Browsing this web site you accept techinical and statistical cookies. close [ more info ]


Un mondo di città - Review - A world of cities, narrated from above and from within

by Giovanni Caudo

Giorgio Piccinato has written and published a new book. During its presentation in Rome, Carlo Olmo confessed that he was pleasantly surprised that the author has managed to overcome his well-known laziness. The book appears in the Edizioni di Comunità's new small format and is easy to handle. It is also short, given the size of the pages. The theme of the book seems out of proportion with the minute size of the book itself. But the strong points of the text are its dense and compactly written pages, together with the choice of words, perhaps the shortest ones, but in any case those that best convey the sense of the text.
According to Patrick Geddes, cities must be studied not only from above but also from within, by walking through them. The structure of "Un mondo di città" ("A World made of Cities") seems to meet this requirement. The first five chapters: A world made of cities, The Asian city, The city of the poor, The uses of history, The shape of the city, are all based on an overall view, such as the view obtained when you look down on the city. The other six chapters: Los Angeles, New York, Singapore, Tokyo, Caracas, San Paulo of Brazil, are descriptions of these cities as seen from within (two in North America, two in Asia and two in South America), stories from the depths of poverty or from the rich parts of the city. The book is built like a plot. It starts with a simple thread based on similarities and comparisons, and then gradually introduces motives and images of the city in order to depict the entangled complexity of the city. This weaving type of approach is adopted either by choice or for the sake of prudence. The author is prudent in the use of data, above all those regarding demographic growth, which he uses in order to understand the dimensions of the phenomena, while avoiding making them the subject matter of the discourse.
He creates an incomplete map of the urban planet (Quilici) by continuously skipping between observations and narrative text (Cellini) while deliberately avoiding the theoretical models used to explain modernity: the localization theories instead of those to do with the new economy (Bellicini). The author constructs the text around two fields of interest, history and the world of cities, which he enriches with his glances and power of observation. This is a specific feature of the book: the city always remains at the center of the narration (Olmo).
However, the text does much more than merely provide descriptions, as we can see from a definition of the city: "we not only designate a group of houses but also, and most importantly, a series of places where economic, production, trading and consumption activities are carried out, with particular size, density, and proximity features,…". Or again: " With some exceptions, that can be identified in the foundation, cities do not express political or institutional power any longer. They tell us about economic and social power, as well as social polarization." And a little further on: "These are the places where the show of consumption and luxury takes place, which replaced the one of power; here, movement and sounds - neon signs, music, images - burst into the urban landscape, thus replacing de facto the city's perceived shape".
The book goes on to describe ways to construct the contemporary city without indulging in pessimistic notes. On the contrary, the city is described as being "… an artificially excited atmosphere, full of visual and sound inputs, that are always amusement-oriented." An air of liveliness, in which overlapping functions and events are carefully planned. The book does not theorize about the end of a world. On the contrary, it highlights the city's triumph. Thus, the flight towards the cities is not seen as the desperate exodus of the destitute, but as proof of hope. The city is the place in which there is hope for change- a march towards utopia (Quilici).
The structure of the text is based on differences, and the discourse goes on to provide similarities and comparisons. Differences in the ways in which poverty, even in its deepest form, is manifested in the metropolis. Similarities between Caracas and Singapore in order to reinterpret the origin of urban development (Quilici). Poverty is not only an urban phenomenon, merely because of its greater concentration in cities. It is in the rural areas "… that real poverty prevails, due to desertification, flooding, diseases and wars ".
The book invites us to look at the differences to be found in a globalized world in which - according to present-day images - everything looks alike. It does away with some common myths which see globalization as tending to produce urban homogeneity. Instead, we realize that important differences still exist, and we note a cultural backwardness on the part of architects, who act indifferently without keeping in mind that, although the image may appear the same, this is not true of the subjects living in it (Cellini). Cities differ greatly from one another. They are different because they are built on different lands (Veltroni). They reflect the contradictions of globalisation, which produces equality, but also strong differentiation (Veltroni again). That is why wealth and poverty can in turn be divided into different types of wealth and poverty.
These differences can be observed, as an urban planner would do, by looking at their physical manifestations. Poverty in the metropolitan areas of the rich world is different from poverty in the same areas in the Third World. In the former, it is hidden and camouflaged behind buildings in the city centers that are very similar to those in the rich parts of the city. Poverty is hidden by a physicalness, by a known and familiar language. Instead, in the Third World cities, poverty is exposed by the precariousness of the materials that are used, by inconsistent shapes, by the heaps of manufactured products, and by disorderliness and promiscuity. The Third World city is formally different from those that we know. It is the illegal city that is destined: "…if we accept the validity of the data on the growth of urbanisation, to become a large part of the future city". It is now widely acknowledged that it is not feasible to radically substitute this city, and therefore new operational methods are being tried out which only see the involvement of public administration in certain sectors, i.e. in the provision of infrastructures and services. This is an indication of how cities are built nowadays. The problem of how to intervene has not yet been solved (Cellini), although the book points to some acquisitions: the critique of city planning and all the attempts at rationalisation made by architects (Cellini). The text explicitly confirms this when it states that: "… questions the possibility of the modernist icon to become urban space, a framework of relationships, cities to live in. Was it wrong?". Most attempts at city planning are weak and elusive. However, the book does provide some examples of strong policies that have proved successful in removing pockets of degradation. During the '60s and '70s, Singapore was still a slum city riddled with tuberculosis. The works launched during those years to renovate the city, based on strict control policies, proved effective and made it possible to redesign the face of the city.
The realization of projects must also respond to the growing success of cities and to the demand for liveable cities with a high social quality. And here (Veltroni) notes a paradox. If the southern part of the world were to produce and consume as much as we in this other part of the world do, the planet would lose all its equilibrium. This paradox is also noted within cities, and a cultural response must be found to rethink the model of development. Otherwise, increasingly strong and more visible social boundaries demarcating ghettos and the corresponding marginalization will be created in the cities, including the European ones. The challenge of municipal governments is to govern these processes (Veltroni).
Urban shape, a liveable city and social quality. According to the author's analysis, these requirements can be met by adopting new strategies to recover the poor and illegal part of the city but also, more in general, to tackle what appears to be the city's weak points: it elusiveness and lack of control. The author claims that we can no longer have illusions about our ability to plan. Instead, it is the simultaneous presence of numerous events, phenomena and the plurality of actions that give shape to a city. Taken separately, these elements are not different from the ones that have existed throughout history. The difference lies in the fact that they are all present contemporaneously. They all appear together physically (in the same space) and at the same time. We are not used to the fluid nature of these phenomena, which cannot be tackled using traditional city planning models. According to Desideri, the intention behind this type of planning may lead to conflicts between different subjects, and between different ways to represent institutions and entities in Europe. This is a peculiar feature of European cities, which transpires in the book, in contrast with Asian cities. European cities are more static, but also more egalitarian, while Asian cities are more dynamic but also more unequal (Desideri).
This line of thinking no longer allows for the use of a synthetic view, and therefore the description of the shape of the city inevitably acquires an aerial dimension: in the light of the simultaneous presences cited above, the narration acquires a more fluid tone. A city is shaped by its sounds and events, and by the transformation of numerous central areas for specific purposes, such as "Compere più cena" ("Shopping and eating") and "Culture e spettacoli" ("Culture and theatrical events"). This is only part of the story, although it is the dominant part from the media point of view. But the text goes beyond this. What has happened to the city in which people live? Where do people live in the post-modern metropolitan areas? It is here that city planning divides and moves away people. It is no longer possible to move freely within cities. Gated cities and suburbs for the privileged have developed. Again, the author suggests similarities between rich and poor cities: the model based on one or two-storey homes that are either isolated or in small groups is similar to the model of houses found in poor countries - although these are built by the inhabitants themselves. While this type of housing represents a cultural choice in the rich contexts, it is the only means for obtaining shelter in the poor countries. Nevertheless, both contribute towards affirming housing models that can be built upon, and which are based on an elementary principle: "… each citizen can have his/her own house, with a more or less big garden, anyway detached - maybe even symbolically - from his/her neighbor."
Therefore, at least according to the book, a holistic model of the city exists. It is not a unitary model but an articulate one that includes opposite directions and poles, which may be described using different scales: "The Chart of the new urbanism translates such principles according to the different levels: metropolises, cities, districts, areas, and road backbones. Each of them shall organize around a center, and will accurately design their peripheral areas. …". These are not random choices. On the contrary, public policies, primarily those regarding infrastructure, have often influenced the development of this model. The infrastructures for both public and private transportation were first laid down within cities in order to adapt them to the new needs to provide mobile transport (starting in the middle of the 16th Century when the urban roads were built in Florence), and then acquired an essential role in determining the shape of the new city. This model is a universal one and is also confirmed by the rare exceptions to be found in some Asian cities where habitations are built in intensive building complexes with particular features (scarce surface area and the lack of a real hinterland) and where planned interventions are rare or single events.

The use of history. An entire chapter is dedicated to this theme. History is not the prerogative of ancient European cities; it has acquired an increasingly strong economic value based on goods to be traded. It is a good thing when this exists, otherwise it has to be invented. The author dedicates some time to this theme, not only because he is familiar with it, but also - it appears - because he considers history to be an essential indicator of how cities are evolving. Thus the relationship between continuity and the past and the definition of history become an important part of the construction of the city itself, even if this means having to choose the type of continuity that we are most interested in for political, ethnic or geopolitical reasons.
The relationship between the metropolis and history can be interpreted in different ways. The tension created by modernisation and the subsequent cancellation of any traces of the past. These are never completely erased, however, as we can see in Tokyo where there are still traces of the ancient city in the small streets that cannot be reached by vehicles but are brimming with trade. So much so, that we can affirm that Tokyo's key element is continuity, and not the heap of single buildings; the creation of an identity and ways to structure a past that can in some way be shared and recognised. In Singapore, for example, the issue of conservation has become an element linked with belonging and the creation of policies based on cohesion, on communication strategies, or you like, trade strategies. This is history at the service of tourism, where the ancient city and the tourist industry meet one another although, as the author warns, the latter is leading the game. The shape of the city is limited by the need to offer a product that corresponds to what is offered as part of holiday packages. This has led to the diffusion of the same food and drinks, and even the same images, that are found in the countries of origin of the tourist flows, while the local hand-made products are now produced using industrialized methods.
These interpretations can be concretely seen in two models. On the one hand we have the physical city, "… its houses, monuments and streets, which are still by far the most convincing elements and those that best represent the identity of a place and, at least in appearance, of a society". On the other hand, we have the theme parks, "……….places that guarantee success". Both models are the fruit of "…the rediscovery of history, or better (of) its becoming part of this sparkling globalised universe."

The book provides many ideas for reflection which, thanks to their dialectic frame, can be discussed in greater depth. One such idea has to do with the very nature of the city: the city as a subject. This is one of the important truths revealed by the book: the city is not seen as the result of plans, but as a subject that expresses its own (subjective) dimension and is able to regulate its own transformation (Quilici). The author affirms this concept in the chapter on the shape of the city: "Illusive and uncontrollable, the construction process of the city seems to imply a kind of neutral urban condition." This claim is confirmed by a footnote citing Kevin Lynch: "Cities are like continents, they are simply great natural phenomena to which we must adapt ourselves". The construction of the city is therefore based on natural (even evolutionist?) models, which leave it up to the reciprocal building up of adjustments to produce the physical and social structure of a city.
This is a particularly controversial point and we could object that only physical elements can be included in the cycle of natural evolution (deterioration, inertia, conservation, reproduction), and that it is more difficult to support this theory about the subjective nature of the city which is instead rooted in the action of those that construct it. People act as intentional beings with specific means and purposes, and they produce external effects that they are unable to control, or that they control with increasing difficulty. Both intentions and the external effects represent the field of action in a city's construction process. They are the spatial representation of an intention to change that is accomplished, and not the result of a natural process.
But then, even the book's description of cities is based on intentional planning, which is hardly a natural activity, if at all. The author himself affirms that it is the combination of places and processes that give shape to a city. It is here that city planners can exercise their competence, something that is urged throughout the book.

(1) On 17 February 2003 at 17.30, at the Faculty of Architecture of "Roma Tre" University, Valter Veltroni, the Mayor of Rome, Guido Fabiani, Rector of the University "Roma Tre", Lorenzo Bellicini, Francesco Cellini, Paolo Desideri, Carlo Olmo and Vieri Quilici discussed Piccinato's book. This text presents some of the comments made on that occasion.
(2) Researcher in City Planning, Università degli Studi "Roma Tre",

This is a review for: