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Utopia and the City: An Interview with David Pinder

Geographer David Pinder talks about radical geography, cities and the politics of utopia.

Interview and Introduction by Zack Furness

Academic scholarship in the humanities and social sciences is said to have taken a ‘spatial turn’ in recent years. In addition to waves of articles and books devoted to the theorization of space and place, there’s a wider collective emphasis on the role that physical environments play in the configuration of economics, art, politics, communication, gender and culture. Geography is experiencing a rebirth of sorts and it is largely due to the efforts of scholars like David Pinder—a lecturer in Geography at Queen Mary, University of London and a current visiting fellow at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Pinder’s work in human and cultural geography transcends disciplines and engages with the intersections of urban planning, architecture, radical politics and the avant-garde. He has written widely on politics and geography and his most recent book, Visions of the City, traces out the themes of utopianism in urban planning and closely explores the theories & practices of the Situationist International, or situationists: a radical avant-garde group headed by Guy Debord from the mid-1950s through the late 1960s. Pinder’s book grapples with the idea of utopia posited by architects, urban planners and political dissidents but it’s clear that his overarching goal is to redeem and revive the prospects of utopianism in the present day. Aside from being a first-rate thinker and writer, his perspective on the value of utopianism is a welcomed change of pace from the cynicism that often passes for progressive politics.


ZF: So how, exactly, did you get interested in geography?

DP: The initial spark for me, as for many people who study geography, came from an interest in different places and peoples, and in traveling. When I was young we moved home a lot and traveled a fair amount within Europe, and I later developed a love for exploring cities. My first independent travels as a student at high school and university were to cities in Central and Eastern Europe such as Budapest, Berlin, Prague and Bucharest. It was during the exhilarating years around 1989 when political demands took to the streets, and when the Berlin wall crumbled along with a number of oppressive regimes. Looking back, I guess I can see how many of my interests not only in the geographies of cities but also in utopias, hope, and constructing alternatives have long been with me.

I was also attracted early on by the openness of geography as an academic field, by the ways in which it brought different perspectives and approaches together. This might sound strange to those who have vague recollections of geography as a dusty subject, chiefly concerned with learning the locations of capital cities and the like. But of particular importance to me was coming across ‘radical geography’ and the writings of geographers such as David Harvey, who provided a welcome counterblast to the abstract spatial models that we were supposed to be studying at high school, not to mention to mainstream political debate in the UK during the Thatcher years. I also came across the remarkable tradition of anarchist geography that includes Peter Kropotkin.

It took me a while to make much sense of this radical geography but it helped to overturn many of my assumptions about the world. It also inspired me to study geography at university. Since then I’ve found the subject a very exciting and amenable location for writing and teaching, and for making connections between things too often thought of separately. I think a geographical imagination – something that’s absolutely not discipline specific but shared by many within and well beyond the academy – can provide powerful insights into many key political challenges and issues today.

ZF: There is a pervasive sense of hopefulness that lingers throughout your work despite the critical perspective that you have on the intertwined histories of modernity, capitalism and urban development. In fact, your recent book looks explicitly at the historical tensions that exist when people talk about and/or design cities—it’s almost as if cities are perceived as visions of heaven or hell. What is it about cities that evoke such strong emotions and reactions?

DP: I’m currently based in New York and one of my favorite journeys is arriving in this city, from the first glimpse of the skyline to the initial rush of the streets. That sense of anticipation, familiar to many of us in different registers and forms, comes from the intensity of a city like this, from the concentration of people, processes and things. All these flows coming together, all that life, density, heterogeneity, mixity. It’s the intensity that gives cities an energy and sense of possibility, but also leads to such strong and often ambivalent reactions.

It’s not hard to see why negative views often prevail, especially when you take a global perspective on the vast and terrible problems of poverty, environmental degradation, lack of sanitation and so on concentrated in cities. A fuller recognition of such urban problems and divisions is needed. But at the same time, with half of the world’s population now living in cities, anti-urbanism simply isn’t a viable option. Instead imagination and determination are desperately needed to create more humanizing environments.

The utopian visions that I consider in my book exhibited the tension you describe. They rejected aspects of contemporary cities yet insisted on the need to imagine and strive for better urban futures. The hellish conditions of the time were often the spur to seek alternatives. Indeed, it was within those hellish conditions that they sought the seeds of better worlds. Even if one is highly critical of some of these visions, as I am, one is surely struck by an obvious question: what happened to the utopian energy that they embodied earlier in the twentieth century? At a time now when there’s been such a widespread retreat from any kind of utopianism, what’s become of their cities of hope?

ZF: Despite my interests in geography and urbanism I’m sometimes weary of generalizations that philosophers, urban planners and critical theorists make when they talk about ‘the city’—mainly because ‘the city’ means something very different to people living in Baghdad, Kingston (Jamaica), London or Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania). What are the advantages and disadvantages to creating & critiquing theories of ‘the city’? Along the same lines, what are some of the problems and prospects posed by scholarly studies of urbanism and cities?

DP: It’s difficult to generalize about cities given their immense variety and there are risks in doing so, most commonly involving Euro or Western-centrism. More work certainly needs to be done on addressing the diversity of urban experiences. But theorizing ‘the city’ isn’t simply about generalizing. More helpfully it can enable ways of thinking about cities in terms of their differences but also their connections and commonalities. So rather than leaving us simply considering the uniqueness of cities, as if they were bounded units, it can help us see them as open and dynamic spaces, which are produced through as well as constitutive of wider social, economic and political processes.

This involves debates about, for example, the role of cities within global economic processes and uneven development, the importance of their spaces in the exercise of power and in political struggles, the challenge they pose to democracy and ways of living together. Questions about the city, as a real and imagined space, branch in many directions that are highly political. Besides scholarly studies I’ve found particularly interesting the remarkable range of engagements with cities from within the arts and cultural practice in recent years. I think urban scholars have much to learn from artistic experiments in this regard, although the traffic goes both ways, and there have been some stimulating crossovers, collaborations and hybrid forms.

ZF: Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the ‘right to the city’ is pervasive in your work and I’d like to know what you think that means for people in 2007? How can people best express their ‘right to the city’?

DP: I think the notion can still provide a powerful rallying cry in struggles for urban social justice. Lefebvre likened ‘the right to the city’ to ‘a cry and a demand’. It was the subject of struggle and political action. It had to be reaffirmed and reclaimed on a continuous basis. He wrote his book on the subject shortly before the May ’68 revolts in Paris, in the context of a city undergoing massive restructuring, commodification and gentrification, which was resulting in the expulsion of thousands of working class people from the centre to the suburbs. He was arguing that cities shouldn’t be given over to capital and the bureaucratic state, that they shouldn’t become a spectacle. They should be works in which all citizens participate. For him, the right to the city involved not a return to the traditional city but a renewed right to urban life. This included those aspects of social life required for inhabitation, such as decent housing.

Much has obviously changed since Lefebvre’s time. The broad terms in which he couches his arguments also mean they’re only a starting point for debate and action. But these ideas are still highly relevant especially in terms of key questions about who is able to inhabit and define cities. In particular, they offer a counter to dominant individualized conceptions of rights and associated social processes, based on free market capitalism. Despite hype around internet and electronic communications as opening up a public sphere, I think the right to the city is still best expressed through taking material spaces, through reappropriating and occupying public spaces so as to make demands visible and bring about change, within both cities and ourselves. This requires social mobilization and collective action from below, rather than simply legislation from above.

ZF: What are some radical and/or progressive uses of urban space that you have come across in your research?

DP: I’m particularly interested at the moment in interventions by artists and cultural practitioners who are exploring, questioning or engaging with urban spaces. Their activities are often quite ephemeral and fleeting. They include attempts to re-map spaces, to open up stories and memories about locations, and to contest dominant operations of power that are exerted through, for example, forms of surveillance or image making. These may not be ‘radical’ or ‘progressive’ in the ways in which the collective political struggles by social movements might be viewed. But it seems to me that efforts to encourage the vitality of urban public space, and to develop other ways of seeing, experiencing and interacting with cities and urban life, are not insignificant politically in today’s urban contexts. Many of these activities could be grouped under the label of ‘psychogeography’, and I’ve come to them through my research on the more directly politicized practices of the situationists. I also see them as connected with my wider interest in utopian urbanism and with the effort to re-imagine urban spaces from a utopian perspective, from the position of what Lefebvre termed a ‘partisan of possibilities’.

ZF: The situationists’ famous quote ‘Under the pavement, a beach!’ refers to the excitement and beauty of revolutionary politics—a utopian spirit that is consistently at odds with the realities of corporate globalization, neo-liberalism and conservatism. Cynicism strikes me as an unproductive response to our political realities…not to mention the fact that it’s incredibly boring. Why do you think utopianism gets such a bad rap these days? And how do you respond to people that think the only thing ‘under the pavement’ is more pavement?

DP: Utopianism is indeed frequently dismissed these days. One of the reasons for the bad press is the frequent association made between utopianism and authoritarianism. Attempts to construct perfect societies are viewed as inherently repressive, even totalitarian. It’s not entirely unjustified since there have, of course, been many murderous regimes that have justified their actions in the name of a utopia to come, not to mention a long history of failed urban utopias that have frequently been repressive and authoritarian in their actually existing forms. But the problem is not inherent to utopianism, only to certain forms it has taken. The utopian spirit can’t be so reduced. Your question points to other ways of conceiving utopianism, as something that is open, joyful, and about seeking other possibilities within the present. This isn’t about a blueprint plan in which the future is mapped out in advance, but about seeking what might be yet is repressed in the present. That’s the kind of utopianism I want to reclaim and encourage in returning to reconsider figures such as the situationists and Lefebvre.

So yes, I agree, cynicism is boring. However difficult it might seem to rekindle a utopian spirit at a time of Bush, Blair and all the rest, it is needed. When there only seems to be more pavement under the pavement—and I’m sure most of us feel that at least some of the time—it’s about disrupting the seemingly inevitable reproduction of the present. It’s about developing projects, events, situations and struggles through which other possibilities become more tangible and what is revealed as truly absurd is the claim, not that there are alternatives to be won, but that there aren’t any. Isn’t that the really shocking proposal, that this is it? One of the great functions of utopianism is to challenge to the ‘commonsense’ of a particular society. Through the attempt to imagine utopias, however seemingly impossible that might seem, there is a potential disruption of political horizons and the encouragement to explore different desires and possibilities. There are times when at least keeping open a sense of possibility is significant; so too is listening for and encouraging the stirrings of other worlds.

David Pinder teaches at the Department of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the City University of New York Graduate Center (Spring 2007).

Copyright © Zack Furness. All rights reserved.