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Design for a Post-Neoliberal City

Our cities have become key arenas in a primarily market-driven globalization process, a process that primarily unfolds in circumstances and at the mercy of protagonists with little or nothing to do with planning and design. The sweeping decisions of multinational companies, individual consumer preferences, ecological disasters, international politics, cultural differences, and other phenomena associated with globalization render very unrealistic the idea that collective action or even design might be able to steer urban development. Cities are widely regarded as “non-planable” entities that can be observed but only barely influenced, let alone designed. Both an urban politics perspective and design as an intentional and political practice are menaced not only by neoliberal and neoconservative forces but also by the “post-planning” approach taken by progressive planners and urban researchers. In such an approach, criticism of urban inequalities or injustice is interpreted as the failure to grasp the complexity of contemporary urban landscapes—an argument supporting the current de-politicization of the city by private companies and neoliberal government policies.

The law of supply and demand has become the primary force in urban development, blocking any urban policy. Particularly in the urban context, this leads to a post-political situation, in which spaces of democratic engagement are swallowed up by an ongoing radical economization and de-politicization of social space—a process that does not seem to have been interrupted by the current global economic crisis. Even though it is still unclear whether the crisis serves to accelerate or modify these tendencies, it is necessary to discuss how the crisis of neoliberal ideology may simultaneously be an opportunity to imagine urban concepts that challenge the primacy of economic maneuvers.

From being strategic sites for the implementation of neoliberal policy, cities may possibly become a new political arena for experiments in democracy—and thus require a new design. Designers continue to hold back with criticism and proposals, but the time has come to redefine the role of design in a social city—and to take action. Design in the context of cities could redefine itself as a search for an alternative urban practice, beyond the techniques and the ideology of crisis-ridden, late-capitalist urbanism. For it is precisely in the field of design, which has hitherto seen only a cautious approach to urban issues, that one finds unexplored potential for an intentional (re)design of space.

Premised on a substantive retreat of the state and the surrender of social interests to market forces, the constitution of cities have become strategic spaces for the implementation of neoliberal logic. Cities are not just victims of a takeover but are at the same time actors, since neoliberalism as a practice is embedded in the urban context; it always takes place in national, regional, or local contexts and relies on their respective institutional and political parameters, local regulatory practices, and political controversy. This context-relatedness also explains, for example, the “revival of the local” that occurs at the very moment when allegedly uncontrollable supra-national transformations are underway.

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