• Workshop

Public City, Private City


Tuesday, 26 August 2014 to Wednesday, 27 August 2014


Institute for Public Knowledge, New York University, New York
United States

The role of large-scale private capital and top-down (public and private-led) planning is increasing rapidly in cities all over the world. This is expressed physically in the rise of private spaces and neighborhoods (from shopping malls to gated communities) and the displacement of low-income populations and gentrification from/in city centers, giving rise to new “generic cities” (famously celebrated by star architect Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau in 1995, in their volume S, M, L, XL).  Generic cities have shared characteristics no matter where they arise in the world, among them: an emphasis on infrastructure and security, a preference for large urban developments, mono land uses, uniform building typologies, urban sprawl, a deliberate disregard for underlying local ecology, social realities and cultural heritage (a preference for “cities without history”), a neo-Corbusian disdain for disorder and, and increased social exclusion.  At the level of governance the trend towards generic cities arises in parallel with the growing influence of (wealthy) private citizens and corporations in traditionally public processes of urban planning and decision-making, which in turn further advances the generic city model. These global trends represent a significant change in the physical, political, economic, social, cultural and governance landscape of modern cities.  

At the heart of the “public city, private city” debate is the role of planning. Traditionally a public task, justified by the assumption that government is better able to protect the public interest, urban planning is increasingly being devolved to private players.  This is especially true in developing countries, where public capacities of urban planning bodies are low to begin with and where private planning is therefore often welcomed, by policy makers and constituents alike.  In developed countries, urban planning may still be largely carried out by public agencies, but the role of private parties and citizens (as investors, implementing agencies and lobbyists) is significant.

Guiding Questions:

The NYC workshop will debate the following proposition:

The world’s urban future is likely to be dominated by greater homogenization, characterized by the rise of “generic cities” and all the social, economic and ecological ills that are associated with them. A more progressive approach to the urban future is needed: instead of the narrow productivity-based discourse that currently dominates urban policy, what is needed is a more holistic understanding of the city and its historical, physical, social, economic and environmental functions.  Such an approach can be grounded in a creative exchange of the humanities, social sciences, architecture/urban design, and ecology.

In line with the Mellon grant objectives of rethinking area and urban studies, the focus of the workshop discussions should be less on coming up with practical, policy-based solutions and more on identifying and developing new forms of knowledge.

 Guiding questions for the 2-day NYC workshop could include the following: 

  • Does the “generic city” represent the urban future?
  • Who or what are assuming the role of “planners” in modern day cities?
  • How to address the uneven and mixed results of neoliberal transformation in the cities of the North and the South?
  • In the urban future, who is guarding the public interest? How does financialization impact the notion of ‘public works’?
  • What would it mean to think of citizens as the new urban planners? Is a “citizens’ city” (as opposed to a generic city) possible? Is a “citizens’ city” desirable? Is bottom-up planning a positive trend?
  • How will technology affect the urban future?
  • Architect Rem Koolhaas et al. celebrate the notion of cities without history as a necessary break with the past (“the past is too small to inhabit”). Can we think about the specificity of the ‘urban’ without de-historizing the many pasts of a city? What would a contrasting paradigm of “cities celebrating their history” look like?
  • What role is there for the humanities in coming up with a “deeper” urban knowledge, one that is less oriented towards productivity alone and more focused on a contemporary view of cities’ larger role in historical context and society?

Possible themes in the “public city, private city” debate could include the following: 

  • Global city versus local city (Sassen; Shatkin); generic city versus “citizens’ city” (Sorkin)
  • Cities as living organisms (Jane Jacobs)
  • Social capital
  • Privatization of urban space
  • Planned versus spontaneous (and self-built) cities (Turner et al., Le Corbusier) with a focus on informality, squatter settlements, slums, and peri-urbanization
  • Financialization, speculation, and real estate

Download the Workshop Report_Public City Private City (doc)