Where We Live Now

Abandoning the tragedy of the city for a new way of thinking and talking about place

The French historian Fernand Braudel makes the astonishing claim that any city “has to dominate an empire, however tiny, in order to exist at all.” For Braudel, the boastful preeminence of cities—a commonplace that we witness every day—served as a categorical definition. Braudel got his definition from Marx, who puts it even more sharply: “The antagonism between town and country begins with the transition from barbarism to civilization, from tribe to State, from locality to nation, and runs through the whole history of civilization to the present day.” For both Marx and Braudel, class division and domination are the origin, even the constitutive element, of urbanism.

The city has always been a jealous hero, the lead actor in the story of the nation or the globe. Rome, London, New York, and, in every region, little subempires ... Cincinnati, Denver, Portland. All of them, despite their dynamism, geographical imprecision, and collective nature, stubbornly stride around history's stage as if they are autonomously acting individuals. Their stories are of ascension through hardship to dominance. The city cannot live without boasting.

The boasts of cities fill whole libraries and websites, shape university programs, and drive an economy whose boundaries are unknowable. From civic boosterism of the sort that every chamber of commerce and regional think tank turns out, to the more deeply considered global inquiries into the history and future of urban forms, our economic and cultural investment in the story of the city is immense. We care deeply and are willing to spend tremendous cultural, political, and financial capital on the working out of this story.

Increasingly, that story is a tragedy. The tale turned up by think tanks and planners in every part of the globe, by pundits and aggrieved neighbors alike, is one of threats and struggle: blighted downtowns become subsidized sites of high-end investment; the remnants of a dying farm economy become the treasured focus of advocacy groups pursuing costly, often divisive legislation to save farms. Wanting better lives for ourselves and our children, we place these twin ideals, the city and the country, at the center of our politics. And yet everywhere we turn, the glimmering image of the dense urban center ringed by green farms and countryside is erased by eruptions of growth (or, equally, neglect) that are so far beyond our ken that we can only paint them all with the same broad brush: that shapeless word sprawl. This unspecific threat—this failure to find language—is the sharpest evidence we have of our helplessness. Sprawl has no autonomous history or ontology; it is a negation, the absence of something else, the failure to build city or countryside. Sprawl is the disappearance of an idea. So how can we go on speaking of the city and the country, yet not remain fixed in the downward spiral of loss?

The New Left critic Raymond Williams once wrote that the terminal expression of the story of city and country “is the system we now know as imperialism.” Seattle-based social critic Charles Mudede sees that same global system come home to roost in the proliferating landscapes of sprawl. Observing the lively dereliction of strip highways, Mudede finds “a monstrous, zombie form of colonialism” that “looks from a distance much like a medieval or small city (an early form of colonialism) with an immediate urban shadow.” In Mudede's landscape, the “rural idiocy” once decried by Marx takes up a new home address in the suburbs. The tragedy of city and country provides a stage for our struggles on which the curtain need never fall.

But the story of the city has other modes. It can be used as a battering ram to justify political change, or it can thrill us and quicken our attention, like celebrity gossip. Champions of urbanism, such as the late Lewis Mumford or Peter Hall, describe a city that resembles one vast, collective celebrity, a glittering hero whose every fortune and misfortune compels our deepest feelings. Consider, for example, the excited, voluminous reports of the new Asian megacity. As with celebrities, we measure the importance of our favorites against the puniness and offenses of lesser stars. We readily project our fates, our failings and triumphs and potentials, and watch them play out in the fates of cities. These are the dominant modes by which we talk about the city.

While gossip is preferable to tragedy, neither mode offers us useful tools for where we live now. Their stories can only delight or terrify us with dreams and memories that enchant exactly to the degree that they are in fact absent from the landscapes where we live. We need new language, new descriptions, and, in the words of German urban planner Thomas Sieverts, “a new subject for our politics.”

We struggle, as Sieverts points out, to accept the passing of the old city. Our love for the vibrant, preeminent urban center blinds us to new forms and paradoxically leads us to burden what remains of the old city with functions that compromise its historic role. “Revitalization” turns the center into a planned community of wealthy urbanites feeding an economy of shopping and cultural tourism. Meanwhile, the periphery turns into a battleground pitting development against nature. The city's need (or at least its tendency) to expand outward becomes the enemy of farms and green space. How did these widely variable elements come to be fixed in such stark, irresolvable opposition? What common ground or common purpose can be found?

Where we live now is a dynamic, shifting landscape of all these things: nature, dense settlement, rich and poor, wild and planned. None of it resembles the old ideals of city and countryside, despite massive investments of money and law to force the construction or preservation of these ideals. The landscapes where we live are obstinate and ungainly, spoiling our ideals at every turn. So how can we live here and understand it, as it is? How can we finally leave the long, divisive story of the city and the countryside behind us?

An answer lies nascent in Sieverts's text, which describes the hybridity, dynamism, and polycentricity of the landscapes where we live:

They have both urban and rural characteristics. Where we live lies between the singular, particular site as geographical-historical event and the sameness of all space in the global economy; between space as a field of immediate experience and space as a distance measured solely by time; between a still-surviving myth of the city and a countryside just as deeply rooted in our dreams.

In every way, Sieverts states, this landscape is “in between”; that is, the once-solid polarities by which we had organized space and place have collapsed into an entirely new condition. “Following tradition,” Sieverts continues, “we still call this sort of development a ‘city.' Or we designate it with such abstract concepts as ‘conurbation,' ‘metro region,' or ‘urbanized countryside,' because we realize how inadequately we grasp these spaces with our concept ‘city.'?” Uneasy with any existing terms, Sieverts coined the term Zwischenstadt, which literally means “in-between city.”

Among the many urban historians who have described these landscapes, Sieverts is neither the best known nor the most influential. His neologism, Zwischenstadt, is used by European planners; but, despite retaining the original German in extant English and Japanese translations, Zwischenstadt has not been broadly adopted as a tool by planners elsewhere. Nor has it fueled the popular imagination the way that other terms, such as edge city, have.

Sieverts suffers from his place in-between, catering to neither planners nor the public, but making a middle ground that beckons both. His insistence that the professions of architecture and planning alone cannot solve the problems of the city does not lend itself to easy adoption by planners. Yet neither does he cede the task to strictly populist solutions. He insists on the value of a specialist discourse but argues that it cannot function apart from the realms of art and literature or the public imagination. As in the built environment itself, these once-solid divisions have collapsed.

All of this follows from Sieverts's central assertion: that the middle ground, the new in-between condition, must be articulated. The popular imagination is the key to better urban planning. If this middle ground, where the work of planners and the popular imagination find a new common language, is neglected, then nothing will shift us away from the prevailing tragedies of the city–country divisions and into frank engagement with the landscapes where we live.

Sieverts seems to grasp the radical nature of this shift. He is not content to help planners revise their understanding of the city, but insists that they rethink that starting place entirely. He acknowledges that while we mourn the passing of old forms, we must also dispense with them. He has no appetite for the tragedy of the city. That drama is done. The negation of the city is terrifying, yet Sieverts insists on nothing less. Better, he turns this negation into an affirmation of something else, a pattern of settlement at once more sustainable, more enduring, and more deeply inscribed.

The shortcoming of nearly every other account of the contemporary city is the unbreakable tether to Marx's history, to the city as an expression of agriculture and the emergence of markets, class division, and domination—the story of town and country. (The work of Jane Jacobs is a notable exception.) No matter the landscape, most of our thoughts and analyses go back to that narrow model of urbanism. And any path forward is charted by the compass of those lost ideals, obliging us to navigate the future by moving either away from or back toward them.

But what if change does not happen this way? What if competing logics and contradictory stories persist, coexisting through time and space, like the radio signals that fill the ether, silent and unheard until we tune them in? What other histories lie dormant in the night?

“North Pacific America” is the name poet Richard Jensen gives to the West Coast of North America, more or less from Sitka, Alaska, down to Brookings, Oregon, and as far inland as a car can go in a day. His label is meant to replace old names like “the Northwest” (a geographical misnomer that stemmed from the Northwest Fur Company's early-nineteenth-century monopoly on the region's furs) or “Cascadia” (an ecological region defined by certain watersheds that are regularly and repeatedly contravened by roads, capital, people, and the crossways movement of nearly everything except fish). North Pacific America was a coherent cultural region, home to immense, complex trading networks (as many as eleven distinct language families that nevertheless shared central trade depots, a common trade language, and a fiat currency that was recognized across thousands of miles), long before the arrival of Euro-American travelers. The several dozen nations that lived here before the British, Russians, and Americans (and for a long time, with them) shaped an in-between landscape that was a predecessor to ours today.

In North Pacific America we find an urban history rich with the interdependency of global and local forces; the shaping force of flows; the blurring of time and place; and the inextricable interpenetration of the built environment and nature, of town and country. This polycentric, dynamic landscape was home to a settled population of more than one hundred thousand. Because these communities lacked agriculture and other tropes of European urban life, they have never been looked at as cities. But the new lens provided by Sieverts and scholar Manuel Castells, among others, brings the history of where we live now, an urban history, into focus in these long-enduring patterns of indigenous settlement.

As Sieverts points out, the challenges we face cannot be solved by architects and urban planners alone. If we ask them to continue building our lost ideals of city and country, they can only extend the grim pleasure of our tragedy. Instead, we face the considerably harder work of shedding our ideals and learning new images and patterns. What we lack is imagination—the ability to articulate new patterns—a problem that is better addressed through art and literature than through any catalog of acceptable urban design. History is the scaffold on which art and writing grow.

For the most part, artists and writers have had to choose a nostalgic mode or work against history. Accounts that run counter to the story of the city and the country either organize themselves as reactionary or remain incomprehensible. This is a hard position to work from. So long as we write or imagine against a history—against a shared story of how we came to be—we generate imitative work, a kind of negative image of that which we react against. Writing against history can never change the subject; it can only go on talking about the same thing, negatively.

Tragedy is exhausting. Our spirits need something better. History and art and literature matter. They are essential instruments for making a better future, a landscape where we all can live, eyes wide open, without tragedy and regret.

Adapted from Where We Live Now: An Annotated Reader (www.suddenly.org, 2009).

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