Peoples' movements and protests




No cities in world history have been built by popular risings*



Any suggestion for improvals can be mailed to the author


By Jan Wiklund



Göran Therborn’s book Cities of power leaves a strange sense of dissatisfaction. Especially the chapter People rising. There’s nothing wrong with the description of what cities look like after these popular uprisings have taken place, but how did it get that way?

All revolutionary regimes, and of course also more moderate post-resistance regimes, have consisted of compromises. Firstly, between the movements that carried the uprising and the powers that ruled before and provoked it, and secondly, between the classes or elements that made up the rising. Not least, the latter influenced the subsequent construction of the city.

The social democratic welfare states of the nineteenth century, for example, were not just compromises between a reasonably successful labour movement and an equally successful entrepreneurial class. The social democratic parties themselves were, as pointed out (regarding Sweden) by Alf Johansson and Lars Ekdahl, a collaboration between the labour movement, state and municipal officials, and enterprises in the domestic market industry that had nothing against increased purchasing power among the general public.

These compromises have since been constantly fought over. As a rule, the participants in the compromises have got more of their wishes through when they have been urgent and when the participants have therefore mobilised. Bo Rothstein, for example, showed in his doctoral thesis how the Social Democrats got through quite a lot in labour market policy (at least until about 1970) but hardly anything in education policy. The labour market was important to the workers, while school was not.

With regard to urban development, it can be said that the greatest influence was exercised by the municipal bureaucracies and, increasingly after about 1960, the major construction corporations.

James C Scott has shown how modernist urban design has reflected the bureaucracies’ need for easy overall control. The fewer the elements, the easier it is to control at the top. As the number of elements increases, it becomes easier, and indeed necessary, to prioritise at lower levels, something that bureaucracies abhor. Which made the schematic and oversimplified modernist urban planning paradigm irresistible.

And both public and private construction bureaucracies had considerable bargaining power in the period, due to the very large numbers of people that had to be accommodated quickly in the growing cities. An example of this power can be seen when Stockholm’s politicians, backed by an increasingly critical public, revolted against the dramatically increased costs that the transformation of the city centre created around 1960; construction companies and bureaucracies only had to threaten chaos for the politicians to be called back to order and continue the project. Only a popular uprising in 1971 could stop it, when it was 80% complete.

What the labour movement – as a labour movement – has been able to get out of urban construction during the period has been the principle that public construction companies should build so much that market rents can be kept down. But, it should be noted, this principle prevailed from around 1920, and was enforced in co-operation with liberals based on the lower middle class who also benefited from it.

Some elements of 20th century urban design have clear roots in the 19th century bourgeoisie. These include the principle of sprawl, formulated by 19th-century sociologists such as Frédéric Le Play as a means of keeping the ’dangerous classes’ in check, vigorously promoted in the early 20th century by bureaucrats, but never popular with those subjected to it. Long commuting distances are in fact expensive in more than one way: ”the further out on the periphery of the city you live, the more economic and social capital you need” as Spacescape puts it. It also proved difficult to fill the suburbs that began to be built in (for example) Stockholm in the 1930s; they were too far out and were only filled by post-war urban migration.

So the power over 20th century welfare states’ urban development has been exercised in an intricate way. Nor can we ignore the opportunities and interests of landowners to increase the value of their property – probably a contributory factor in the popularity of sprawl in urban planning circles. The influence of popular risings has simply been quite modest.

And probably the same has always been true. The most politically visible actors have hardly been the most influential in shaping what cities actually look like, a few landmarks apart. Structural power has been more influential. Cities of power would have been more exciting if such ideas had been given more space.

* PS. Thinking of it, the headline is wrong – there is one: Tábor, built by the Husite rising in the 15th century. But no rule without exception.

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