Local Places in the Age of the Global City

Edited by Roger Keil, Gerda R. Wekerle and David V.J. Bell. Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1995.


Reviewed by Don Alexander


This is a stimulating little book. Apart from the neo-Marxist writings of Harvey, Castells, and a few early offerings from Black Rose Books, writings on the city and social change are few and far between. This collection of 29 essays, organized around eight themes, offers a remarkable overview of current thinking on the subject. A variety of political perspectives are represented, ranging from neo-Marxist, post-modernist (or combinations thereof) to liberal, feminist and green.

While many of the contributors are affiliated with York University, and tend to have a Toronto-centred perspective, this is to be expected given that the papers resulted from a seminar series held at the same university. That were they were originally presented in seminar also accounts for their merciful brevity and conciseness. While a few of them are written in a hoity-toity style à la postmoderne, this is tolerable in a collection as diverse as this one. While most concern themselves with social and ecological issues in Northern industrialized countries, there are also a few voices representing the South.

With so many essays, each one cannot be given equal consideration. However, I will touch on what I found to be noteworthy and what piqued my interest. Roger Keil's introductory essay ("Greasy Jungle Metropolitan Noir") attempts to knit together the diverse contributions by providing a conceptual framework, using the device of a commute from his home to his workplace at the university to introduce some of the ideas used by the other contributors. This is not easy in that there is no unifying thread that brings the diverse perspectives together, apart from the topic identified in the title. Even there, while most of the contributors talk about cities, not all do so from a global perspective.

Apart from a rather feeble attempt to blur the distinction between nature in urban and non-urban settings, what I found most interesting was his reminder that the built environment of the city takes on new forms with every new economic and technical epoch. What makes our current conjuncture unique is that we find ourselves saddled with the structure and infrastructure of a Fordist urban past, when we have already moved socially beyond it.
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Touching base briefly with Harvey and Castells, Keil reminds us that we must view the city, not only as a materialization of capitalism's needs vis-à-vis urban form and space, but also as the result of a discourse concerning "collective consumption." By this he means that the city is the site par excellence of `public goods.' These range from parks to hospitals to transportation infrastructure, and the form and distribution of these is not wholly determined by capitalism, but also by concrete struggles between different classes and strata over who gets what. That, in Vancouver, available green space is disproportionately found on the affluent west side is no accident, though it is one civic activists are attempting to remedy.

Another major theme, which several of the contributors address, is the interweaving of global and local processes in the creation of the city, whereby each affects the other. The conclusion that Keil draws from this is that, while "global ecology starts in the local . . . we will only succeed if we accept that this ground has been transnationalized, that our bioregions are also elements of our global relationship with nature" [emphasis added]. He also makes the pertinent point, which we all too often forget, that we cannot achieve sustainability in the central cities if we ignore the difficult task of politicizing the suburbs that surround them. His essay concludes with the hopeful observation that "[i]n urban civil society, countless needs are met and new demands created that neither the state nor the global economy can or will service. [Thus] there are countless spaces for struggle that come together in each local place."

The next two essays are organized around the theme of
citizenship. The first, by Jane Jenson, follows on from the theme of our being in a transitional era where "the old is dying [and] the new is struggling to be born." Thus, she cautions, it is not always to easy to know whether present phenomena are a product of the old breaking down or a precursor of what is to come. Moreover, since the future is a product of social struggle and is not pre-determined, it is risky to make any overly-confident predictions. Nonetheless, she believes that much of the political turmoil we are witnessing in Canada is a product of the breakdown of a "postwar pan-Canadian citizenship defined through country-wide institutions such as labour markets and social programmes."

This form of citizenship, which coincided with what T.H. Marshall termed a "social citizenship" of entitlements under the welfare state, arose at the same time as the formation of a truly national Canadian economy -- characterized by Fordism in the heartland -- and by the dominance in Canadian politics of pan-Canadian parties and political leaders (e.g. Trudeau).

The breakdown of this form of citizenship has been occasioned by three parallel processes. The first was the emergence of a post-Fordist economy -- characterized by de-industrialization, a decline in the unionized labour force, greater free trade/ globalization, and a significant growth in `normal' unemployment levels. This has been accompanied, at a political level, by a concerted assault on the welfare state and the forms of politics associated with it and, ideologically, by the rise of `identity politics,' with their challenge to cultural, gendered, and heterosexual norms.
Jenson declines to speculate what the next form of citizenship might look like, beyond noting that, in Europe and elsewhere, a sort of `trans-national' citizenship is emerging, and that struggles by First Nations for sovereignty and self-government may transform the nation-state as we know it. This theme is taken up at the end of the volume in Deborah Barndt's contribution, which chronicles the efforts, by The Moment Project to build a multi-sector coalition against free trade. Unlike many of the other papers, this article reviews specific experiences and attempts to draw appropriate lessons -- one of them being the necessity to build alliances and common frames of reference across borders.

The essay following Jensen's -- by Engin Isin -- attempts a very global analysis of changing class relations and patterns of citizenship, one that is short on data and a trifle long on paranoia. Its gist is Isin's claim that the old class struggle between the working class and the capitalist class has been largely displaced by the efforts of a new class -- a sort of knowledge bourgeoisie -- to gain control. This group is "characterized by ownership of knowledge as cultural capital rather than ownership of capital, labour or property" [emphasis in original]. As Isin notes, "the new class is made up of career hierarchies of specialized knowledge" whose legitimacy is based on credential-conferring education, with earning power directly related to one's status and rank in the professional hierarchy.

This class is alleged divided along two axes: public vs. private employment, and a local/regional or national focus vs. a global focus. Moreover, the members of this class can become members of the more traditional ruling groups by transforming "cultural capital into financial capital or property capital." According to Isin, recent political battles over free trade and the dismantling of the welfare state are largely duels between conflicting wings of the same class [one wonders where the capitalists are in all of this?]. In other words, the people who raise the largest cries of protest against free trade and privatization -- often in the name of the oppressed themselves -- are merely using populist rhetoric as a fig-leaf for their own class interests (e.g. as public service bureaucrats).

Isin goes on to talk about how the spin doctors and issue managers of the new class have packaged and manipulated the major issues of the day, reducing the public to an apathetic and confused cynicism. He also cites, as offering hope, "counter-hegemonic" actions by the oppressed which are highly concrete and which refuse to get sucked into any of the new class's word games. These include self-organization by the poor and homeless, the institution of LETS systems, or even communication and exchange on the Internet. The new citizenship, Isin speculates, will be based on these highly "specific, concrete, fluid, and decentralized" activities that eschew the "universal and abstract ideals" of the modernist era. How these concrete practices will add up to a coherent alternative is not altogether clear.
Though Isin may be making exaggerated claims for his analysis, he has pinpointed a dilemma faced by those of us whose main contribution to social change is through the diffusion of ideas. In order to have influence, we are often tempted to seek admittance into the new class and to legitimize our message according to its rules. People like Jeremy Rifkin and others come to mind. In the process, are we subverting the system or is the system subverting us, drawing us into a Faustian bargain of self-promotion and aggrandizement?

The next thematic section pertains to "Globalization and Urban Restructuring." Roger Keil takes up the thread he first alluded to in his introduction: cities (particularly, world cities) are the product of global economic and cultural forces. This establishes the context for local urban politics. At the same time local politics can, through the medium of international influences, affect the outcome of global struggles.

This is a complex and interesting dialectic. Though world cities emerge as important sites for the accumulation of capital and as `nodes' in the global economy, they do so with respect to specific local features. Vancouver's emergence as a significant economic centre is related to its geographical and cultural attributes: first, as a coastal city facing on the Pacific Rim and, second, as an increasingly significant focus for the Chinese cultural diaspora. Its scenic environs and high quality of life also make it an attractive place for people with capital and `know-how.'

The emergence of these world cities engenders various conflicts at a local level. First, local employment, traditional businesses and housing patterns are affected by economic changes. Demands for high-end housing and commercial space, for instance, will tend to displace traditional user groups. Second, and closely related to the first, there emerges a struggle over land as `place' vs. `space.' Communities and residents have a vested interest in maintaining the physical environment as a setting for certain amenities or personal interaction. These aspirations may conflict with a profit-driven need to redevelop existing sites to accommodate new immigrants or high-finance commercial activities.
Finally, Keil believes that "world cities play a crucial role in the reproduction of the cultural hegemony of capitalism" -- in particular, through the fostering of a global culture of "spectacular accumulation," facilitated by the global cultural and telecommunications industry. But this, in turn, engenders resistance by those who feel oppressed or excluded by the resulting cultural products. In Vancouver, the ubiquitous brainwashing of the international advertising industry is resisted by Adbusters magazine, Guerrilla Media, and other groups. At the same time, the cosmopolitanism of these world cities allows for a transcending of cultural barriers that potentially strengthens solidarity, and creates models of tolerance and `multiculturalism.'

One curious claim by Keil is that, in contrast with nation-states, "cities offer little in the way of possibilities for formal democratic citizenship." My experience and observation is that some of the most vibrant manifestations of grass-roots citizenship have had their birth in cities, with civic issues as their focus. However bogus some may believe it to have been, Vancouver's CityPlan process offers support for this. If anything, the scale of the city, as with the more ancient polis, is more conducive to the practice of an authentic citizenship than the largely atrophied nation-state. Moreover, as Keil himself would agree, because cities are laboratories for the creation of new social movements and perspectives, they can take advantage of world cities' global connections to seek worldwide diffusion. While Keil poses the right issues in terms of identifying the dual nature/ position of the modern world city, he does little to illustrate how they might realize their potential as "the practical and material context for progressive world politics."

I'm going to gloss over the next article by Patricia Petersen on the shifting partisan alliances and political spectrum in Hamburg, and mention only that it offers a look at the changing political fortunes of various groups and parties in a major German city and the reasons for these. Whereas a Green-Social Democratic alliance failed to come into being in Hamburg, in Frankfurt the alliance was a success and has resulted in a progressive and visionary multi-purpose `Greenbelt' that enjoys broad support from all sectors of society. This is chronicled in a later article by Sabine Hasung and Peter Lieser, offering an example of `best (urban) practice' that might be emulated in North America.
I will also skip over Robin Bloch's piece on the complexities of urban form and racial location in South Africa's contemporary cities, which reinforces the point that we can't assess urban form -- for purposes of sustainability -- without considering the economic and technological forces that give it shape. Bloch's essay provides a nice segue into the next section, "Sustainability in Third World Cities."

This section includes an interesting study of the cultural, economic, and political reasons behind the persistence of urban agriculture in Kampala, Uganda. This is followed by a case study of Cali, Colombia that examines the potential inapplicability of `consensus' versions of sustainable development formulated in the North that assume that all `stakeholders' can be brought together to seek common ground for the resolution of the challenges facing humanity, and instead draws attention to the creative social mobilization and self-help activities undertaken by the `marginalized' shanty-town dwellers who constitute a majority of the city's population. Following that, René Parenteau uses his experiences in Africa and Asia to formulate a pragmatic set of principles for sustainable urban development that might make environmental `purists' in the `developed' countries feel uncomfortable with their concessions to growth and their advocacy of a piecemeal approach to solutions.

The next section focuses on "Ecopolitics," and features an impassioned plea by `super-bureaucrat' and consultant, Gardner Church (formerly of the Office for the Greater Toronto Area) for a holistic, yet decentralized and locally sensitive, approach to the governance and planning of North American urban regions. Franz Hartmann's "An Ecopolitics for Urban Sustainability" is little more than a generic `parenthood' analysis of the causes of urban unsustainability, as articulated by Murray Bookchin and others. Curiously, it contains references but no footnotes, so there is no way of correlating his points with the authors cited.

Stefan Kipfer's analysis of the vicissitudes of the discourse of `sustainable development,' as played out in the civic politics of Zurich, offers a polarized discussion of conflicting interpretations of the concept and their significance in practice. Perhaps my pragmatism and cynicism are showing but it seems to me that, while continued struggle over the terms of sustainability is to be welcomed, it is not necessary to inherently `privilege' one version over another, as along as their interaction produces concrete results.

The next article, by Catriona Sandilands, initially put me off, but on re-reading it I came to better appreciate her argument. In essence, she is saying that dominant (and often quite sincere) interpretations of sustainability rest on shaky epistemological grounds. These include assumptions that nature is stable and predictable, is comprehensible, and that `experts' have a privileged understanding of its workings and how to manage it. Building on the work of Daniel Botkin and others, she shows the fallacy of such positions and goes on to suggest that sustainability will ever remain an elusive concept. This leads her to propose not inaction, but a self-imposition by humans of limits on their behaviour, with an understanding that no one can claim to have the ultimate `truth' about what is sustainable.

The next section on "Social Movements" features four essays of varying quality. The first of these, by Chris Cavanaugh, is about the positive value of stories as a technique for resisting ideological hegemony. Unfortunately, apart from making liberal reference to the importance of coalition partners challenging each other's "common sense" assumptions, he doesn't offer much in the way of concrete examples to flesh out his analysis.

The next article, by Gerda Wekerle, continues with the post-structural theme of the role of urban dwellers, particularly women's groups, "working [as active agents] to improve the environments of everyday life." I had some problems with this essay. In essence, she argues that there are two discourses of sustainability. The first, which is male-defined, focuses on "`the economy, the current political systems, the reductionist nature of technology, the need for research to clearly define the limits and carrying capacities of the environment,'" with an emphasis on "`control -- of people, of systems and of technologies.'" She follows this with the statement that "[f]or women, a key obstacle to sustainability is the lack of women in decision-making roles" [would things dramatically change if women occupied the commanding heights of the economy and the state?].

In contrast with the first perspective, "[w]omen define sustainability broadly in economic, social, and political terms. They include freedom from poverty and violence as key elements of sustainability. Attention to healthy environments (and by extension, healthy cities and communities) is a major focus." She makes two claims for this perspective: that it is more holistic, and that it stresses inclusion and developing people's skills and capacities. Yet many of the examples she gives -- for instance, of "discourses relating to the welfare state, women's political participation, or changing the environments of everyday life" -- have existed for decades and, while worthy, have little to do with an integrated perspective on sustainability, except inasmuch as the issues they broach are part of the total picture. So, while dealing with issues often ignored by male politicians, the approaches involved are not intrinsically more holistic.
As for feminists and women emphasizing inclusion and participation more than men, I would argue that much of what has loosely passed as `green' theory and movement-building over the past couple of decades, much of which has been fostered by men, focuses on precisely the same issues and from a similar paradigmatic perspective. In other words, an emphasis on "community-controlled alternatives to state-controlled social services" has not exclusively been the province of feminists. One can think here of Ivan Illich, John McKnight, George McRobie and others. Her dichotomy is not without value, just overdrawn. Certainly, I would agree, men more than women have shown a fascination with the more pseudo-scientific aspects of determining the `limits to growth' and assessing carrying capacity, and the various methodologies that flow from it. Nonetheless, these ways of thinking are an important corrective to the dominant anthropocentrism of our culture. Much of her article reads like a recycled piece from the eighties, complete with eighties references. Where it gets exciting is in its description of the truly innovative contributions that women's groups have made to the `safe city' and `healthy communities' movements, particularly in Toronto over the last decade.

The next article, by Linda Peake, focuses on new urban social movements, as illustrated by the Red Thread organization in Guyana. In particular, she gives attention to the generative power of narrative as a means for people (women, in particular) to validate their own experiences, articulate an alternative worldview, and to rediscover their agency. Apart from quoting a description of Red Thread written by the members themselves, which reads like it was written by an academic, she doesn't do much to bring this material alive. The other narrative examples she gives are fairly prosaic and unenlightening.

Diana Lee-Smith's article is on regional and global networks of NGOs and their role in supporting grassroots urban change. In addition to blaming all the problems of Third World urbanization on capitalism, she also in the end devalues the very innovations she describes by suggesting that "this movement has no real power of any significance relative to the global economic power of multi-national companies."

The next section, on "Social Welfare in the Local State," is comprised of four essays. The lead piece by Susan Ruddick argues against the structuralist tendency to portray the homeless as `victims' pure and simple, and to unintentionally rob them of political agency. In emphasizing their capacity as agents, she also takes care to avoid the `homeless by choice' position articulated by Ronald Reagan and others.

"The Poverty Agenda," by John Clarke, argues that cutbacks in the social safety net, and `workfare' schemes, serve the function of producing a tractable surplus labour force subject to virtual indentured servitude. Perhaps, it is my advanced cynicism (the `Day of Action' aside), but the prospect of a new united upwelling of opposition to, and overturning of, the `corporate agenda' seems far-fetched to me. Ironically, many radicals seem to have little to offer in the way of a positive program beyond a return to the old Fordist status quo.

Barbara Rahder's article profiling a successful network of clients and advocates concerned with spousal abuse and violence against women in rural south-central Ontario was inspiring. This is because -- having lived in the area she describes -- I was surprised at its level of influence and success in what is a fairly conservative part of the country. Carol Venczel-Rhody's article on `workfare' reforms under the provincial NDP in Ontario makes a convincing case that "[t]he attack on welfare is also an attack on labour to accept the condition of a flexible, `just-in-time' [post-Fordist] production system," while also shifting the blame for economic `failure' from the system to its victims. The Harris Tory government has made the reforms even more punishing. The requirement that able-bodied welfare recipients under age 29 be liable for community service doesn't seem so bad, though it would be preferable if this were made voluntary and sweetened by incentives, as suggested by policy analyst Jeremy Rifkin.

The section on "Urban Form" starts with an essay by noted landscape architect, Michael Hough, which does not say anything new. The most intriguing element is his reporting on the research of Philip Lewis on the changing physiognomy of North American city regions from `holes in the donut' to the ring itself, with `constellations' of cities ringing significant natural features. This makes Benton MacKaye's prescription from 1928 that regional planning be done from the perspective of wilderness areas all the more compelling.

Mark Wilson's outline of the history and recommendations of the Don Watershed Task Force offers an inspiring example of one of the most advanced watershed planning exercises in Canada. The reader is left wondering where the political will will come from to implement all of these fine recommendations. Ted Fowler, in the next article, offers a second-hand story about the `Banana Kelly' block in the South Bronx that pulled itself up by its own bootstraps. However, in the name of avoiding formulaic thinking, he draws what to me is the fairly dogmatic conclusion that the state can never, or hardly ever, play an enabling community development role [what about Curitiba?]. He certainly makes a vigourous plea for holism in confronting urban issues and the value of seeking solutions, such as community gardens, which have multiply beneficial effects.

The last section of the book focuses on "
Sustainable Trade?" The first article, by Patricia Perkins, offers an excellent rhetoric-free analysis of how free trade works against the all-sided use of environmental and trade policies as powerful instruments for sustainability. The only place where she gets out on a limb is in her suggestion that the solar energy embodied in products could somehow become a measure for assessing the sustainability of trade. The `ecological footprint' methodology developed by Rees and Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia seems to offer more promise in this regard.

The final essay in this section, by Harriet Friedmann on "
Sustainable Alternatives to the Global Food Regime" (the others have already been discussed), is long on allegory and myth and short on substance. However, as Friedmann's organization is the Toronto counterpart to Vancouver's Farm Folk/ City Folk, she is no doubt involved in doing cutting edge food policy work. The most interesting part of her essay is the brief discussion of the integration of agriculture into the post-Fordist regional development process in northern Italy, fostered by left-wing municipal and regional governments.

Much in this book offers food for thought for grassroots eco-city activists in Vancouver. It challenges us to consider the larger context for our work, and to not get stuck in `self-evident' modes of thought and action. Maybe we need a searching anthology of our own that explores the unique settings and challenges in the context of the Lower Mainland.

Don Alexander is an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University, and is an active participant in the eco-city movement in Vancouver.



1 "Fordism" refers to a particular era in the development of `advanced' capitalism characterized by assembly line production, a large unionized work force, and a relatively high degree of labour peace. This latter is bought through the presence of an extensive social safety net, and relatively high wages to keep the prevalent single-income nuclear family invested in consumerism.