Back to normal?

article by Wouter Vanstiphout
11 August 2011

In November 2005 French President Jacques Chirac welcomed back normality, after weeks of riots in the French banlieues. Instead of 1,000 to 1,500 vehicles being burnt every night, it went back to 163, and then kept to the normal 50 to 150. Every night of the year dozens of cars are being set on fire in the French banlieues and this had been going on for years on end.

What is normality to a French banlieue? It can mean that in the morning the elderly, women and children – and sometimes architects and historians looking for modernist housing projects from the sixties – can freely roam between the slabs and blocks, shop, play and look around.

After that the unemployed young men appear from their bedrooms and take up their positions near the entrances of the apartment blocks and on street corners. The elderly, women and children scuttle back home and the tourists leave altogether. The young men whistle and sign to each other, taunt and threaten the belated visitors and the semi-militarised police that buzz by in vans.

In many French banlieues, day turns into night around noon. Once, in one of these places, we approached a group of heavily armed policemen to ask for directions on the central square of a French housing estate.

They looked around nervously and said we shouldn’t stand still for too long, because one of the gangs could start throwing rocks. They then said that we should really really be back in the historic city centre within the hour; it was 3pm. They themselves would be out of there at dusk, at the latest. This was between riots, this was normality. Normality is also the impossibility for a family to escape the ghetto, to find a house in a better neighbourhood, or for a young man or woman with a degree, but the wrong postcode and surname, to find a job above the menial level.

Chronic condition
In many ways, the riots were “just” spectacular worsenings of a chronic condition, extrapolations on a permanent crisis lived by millions, but neglected by tens of millions. Something became visible for a moment, and then disappeared again, as a bad dream. Behind the scenes however a mechanism is in place that contains the badness, that keeps it from spilling over again, while making it inevitable that it will.

As planners and politicians pay lip service to mixité, the banlieues and their inhabitants have been effectively abandoned. Thus a queasy stand-off exists, with the French upper bourgeoisie and the intellectuals living in the gentrified inner cities, the middle class in the automobile “peri-urbanité” and the immigrant poor relegated to the easily recognisable and containable grands ensembles. This is what the French sociologist Jacques Donzelot calls the “Three Gear City”, the urban condition that both spawned the riots and is its result.

One person did well out of it, though: Nicolas Sarkozy, who as a minister of the interior fanned the flames by going on television, standing shoulder to shoulder with the riot police and calling the rioters scum (racaille) who would be wiped away; then rode the wave of popular fear all the way to the presidency, from where he invited a battalion of international starchitects (Winy Maas, Richard Rogers, Christian de Portzamparc…. okay, the B-list) to give back France its glory, by designing futures of the French capital, “Le Grand Paris”.

Violence in the UK
Is this also the urban condition in the UK? A city of exacerbated segregation, heavily securitised and deeply paranoid, that as a smokescreen to hide the inner rot, propositions architects to do urban projects of messianic proportions?

What is “normality” in pockets of Tottenham, Enfield and Hackney? Postcode wars, daily attacks on shopkeepers and no-go areas for all but the hooded youths? Would we even be talking about these conditions without riots? In France surely not, but the French example also shows how quickly the possibility of a real debate and a rethink of urban politics can evaporate and be replaced by something as ridiculous as was the architectural circle jerk of 
“Le Grand Paris”.

After the third night of rioting, the violence metastasised from London to other British cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, thereby following the French “example” even more perfectly.

Right now it has become very difficult to think of an urban politics, let alone an urban planning or design approach that would be able to take on the underlying problems of riots like the ones in the UK in a serious way.

I do not think that the reason is that politics and planning have realised their limitations to shape society. I think that the reason is that urban politics and hence planning and urban design are too often treating the city with ulterior motives, instead of actually working for the city itself. The city has become a tool to achieve goals, political, cultural, economic or even environmental.

Treating the city in this way means that we are constantly passing judgment on what the city should be, and who should be there, and what they should be doing, instead of trying to understand what the city actually is, who really lives there and what they are doing. This produces a dangerous process of idealisation, denying whole areas, whole groups their place in the urban community, because they do not fit the picture.

Historically there is a correlation between large-scale urban projects and upsurges in urban violence. The attempts to demolish the grands ensembles through the Grand Projet de Ville policy in France, contributed greatly to the alienation and violent paranoia of their inhabitants.

A similar relation existed in the US riots in the sixties, where “urban renewal”, despite its idealistic motives, was understood as nothing else than “nigger removal” by the black communities whose homes were demolished for highways, parks and modernist housing projects, and fed the rioting in Detroit, Newark and Los Angeles.

Urban politics
It is much too soon to say anything about the relationship between the gentrification of Brixton, or the coming of the Olympics to London, and the current explosion of violent alienation. But if we imagine another kind of urban politics, one that does not take into account a marketable image of the city, but the reality of the entire community, it would probably have entirely different priorities.

The first would be to work against the ever sharpening inequality of London, making it one of the unfairest cities in Europe, in poverty levels, education, crime and other indicators.

But then the reality of urban riots is that they have always turned out to be the opposite of a learning experience for a city. Riots have nearly always resulted in politicians simplifying the problem even more, and citizens looking away even further.

After a riot your average city will become more afraid, more authoritarian, more segregated, more exclusive and less tolerant. That is the real tragedy of the post-war western urban riot, first it shocks and terrifies us, then for a moment it makes us see flashes of the kind of city we should be working towards, which then fades away into the darkness. Back to normal.

At the end of a week that has witnessed the UK’s worst scenes of civil unrest in decades, urban planning expert Wouter Vanstiphout reflects on what the violence may mean for the future of Britain’s cities. article on: Building Design Online. 11 August 2011