Richard Sennett has an impressive CV of service. Besides his many erudite must-reads about social ties in cities, public space, work, and the urban experience, his academic career as a sociologist includes the founding – along with Susan Sontag and Joseph Brodsky – of The New York Institute for the Humanities. And since the 1980s, he has also acted as an advisor at UNESCO. As for his personal life, well it reads like a novel. A red-diaper baby in McCarthyist America, both his parents were communists. His father, who had fought in the Spanish civil war, abandoned his family and Sennett never met him. As a boy, he started playing the cello at six and composing at eight, growing up with his Russian mum in a racially-mixed public housing project notorious for its poverty and violence (Cabrini Green Housing Project). A hand injury put paid to Sennett’s dreams of becoming a musician, and he headed off to Harvard instead. Today he still likes to play a concert every now and then – ‘but age has an impact: my body is getting stiff!’ – although, preferably not for your usual suspects of an audience. (‘I remember when playing as a young musician for an audience of exhausted miners in a small town, most of them were dozing off on Bach. I loved it. We gave those men a rare moment of rest and peace.’) Since 1981 he has been married to the renowned globalisation expert and fellow social scientist Saskia Sassen, with whom he shares, among other things, a dry sense of humour. The harvest of his life and work has led to Sennett’s signature empathetic curiosity and interest in people, as has his committed focus on cities and unwavering plea for good public space.

Richard Sennet Photo © Thomas Struth

After decades of studying, visiting and shaping cities all over the world, both as a researcher and a UN advisor, Sennett has reached a number of conclusions: ‘We need to create open cities: complex, organic, messy places, where informality is enabled and stimulated, where different city dwellers can actively mix and clear out their differences. We need to increase certain kinds of disorder in city life, so that those informal encounters can happen, and people can become more tolerant of difference and open to encounter the unexpected. We shouldn’t create over-rigid environments, but rather design the public realm in such a way that it enables people to have informal conversations: a complex, incomplete space where different groups of people interact. An open city stimulates a culture of encounter, which is crucial for human beings to flourish.’ In the film The Quito Papers: Towards an Open City, which Sennett realised in collaboration with his team and colleagues for Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Urban Development in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016, someone nailed it: an open city is ‘the place where you find what you are not looking for.’

That is what we personally imagine as a fine city to live in, too. And many old European, organically grown cities, embody this openness. Sennett agrees, with an added sense of urgency: ‘Europeans take it for granted, but in our time these ways of living are seriously under threat: the trends are very different; cities are closing down. They become homogenous, segregated, regimented, gated and controlled. The reason is that public space is being privatised. International, rich people, invest in urban development worldwide, a process that started in Nineties Berlin: they buy square metres, decide on the kind of building they want and then choose where to put it in order to get the most possible return on investment, rather than going to a place and looking where best to put up the building. The very last thing they think about is what the effect will be on the city and on the people living there. Those rich investors don’t mind about the specific needs of a city – most cities don’t need skyscrapers for instance... nevertheless they’re being built. In our time, our cities are quickly being sold off. Neoliberal capitalism is all about return on investment globally, and many governments have collapsed to it. The beginning of creating an open city, is to protect the public realm as something that belongs to the public, and thus to resist the privatisa- tion of public space.’

Sennett says neoliberal capitalism is eroding civil society big time: ‘Urban areas are becoming more homogeneous in terms of their class population. Rather than a space for people from many diverse backgrounds and cultures, our global cities are expelling certain people. The city as a humane place is being replaced by a homogeneous city hostile to poor people. We should resist the privatisation of our cities, of our public spaces.’ Sennett goes back to his plea for informality: ‘If people are more segregated from each other, the chances of physical interaction and being in the same place at the same time are less. We’re getting a social situation in cities in which many people rarely encounter people who are not like them. And I think that’s very dangerous. The free market is not a good urban plan.’ Sennett explains that without a culture of encounter, empathy can’t thrive, whereas this is what makes us human. Put simply, an open city could save the world. ‘What happened to the iPhone is what happened to the city: it became closed. The challenge is how to get people with more resources more engaged in making the environments they live in.’

Nehru Place in Delhi. Photo: Richard Sennett

At the Forum do Futuro in Porto, Sennett described how The Athens Charter and the legacy of Le Corbusier have been torpedoing the design of good public space up until now, and how it has been of great interest for today’s private sector, promoting land investment and speculation. ‘Le Corbusier was a little méchant. He wanted to spread towers all over Paris and he envisioned destroying the old Marais.’ A legacy turned curse, because what Le Corbusier imagined for Paris – making the city a beautiful machine – proved to be so influential, and for Sennett, is still dominant. Until recently, the idea that we want to make our cities beautiful machines, in which all different functions are separated, has been clung onto: people working in a central business district, living in towers, entertained in another part of the city, etc., with all those places connected and divided at the same time through highways. For Sennett, ‘What is ruined here, are places where informality can take place.’ He showed his audience in Porto a picture of the Venezuelan capital Caracas, where a highway forms a hard border between a rich neighbourhood full of private swimming pools for each apartment, and the packed slums on the other side. ‘This situation grew in just four years. The highway makes interaction between rich and poor people impossible. Voilá the heritage of Le Corbusier.’ So what might better public space design look like? ‘We have to transform these boundaries into more porous borders. We also have to make neighbourhoods and architecture less complete so that people can fill in for themselves. In this way people can take responsibility for the place where they live. Arguments about sustainability, about social cohesion, about integration, really should be taking the city in this direction. Well planned doesn’t mean making an instant perfect city. Well planned cities should be providing the infrastructure of a messy and incremental city.’

Sennett warns us in no uncertain terms, but he does declare he’s nevertheless an opti- mist, even though ‘It’s a very odd thing to be an optimist at the end of your life. Still, I believe change is possible. I work with the UN in countries that are just beginning to be urbanised and where there is more room for experiment. My faith is that we can make better cities in which civil society is strengthened.’ Through his work as an advisor for the UN, he reaches out to those in power – although his modus operandi is sometimes quite similar to that of a flea in the ear of the organisation. Witness his plan to propose UNESCO recognise ‘Silicon Alley’ in Delhi as a World Heritage Site. Nehru Place, a large commercial, financial, business and information technology district, sits alongside a vibrant informal economy: one can find everything there, from street food and beautiful saris to illegally copied software. ‘It’s a completely porous spot in the city: people of all castes, classes, races and religions are coming and going, drinking tea, doing deals, buying stuff.’ It’s a place where people interact with strangers and feel comfortable in doing so; a place where informality rules. ‘We’re about to propose it as a world heritage site, because we have to keep places like this alive. We’ll fail of course, but it will be the first time the UN takes into account urban development.’

Richard Sennet at the Forum do Futuro in Porto. Photo: Veerle Devos

In his book Building and Dwelling. Ethics for the City, to be published at the beginning of 2018, Sennett focuses on the relationship between how cities are built and how people live in them, from ancient Athens to 21st century Shanghai. (Was ancient Athens an open city? ‘If you were not a slave, yes,’ says Sennett.) ‘Realities in cities are much more complex than in the past, and we have to deal with these complexities now. I think co-production is the clue. An open city system is based on collaboration rather than top down. If we create open cities, we change the power structure.’ Especially in times of climate change, more co-production with communities is needed, rather than only hierarchy-based actions with experts, as Sennett concurs: ‘The climate is going to have a huge impact on cities. Just like you can’t revert the dominance of injustice in the world, we won’t be able to revert climate change. What we can do, is to adapt to it, to work with the change itself. To succeed, you need the know-how of local people, like you would to do architecture in a dry climate for instance.’

Sennett’s books, lectures and public performances should be compulsory for architects, urban designers, politicians and any other folk who have the ambition to create a better world (and for all the others, too). Why? So they can design better cities that accommodate better societies and give city dwellers the opportunity to develop. Sennett’s warm plea and urge to create open cities is crucial, since the survival of humanity depends on it.

Richard Sennett chairs Theatrum Mundi, a network of artists, critics and scholars engaging urban culture in London, New York, Edinburgh, Venice, and Berlin. The Quito Papers

This article appeared in DAM66. Order your personal copy.