by Guest Author Maleen Rüthers

In Issue #36 of MONU “New Social Urbanism”, twenty contributors paint a broader picture of what the changes of the social urban realm are actually about: concerns of responsibility and honesty, confronting facing facts of injustice and exploitation, issues of affordability and exclusion, questions of governance and organization, challenges of polarization and alienation, influences of digitality and virtuality, but also chances of new structures and discoveries to develop.

Reviewing the 36th issue of MONU from a perspective of an Urban Geographer, with a background in Earth- and Environmental Sciences, my attention got caught by an illustration resembling a lithospheric diagram featured in Tatjana Schneider’s contribution “Do Nothing for as Long as Possible”, created by MOULD – a group of architects and academics working at the intersection of spatial practice and climate emergency. On the fist view, the illustration depicts a cross-section of sedimentary layers, representing the mineral and fossil resources accumulated over billions of years beneath our feet. The depiction reminds me of a semester of my studies during which I made efforts to memorize all different kinds of geo-resources, their appearances, occurrences and compositions. I walked through the city of Freiburg, photographing and investigating house facades, paving stones or stone bridges and observed rock slides through the lens of a microscope.

MOULD – Sarah Bovelett, Anthony Powis, Tatjana Schneider, Christina Serifi, Jeremy Till, and Becca Voelcker, “Architecture is Climate,” 2023. Published on e-flux Architecture, commissioned by the Jencks Foundation in the series ‚Chronograms of Architecture‘.
MOULD – Sarah Bovelett, Anthony Powis, Tatjana Schneider, Christina Serifi, Jeremy Till, and Becca Voelcker, “Architecture is Climate,” 2023. Published on e-flux Architecture, commissioned by the Jencks Foundation in the series ‚Chronograms of Architecture‘, © MONU.

Social Responsibility and Issues of Exploitation

The diagram shown in Tatjana Schneider’s article is different then the figures and cross sections I know from University. There is a double meaning: instead of naming the geological components of the soil, extracted for constructing and sustaining human environments, the illustration names socially and environmentally disastrous forces and practices associated with the built environment. The diagram by MOULD was created in a collaboration with e-flux Architecture and the Jencks Foundatios and is a reference to famous diagrams by the 20th-century architect, writer and critic Charles Jencks.

It’s a somewhat muddy chaos, to picture the underlying forces and human practices that shaped our cities. Yet, Tatjana Schneider’s argument is clear: she advocates for radical honesty in examining practices of a New Social Urbanism. While the endless call for action to finally do things differently is an “old hat”, way to often, existing hegemonies are still reproduced. Few are willing to delve into this metaphorical dirt. However, Schneider insists that only by confronting the dark, unpleasant, and ugly facts that have led to the development of exclusionary cities, can real change occur.

A New Social Urbanism must be more than allowing for some edgy creative spaces and innovative public-private alliances; it requires digging deeper, uncovering and addressing those underlying layers – colonialism, exploitation, violation of power, denial, and the privatization of common resources and spaces, just to name a few. But not only Schneider makes this seemingly obvious but often forgotten or ignored argument. The challenge of overcoming hypocrisy and addressing past mistakes when it comes to new urban approaches deemed to be social, is also addressed in the interview with Sharon Zukin “Social by Definition” or the article “The Life Within Buildings: Towards a New Housing Policy” by Christoffer Jusélius and Helen Runting.

Urban Affordability and Exclusion

Reflecting on New York City as an example, Zukin is quite critical of whether a New Social Urbanism, understood in a positive sense, even has a chance to arise under conditions where the distribution and design of urban spaces are primarily dictated by the monetarization of their prospective usage.

The Life Within Buildings: Towards a New Housing Policy by Christoffer Jusélius and Helen Runting, pages 30-31.
The Life Within Buildings: Towards a New Housing Policy by Christoffer Jusélius and Helen Runting, pages 30-31, © MONU.

Although this issue of MONU magazine is not intended to be an extended version of issue #32 on Affordable Urbanism, when reading the interview with Sharon Zukin or Christoffer Jusélius’ and Helen Runting’s article, it becomes evident that questioning or shaping a New Social Urbanism is indispensably linked to the topic of affordability.

Jusélius and Runting critizize Sweden’s paternalistic failures in effectively addressing urban socioeconomic seggregation, occuring after decades of deregulation and privatization of public housing. By viewing the map of the distribution of Stockholm’s private and public housing stock, the critique of an overly deregulated housing development becomes spatially imaginable.

The authors hereafter argue that rather than approaching underlying causes of availability and equitable distribution of affordable housing, planners, scholars, and authorities have disproportionally focused on infrastructural connectivity as the primary issue for overcoming social issues in geographically segregated neighbourhoods. Additionally, labelling the suburbs of the postwar era as dysfunctional by their design and location does not help in combatting exclusionary cities.

On the contrary, Jusélius and Runting argue that it reproduces stigmatizations and circumvents the necessary debate on spatial and housing injustice. But it’s not all painted black in this issue of MONU magazine. Looking back at the lithospheric diagram mentioned earlier, there are indeed some bright layers and promising veins visible such as: “nothing can be changed until it is faced”, “see expertise everywhere”or “staying with the trouble”; some of which also reappear in other contributions. For the reviewed approaches of a New Social Urbanism, an enhanced recognition of community and collectivity plays an essential role.

Commoning, Collective Governance and Spatial Reappropriation

Sant Llorenç, València. August 2022, Photo by Maria Blau, from article “New Rights, New Needs, New
Rules” by Nuria Ribas Costa, page 48.
Sant Llorenç, València. August 2022, Photo by Maria Blau, from article “New Rights, New Needs, New
Rules” by Nuria Ribas Costa, page 48, © MONU.

The article “New Rights, New Needs, New Rules – Commoning as a Way to Reclaim Collective Governance of Cities” by Nuria Ribas Costa, for instance, reports about a renewed assertion of the needs of inhabitants in Spanish cities. Emerging grassroots initiatives are challenging traditional centralized power structures and establish collective governance and decision making. Ribas Costa sheds light on the work and experiences of the initiative ‘the Court of the City’ in Valencia, emphasizing that “social life is not only about coexistence but also about collective ownership”.

Perhaps Jusélius and Runting would agree that it is time to dismantle paternalistic modes of governance and restore autonomy to local communities. Yet, I assume that Zukin as well as Jusélius and Runting would raise questions about the challenge of asserting claims for ‘the Right to the City’ amidst existing structures of ownership and power. I’d say that collective governance and collective ownership are two different issues and present different types of challenges.

However, upon a second look, Ribas Costa seems to be aware of such concerns. She argues that there is no way to regain municipal administration’s capacity to deliver public services and secure people’s rights and needs: “traditional forms of governance must be obsolete, unable to process, absorb and respond to the (new) needs of citizens” (page 45).

Autorities that agree to step back from monopolizing the management of public interests open up space for alternative, collective and shared modes of governance to develop. Certainly there must be some rules and conditions to bring this theory into practice, which can be read in detail in Nubia Ribas Costa’s article. In conclusion, a New Social Urbanism must necessarily involve new governmental structures that are yet to reassembled and establish.

Parkcycle Swarm, Copenhagen 2013, from article “Spatial Reappropriation
through Transformative Practices” by Valentina Rizzi, page 54.
Parkcycle Swarm, Copenhagen 2013, from article “Spatial Reappropriation through Transformative Practices” by Valentina Rizzi, page 54, © MONU.

Let’s delve further into a different approach on collectivity and spatial reappropriation of the urban public approached by Valentina Rizzi in her article “Spatial Reappropriation through Transformative Practices”. When discussing spatial reappropriation, I must admit that performative and visual arts as transformative tools would not have been my first proposal.

After reading, Rizzi’s contribution, I was reminded of the power of artistic practices as responses to the hostility of certain urban environments. As urban landscapes become increasingly uniform and public space exclusionary, performative approaches to urban design hold the capacity to open new realms of imagination, challenge existing norms, facilitate unconventional encounters and mobilize efforts to redefine our notion of community and social identity.

Influence of the Virtual and the Digital

But “what can happen next?” to public spaces when their social qualities decline and change? In one of my favourite articles “Post-Public Space”, Francisco Silva raises this question and makes theoretical speculations about the future of a public social sphere that merges with virtuality. Therfore he draws analogies to writings on socio-technical transformations of the two authors, the architectural historian Anthony Vidler and the philosopher Jean Beaudrillard.

Silva starts by reflecting on the status quo of public space: at a time when the social sphere suffers from polarization and exclusion, making unconventional and non-commercial encounters increasingly difficult, the digital domain opens up social space to a new dimension of global connection and communication. Meeting in person is no longer necessary to socialize, and distance no longer an obstacle for social interaction as the digital domain merges with the physical.

Monu#36: Social by Definition. Insight into the Magazine.
Monu#36: Social by Definition. Insight into the Magazine. © MONU

While the remoteness of online social interaction increases the access to social space for all different types of actors and behaviours, brevity and anonymity also allow for decreased social control and constraints. New extremes of barbarism, disrespect, harassment, and even criminality emerge and collide. Then, the article takes an interesting turn when Silva argues that despite, and precisely due to, the social space being at the peak of moral decay, there emerges a change for a new identity and quality of the social to develop. Amid the shattered structures of what we understand as social space, a new and increased concern for inclusion, respect, truth, meaningful encounters, and understanding for complex human interaction emerges.

Public space might reestablish as something no longer defined by conventional understandings of the physical urban social space. How exactly that will look like is a matter of discovery and further investigations by the readers, researchers and practitioners interested in New Social Urbanism.

After reading through New Social Urbanism, I find myself in fact re-evaluating an initially somewhat pessimistic “disbelief in all social space both urban and virtual”, as Francisco Silva frames a general societal sentiment. Resuming, this issue of MONU is also a call to take part in shaping the New Social Urbanism reassessing the emerging qualities and fallacies about the properties we consider to define an (Anti-) Social Urbanism.

Monu#36: New Social Urbanism

MONU can be purchased online.

Maleen Paula Rüthers (she/her) is an urban geographer and a postgraduate at the HU Berlin holding a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts and Sciences, with a major in Earth and Environmental Sciences from the University of Freiburg, Germany. She also pursued studies in Valencia and Lisbon at the faculties for Geography and Spatial Planning. Currently based in Berlin, Maleen is engaged in studying and working in the field of urbanism, with special attention to regenerative architecture, urban green infrastructure, critical cartography and transdisciplinary formats for collaborative discourse and practice.