the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live." What kind of man do we wish to create by creating our cities? To find answers to questions like these, we must liberate our thoughts, Mr. Harvey argued. But instead of setting themselves free people are involved with today's dream worlds that lacks any relationship with the actual, real world. This dream world is a world of its own, disconnected from the world of politics and planning.
At this point Mr. Harvey fell back on Karl Marx, who stated that the material life underlies consciousness. At the same time, according to Marxist dialectics, the human imagination has the capacity to think of a world that is different. Mr. Harvey illustrated this with Marx' comparison between bees and architects. Bees are extremely able to accomplish tasks with their complicated and highly efficient social structures. But even the worst architect possesses something bees don't have: imagination.
Without the imagination of a different world, Ebenezer Howard would never have considered the concept of the garden city. Mr. Harvey said that he has the same kind of questions about his own city as Ebenezer Howard had - more than a century ago - about London: how can Baltimore have the lowest life expectancy of the Unites States? And how is it possible that that my university neglects the fact that this city is falling apart?
Being prepared to use our imagination for 'possible urban worlds' implies utopianism. But it is an utopianism that is different from the traditional, static utopianism where space dominates time. Our revitalized, dialectical utopianism should consist of space and time simultaneously. It should be space oriented as well as process ori-ented. So to Mr. Harvey it is not an utopianism where everything is fixed; history has shown that Utopia can also be dynamic.
Mr. Harvey stressed that the free market is an utopia too. It is an utopianism that cheats, because it promises equal treatment, while nothing is as unequal as the equal treatment of unequals. The free market is the source of privileges.
Mr. Harvey completed his lecture by advocating once more his central issue: we should take up the tradition of creating alternatives in urban planning, just as Ebenezer Howard did.
Paul Schnabel's co-review
After Mr. Harvey's lecture professor Paul Schnabel, managing direc-tor of the 'Sociaal Cultureel Planbureau' (the Dutch national agency for social and cultural research), gave a co-review. He began by saying that Mr. Harvey's words reminded him of the time he was studying sociology. His favorite teacher, professor Thoenes, was a confirmed believer in utopian socialism, who taught his students the importance of being able to think in terms of alternatives. Utopian-ism sharpens the sociological imagination, according to professor Thoenes.
The request to relate the topics presented by Mr. Harvey to the situation in the Netherlands made Mr. Schnabel think of a lecture he had given the same day to representatives of the Dutch province of Flevoland. All three polders that make up Flevoland are in fact products of utopian thinking. The program of the Noordoostpolder, the first polder that was reclaimed from the Zuiderzee in the 1940's, was based on the agrarian utopianism of a nation with a self-reliant food supply. The comprehensive design of the Noordoost-polder has been, as Mr. Schnabel called it, 'arrested in time'. Af-ter half a century it already is a national monument.
The second polder, Oostelijk Flevoland, was based upon an industrial utopianism, in which Lelystad was to become a modern, egalitarian garden-city. Looking back it can be considered as an example of authoritarian design, with the architects and urban planners decid-ing how people should live. Thus Lelystad can be compared with Bra-silia, the Amsterdam Bijlmermeer-district or the cities Le Corbusier designed for India.
In the third and last polder, Zuidelijk Flevoland, something pecu-liar happened. Without any planning at all a large nature reserve, the Oostvaardersplassen, came into being. In Zuidelijk Flevoland all functions have come together at last. Planning is continuously changing its goals. At present the provincial authorities have the ideal of a more diverse polder. Until recently Almere, the new city in Zuidelijk Flevoland, only offered houses for people with an aver-age income. Now it wants cheaper and more expensive houses as well.
Mr. Schnabel stressed that building cities in the Netherlands is never purely commercial or completely controlled by the government. There is always a combination of the market and government planning. The conclusion must be that in this country the antithesis that un-derlies Mr. Harvey's argument doesn't apply in its pure form.
There was one thing Mr. Schnabel had missed in Mr. Harvey's lecture. It was the notion that at one point alternatives have to be fixed, in order to create new areas for social life. A new social life, af-ter all, needs new institutions and new landmarks. Only after a clear choice there is ground for new developments.
At the discussion that concluded the meeting the audience raised several issues concerning utopianism and urban planning. There was, for instance, a plea to sever the connection between build form and social form. If architects design houses that can change - just like a shop can change its interior every two years - people get the freedom to realize alternatives within the existing physical struc-tures. Someone else wondered why the lay-out of houses still does not accommodate the requirements of the different cultures that live in the Netherlands. Mr. Schnabel responded that demands like these can best be met by providing houses with extra, 'non-functional' space.
Mr. Harvey disagreed with the proposition of one of the present that the Enlightment prevents us from getting in touch with the non-material. He replied by saying that in the Enlightment the spiritual was very important. The Enlightment was more than just Descartes. It generated a rich tradition, that included romanticism and aesthet-ics.
Responding to the question how many years it would take to end the phenomena of social and economical exclusion in cities, Mr. Schnabel remarked that it is not realistic to expect the exclusion of people to end within the foreseeable future. Still things have improved radically. In countries like the Netherlands the great majority of people is no longer excluded from fundamental belongings like la-bour, income, housing and education. Nowadays the problem of exclu-sion concentrates on social and political participation.
In his conclusive remarks Mr. Harvey once more emphasized that we need an utopianism in which dynamics are incorporated. Only the old-fashioned utopianism holds a position that is against anything that is new. Dialectical utopianism, instead, is open and flexible to-wards change. It does not freeze cultural differences and it gives room to new relationships among and between communities. It is an imagination of a city that is constantly in motion.
This utopianism challenges the forces of capitalism. There is a choice to be made: adapt our cities to capitalism, or adapt them to human needs. With that we must also meet the problems of scale. E.g. the problem of global warming has its consequences at the scale of the nation, the city and the neighborhood. Scale has its emotional notion too: to which community do I belong? The city? The world? Mr. Harvey said we must be prepared to look at different scales at the same time. One thing is for sure: utopianism is no longer a matter of small communities.