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The resilience of neoliberal urbanism

Resilience, the latest urban policy and think tank buzzword extolled upon the world's urban dwellers, operates as an insidious alias to dispossession and territorial stigmatisation.

Yesterday morning (27th January 2014) I noticed a few tweets announcing the Guardian’s new “Cities” section. The newspaper has a track record of publishing excellent short essays addressing urban issues, especially in its “Comment is Free” section, so I confess to initial interest and perhaps even mild excitement.  Then I read two of the introductory pitches by the editorial team, delivered with an intention to “start the debate”. The first was by editor Mike Herd, entitled “What makes your city so special?” the sort of emetic rubric you might expect to find a ‘Business Traveller’ section of an in-flight magazine. Here is how he invited browsers to contribute:

“This is truly the age of the metropolis, and we want to uncover what's really going on in cities all over the planet – be it good, bad or eye-wateringly ugly…..[W]e want to start the conversation now: tell us about the one initiative in your city which has made the most significant difference to your personal quality of life. It can be on any issue, big or small, from a smart city app to an old-quarter renovation, new cycle paths to a community cooking collective. Just write a short explanation of what – and who – makes it so great, and we'll feature a few of our favourites on the site soon. Thanks for stopping by.”

Amidst the bilious drivel (I think a ‘community cooking collective’ is best understood as a ‘Big Society’ dystopia), a few buzzwords stood out: “smart city app”, “old-quarter renovation”, “cycle paths”.  The steer is towards a particular vision, that of the gentrifying city embraced by policy elites enamoured with pseudo-intellectuals like Richard Florida, Leo Hollis, Andres Duany and Ed Glaeser, but universally panned by any urbanist with a sense of social justice and an ounce of theoretical awareness.   A few tweeters began to smell a rat, but Rich Goulding produced my favourite: “Tell us about the most innovative synergistic initiative unleashing quality of life in your shanty town”. Already more widely across the website, and propping up the gentrified quaintness being embraced, were uncritical nods towards the urbanism of Jane Jacobs, whose defeat of New York City’s master planners is these days romanticised as a humanising vision for cities without any acknowledgement of the disruptive and cookie-cutter gentrification that such a vision has unleashed all over the world.

Next up was a longer piece written by, tellingly, an architecture and design critic, Oliver Wainwright, who began by parroting the irksome nugget that “more than half of the world's population now live in a city” before continuing with, mercifully, the welcome statement that “such statistics are meaningless without asking what these cities will be like, who they are for, and how they are being made.”  But that’s where any genuinely critical impulse ends. Wainwright continues,

“Featuring regular contributions from established experts and new voices, we'll be peeling back the glossy veneer of the computer renderings, and going beyond the facts and figures of the city sales pitch, to ask what our future cities will actually be like – and how we can influence them for the better.”

In an essay that actually reads more like a research centre grant application, he outlines a few issues facing cities and asks what he thinks are pertinent questions, all of which have already been (and continue to be) addressed by urban scholars all over the world, and some of which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered critical, e.g. “as high streets continue to decline, could there be more to the city experience than eating and shopping?”

Wainwright’s article draws to a conclusion with the first mention of a word I was waiting for:

“Facing threats of flooding and earthquakes, storms and tsunamis, the resilience of cities is tested to the limit…with flooding becoming an increasingly regular event, should we be retreating behind bigger barriers and steeper levees, or learning to adapt our cities to work with, rather than against, these conditions?”


This is the latest policy and think tank abomination to infect and paralyse the study of cities, to the extent that it has become a research funding council priority all over the world (recently, the Urban Europe “Joint Programming Initiative” was released, inviting proposals on broad topics, among them “Urban Vulnerability, Adaptability, and Resilience”, where projects will “enhance understanding of and response to natural, environmental, social, economic and technological shocks as well as gradual changes”).  It is not a new development that scholarly priorities are, regrettably, shaped by policy priorities (and by the strategies of big business and worries of the mainstream media) and therefore it is no coincidence that an entire cottage industry on “resilient cities” has emerged at a time of global austerity (a needless and wicked political and corporate assault on the poor that needs to be captured as a crisis per se, rather than as a response to an economic crisis).  The insidious work of urban resilience lies in the obvious and, to its proponents entirely logical policy suggestion the word carries: “urban dwellers of the world, brace yourselves for austerity [or environmental catastrophe] and everything will be fine in the end!”  Recently Julian Reid  tweeted a photograph of a poster which, in a beautiful act of resistance, perfectly captures the symbolic power of the anaesthetising spell of resilience:

A poster in New Orleans, blogged here.

It therefore came as no surprise that the Guardian Cities team ran an article on the day its website launched entitled “What makes a city resilient?” which recognised that resilience was a ‘buzzword’ but did absolutely nothing in the way of shining a critical light on it. In fact, it concluded in rosy and technocratic terms:

“More broadly, however, the resilience movement is a global attempt to address two of the longest-standing and most vital questions facing theorists, planners and leaders. Namely, what is the purpose of society, and what is a society's responsibility to its citizens.”

Less surprising still, but more concerning, is the realisation that ‘resilience’ is guiding this entire Guardian ‘Cities’ initiative.  It is sponsored by The Rockefeller Foundation, which has devoted extraordinary resources to a research programme entitled “100 Resilient Cities”, effectively a neoliberal competition that awards grants to the 100 cities that it feels "have demonstrated a dedicated commitment to building their own capacities to prepare for, withstand, and bounce back rapidly from shocks and stresses". In other words, prizes to the cities that rack up points in respect of getting back to the desired status quo of capital accumulation and elite wealth capture as quickly as possible. That there is a strong desire among urban managers to compete is evident in the fact that more than 1000 cities registered to take part in this programme, and almost 400 formally applied for inclusion. 

Like its ideological twin of ‘sustainable urbanism’ before it, 'resilient cities’ is proving extraordinarily seductive. In the UK it is currently being embraced and pushed by deeply conservative ‘good-design-can-save-us’ organisations such as The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community and Create Streets. These are effectively large landowner lobbies that are pushing a profoundly conservative vision of cities. Staffed by bourgeois architects, planners and self-styled ‘urban gurus’, all of whom have started using appeals to environmental terms like ‘resilience’ to bolster their long-held  fanatical devotion to the sinister American cult of ‘new urbanism’, they advance a darkly troubling vision of urban planning that purports to be about recreating ‘traditional’ streets and pedestrian-friendly ‘mixed-income’ communities. In reality, they advocate the creation of self-absorbed, clap-happy zones proudly celebrating how handpicked social housing tenants – a minority - are hidden behind a sterile vernacular of Quality Street, neo-Georgian facades. Those behind the scenes, extracting value from the hysterical panic of a ‘housing shortage’ whilst ignoring the existence of nearly 1 million empty homes in the UK, call themselves ‘placemakers’ without the least hint of irony or even squeamishness.

Resilience so easily supports not only austerity, but the territorial stigmatisation that so often precedes strategies of dislocation (“that community is just not resilient enough, so we need to break it up and scatter its residents”). Since the famous and hugely influential writings of the Chicago School of Human Ecology, there is a long and ugly history of concepts being brought from biological sciences to be applied to the social sciences and especially the study of cities – “regeneration” being the most pervasive recent example. In the case of resilience, a global recession morphs from being a political creation into a naturally occurring phenomenon that requires a program of public expenditure gutting to set it back on its natural path. As an analytic framework (if it can even be called that) “resilience” studiously, perhaps even judiciously, ignores every important question about the contradictions of capital accumulation and circulation, about uneven development, about enabling political structures, about state strategies of ‘growth machine’ branding – I could go on.

What we will not learn from the Guardian ‘Cities’ feature it is that when the shadowy urban ‘experts’ talk of “resilient cities”, there is a symptomatic silence over the most resilient feature of cities all over the world: what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession”, or the relentless quest for profit from land and real estate, usually achieved via violent land grab and forced eviction. Indeed, a frequent past contributor to The Guardian, Saskia Sassen, has a book forthcoming analysing this phenomenon, entitled “Expulsions”. While in 2009, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions produced a devastating report in the wake of a global analysis of forced eviction, and concluded that it “ranks amongst the most widespread human rights violations in the world.” Attention should surely be towards the diminishing ability of people to stay put in cities, given the potential ground rent to be extracted from the land they occupy. 

Neoliberal urbanism has proved to be extraordinarily resilient, and the most “resilient community” of all appears to be that of a cartel of politicians and financial executives, aided by think tanks and philanthropic organisations, who have “bounced back” (to take the language used in the Guardian) from a crisis they created with even more violence and venom towards marginalised citizens (who they treat as the culprits).  There are scholars and activists all over the world charting and challenging these developments, and also researching the social movements and class struggles erupting from Athens to Istanbul to Buenos Aires to Cape Town.  But these scholars are very poorly represented, if at all, among the “best urban voices” and “best city blogs” on Twitter currently collected by Guardian Cities editorial team. This very disappointing series is nothing more or less than a pure exemplar of vested-interest urbanism. Given the sponsor, it is impossible to be convinced by Oliver Wainwright’s plea that the series is critical and all about “peeling back the glossy veneer” of buzzwords and ‘big data’ visualisations. Approach with extreme caution. We are not resilient.

For more articles on the series, go to the Cities in Conflict main page.

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