Reflections on the Decent City

Either in terms of analytical power or humanist principles, is the term “decent” the most appropriate starting (or ending) point in establishing a research agenda and a normative commitment to maximize tolerance, equality and inclusion? Clearly, this concept invites us to think about how to identify or produce just, humane, and livable city spaces. But it also does so quite modestly. Should we be aiming for a bolder concept, one that could be seen as an unflinching call to arms for eliminating a wide range of urban injustices? Or should we approach this task more pragmatically, with a clear-eyed recognition of the socio-political and economic constraints that prevent us (and cities themselves) from setting our normative sights too high?

One way to move beyond the quandaries associated with lowballing or high- balling our normative aims is to seek an ontological space somewhere between utopia and pragmatism. A decent city is clearly not a perfect or utopian city; but neither is it assumed to be a city whose composition and contours have been produced through complete resignation to state, market, or social conditions that if left unfettered or unchallenged are likely to produce extreme inequality, injustice, or malevolence. Yet, even if it were possible to embrace this conceptual middle-space, the methodological question of how to identify or measure it still remains. To paraphrase our beloved colleague Charles Tilly: “how will we know it when we see it?”

Answering such a question will entail some understanding of moral philosophy, a good sense of method and measurement, and a capacity to understand how analytical reflection can reveal the conditions under which urban interventions produce positive social change. Once we head down that path, I suspect our sights will move away from the concept of decency, and what comprises it, and move us towards discussion of the conditions that make it possible to produce cities that are neither perfect nor terrible, but “good enough” -- and hopefully even better than they are now.

The word “better” may also be uninspiring and prosaic, but at least it allows a partial escape from the aforementioned definitional or measurement quandaries by emphasizing the idea of change rather than static classification. It also invokes the notion of progress, at least implicitly, thus giving recognition to the modernist mantra that life can and will can be improved if enough technical, political, or social will is expended towards such aims. For this reason, thinking about urban betterment could be valuable for us because to a great degree this objective informs the fields of design and planning, two disciplines we are trying to incorporate into the social science research mix. Finally, it may be worth noting that many of the problems of inequality in cities of the developing world are themselves generated by the search for “progress” and urban modernity, thus making any conversation about betterment (especially as inspired by a commitment to “progress”) suitably complex if not paradoxical.

But even so, linking our collective scholarly agenda to improvement or betterment may inadvertently keep normative values and the higher ideals of equality and toleration off the table. Indeed, anything sounding like a Building Better Cities Initiative smacks of a Chamber of Commerce public relations campaign. For this reason, I am willing to keep the concept of decency in play a bit longer. Yet I would like to suggest a different approach to thinking about it, coming in the form of four propositions intended to help fine-tune the analytical, research, and action agenda.

Proposition # 1: We might consider decency as a process as much as a set of characteristics, conditions, or state of being. Such a starting point allows scholars and activists to examine the critical role of mobilization, contestation, and other ways of struggling for tolerance, equality, and justice without having to take a stance on whether these actions have indeed produced their desired outcomes. To think of the decent city as being built through ongoing struggle for justice, tolerance, and equity is a way of bridging the conceptual divide between pragmatism and utopia. This is so not just because active mobilization and struggle, by their very nature, usually aspire to be more than politics as usual, and more often than not may be motivated by utopian ideals. Likewise, struggles to create better urban conditions can be equally appreciated and substantively impactful even when targets are modest or when ambitious aims fail to be realized. To be sure, mobilization around urban justice goals may meet pushback from those who are unwilling or unable to cede the (literal) grounds for change. But if there is struggle, there are ongoing efforts to achieve higher normative aims, and this itself may be an indicator of a city’s “decency.” Of course, if struggle brings violence this may indicate certain limits to this conceptualization, an issue to which I return in point #3 below.

Perhaps more important, conceptualizing decency as a process also requires that we ask questions and become aware of who is involved (and who not) in the shaping of cities, an objective that will force greater scholarly and engagement between the social science and design disciplines. Along these lines, it may be worth noting that a focus on process -- and the assertion that it is as significant as outcomes in creating just and equitable cities -- is considered a central tenet in planning theory and praxis. And although the concern with process rather than outcome has often divided planners from urban designers and architects, even designers are aware that one cannot build a better or different city unless one has a sense of how to get there, deploying such tools as imagination, incrementality, and future-thinking. These techniques also become part of the process of shaping the city around urban justice ideals, and whether they embody or contribute to decency (or not) could be a subject for further research and study.

Proposition #2: We should consider the analytical distinction and/or relationship between a decent city and a decent society. I make this point not merely to refine our analytical thinking about the conditions under which certain normative aims (justice, inequality, toleration, etc.) can be achieved at the level of the city, or even as a means of forcing a consideration of specifically urban as opposed to societal decency. It is also is a way of underscoring the importance of thinking about spatial logics and how they may differ from sectoral logics (i.e. housing , employment, education, etc.) when used to realize equality and toleration . Whether a project to advance decency or achieve justice is embedded in urban as opposed to national domains of action will have a bearing on which individuals, institutions, and issues become involved in making them possible. When societal objectives coincide (or contradict) with local objectives for urban equity, tolerance, and so on, positive outcomes might be more (or less) possible. Asking such questions allows a consideration of the particular scale (neighborhood, city, region, nation, or even globe) at which design and intervention strategies might be most likely to produce positive gains in dealing with urban injustices. It also inspires new questions about spatial or scalar causality. Does decency at the neighborhood scale up to decency at the city (and beyond)? Under what conditions will advances in achieving toleration and equity at the city scale up to the nation, or vice-versa, down from the nation to the city? And so on.

Proposition # 3: We might consider indecency to be a more productive conceptual reference point than decency. I am wondering, in fact, whether we could generate methodological, theoretical, and empirical traction in the study of cities if we were to consider the absence (as much as the presence) of decency as a starting point. Granted, understandings of what constitutes decency or indecency will always be grounded historically and culturally. But one senses that it might be slightly easier and less definitionally problematic to find consensus around what constitutes indecency. This is perhaps where research on violence or discrimination or humiliation or lack of recognition or other humanistic principles could be brought into the mix along with inequality and toleration. To be sure, cultural relativism will not disappear; there will always be times and places where activities like violence (individual or collective) may be tolerated or embraced by certain members of a society or city.

Yet, this could be a subject of study within this initiative. With violence, for example, one could ask the question about the conditions under which violence is tolerated, and whether the scale of the action might have some bearing on this. For example, would violence, humiliation, or recognition at the global level be as tolerated at the local urban scale, or in the everyday life of a city and its residents, to the same degree that it might be when deployed or legitimized at more abstract scales of existence like the nation? It is worth noting the plethora of recent legal advances in human rights and global governance in recent years, many of which aim to guarantee basic humanist principles at the level of the city. With the embrace of such notions, scholars and citizens alike may be thinking in new ways about the actors and institutions that create a degree of consensus about what constitutes indecency, and then asking whether and how they are deployed in the struggle to create more equitable, tolerant, and just cities.

Asking questions about indecency might also allow for a more focused and less unwieldy way of understanding the complex co-existence of divergent value systems and normative priorities at the level of the city, if only because the range and number of activities considered to be indecent may in fact be smaller and more easily identified than the range and number of acts or behaviors considered decent. Either way, such an approach might allow us to conclude that a decent city is in fact a city where indecency is not tolerated, where indecency is distributed equitably, and where citizens and state alike are committed to monitoring, expanding, and debating what constitutes indecency.

Proposition #4. In order to make this initiative current, and to better link questions of the city to contemporary dilemmas, we should consider risk as a key concept in the study of the (decent) city. I offer this possibility in part because of my own reluctance to stay focused only on the notions of decency and indecency, which have a kind of 19th century feel. In my mind at least, this gets in the way of acknowledging and addressing some of the most contemporary problems facing cities and their residents, namely the growing sense of insecurity and risk associated with such issues as climate change and even terrorism. Recent work by Ulrich Beck has sought to introduce these concerns as a way of understanding large-scale social change, or what he calls “reflexive modernity,” and the ways that technological advances may have bettered quality of life while also increasing risk. Beck also focuses on these issues primarily through a global or a national lens. Building on but departing from this work, I would like to suggest that we bring this framework down to the level of the city, and ask about risk and its social and spatial distribution at an urban scale.

Such questions are not entirely new of course, having been discussed and engaged through environmental justice literature (and activism) for years. The environmental justice field has always been concerned with inequality and toleration, especially to the extent that much of the research focuses on the ways that the poor and the disadvantaged disproportionately bear the costs of environmental risk. But with the growing evidence of climate change, this field has attracted the attention of designers and planners, producing new forms of research and practice in ways that pre-figure or model an agenda on decent cities.

I am not suggesting we merely import the environmental justice agenda into our work so much as asking that we think about risk at the level of the city in a more sociologically, politically, and spatially sensitive way. Indeed, through a more careful consideration of the concept of risk and how it is experienced, governed, managed, or designed for at the level of the city, we not only have a better understanding of where the newest fault lines of inequality are emerging. We also are able to understand how and why new categories or experiences of risk or vulnerability hold the potential to change urban governance priorities and residents’ relationships to each other and the city in ways that challenge previous governing arrangements and practices.

For my part, I am particularly interested in what I prefer to call “risk governmentality,” and the ways that current urban governing arrangements and social institutions, including property rights and forms of policing, may enable or constrain the reduction of risk , both individual and collective. When I speak of risk, then, I have in mind not just environmental risk, but a whole array of vulnerabilities that make certain populations chronically “at risk” in terms of unemployment, racial profiling, crime victimization, health status, etc. Such concerns are growing not just in American cities, where these labels are being used to displace citizens or limit their access to public spaces; they also are emerging in cities of the developing world as product of rapid urbanization, and for the purposes of controlling the locations of “undesirable” populations. Although not directly related to the concept of decency, I do believe that we can understand a lot about a city and patterns of urban inequality, intolerance and injustice by introducing the concept of risk into our research agenda, by expanding its definition to include a wide range of vulnerabilities, and by asking who uses and abuses languages of risk in the building and governance of cities. In this sense, a concern with risk allows us to frame a research agenda in more temporally-sensitive and sociologically reflective manner.

Endnote: See Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Sage Publications, 1986 (1992), and Beck, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash (eds.), Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Traditions, and Aesthetics in Modern Social Order, Stanford University Press, 1994.

About the Author
Diane Davis is a professor of urbanism and development at Harvard University.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.