David Harvey on Rebel Cities

| 9/24/2012 4:06:28 PM

Philip Belpasso playing the flute at Zuccotti Park

Philip Belpasso playing the flute at Zuccotti Park, Wall Street Protest March, September 26, 2011, Financial District, New York. Photo by PaulSteinJC, licensed under Creative Commons. 

This post originally appeared on Shareable. Introduction by Neal Gorenflo, Publisher of Shareable 

One of the legacies of socialist “Red Vienna” in the 1920s is a huge stock of quality housing owned by the city available at below-market rates. This not only makes affordable housing widely available, it keeps a lid on overall housing prices. This undoubtedly adds to the appeal of prosperous Vienna, voted as the world’s most livable city in 2011.

Even though this historical anecdote is relevant today, considering the damage done by a speculative housing market run amok, we never hear about it. Mainstream discourse about cities is dominated by free-market, pro-growth ideas that has continued unabated even after the flaws of capitalism were made glaringly obvious by the 2008 financial meltdown. The Floridas and Glaesers of the world carry on with their growth-talk as if the crisis never happened (and global warming doesn’t exist). If you believe the future will be made in cities, then this trading in failed ideas doesn’t bode well for the future.

What’s missing in this dialogue is a profound but ignored truth: The commons is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Without the commons, there is no market or future. If every resource is commodified, if every square inch of real estate is subjected to speculative forces, if every calorie of every urbanite is used to simply meet bread and board, then we seal off the future. Without commons, there’s no room for people to maneuver, there’s no space for change, and no space for life. The future is literally born out of commons.

Another pollutant in the popular discourse about cities is the idea is that they are the solution to our great crises. This is wildly naïve. Rapid urbanization is a symptom of systemic problems, not a solution. Our global trade regime is driving the enclosure and destruction of our remaining commons and ruining local agricultural markets, making it impossible for rural populations to survive. As Mike Davis observes in Planet of Slums, rural poverty is driving much of the migration to cities, not mythical opportunities. The poor are being pushed more than pulled.

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