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Cities Without Cities: An Interpretation of the Zwischenstadt - Review

by Lucio Giecillo

One of the central lines of analysis to accompany the reading of Thomas Sieverts book Cities without cities is represented by the correlation between diffusion and fragmentation of settlements and the processes of globalisation.
Although the irrefutability of this statement probably warrants some ulterior element of evaluation, the fact remains that actually we are witnessing a proliferation of studies and research on the post-Keynesian landscape of the city that from diverse points of view, are inclined to highlight the relation that exists between the transformations which occur at a regional level and the process of capitalist accretion. A relation taking place in a context of immense elasticity and mobility of capital, a relation that characterizes the process of globalisation of markets, finance, production and employment. Nevertheless, if the relevant fact actually seems to be that of a growing interest on the part of territorial disciplines, of geography and sociology on the themes of diffused settlements and of social fragmentation that are related, they cannot not be considered like they have been for a long time, marginalized or misunderstood by the urban planning culture, in particular the European one.
If already in 1915 P. Geddes spoke about conurbation in reference to Ranstad (Holland), with the idea of describing urban development characterized by the continuity between different cities, and if later J. Gottmann (1961) coined the term megalopolis to define the "urban nebula", which extends between Boston and Philadelphia, it is of no surprise how such an concept has been assimilated so slowly, by urban planning culture, with a mostly negative connotation. On the other hand, the propagation of terms like banlieu, metropolitan fringe, hinterland, confirms how this undifferentiated area has for a long time been assigned an almost exclusively residual value of outgrowth and marginal area.
Only recently have terms like edge-city, urban sprawl, city-territory, landscape-city been used as representations of a phenomenon that, from the first instances of industrialisation to the present, have progressively proliferated to the point of subverting the idea of the city itself. Although it is obvious how this aspect of the evolution of this phenomenon of settlement, in it’s multiple facets and regional variances, can hardly be confined to the reassuring margins of a rigid definition, instead of a strict definition a framework of the altered rapport between population and territory emerges, as the extent and breadth of the effects that such a change generates in the physical and social morphology of cities.
To a certain extent Cities without cities proposes itself as a clarification of this subject matter. It does so indicating a reading sequence criss-crossing instances of disciplinary renewal, cultural indications, and proposals of operational value. The territorial purview of analysis is represented by the central western region of Germany, one of the most economically mature areas of the Europe, henceforth a region more prone to receiving development opportunities originating from the existing processes of globalisation.
A critique ensues that, from a historicization of the dispersion and fragmentation of settlements, contributes in redefining the theoretical, cultural and interpretative confines. This is already evident from the early 20th century debate facing the apologists of the Garden City (model of the urban phenomenon as inserted in the conceptual limits of a gentle humanism and the desired harmony between man and nature), and the supporters, less numerous in reality, of a development perspective non ascribable to the regulatory criteria of the planned city. More specifically, it is from the ideas of H.G. Wells, modern prophet of urban fragmentation (Anticipations, 1902), that the author inspires himself for a radical revision of urban planning models, laying the basis for the construction of a new cultural perspective for the contemporary city and indicating, at the same time, a few guidelines for his project.
Among the most frequent concepts in the book, "city-landscape" and “urbanised landscape” emerge as conceptual keys through which the author invites us to look at the complexity of social, economic, productive dynamics, as determining factors of the ongoing changes in settlement patterns. If indeed, on one hand, the territory of the contemporary city seems to suffer a sort of overexposure to the homogenizing forces of the global market - acceleration of communication and information exchanges, progressive fibrillation of the supremacy of space, … - on the other hand, the weakening of the central state paradigm as a regulating factor in the urban and territorial dynamics would seem to lead to a progressive dissolution of the traditional idea of the city, towards a urban-rural continuum able to question the very same notion of territoriality as a stable spaciotemporal reference of state sovereignty.
The declared aim of Sieverts’ book if to reach an interpretation of the zwischenstadt, or rather, of the "in-between" or "intermediate" city, wanting in this manner to identify a particular kind of urbanization that is defined, as announced in the title, by negation or absence of the characteristic and distinguishing traits of the traditional dense European city. In fact, if on one hand, an important aspect of this reflection regards the crisis of the centre-periphery paradigm of the territory’s organisation, which grants the periphery (increasingly generic and inadequate term to represent the always more varied and multiformed universe of urban sprawl) the sole aspects of marginality and degradation, on the other hand, the reference to the “intermediate” dimension refers to a broader interpretation of on-going change, as a process that involves the multi-dimensionality of territorial manifestations, which comprises the ensemble of behaviours that characterise the so-called "peri-urban society".
Then again it is known that in the last decades of the evolution of cities, the their growth has been accompanied in a more or less noticeable manner, in the context of capitalist economies around the world, by a marked evolution of its territorial order and settlement structures: the process of relocating production and companies outside the dense city core, which is accompanied by the exodus of a growing percentage of the population towards peripheral service centres (shopping malls, supermarkets, multi-screen cinemas , airports, theme parks, but also a simple accumulation of different kinds of settlements along roads, freeways, railroads, stations and other facilities, etc.) has progressively generated a city in which the increasing demand for vehicle accessibility has not, in many cases, been confronted by a careful appraisal of the overall living environment quality. Furthermore, the distinctive connotations of the well-established city (density of the built environment, a tangible urban-rural divide, articulation of open spaces and rationality in the rapport between public and private space) have been progressively replaced, by an idea of "urbanized landscape" composed in large part by summation or juxtaposition of independent clusters interconnected amongst themselves by the system of infrastructure networks.
According to the author a powerful scenario of social instability takes form as a corollary of the fragmentation that connotes the landscape of settlement dispersal. This scenario is characterised by the appearance of individual and collective behaviours reflecting an increasing dissociation between the individual (or self) sphere and participation in community life. It is the scenario of social atomisation, of “day to day life”, as the author defines it, in which the "overexposure of the individual" to the capitalist production-consumption cycle (most noticeable in the working environment), finds a contraposition in a surviving communitarian dimension comparable to a renewed consideration for the local area of affiliation (participation in associative activities and community life), as well as in the context of a hyper-attention for the individual dimension of the living space.
The author’s explorations throughout the multifaceted universe of the zwischenstadt conclude with a reference to the problem of its governability. The correct treatment of the fundamental problems in regional development would imply, according to Sieverts, a rearticulation of development strategies that take into account the plurality of factors, all that are in some way correlated: from the realignment of economic opportunities between city centres and peripheral areas, to the prospect of renewing policies for the preservation of natural areas towards forms of mediation between economic development expectations of local populations and safeguarding requirements of environmental resources and the stewardship of natural capital, to a more efficient articulation of administrative functions and competencies between different levels of government in the region.
Last but not least, the reference to the idea of a system of European city networks places Cities without cities right in the heated debate that, assuming the paradigm of polycentrism, imagines the territory of European Union as a reticular system and interconnection of profoundly different urban realities and regions, in terms of economic status, culture, development perspectives, and in which the intermediate dimension of zwischenstadt emerges as a crucial cultural and operational skyline in the dialectic between local and global, on which, in large part, depends the future of European territory.

Lucio Giecillo, PhD student in the Department of Urban Policies and Local Development of the Faculty of Architecture at the Università di Roma Tre.

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