Urban policy to change the world?

‘As Third World governments abdicated the battle against the slum in the 1970s, the Bretton Woods institutions – with the IMF as “bad cop” and the World Bank as “good cop” – assumed increasingly commanding roles in setting the parameters of urban housing policy. … it gave the Bank tremendous leverage over national urban policies, as well as direct patronage relationships to local slum communities and NGOs; it also allowed the Bank to impose its own theories as worldwide urban policy orthodoxy.’ (Davis 2006: 70).

Ideas about the world shape not just our experience of the world, but the very structures of the world which we can experience. Urban policy is a realm that demonstrates this connection in a very real way. I know a couple who always leave their back door unlocked. Their neighbours know this and quite often their dinner plans will have to change because somebody else had run out of eggs and ‘borrowed’ the entire carton. They are moving to an inner city apartment where they will not have the option of leaving the back door unlock. Their children will not be able to swing by during the day to pick something up unless they have swipe cars and keys. They have also realised a dog-door needs to be put in because, being a number of floors up, it is too windy to leave the balcony door ajar while they are out. In other words, the planning and design of buildings make a difference to the choices available to people.

Urban policy is more than permitting or ruling out housing design. Whatever the significance of public space for true democratic action (Don Mitchell’s work) and wherever orthodoxy will fall when it comes to debates around the value of social mix (which tends to focus more on the significance for the ‘poor’ rather than the powerful) (see Paul Cheshire’s 2007 report), your rights to access space and who you encounter when you move through or engage with those spaces matter.

Slums have attracted the attention of researchers, development workers and politicians. The study of and treatment of slums is often ideologically driven. Supporting ‘self-help’ in slums, wholesale slum demolition and even the formation of the ‘culture of poverty’ thesis are strong examples. As the quote at the start of this post suggests, there have also been significant consequences for the state when it comes to how interventions have been rolled out in those countries who are on the receiving end of World Bank intervention.

While bringing in a comparison with the Victorian government’s Neighbourhood Renewal program at this stage may seem some what ridiculous, I think it is useful for thinking about the multiple forces involved in how urban policies change our world. In World Bank projects delivered through NGOs, the outcomes need to fulfil (neoliberal) economic ideals. In the Victorian government’s Neighbourhood Renewal program, the outcomes need to fulfil the goal of government to get re-elected. One of the striking goals of Neighbourhood Renewal is to increase a positive perception of government, and this is one of the ‘outcomes’ which is measured in the regular surveys of residents in target areas.

It is not that community development projects in slum areas or in Neighbourhood Renewal areas do not set goals that aim to bring about real world improvements in quality of live (of course what counts is generally decided by those outside the area). However, these goals sit within a context where the accountability is to very different forces. As Davis claims, slums ‘are frequently seen as threats simply because they are invisible to state surveillance and, effectively, “off-Panopicon.”’ (Davis 2006: 111). The surveillance may not only be that of nation states, but I would argue, surveillance is carried out by whatever there is accountability to.

The involvement of NGOs or the employment of bureaucratic staff does not reduce the significance of these relationships of accountability for what ideas become reality. After all, ‘The retreat by the state from its traditional role in directly funding and delivering welfare have created a new set of social conditions and possibilities which simultaneously constitute a threat to government and a site of potential creativity in welfare.’ (Cooper 2001:353)* By drawing on this quote, I am not saying that this ‘creativity’ is never realised, but it is subject to the surveillance of those who demand the accountability. Cooper makes a very valid point in this article, and he summaries his contention as being ‘that all these practices and methodologies which are supposedly devoted to transparency, and the exposure of failure, poor practice and so on may serve in fact to disguise and distort fundamental and painful truths which we seem no longer to be able to face as a society.’ (Cooper 2001:360-361).

In this way, theories about urban policy do not only shape how the urban world gets built, rebuilt or policed. The ideologies behind such theories also shape how the urban world is evaluated. So, to indulge myself in another well worded quote from this article by Cooper, ‘The methodologies and intellectual habits which constitute proceduralism, inspection, regulation and all the paraphernalia of new public management are notable for the doubly alienating manner in which they can colonise both psychological and social space: they refer us to external rather than internal criteria for assessing and evaluating our work, while also assuming occupancy of these internal spaces, so that externality becomes the principle by which internal life is lived and reproduced.’ (Cooper 2001:353)

* Professor Andrew Cooper is from the Tavistock Clinic and the University of East London and appears to be one of (or the?) driver in ‘practice-near’ research.

Cooper, A. 2001. The State of Mind We’re In: Social Anxiety, Governance and the Audit Society. Psychoanalytic Studies 3:349-362.

Davis, M. 2006. Planet of slums. London ; New York: Verso.


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