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Diary of a Planner by Bernardo Secchi | Planum 2002-2013

04- Multiethnics

by Bernardo Secchi

The shock that overcame Europe after the recent elections should lead to a kind of thinking that transcends the tactics and strategies of the different coalitions, their more or less compactness, their communicative capacity of each one and of their single representatives, the images used, and the ideologies of reference. Manifestations of deep unrest, the events of these last years should lead European reformism to think about less superstructural aspects than usual. Above all, they should lead to the outlining of political proposals that touch more closely - and with greater strength and coherence - the real terms of important social processes and, for this reason (and obviously not only), the territory and the city as well. 

As banal as it might be, in Europe there is a certain difficulty in accepting the idea that a long period beginning in the mid 18th century and more specifically its last phase - in France referred to as the "glorious thirty," the thirty years of development after the last world war - was definitively closed and a profoundly different era had begun. There is difficulty in recognizing the profound differences, and to accept the necessary consequences in terms of political invention. There is the tendency to remove the fact that, during the first long cycle - more or less until the beginning of the 70's - Europe enjoyed an immense surplus of manpower until then living in less developed agricultural areas that had been growing in population for two centuries. During that period a tremendous process of demographic redistribution in Europe began with the migrations of mainly agricultural populations towards industrial and service activities. Populations moved from the countryside towards urban and metropolitan areas, from the south to the north - peasant cultures integrating with urban ones. As great as the cultural differences were between farmers from Aspromonte or Alentejo and residents of Zurich or Frankfort or the Belgian mining zones, the social and human groups that did come into contact partially shared some cultural and historical roots.

The modernization process was tiresome and distressing, and literature and film have told its salient story. It was a process rich in the conflict and violence that we find in the pages of Pasolini or Bourdieu. But the policies and institutions of the welfare state extended the effective rights of citizenship to a large part of those populations, integrating them with those who already enjoyed such rights and constructing a general perception of increasing security - employment, pensions, health system, education, leisure, housing, and in urban and rural life.

Starting in the 70's, with the inevitable spurts and delays in the different nations, the great reserve of Europe's poorest agriculture was depleted, and the productive system had to resort to other strategies, and, in spatial terms, enlarge its market. Enterprises moved to other countries and growing populations of other nations and cultures moved towards Europe. Many other factors acted in places of origin, in destinations and along the itineraries of the new migratory flows. The phenomena to which I refer are always and inevitably determined by a higher order, and it is difficult to ascribe them to few systematically organized causes. A new Musil might be able to describe them in all of their multifaceted articulations.

Recent migratory flows, which in most cases are first directed towards urban and metropolitan areas and then towards the smaller cities and, finally in a "percolation" effect, towards many rural areas, have caused, in some European regions and in some economic sectors, a demand for employment that does not encounter an adequate offer, while in other regions and sectors, the opposite occurs with the formation of high unemployment rates and dire social consequences. In fact, the new migratory flows regard an economic and urban system that is very different from the 50's. Many enterprises no longer require generic Fordist laborers. Their demands are much more selective; the places and sectors of activities which express a demand for employment are much more widely dispersed.

In the meantime, the policies and institutions of the welfare state have undergone an energetic "weight loss program" and can no longer extend citizenship rights to the new populations and thus integrate them. Often they act in perverse ways, concentrating poverty and suffering within specific urban areas and population groups. Beyond this, part of the European population believed in substituting, as I have already said, welfare state policies and institutions with the search for a different kind of positive welfare which has radically modified the European city. Today, social groups - those arriving in European cities and metropolises who, with great anguish, have also reached higher standards of living, those who have abandoned the city seeking new life styles and well-being in the suburbs, along with those, finally, who have segregated themselves in exclusive neighborhoods and gated communities - express their malaise by denying, often violently, their consensus regarding reformist policies unable to grasp in time the phenomena and the problems and to provide adequate solutions. This not only generates a widespread sense of uncertainty, but reveals the contradictions and hypocrisy of those who claim flexibility and stability at the same time, for example in claiming that immigrants be accepted if steadily employed, but that the same immigrants be available to a market that will not guarantee stability of employment and all that ensues.

Urbanism obviously cannot provide answers to all of this. Perhaps what the discipline can offer is only a small and marginal part of the whole picture, but it is not for this reason that we should give up. A starting point might be the obvious statement that groups referring to different cultures - and with different ways of using space - have settled in the European continent. These cultures are different from the European one and different among themselves. To remove this aspect would be a serious error leading to a dead end.


The European city has a long tradition of taking in populations and cultures from other parts of the world. In the past, Venice, Antwerp, and Amsterdam were, in Braudel's words, "world cities" because the articulation of the entire known world was represented in their urban and social orders. Rather than "terminals" they were great "gates" opening to economic, social and cultural spaces that were only partially known. Their prestige and power was built upon this aperture. Their streets and neighborhoods were often inhabited by specific ethnic and cultural groups who conducted their particular activities and who were represented in their religious buildings or guild headquarters. However, different ethnic and cultural groups shared a series of spaces within the urban fabric - marketplaces are the most, but not the only, evident examples. This enriched the economies of these cities, propelling great social and spatial mobility. In this epoch, the ethnic and cultural differences played a role analogous to that of biodiversity in the environmental field - reinforcing, eventually through "cross breeding," the societies who were able to valorize them.

The cities and countryside of Europe have also gone through periods of refusing the foreigner, of autarchic closure within the immaterial walls of fear, of the reduction and simplification of its very cultural structure; in the long run this condition limited mobility and impoverished economies. Fear has repeatedly struck the European city and countryside, giving way to true cycles of fear within different time frames and with underlying issues. Their history shows that the refusal of difference, articulated in various ways over the successive historical periods and sustained by different kinds of rhetoric, has always corresponded to an attempt by dominant groups to resolve internal problems. Accepting difference, giving it meaning and valorizing it does not mean interpreting integration as the homologation of behaviors such as the homologation of spatial use and urban materials; nor does it imply the construction of a divided city of rich or poor ghettos, exclusive and gated neighborhoods and off-limits areas. It does not mean having safety move from being an indivisible public good to a divisible private one, as much as thinking anew about long-term policies that do not give way to excessive friction.

One important aspect concerns the quantity and frequency of shared urban materials and spaces as well as forms of sharing. Indeed today, the opportunities are much greater than before just because of the greater articulation and fragmentation of European cities and societies. They can be further increased if welfare policies were conceived in real terms rather than monetary ones as well as in more careful and lay terms. Paradoxically, the shared spaces are ethnic markets, hamam, leisure areas for young people, workplaces and naturally streets and squares, restaurants and cafes; entertainment spaces and cultural events can also be shared places. There is a hamam in Avenue Georges V, one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Paris, just as in Marais and in other zones of the city. The markets and zones and streets of ethnic commerce are multiplying in all European cities. The foreigner, his/her products, customs and rites become the object of elitist consumption and are perceived as such. Perhaps a more careful and prudent welfare policy might multiply shared places - both private and public ones. It would build the hamam, mosques and party halls in the neighborhoods whose residents are the ones who originally used these kinds of structures, as in Venice where orthodox churches and Armenian schools were built. 


A more careful and prudent social policy would not emphasize uncertainty but would seek to extend the certainty - positive and not repressive - once guaranteed by the welfare state to all social and cultural groups.
However, much of Europe seems to be bored by the bureaucratic articulations of equality and seeks the myth of the unpredictable and of risk as liberating practices. Another equally substantial part of Europe has a great desire to create new distances, to reestablish insurmountable barriers between individuals and groups, between rich and poor, between those who are above and those who are below, between the native and the foreigner - accentuating such mechanisms as selection/exclusion, social re-hierarchization , reacquisition of the importance of old and new positional values. The rhetoric of fear makes this design seem necessary and urgent. The need for safety - real or imaginary as it may be - can, in fact, induce the refusal of part of what was once considered to be an acquired civil right. It is to this tendency that urban policy should react with circumscribed interventions which do not concern great principles but which touch closely the everyday practices to which today the citizen/voter gives great attention.