Architects, Planners, and Anarchists: Reimagining Urbanity for Communities in Decline

Friday, 3 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
CLM.3.05 (Clement House)
Robin LeBlanc, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA
Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted among architects, urban planners and anarchist (or "alternative") youth in Bologna, Italy and Tokyo, Japan between 2010 and 2014, this paper traces common threads of a critique of late capitalist politics in different groups’ visions of how their communities might restructure themselves both physically and socially in response to prolonged economic and demographic decline. In these seemingly distinct cities, we are able to see how particular cultural, historical and built environments at the local level affect community stakeholders’ understandings of future options. For example, between Bologna and Tokyo we find great differences regarding concerns such as the place of immigration or the need to conserve or rebuild the physical fabric of urban spaces. Nonetheless, in the “future” narratives of city planning bureaucrats, some private sector architects, and anarchist youth, we are also confronted with shared, specific frustration with the failure of established political actors’ capacities to present desirable alternatives to a contemporary way of living that is both unsatisfying and seemingly unsustainable for a variety of populations. In particular, stakeholder's narratives highlight existing barriers to rewarding relationships across generational, class, and, to some extent, ethnic or racial lines. Design experts, bureaucrats and "alternative" activist youth share a frustration with what they see as inflexible urban policy that constrains creative, socially meaningful uses of existing built environments. They connect their policy concerns directly to what they see as mistaken macroeconomic values and economic elites whom these "design" stakeholders believe squash rich debate about alternate ways of structuring communities. In some senses, these critiques resemble progressive claims of a generation ago, such as those made by American New Urbanists, but the stakeholders in this study are also quite critical of progressive political parties, organizations and leaders. Instead, they assert overlapping aesthetics of good democratic community that they see as in conflict with a delegitimized political rationality of the high growth era. Frequently social scientists working on Italy and Japan overlook the similarities in the socio-economic and political challenges the two countries have faced since the high-growth era ended in both societies in the early 1990s. Despite the important differences among these groups of actors, including those of nationality, however, we find a common aesthetic of urbanity that should provoke us to new questions about the possibilities for and dangers to democratic community in the future. These findings are also a provocation to a new attention to the role of aesthetics in democratic citizens’ community engagement.