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The City as Political Center

Contemporary Challenges To The City's Democratic Potential

One of the widely debated issues regarding cities in the early twenty-first century is how their democratic possibilities might be realized in practice. While (at least implicitly) remaining sympathetic to the ideal of the city as a democratic space, important contributions in critical urban thought examine the inequalities woven into the urban fabric that delimit the amount and quality of freedom allowed to citizens, especially through residential segregation and the privatization of public space.

Residential segregation is caused by any number of factors. In the American context, typical examples of these include the use of racially restrictive covenants and redlining up through the 1960s; the priority placed on the federal highway system rather than public transit; federal tax incentives offered to homeowners (via deductions for mortgage interest) rather than to renters; and the use of local property taxes to fund public schools. These practices are not accidental but institutional and political, and they work to create, sustain, and embed economic and racial inequalities in the urban landscape. All result in widely divergent experiences for living, working, and pursuing educational opportunities in the context of modern city life.

As a result of these practices the inner city and inner-ring suburban areas are increasingly racially segregated and economically isolated. The results of this are myriad. First, the economically privileged have less and less contact with working-class and poor people, especially persons of color. Second, geographic segregation often produces serious spatial mismatches, where jobs and workers move in opposite directions; as more companies move to areas outside the central city, low-wage workers have more difficulty finding jobs and then commuting to them, since they often cannot afford to work, live, and find child care in the same areas. Finally, residents in poor and working-class neighborhoods often pay more for basic goods and services, such as groceries (Dreier et al., pp. 41–77).

These costs are not only directed at the economically underprivileged, however. Instead, what is commonly referred to as "urban sprawl" (low-density development at the edges of an existing city) is the other side of concentrated poverty and has its own burdens: complete car dependency and longer commutes, shrinking green space and loss of farmland, increased pollution and flooding, and higher taxes to support new infrastructure (roads, schools, water and sewer, and power lines). Furthermore, these sprawling, redundant netherworlds between city and suburb defy Kevin Lynch's (1960) aesthetic prescriptions for memorable, livable cities: a legible city, he suggested, would be one whose physical features and landmarks are easily identifiable. As a result of sprawl, urban peripheries look more and more similar (freeways and off-ramps, chain stores and traffic), while also looking less and less like traditional urban centers.

Intensifying residential segregation finds its apotheosis in gated communities, which not only include elite suburban housing developments but also increasingly many inner-city, middle-income apartment buildings. While scholars stress numerous reasons for Americans' affinity for living behind walls (ranging from fear of falling property values to craving privacy, security, and/or like-minded neighbors), they generally agree that such arrangements inhibit, rather than promote, democracy. In gated communities, typically public spaces such as streets, sidewalks, and green spaces are walled off and "forted up" (in Blakely and Snyder's evocative phrase), privatizing not only individual residences but community space as well. Gated communities also are often racially homogenous. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2001 American housing survey, while the white and Hispanic middle classes are embracing gated communities in greater numbers, African Americans are much less likely to live in such areas. Although gated communities take a variety of forms and serve myriad functions (from retirement communities to inner-city security zones), spaces that promote homogeneity and exclusivity can only have a chilling effect on democracy. Their net result, then, is division rather than diversification, thus "undermin[ing] the very concept of civitas, organized community life" (Blakely and Snyder in Ellin, ed., p. 85). Residential segregation—especially as exemplified in gated communities—thus undermines the city's potential to foster tolerance of and political alliances across class and racial differences.

In part gated communities are symptomatic of the second challenge to urban democracy: the rapid privatization of public space. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis observes that "the American city … is being systematically turned inside out—or, rather, outside in. The valorized spaces of the new mega-structures and super-malls are concentrated in the center, street frontage is denuded, public activity is sorted into strictly functional compartments, and circulation is internalized in corridors under the gaze of private police" (p. 226). Boundaries between public and private spaces are consciously constructed through the use of walls, landscapes, and police or private security guards, but they are also marked through less tangible (though no less real) obstructions: commodities some cannot purchase, real estate that some cannot afford, a history and traditions that are not commonly shared. Davis argues that while architectural critics (often members of the dominant racial group and economic class) are often oblivious to these sorts of spatial segregation, marginalized groups recognize these borders immediately (p. 226).

This is all to say that urban space is no longer exemplified by truly public places. Instead, urban space at the millennium is increasingly contained, sanitized, monitored and defended; its goal is not to promote democracy (as in the Athenian polis) but rather to provide safe spaces for (predominantly white) middle-class suburbanites to work, shop, and play (Davis, p. 227).

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterThe City as Political Center - City As Democratic Ideal, The City As Democratic Menace, Contemporary Challenges To The City's Democratic Potential