Urban capabilities: an essay on our challenges and differences.

AuthorSassen, Saskia

Drawing on extensive research about global cities and citizens, this essay examines whether the proliferation of conflicts in cities across the world can overwhelm the urban capabilities that have historically enabled cities to triage conflict via commerce and civic engagement. Critical in this examination is recovering some of the differences between being powerless and being invisible or impotent. Under certain conditions the powerless make history without getting empowered in the process. There are two types of acute challenges facing cities that pertain to this question. One is asymmetric war and the urbanizing of war that it entails. My research finds that cities are a type of weak regime that can obstruct but not destroy superior military force; this weak regime rests on the civic character of cities. The second type of challenge concerns anti-immigrant hatred and violence. In an exploration of the hard work of making open cities, particular histories show us that it is possible to reposition the immigrant and the citizen as, above all, similar urban subjects, rather than essentially different. Cities are one of the key sites where new norms and identities are made. This is a particularly fluid process in our global era, when cities emerge once again as strategic economic, political and cultural sites.

Urban capabilities have often been crafted out of the struggles to go beyond the conflicts and racisms that mark an epoch. Out of this type of dialectic came the open urbanity that historically made European cities spaces for expanded citizenship. One factor feeding these positives was that both the modest middle classes and the powerful found in the city a space for their diverse life projects. (1) Less familiar to this author are the non-European trajectories of strategic spaces for the powerful and the powerless. As it is impossible to do full justice to all the aspects of this process in a short essay, I limit myself here to the basic building blocks of the argument. I focus on two types of acute challenges facing cities to explore how urban capabilities can alter what originates as hatred and conflict. One is asymmetric war and the urbanizing of war that it entails. The other is the hard work of making open cities--urban societies open to diverse groups with flexible mechanisms in place to resolve differences--and repositioning the immigrant and the citizen as coequal urban subjects rather than essentially different subjects, as much of the anti-immigrant and racist commentary does.


The large, complex city is a new frontier zone. (2) This is especially true if it is a global city, defined by its important function within a network of others. Actors from different worlds meet there, but without clear rules of engagement. Whereas the historic frontier lay in the far stretches of colonial empires, today it lies in our large cities. The efforts of global firms to force deregulation, privatization and new fiscal and monetary policies on host governments have to do with creating the formal instruments to construct the equivalent of a military fort on the historic frontier: the regulatory environment they need in cities worldwide to ensure a global space of operations. (3)

But the city is a strategic frontier zone not just for the powerful but also for the conventionally powerless: dis-advantaged outsiders or minorities facing discrimination. Those who are traditionally excluded can gain presence in global cities--presence vis-a-vis both power and each other. This signals the possibility of a new type of politics centered around new types of political actors. Access to the city is no longer simply a matter of having or not having power. Urban spaces have become hybrid bases from which to act via an increasingly legitimized informal politics. This is an example of what I seek to capture with the concept of "urban capabilities."

The work of making the public and the political in urban spaces becomes critical at a time of growing velocities in global life. We are witnessing the ascendancy of process and flow over artifacts and permanence; branding and the multiplication of massive structures not built to a human scale are the basic forms of mediation between individuals and markets. Since the 1980s the work of design has tended to produce narratives that add to the value of existing contexts and, at their narrowest, to the utility logics of the economic corporate world. But the city can, in its own way, talk back. For instance, there is a kind of public-making work that can produce disruptive narratives and make legible the local and the silenced. Here we can detect yet another instance of what I think of as urban capabilities. (4)

Thus, urban spaces possess the capacity to make new subjects and identities that would not be possible in, for example, rural areas or countries at large, which are dominated by different norms. Consider the formerly pro-immigration mayor of a large U.S. city, who shifts to an anti-immigration stance when he becomes a presidential candidate; civic norms are defined differently in these spaces. A city's sociality can bring out and underline the urbanity of subject and setting, as well as dilute more essentialist signifiers. When cities confront major challenges, it is often the need for new solidarities that can bring this shift about. The joint responses required to solve urban problems place emphasis on an urban subject or identity, rather than on an individual or group identity, like one's religious creed or ethnic background.

The city, then, is uniquely capable of nurturing novel, partial orders. (5) The new strategic role of cities in international dealings is quite different from that of states. This suggests the possibility of bringing more commerce and more of the civic into these relations. It may also signal a return of urban law after a century of the ascendancy of national law. In previous research, I have explored in depth the resurgence of urban lawmaking and its significance. (6) In the United States, cities have increasingly begun to pass their own ordinances that contrast with state and national policy norms, designating their cities as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants, for example, or passing progressive environmental laws. Movements comprised of disparate groups with a variety of grievances have managed to coalesce in increasingly legitimate ways, as seen in the...

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