Can Cities Make Us Better Citizens?
What is a city? The sociologist Richard Sennett once opted for a deceptively simple definition: a city, he wrote, is “a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet.” For Sennett, meeting strangers is a civic duty. He arrived at this belief in the course of a fifty-year career, and his latest book, “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City,” distills into a single volume his thoughts on how urban design shapes the ways in which we relate to one another. Consistent, throughout, is the notion of the city as a place where we tolerate those who are different. Immigrant? Stockbroker? Both? Who cares? The anonymity of the metropolis makes one indifferent to difference. As the German adage has it, stadtluft macht frei. City air makes you free.
Of course, it’s exactly this cosmopolitanism that is today under attack. For Immanuel Kant, the cosmopolitan was a “universal citizen”; for Theresa May, he is “a citizen of nowhere.” The crucial difference is that May, like President Trump, seems to see belonging in the tribal sense: it’s “us” and “them.” If the largest metropoles in the U.S. and the U.K. are bastions against such impulses, it is precisely because their diverse populations make them cosmopolitan and liberal leaning. Sennett mentions neither the U.S. President nor the U.K.’s psychodrama, but it’s clear that one of the “ethics” referred to in the book’s subtitle is a city’s ability to normalize encounters with the Other.
The challenge Sennett sets himself in “Building and Dwelling” is whether it’s possible to plan a city so as to maximize these encounters. Can the way one designs a park or shapes a city block make us better citizens? To meet that challenge, Sennett divides the city into two, rather like a body and a soul. This duality is a comparison between the city as built form (“ville”) and as lived experience (“cité”)—the “building” and “dwelling” of his title. Built form has social consequences, and not always the ones that the city planner intended. When Baron Haussmann carved his broad boulevards through the medieval tangle of Paris, in the eighteen-fifties and sixties, one of his aims was to make it easier for the military to suppress an insurrectionary working class with horse-drawn cannon. But he could not have predicted the boulevards’ effect on a flourishing bourgeoisie. They hurried things along, but they also contributed to a more detached street life, in which citizens engaged not with one another but with the vitrines of department stores.
This is a familiar lament for Sennett. “Building and Dwelling” is his twentieth book, but it feels haunted by the spirit of a much earlier work. In 1977, he published “The Fall of Public Man,” his influential study of the ways in which public life has declined since the ancien régime. The argument was that citizens in eighteenth-century Paris or London were far more likely to exchange opinions with strangers, even those of wildly different social class, than in the bourgeois nineteenth century, when they became more private and self-absorbed. (Baudelaire’s flâneur exemplified the citizen as detached observer.) This withdrawal into an inner psychological life, and into smaller social circles, Sennett interpreted as a form of narcissism. He saw further omens in the “white flight” of the nineteen-sixties, when the middle classes headed to the suburbs, and in the hippie generation, which, in a short-lived experiment, abandoned cities for rural communes. Sennett accused both groups of betraying the cosmopolitan ideal and retreating to closed communities of people just like themselves.
More than forty years later, Sennett is as passionate as ever about the richness and complexity of public life, by which he means urban life. In “Building and Dwelling,” he rejects the comforts of clearly defined communities, of anything that smacks too strongly of “we.” That means gated communities as much as “projects” for the poor. It also extends to the offices of tech giants like Google, which supply everything a neighborhood has to offer without employees needing to leave the building. Each of these is, for Sennett, a ghetto. Instead, he argues for a city that embraces difference, a place of porous membranes and spatial invitations.
Sennett calls this ideal “the open city.” “Ethically, an open city would of course tolerate differences and promote equality,” he writes, “but would more specifically free people from the straitjacket of the fixed and the familiar, creating a terrain in which they could experiment and expand their experience.” In other words, the city should not mirror the closed systems and monopolistic instincts of a company like Apple. Yet all too often, it does. Across the planet, gated communities are the fastest growing form of development. “Global cities,” like London and New York, are shaped by flows of international capital that neither their citizens nor their polities can influence. In China, state-led development on an unprecedented scale has resulted in alienating, repetitive landscapes. Meanwhile, in the ballooning cities of the global South, urban migrants build vast slum zones that are physically and psychologically divorced from the centers they service. Exclusion is the order of the day.
Is the answer to give more power to the urban planners? Not quite. If the sweeping historical passages of the book tell us anything, it’s that even the most well-meaning planners rarely get it right. Sennett’s “Great Generation” of the eighteen-fifties—Haussmann; Ildefons Cerdà, who gave Barcelona its distinctive cornerless blocks; and Frederick Law Olmsted, who gave us Central Park—all failed to predict the social outcomes of their grand plans. And twentieth-century shapers of the ville, in his eyes, were even more aloof from the cité. The book’s bête noire is Le Corbusier, whose Plan Voisin would have demolished Paris’s Marais with a field of identical cruciform towers set in parkland. Efficiency at the expense of a lively street life is anathema to Sennett.
More power, then, to the citizens? Yes and no. Sennett takes issue with his friend Jane Jacobs, who defended Greenwich Village against the highway lust of Robert Moses. Saint Jane’s charming vision of slow, incremental growth, led by citizens, might be fine for a neighborhood, but not for a city—not if you want public transport or a sewer system. In one of their amiable arguments, Jacobs, no doubt impatient with Sennett’s prevaricating, put him on the spot: “So what would you do?”
“Building and Dwelling” is Sennett’s attempt to answer that question. And it has an almost Taoist attachment to harmony and balance. Give architects and planners too much control and the cité suffers; too much faith in the citizen and the ville withers. The open city of Sennett’s imagination is one that requires us to embrace difference, even if we do not identify with it. Though the title appears to draw on Heidegger’s essay, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” Sennett reserves a particular disdain for the philosopher’s retreat to a hut outside Freiburg. The decision to disengage from Jewish colleagues and students was an “ethical lapse” as egregious, to Sennett, as Heidegger’s anti-Semitism. Sennett also needles Google’s New York headquarters, which he finds to be an island frat house, introspective and infantile, “in the city but not of it,” and “disengaged” from “the grim street outside.” Readers of Sennett will know that the insult is not “grim” but “disengaged.”
Sennett likes “grim.” He also likes “difficulty,” “complexity,” and “friction.” His critique of the effect of digital devices on the city, apart from the fact that they are “individualizing machines,” is that apps like Google Maps make the city too user-friendly, too “friction-free.” If you think that the role of a designer, whether of software or of city streets, is to make those things easier to use, Sennett would disagree. He sees “encounters with resistance” as crucial to learning any craft, even the craft of dwelling. Getting lost is how we learn.
Sennett’s answer to Jacobs’s question, then, involves creating spaces of encounter and friction, particularly at the border between one neighborhood and another. He is deprecating about his own forays into planning and treats his failures as salutary. Why, for instance, did he and his colleagues locate a market in the center of Spanish Harlem, instead of along Ninety-sixth Street, the border with the well-heeled Upper East Side? The site might have become a porous membrane, a gateway “between different racial and economic communities.”
If Sennett accused Jacobs of being better at the cité than at the ville, he suffers from the same bias. His experience as a planner notwithstanding, it is Sennett the writer and sociologist—the gimlet-eyed flâneur—who is most rewarding. Part of the charm of “Building and Dwelling” is its intimacy. While writing it, Sennett suffered a stroke, and his accounts of relearning how to walk straight, or of watching people on Berlin’s Kantstrasse as he supports himself against a wall, give his observations the poignancy of lived experience. There is an extraordinary account of ethnic relations in the Hatton Garden community of London where Sennett lives. After an audacious jewelry heist, he finds the local Hasidic shop owners and their Muslim neighbors being unusually polite to one another—mutual suspicion smoothed over with “superficial civilities.” Sennett is not above the idea of wearing social masks as a means of getting along. “Mixed communities work well,” he writes, “only so long as consciousness of the Other is not foregrounded.”
This points to one of the book’s peculiarities, which is its elision of the political. Sennett is brilliant on cities with established histories but less convincing on more emergent states of urbanity. His encounters with the owner of a market stall in Delhi, who sells him a dud iPhone, and with some streetwise kids in a hillside barrio of Medellín, leave one wondering what the lessons are for the informal cities that are prevalent in parts of South America, Africa, and Asia. The lesson of that barrio in Medellín is not that poor kids develop a sixth sense for the street but that the most impressive building in the city, a public library in the form of a mountain outcrop, was built in the poorest neighborhood, and then connected to the city center by a cable car. These were political acts by a mayor who was trying to redress extreme urban inequality. Similarly, while Sennett rightly bemoans the effects of Corbusian planning—of characterless, instant cities made of identikit towers—he might have cited any number of modernist housing designs in which the cité thrived. In fact, in London, at least, it is only the privatization or demolition of postwar social housing—and not its design—that has forced poorer citizens out of the center and diminished the social commingling that Sennett espouses.
Sennett seems to feel that any overt politics might undermine the neutrality of his sociological observations. In this, he sits somewhat apart from the lineage of writers who have also called for “the open city,” if not exactly in those terms. We might include in that line Henri Lefebvre, whose dictum that the poor have “the right to the city” fizzed with revolutionary zeal. We might also include Marshall Berman, who argued that open public space, where the rich could encounter the poor, offered society the chance to confront its “collective repressions.” Sennett asserts much the same but keeps his leftist credentials in his pocket. Ever the diplomat, he couches his positions in the language of ethics and craft—a mode consistent with this being the final book in his Homo Faber trilogy, which examines man as craftsman. But it may rankle those who feel that stronger medicine is required.
More bracing is the assertion that a healthy city cannot merely be designed; it needs to be enacted by its citizens. The nub of “Building and Dwelling” is that the open city is a demanding place. Anyone who has taken part in community meetings, resident groups, or planning consultations will know that getting people to agree is hard work. And to be a citizen of the open city requires patience and adaptability in the face of the unfamiliar—qualities that Sennett finds embodied in the migrant. One of the book’s final sentences concludes, “The ethical connection between urbanist and urbanite lies in practising a certain kind of modesty: living one among many, engaged in a world that does not mirror oneself.” Typically idealistic, typically urbane, it’s a sentiment that’s well-timed for the disputes of our day.