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From Cities of Separation to a Common Urbanism

The following piece is part of Progressive City's series The Future of Planning: Insights From Emerging Planners, in which current or recently graduated Planning students reflect on the state of the planning profession and how our activities as planners can be oriented towards justice as opposed to perpetuating ongoing racial, colonial, economic, environmental, and ability-related injustices. More information on this series can be found here.

Gosprom Palace of Industry, Kharkov. Photo taken by Robert Byron, late 1920s.

City planning has long been a tool of control and domination exercised by a ruling class over the working and lower classes. From overt instances of urban reconstruction for the rich such as the legacy of Haussmann in Paris and Robert Moses in New York City, to the more subtle legacy of exclusion manifest in the practice of Redlining across the United States, the construction and reconstruction of the urban environment has been the dominion of the ruling classes. The cities created by these groups have tended towards displacement, poverty, and inaccessibility for the multitude of workers it requires to function, all the while providing convenience, leisure, and myriad services for the wealthy and elites. This dual character of the capitalist city has proliferated across the world from the slums of Cape Town to the urban renewal programs of Baku. It seems as though I am destined to work within a city built by capital. But even though urbanism has long been the playing ground of the capitalist class, it isn’t doomed to remain as such.

As the political left envisions the creation of a better society we must also contend with the shell that society is to exist within; the reconstruction of cities currently built for capital accumulation into cities built for human flourishing is paramount to the success of any socialist project. The planning of such cities, however, must not be left to a class of technocratic planners. Capitalist urbanism has separated the city-dweller from the construction of their urban-life, and it is the resolution of this separation which must be the goal of socialist urban planning. For urbanism to serve as a positive force in society it must be the product of the collective self-determination of the urban populace. With this as the goal, the role of planners can begin to shift from being the accomplices of capitalist developers, to organizers of a collective planning process, the product of which is a city built by and for the community which lives therein. The implications of this sort of socialist urbanism are immense, ranging from the democratic reorganization of the investment of economic surplus to an ultimate dissolution of the current way of things in favor of a society built around free-association and self determination.

Urbanism has been complicit in the capitalist project for too long, the cities it has built have poisoned, alienated, and cursed the working class to rely on poverty wages to pay the ever-increasing costs of life under capitalism. It is not enough to fight for healthcare when it is the lives we have been forced into that are making us sick, and it is not enough to fight for the reorganization of the political and economic spheres of life alone, the environments we live within must change as well.

The left front of the planning community should continue to engage with these questions now through critical analysis of the contemporary role planning has in our cities, all while working to construct planning processes and organizations today which can prefigure such a future planning process. While many attempts at participatory planning have done little more than create an illusion of a democratic planning process, the radical democracy of the Spanish municipalist movement (pioneered by Barcelona En Comu) can offer a model of public, direct democratic decision making which planning could learn much from. Furthermore, projects such as Cooperation Jackson, a network of cooperatives in Jackson, Mississippi that aims to improve conditions for the city's poor and racialized communities, have implemented Community Land Trust (CLT) programs as a way to hold land in common. While neither the municipalist movement nor CLTs are ready-made solutions to the challenges outlined in this article, they do represent some of the first attempts to actualize a new form of common urbanism.

Ian Van der Merwe is a student researcher and a recent graduate from the University of Utah’s undergraduate Urban Ecology program. Currently a prospective graduate student, he hopes to contribute to the body of work surrounding socialist urbanist thought and engage with leftist urban-based social movements.




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