From a café in the heart of London – ‘No, Brexit hasn’t really changed life in the city, it’s more like a background noise to a much more global debate about cities’ – Leo Hollis, who previously participated to our file Welcome to the Asphalt Jungle in DAMN°39, shares his ideas on what a city should be.

‘I don’t want the city to become bland. A city needs to have a sense of adventure to it, and I don’t want it to lose its humanity. Cities come out of the very human need to be with each other, and that comes with a whole load of embedded problems. The city is as problematic as people are. Humans aren’t robots: we’re not efficient or productive at all times, we’re not our best selves at all times. And we don’t have to agree all the time either. The city has to cope with all that. And yet it still has to allow all of us to flourish. Plato talked about eudemonia, which means flourishing, which is a very different thing than happiness. Happiness is not important in the city; flourishing is far more important.’

On the quayside, by the Bridge, Instanbul
To enable us to flourish, the city should be an open place, where people of different backgrounds can meet and exchange, where we can try and fail, but ‘in our urban centres we are in a very difficult political situation where the identities of our cities are in flux’, and increasingly cities are places for the happy few. ‘A city should have open borders; the flow of people should be as free as the flow of capital. But we are putting up barriers now, we’re creating frontiers where they didn’t exist before.’

Our current cities are segregated, closed to the poor and unfortunate, exclusive and expensive, clean and techy. Not because we, the citizens, want this, but rather because they, much bigger forces, decided so. ‘Who are the contemporary cities being built for? I’m afraid the answer to that is: not you. It’s being built for a smaller and smaller number of elites.’

Protests at Golden Lane Estate, London
Our cities are changing because of both the neoliberal financialisation of housing, and data collecting. ‘City spaces are increasingly coded spaces, absolutely infiltrated with digital technology. Who owns that technology? Who is it for? The collection of data from all these types of sensors and monitors are often in the hands of private companies, and it’s often done without the knowledge of the citizens. More and more the collection of data, the Internet of Things, is taking the city away from ordinary people in the street and is handing it to large corporations.'

'An obvious example is the deal Toronto has done with Google Sidewalk Labs (Sidewalk Toronto, a “neighbourhood built from the internet up” by Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs). Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront has been basically given over to Google to create the city from the internet up. One can assume that all the data and all the information that is been harvested from the activity in that area is Google’s possession. It is no longer a public good, it is no longer contributing to the commonwealth of the city.’

Large-scale Housing project on the outskirts of Buenos Aires
Balfron House, East London
But is it really such a nightmare scenario? Maybe things won’t be so bad in the end. Hollis shakes his head: ‘I would love to think that these large corporations, particularly these kind of platform corporations like Facebook and Google, were good actors, but I’m not too sure that they are…’

Lisbon is also a good case study, since the capital of Portugal is at the moment on the brink of flipping from what sociologist Richard Sennett calls an ‘open city’ – where informality rules and all kind of different people share public space, interact with each other and thus practice empathy – into a segregated city where international real estate concerns rule. ‘Lisbon is very much advertising itself as very cheap and very tech driven,’

Hollis says. ‘Lisbon – and Athens – are the new Berlin amongst tech people. It’s giving huge tax breaks to start-ups, which is also why Second Home, a London organisation, has opened up in Lisbon. And that evolution obviously brings with it huge real estate problems. Large international companies and pension funds are buying up cheap properties in Lisbon for the rental market. They are totally transforming the fabric of the city.’ The problem is not only Lisbon’s.

A notice of intent in a window of a house in Mission District , San Francisco

‘This kind of system is very much like a hyperobject: if it would encounter problems in Lisbon, it will just go somewhere else. It doesn’t actually care about the place it invests in. It just sees a good investment, or the opportunity to make a long-term or short-term profit. It’s almost impossible to stop this, unless you change the whole financial system.’

Still, how can we, the citizens, have an impact, we ask Hollis, who sees himself as an activist through his writing. ‘We have to do it through politics: we have to take control of the city hall. We should be using the institutions that currently run our cities to our advantage. There are wonderful things going on with municipalism (self-government by towns, cities, and city-regions) particularly in places like Barcelona, but also in Jackson in Mississippi where there are grassroots movements that are taking over the city hall and having a huge impact. So it’s possible. Municipalism is a global movement, and there are now over 50 cities connected…’

In order to resist or beat the impact of large international corporations, the municipalist movement needs to make those connections: ‘Because you can deal with the situation on the ground, in your own city, but international corporations will move on to the next place, so you also want to engage the other cities to resist as well.’ Hollis also mentions La Comuna in Barcelona as an example of good practice. The mayor of Catalonia’s capital is Ada Colau, who is part of this growing, worldwide municipalist movement.

‘You can also look at technological innovations such as a programme called Decode (developed out of London but based in Barcelona, and Amsterdam) which is ran by Francesca Bria. This is about dealing with the problem of who collects and benefits from data collected within the city. Their project is that the data stays within the city rather than going to some large corporation, and it’s kept by the citizens for the benefit of the citizens.’ Hollis, who’s currently preparing projects that look into democracy and data-collection, and the way crowds and creativity influence our thinking about cities and their design respectively, ends with a hopeful note. ‘We should see cities as a 9000-year history of which capitalism is a very small part. There were cities before capitalism and there will be cities after capitalism. It’s capitalism that will go away. If we’re thinking about the long history of urbanism, this is just one stage.’

This article appeared in DAM69. Order your personal copy.
A notice of intent in a window of a house in Mission District , San Francisco
Protest by public service workers in Buenos Aires