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There goes the neighbourhood: Symposium, New York

On this the 40th anniversary of David Harvey’s Social Justice and the City, Julia van den Hout discusses the increasing relevance of it’s teachings in society today

‘The city is manifestly a complicated thing,’ wrote David Harvey in the opening pages of Social Justice and the City in 1973. ‘Clearly the city cannot be conceptualized in terms of our present disciplinary structures. Yet there is very little sign of an emerging interdisciplinary framework for thinking, let alone theorizing, about the city.’ On 4 May, Harvey’s Social Justice and the City was celebrated in a 40th anniversary symposium organised by the Graduate Program in Design and Urban Ecologies at Parsons The New School for Design, a programme that strives to engage students in such interdisciplinary discussions as Harvey has worked towards throughout his career.

When celebrating the 40th anniversary of a text, especially one that transcended traditional approaches to space in favour of a radical new examination of social processes, capitalism and geography (heavily peppered with Marxist theory, of course), we might ask: What have we learned? Have the themes in David Harvey’s book been influential in changing our urban policy, and have the questions he raised and the methods he proposed affected the way in which we treat the city and social justice today? Or have they merely sparked discussion within the classroom of specialised graduate programmes?

Condemned Housing Anfield

Condemned housing in Anfield, Liverpool. Image by Thomas Ball

An auditorium full of furiously tweeting spectators on a Saturday morning signals that − within the fields of geography and urbanism, at least − Harvey’s book still generates active conversation. The event was moderated by Miguel Robles-Durán, Director of the Design and Urban Ecologies programme. He stressed the desired informality of the one-day symposium,insisting that the event was not a series of panel discussions but ‘clusters’ of speakers − many of whom recounted very personal stories of their first time reading Social Justice and the City, and in some cases their first meeting with Harvey. But there were also many more urgent items to discuss. The book is still exceedingly relevant to urbanism today, or, as some speakers rightly argued, perhaps even more so to our current urban development than when it was when first published.

Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk presented the story of Anfield, a residential district of Liverpool targeted for major regeneration in the late 1990s. Hundreds of homes were cleared for demolition, but only a few new houses built, and the residents have been left waiting. In the last four years, Van Heeswijk’s re-energising efforts have included a community-run bakery and café, and working with residents to shape social spaces in vacant lots around the neighbourhood. Initiatives such as Van Heeswijk’s are not unique to Liverpool. They mirror the many community-led social engagement projects across the world. Over a hundred examples of such American community efforts filled the rooms of the US Pavilion during the Venice Biennale last summer.

Detroit, Demolition. Disneyland

Detroit, Demolition. Disneyland featured as part of the US pavilion at the 2012 Venice Biennale. Image courtesy of Paul Kotula Projects

We know all too well the tragic stories of American cities such as Detroit and Cleveland, where industry has moved away and the economic gap between the inner city and the suburbs has widened to catastrophic levels. But even booming urban centres such as New York, where 21 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, face issues of social injustice. Andrew Ross, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, brought Harvey’s call for attention to income distribution close to home, recounting the destruction of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. The rising value of the city’s waterfront property contradicts its propensity to flooding, but ‘climate change affects everyone − rich and poor. In the end we all have interest in environmental progress.’ We have become focused on bracing our cities for natural disasters, rather than continuing efforts to reduce their carbon footprint.

Ultimately, expecting Social Justice and the City to change the urban environment in concrete terms would have been to misunderstand the nature of the text. Harvey brought the book’s original manuscript (‘a disaster’) and a galley proof (‘an appalling mess’): typed documents amended with small handwritten notes and pieces of paper pasted along the edges (‘Clearly I was rewriting the book in the middle of production’). As the frantic scribbles illustrate, the book may have been published 40 years ago, but the thoughts and theories embedded in its pages continued − and continue − to evolve. It was a groundbreaking text, but one that even at the time of its publication was in the midst of transformation. Continuing his work on space and social theory today, Harvey’s worst fear may be that we reach a moment of complacency, when we think we have solved issues of urban and social injustice. Cities are complicated things, and we can only continue to challenge our perceptions and preconceptions, and continue to evolve with them.

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