Truman City: a critical look at the discourse of densification

Today almost everyone, from the right to the left, agrees that we must build our cities denser in order to make them green. But is compact building really as good a solution as it is hyped up to be, and what kind of life are we buying into while promoting the idea of density? In this article Erik Berg argues that it is time to step back and reflect on the discourse of densification, so we do not make the mistake of going for one solution while throwing alternatives out the door.

Friedrich Engels wrote in 1845 that a town such as London is a strange thing. The colossal centralisation, “this heaping together of two and a half millions of human beings at one point”, has multiplied their power a hundredfold. With the fresh eyes of a visitor, Engels describes all the marvels produced by the city’s concentration of work and activity, industry and markets. Cities are, without any doubt, unparalleled as engines of creation, and Victorian London was the most magnificent of them all. However, as Engels notes, “the sacrifices which all this has cost, become apparent later”.

“These Londoners” he wrote “have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilisation which crowd their city; a hundred powers which slumbered within them have remained inactive, have been suppressed in order that a few might be developed more fully and multiply through union with those of others.”

As Engels moved further into the streets of the great city, he approached what few members of the bourgeoisie ever cared to see: an endless archipelago of dark, damp, badly ventilated dwellings in narrow courts and alleys in “which the filth and tottering ruin surpass all description”. In this sterile land of bricks and ravines between steep walls people starve to death literally next door to all the wealth in the world. Once left to the mercy of the market “the proletarian is helpless; left to himself, he cannot live a single day. The bourgeoisie has gained a monopoly of all means of existence in the broadest sense of the word.”

To Engels it soon became apparent how the city itself in the industrial age serves as a tool to further concentrate capital and property. Just like the feudal system was built on a specific relation in space between the feudalist and the agricultural labourer, so is the industrial age built on a centralisation of people that throws the workers into a war of each against all.

Engels and his contemporary thinkers sat in the middle of the passing between two ages and many of them had the same notion. They could see with their own eyes how the working class was being subdued, how free men and women, once transformed to an industrial proletariat, were fixated in an organic and constant dependence that deprived them of all their potential freedoms. And how the city, in the later words of Fernand Braudel, “generalised the market to a broad phenomena”, making every city dweller dependent on the market for food and income.

Thus, progressive planners, facing the horrific cities of their time, sought alternative forms. It seemed obvious to them that a return to, at least a partial, self-sufficiency was an absolute necessity. This conviction is reflected both in William Morris’ utopian novel News from Nowhere and Ebenezer Howards’ Garden City, as well as in Frank Lloyd Wrights’ later American vision of Broadacre city, among many others. Peter Hall writes:

“The vision of these anarchist [planners and architects] was not merely of an alternative built form, but of an alternative society, neither capitalistic nor bureaucratic-socialistic: a society based on voluntary cooperation among men and women, working and living in small self-governing commonwealths.” (Cities of Tomorrow)

This dream of restoring a lost kind of village life became a prime mover in most progressive planning during the last century. It was a very compelling idea and therefore often rhetorically included, no matter how large scale the projects eventually grew. The form it sought out for the city was an open, decentralised and multicore urban landscape, with all the pleasures and advantages of urban life reachable for everyone without the need to sacrifice other values, such as small scale community life and easy access to nature, and without the concentration of capital and power they witnessed in their own cities.

Ironically, this progressive line of planning in time merged either with the more technocratic way of thinking best represented by Le Corbusier, and/or with the dominant paradigm of car culture.

In his libertarian vision of Broadacre City, Frank Lloyd Wright had envisaged a lot of 1 - 4 acre per household, as a physical manifestation of their independence and self-reliance. But once it was turned into reality, suburbia became a pure autotopia; a society perhaps more locked up in remote dependence than anything ever seen before. No population on this planet votes more with their eyes on the fuel price than the American suburban.

So, the dream of a more decent and decentralised urban development failed. Instead, in the last quarter of a century, another discourse has made its way to the top of the agenda: the compact city.

The pendulum swings. Today planners and decision makers from the right to the left all agree we must build our cities denser and more compact in order to achieve sustainability. And the very same 18th century cities that progressives of the time criticised so heavily are once again seen as an ideal form. This time, however, the focus is entirely on the bourgeoisie flaneur city that Friedrich Engels in his time saw through, as he revealed the filth and oppression it rested upon.

You, who read this article, are probably, just like me, critical of a society dependent on the automobile. And you are, probably, just like me, tempted to accept, perhaps even embrace, the idea of the more compact city as an imperative necessity for a more just environment.

Still I think it is necessary to halt and think for a while. Because just what kind of life are we buying into when we accept the idea of densification? Just what interests benefit from such an agenda? And what possible forms do we throw at the door in the process? Four reflections:

First, we must understand that discourses are powerful mechanisms. Once a discourse of densification has been established as a superior goal and built into master plans, it serves as a perfect excuse to developers who want to build at just the wrong places. The current Stockholm master plan provides an example of this. Its outspoken goal is to build a more compact city, summarized in the credo “build the city inwards”:

“To build the city inwards is the strategy and best response to a Stockholm that needs to grow in a sustainable way, which among other things means decreased energy use, shortened transportation routes and increased public transport.” (Stockholm Master Plan, 2000; 2007 as quoted by Karin Bradley)

This may sound green, but in practice it produces and legitimizes project after project that can be characterised as either one of the following:

  • Gentrification through the redevelopment of “underdeveloped areas”, resulting in heightened social segregation, higher land values (meaning higher prices) and eviction of less profitable activities (such as allotment gardens) .
  • Densification in already too dense working class areas, resulting in deterioration of the local environment.
  • Exploitation of green belts (a particular quality in Stockholm), also resulting in deterioration of the local environment as well as longer distance to get out in nature.
  • Externalization of production from brown field areas, which in reality means a less functionally integrated city and longer transportation chains.

Neither of those avenues seems particularly attractive from a progressive green perspective.

As a planner I’ve witnessed how this works in many municipal plans. The densification strategy provides a clearing for exploitation projects which in reality produces a worse environment for the people living in the city, and especially for the working class.

In practice the most obvious consequence of the densification discourse so far are cities that become more socially exclusive and more functionally homogenous.

Secondly, just as the bourgeoisie flaneur city in Friedrich Engels’ time in reality was nothing but a coulisse floating on a sea of poverty, our dense cities similarly float at a sea of extraction of natural resources and production that goes on somewhere far away. As we pursue in building the city inwards, we continually export unwanted but nevertheless necessary production beyond city limits, and beyond our sight, while at the same time sweeping the total environment of consumptionist propaganda more closely around us. Where the cities of the industrial age were production centres, modern cities in the west are mainly centres for consumption, happily unaware of the real cost for its existence and way of life. We as citizens become engulfed in a fake world, where only a minor part of reality is visible and one particular aspect – commercial life, consumption – constantly beats its way into every corner of life. We become, like Jim Carrey in Truman Show, prisoners in a “perfect” world. A shining prison. But, all the same, a prison.

Thirdly, in the same manner as production moves beyond our sight in a compact city, nature itself is removed from our proximity. Sometimes replaced with things such as cultivated pocket parks, street trees, green walls and green roofs, which are all very nice things, but, unfortunately, nothing more than an artificial garniture of “green makeup”. Entirely diminutive compared to the ecological footprint each citizen requires for his/her survival. Therefore, the concept of the “dense” city as it comes articulated, and practiced, carries in itself a continued alienation of man from nature.

The reason why this is problematic is because the environmental crisis is, at its root, a crisis in our relation to nature. Our unsustainable use of resources and the climate crisis are both byproducts of our inability to nurture the biosystem services we depend upon, to close the biogeochemical cycles and adjust our use of resources to nature’s carrying power. This inability stems from a cultural and geographical alienation from nature. In short, as a culture we have thought that nature must be exploited rather than nurtured in order to provide for economic growth and development.

What the dense and compact city does to this relation crisis is nothing but to further expand the mental and physical distance between the city dweller and the external world she depends upon. This is a “solution” of the same kind as when racial segregation is presented as a solution to ethnic conflicts and exploitation. We should know by now that segregation never actually solves any conflicts between two groups of people, but, rather, makes it harder to solve them. Segregation nourishes exactly the ignorant presumptions that form the basis of every conflict; segregation establishes the division between inside and outside, us and the other. And what’s even worse: segregation creates a mental and physical distance sufficient enough to make the act of oppression and exploitation into a lesser moral dilemma for the stronger part.

In this respect, the compact city is no different than suburbia; both establish a totally encompassing artificial and anthropogenic landscape, with few outlooks beyond the thick weave of houses, streets and lampposts.

Some people might argue that this segregation between man and nature is of less importance, as long as we all agree on successively decreasing our use of energy. However, I think the opposition is faulty for the simple reason that we live in a parliamentarian democracy, and in every democracy the amount of environmental consideration stands in a direct relation to the environmental awareness in the electorate as a whole. An electorate with high awareness elects leaders that are strong on environmental issues, while an electorate with a limited awareness – and a weak relation to nature – elects leaders that care more for other things.

This correlation is visible when comparing the political environmental awareness in Sweden, where the cities are rather well integrated in – and connected with – their upland, despite a high degree of urbanisation, and in the USA where the major cities are more clearly separated from their surroundings.

Fourth, the densification strategies of today reflect a recentralisation that stems from an ongoing change in the economy. Just like the industrial age under the regime of Manchester liberalism needed to centralise workers in order to push wages down and utilise the labour of the working class as inputs in production, power in the age of information and neoliberalism is dependent on controlling the zones where the public is constituted. As noted by Lars-Mikael Raattamaa, “control is exercised through cultural dominance. Production of control is production of the [space that is recognized as public.] In order to be successful you must live where the successful people live. This is how the new disciplining works, centralisation instead of dispersion.”

In the age of creativity, the value produced by the “intellectual capital” is tapped and mastered through controlling the interfaces where connections are made, be them physical or virtual. This, again, calls for a centralisation, and, as shown by Saskia Sassen, Manuel Castels and others, cities of all sizes are thrown into a game where they fight over attracting the “right population”. In this struggle, cities go to extremes in prioritising the needs and demands of the mythical nomadic creative class, while at the same time denying the needs of other groups.

This shift of priorities is marked by a shift of focus towards the inner city, where one aspect of urbanity - a “pulsating city life” – suddenly is regarded as the highest of urban virtues. When this abstract notion of urban life is specified, it turns out to be synonymous with a city characterised by shops, restaurants, cafés and cultural institutions – all of which are activities inscribed in an economic circulation, none of which are free. In the visions the perfect street is often imagined as a street with small, personal and specialized shops. But in reality the small units are more often than not outcompeted by global chains and by the Internet, leaving a much more conformist streetscape, dominated by transnational capital, on whose altar other values are sacrificed.

For the reasons argued above, I would urge all green progressives to keep a careful attitude towards densification agendas and the idea of the compact city as a superior form. We still need to tackle the same issues as the anarchist planners of 19th century faced; how to preserve freedom for all and fight centralisation of power, while at the same time having access to the benefits of urban life, and building an ecologically sustainable society.

This is not intended as a critique of cities as such. As Mike Davis rightfully points out in an interview in Occupied London (#1), the only possible “substitute for ever going intensified private or individual consumption is the public luxury of the city.”

But a city, what is that really? We must challenge our presumptions much better – and acknowledge that there are other spatial forms that should be explored when we build the cities of tomorrow.

Erik Berg is a member of the Left Party of Sweden, he is working as a city planner, writes architecture criticism in magazines and runs the blog

Image by Caruba.


  1. Darin
    Posted 24 June, 2010 at 22:19 | Permalink

    You make an excellent point in regard to segregation. It’s important to avoid the social segregation and the ills that come with it via gentrification.

    Densification can cause problems if it isn’t done very carefully. But it nonetheless must be done for the sake of preserving ecosystems.

    We destroy ecosystems when we fragment them through the constant sprawl of urban development. Making the built environment and all of its infrastructure into as compact a form as possible — in order to leave room for continuous tracts of undisturbed nature — is a good thing.

  2. vigo
    Posted 4 August, 2010 at 12:21 | Permalink

    Only a synthesis of nature, art,archtecture and planning
    will ameliarate some of the problems you mention.
    But we are a long way away from the proposals of Morris and the synthesis of nature and archtecture which would allow for the greening of cities and animals also to inhabit the space. A segregation of ‘human only’ zone is the regime of the car, the multistorey car park, the hypermarket and the soulless urban environment. In the city the car has to make way for the horse - in order to respect nature it is necessary to live with it - we are talking about the reintroduction of nature - not nature apartheid for greenwash cyclists. Its unlikely that this will happen because people do not want it. A collision course with nature and ecological catastrophe is therefore inevitable.

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