Response to a questionnaire sent to a list of scholars and professionals in fields related to urban processes and planning. Respondents are Adrian Atkinson, Pedro Bannen, Robert Beauregard, Mike Davis, Simin Davoudi, Manuel Delgado, Jean-Pierre Garnier, Kanishka Goonewardena, Mark Gottdiener, Peter Hall, Gita Kewalramani, Rob Krier, Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, Luigi Mazza, Alberto Mioni, Alain Musset, Zaida Muxí, Michael Pacione, Nuno Portas, Ivor Samuels, Saskia Sassen, Jianfa Shen, Michael Sorkin, Max Welch Guerra, Sharon Zukin. Reference: Alvaro Sevilla-Buitrago, “Debating contemporary urban conflicts: A survey of selected scholars”, in Cities, NS03 (2012, march). These weres my answers.
Although all urban formations are, in themselves, a network of contradictions – which vary considerably depending on their locations and social and political contexts – what in your opinion is the most pressing conflict involving contemporary cities, one that most deserves investigation or to which you personally have devoted your greatest energy?
Without doubt, the dynamics of tertiarization, thematization, gentrification, privatization of public space and other forms of attaching priority to exchange value as opposed to use value resulting from the capitalist exploitation of land and the image of cities and resulting phenomena such as the destruction of neighborhoods considered to be insolvent, the massive exclusion of social sectors regarded as undesirable, the perpetual policing and monitoring of social life on streets, the harassment of those who dare to disagree and, in general, the sentencing to death of the popular city. I believe it is of vital importance to deal with something that politicians and planners often ignore – the social consequences of those processes of predation and control. Most of my work as a professor and researcher in the social sciences is dedicated to this, preferably with regard to such specific aspects as the competences of use in public spaces, forms of opposition used by residents, or the relationship between social practices and built-up environments.
What are the main fields of action for solving this conflict, and which channels should be used to direct those efforts?
The foregoing conflicts can only be resolved through large-scale social transformations that would affect both the social system and the economic order that determines it. Until those changes are implemented, all we can do is to pave the way for them in the areas in which we carry out our professional and personal activities.
How can your discipline contribute with respect to this task?
Scientific research and teaching in social and human sciences may and should help us know the processes and structures that affect human life in cities and as a result, obtain information that will contribute to improving it. It goes without saying that we are condemned to come up against constraints imposed by university and scientific policies at the service of institutional and business interests associated with a privileged few, with the sole objective of obtaining political sway and economic benefit. In that case, all that can possibly be done is to become double agents at the ultimate service of the victims of current urban development models – i.e., the generalized commodification of cities – and their right to the city.
Could you mention a policy, program, plan or even a theoretical intervention that could serve as an example of that line of work?
As regards the scope of theoretical creation and research in social sciences, there is a long history of interesting works, from the pioneer works of the Chicago School to those provided by such authors as Mike Davis, David Harvey, Isaac Joseph, Richard Sennett, Ulf Hannerz, Jean-François Augoyard, William H. Whyte, Pierre Sansot, Henri Lefebvre and Jane Jacobs. In the Spanish setting, and in all cases with respect to urban themes, I relate to thinkers such as Santiago Alba Rico, Ramón Fernández Durán, José Luis Oyón, Horacio Capel, Francesc Muñoz and Pere López Sánchez; and anthropologists such as María Carman, Monica Degen, Teresa Tapada and Nadja Monnet.
With respect to the scope of urban planning and the designing of cities, the truth is that I only know of a few exceptions that refute the unbearable pressure brought by political and business circles on urban planners and architects, upon which, it must be said, their activities depend. It is clear that I only perceive real possibilities of creation and criticism in the field of intellectual work, in addition to political activism. It is naïve to think that there is a policy, program or plan that can be designed and implemented separately from, or in opposition to, the economic and political interests that prevail today. Only discreet, local interventions could be regarded as deviations from that rule.
[Image to favem.com]