Is your subway car packed like sardines? Does your city feel like a shopping mall? Is your community, well, not all it could be? Richard Sennett has some answers.
Sennett is a designer-scholar, eminent in both the built-design world and academia. Currently the Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, he’s advised the United Nations on urban issues for decades and worked as planner in New York, Washington D.C., Delhi and Beijing. Sennett’s writing often revolves around the interplay of work, strangers, and cooperation, but he always returns to cities: how to plan them, adapt them, and live in them. Doing that well—as either a planner or a resident—means celebrating complexity and accepting diversity: “Experience in a city, as in the bedroom or on the battlefield, is rarely seamless, it is much more often full of contradictions and jagged edges,” he writes in his new book, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City.
The book offers microhistories of Barcelona and Paris, exegeses of Heidegger and Arendt, and tours of Medellín and Songdo. But through it all, Sennett is asking a pretty simple and pressing question: How do we live together now? How does cosmopolitanism survive in an age of both populism and urbanization—and what can we do in our streets, parks, and cities to help?
We put on our walking shoes, dusted off our German philosophy, and caught up with Sennett recently to learn more; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity
You celebrate the complexities and oddities of cities, and you offer some helpful comparisons that can make cities somewhat more understandable. For example, you make a distinction between “space” versus “place.”
You move through a space and you dwell in a place. It’s a distinction for me that has to do with speed and automobiles. When people start driving at a certain speed, they lose awareness of where they are. They are just getting through it. And when you dwell in a place, you have a slower relationship to it. It’s a difference that is founded in our bodies. When you are moving very fast, your peripheral vision, for instance, is very weak. When you bike or you walk, your cognitive field is much bigger because you’re taking in much more from the sides.
Where this gets reflected in urbanism is the more we create spaces where people move fast, the less they understand about what those spaces are. I’m a big fan of walking, but this applies also to cycling. At about 28 or 30 mph people moving through an urban environment stop being in a place and are in space instead. This is one of the horrible things about automobiles. They’ve cut down on the kind of cognitive data that people have about where they are.
Another distinction that you draw in the book is the one between green spaces—what you call a “gregarious park” like New York City’s Central Park, versus a “neighborly” one.
This is Frederick Law Olmsted. He wanted to mix blacks and whites together in a place that they both enjoyed. The neighborhood park is a space where you feel comfortable with people who are just like you, whereas Central Park is a park in which you mix with strangers—you’re enjoying being in a space like the Sheep Meadow or skating on the big skating pond with lots of different kinds of people. Different kinds of public space enable a different kind of sociability.
Can you explain one more distinction—what’s the difference between a “prescriptive” smart city and a “coordinating” smart city?
The prescriptive smart city just tells you the best way to do something, the best route. It does your thinking for you. Whereas the coordinating smart city expands your realm of choice—it gives you data about the whole city that enables you to think about the question, what should we do here? Think about Google Maps—you get the little options at top for driving or using public transportation or walking, but the algorithms are usually set to give you the shortest possible distance. You can’t ask Google Maps what’s the most interesting way to get from A to B. It’s prescriptive.
Le Corbusier had that famous line about donkeys meandering, with their little brains, and humans walking in straight lines. But some of us like to meander like a donkey in the city.
He sort of figures as a villain in my book.
You’re speaking not just to urbanists, planners, designers and architects, but also to city residents. The day-to-day choices we make in a city can be ethical. And not just where we live, but how we move around, how we look, talk and listen.
This is grounded for me in the work I’ve been doing for the UN for the past three decades on urban planning. There are relatively few mixed neighborhoods in big emerging cities. If people are rich, they live segregated from the poor, and vice-versa. So the question is, they’re living in a relatively economically homogeneous space, but how do they live socially? With their neighbors?
In Delhi, where I’ve done a lot of work, the ethical question is: Will Muslims and Hindus be able to share the same space? Do they hang out at the same street corner? Do they use the same tea shops? Do they shop for food in the same places? These ethical questions aren’t about being a law-abiding citizen or respecting somebody else’s property rights—they’re really social questions about how people who are different can get along together.
Unfortunately, in a lot of developing cities they don’t get along very well. That’s why I’m interested in the fuzzy boundaries between, say, work and school—it’s in those complicated areas that people either mix or don’t mix.
Urbanites have choices, then, and the urbanist or planner also has choices about how to build or design to enable or encourage mixing. How does the planner look at it?
The great error that urbanists made in the 20th century was to separate parts out functionally. There’s one place to live, one place to shop. There’s a town center and highways or big roads connecting it all. Those spaces tend to compartmentalize people’s lives. So if you’re in school, you’re removed from people shopping, or going to a hospital. You don’t see adults. You’re only in that one specialized space.
The ultimate in this is the gated community, which is for one thing only: to keep people or activities unlike you out. For urbanists and for planners, [the trick is] how to create spaces for interaction and integration rather than spaces that are so segregated.
I’ll give you an example. People in Colombia have been experimenting with how to take apart highways, which are insulated from living in places like Bogotá, and make them more alive at their edges. You create a street where before there was only a traffic artery. And that’s something we as planners have got to do more. We’ve been building too much segregated, separated zones of activity in the city. It’s one reasons cities go dead—there’s no interaction between the functions of what people are doing.
The city dweller does not merely act out preconceived roles according to the built environment, of course. The way they walk, look, and listen matters too.
Once you’ve got a street, people have choices about whether to use it or not. And they’ll use it in surprising ways. Nobody expected the boulevards in Paris to become the sociable places they were. But people chose to use them that way because they wanted to see what was happening out and about in the city. That sort of curiosity—if the space enables it—tends to overcome people’s fear in the long run.
Mumbai has high levels of violence, except in big public spaces where people can look at other people. Even if they never talk to each other, they see people unlike themselves. Those tend to be the most peaceful places in Mumbai, whereas the little intimate streets and alleyways—all populated by people who know one another—are crime zones. It’s a kind of basic rule of urbanism—remember “eyes on the street.” But they’re not eyes in apartment buildings looking down on the street, they are eyes in the street, on the street. I think there’s a kind of urban ethics that some kind of spaces will enable people to let their curiosity balance their fear of others.
Think of the stairways and streets of Elena Ferrante’s Naples. Everyone’s always watching, but there’s plenty of violence.
Very intimate. Very violent. Elena Ferrante’s novels are a great example of that. I mean it’s counterintuitive that a big public square should be less violent.
For me, since I started working within the UN, I’ve seen a lot of incredibly bad planning. The worst ways of planning a city in the West would be imported into these new huge cities of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The notion that the whole city should be connected by transport rather than public space is a horrible thing that was exported straight from Corbusier to Beijing. Being stuck in traffic on the highway is somehow more advanced than walking slowly. It was the first thing they imported [from the West]: How can we be more efficient? How can we privilege transport over other forms of experience?
Another way of thinking about this is scale. Brutalism has become trendy again, and I get the impression there is a return of the appetite for big planning. But must we go big and, if so, can it be done well?
We have to, particularly in the non-Western world, because those cities are growing to huge sizes. If you were a follower of Jane Jacobs, her prescriptions for small, slow growth are way out-of-sync with the reality of cities that add a million in population every year, like Delhi. Or that, like Beijing, are nearly 60 miles across. In the developing world, the issue is there are very few resources at your disposal. You can’t put a high school within walking distance of everyone. You can’t think locally. You have got to think at this urban scale. At the public level, you don’t have enough resources to go around.
That’s particularly true in housing. Places with unregulated development, like Mexico City, where people live and where they work can [require] even three hours a day of commuting. You can’t just say, let’s put all those factories locally to solve this problem—that’s just not possible. Cities are getting bigger so much faster; Jacobs’ notion of slow growth doesn’t make any sense. It’s not the world we live in today.
This has been declared an urban age, and everybody loves to point to the demographics. But we also quite clearly live in an age when figuring out how to live together is of increased importance. It’s a question that is being tackled by philosophers, planners and political scientists alike.
If you spent times in the corridors of the Obama Administration in HUD and places like that, people were always talking about strategies of how people could cooperate better using the web. It was a placeless idea of getting along well with other people.
The problem with that is that the thing that makes people really get along with each other is physical comfort in the presence of others. Online, whenever you don’t like something, you just press a button and you’ve left. In cities, people don’t have that option.
If people feel bodily comfort, I’ve come to feel that that’s enough. That is what makes people more peaceable, less aggressive, less prone to violence. Going through verbal hoops and mutual understanding and common shared purpose, and so on, to me, that’s a lot of bullshit. The almost lawyerly emphasis on being with other people is so divorced from the physical experience of feeling comfortable with someone who’s not you, who’s unlike you.
That’s a difference I have with Hannah Arendt, who had a very verbalistic understanding of the city as a place where people interact. A lot of the urbanism in my book is focused on the non-verbal, on the bodily.