The “new city”, an inclusive place designed to counter the proliferation of ethnic and social ghettos

by Umberto De Giovannangeli

The challenge of inclusion requires us to re-think our cities and the relationship between the centre and the suburbs. City planning can either promote or dismantle social cohesion. The “new city” is a political thought, interpreted in the highest and most noble sense of the term “polis”. The “New city” gets to grips with the quantitative dimension of urbanisation, especially in the countries in the southern parts of the world.

The destination of the human pathway is neither a garden or the countryside, however fertile and attractive it may be, but rather the city. It is the city described in the book of Revelation, with twelve gates, twelve thousand stadia long and thick; so a city in which all the peoples of the earth are called upon to come and live. Its gates will never be closed during the day and there it will never be night (Rev. 21-25). We do not necessarily need to have an ideal city in front of our eyes, but at least an ideal of a city...”

Carlo Maria Martini

• Interpreting the city and the complexity of its territories, resources, identities and characteristics means equipping ourselves with a reading filter which - like a narrative pretext - tells its stories to be told, identifies reference scenarios and defines keywords in order to evoke the structures, resources, identity and perspective of its transformation.

In particular, the spatial layout of the city, its geographical distribution, floods itself with historical, cultural, social, economic and town planning meanings. And depending on the reading filters used, these present perspectives of promotion and development that do not necessarily respond to the traditional models of urban functioning that can be defined in a hierarchical sense: the centre - as the place that represents the urban, economic, social and cultural identity - and the suburbs - seen as a place hosting everything that cannot be located in the centre.

On the other hand, if it is true that contemporary life is a mixture of elements, more social than ethnic or cultural, today, the urban suburbs are often places where, on the other hand, a new meaning of city is taking shape, and in which global contradictions and conflicts present themselves on a local level and promptly collapse. The new citizens, first and second generations immigrants, often represent a mirror in which the historical city looks at its reflection and fails to recognise itself: the use of the public spaces, - the squares, the gardens, the pavements - again become the prime locations for social relationships and collective interactions, albeit untidy, noisy and conflictual ones. In this way, they reassign public function to spaces that the contemporary city has gradually privatised, regulated and supervised over the years.

Reasoning by adopting new paradigms and trying to redesign the division between the centre and the suburbs, means acknowledging and assigning cultural and social value to the urban hybrids that intertwine and meet in the suburbs. The multi-centre city is not only one capable of distributing new functions on an urban scale to all its territories: multi-screen cinemas and leisure centres in the suburbs, an opera house and museums in the centre. The “new city” is seen as the challenge of our era, goading us to combine, on a planetary level, security and inclusion, notes Sir Crispin Tickell in his introduction to the book “Cities for a small planet” by Richard Rogers: “Cities behave like organisms. They swallow resources and emit waste. The larger the city, the more it depends on the surrounding areas and the more vulnerable it becomes to the changes happening around it...” Indeed.

The challenge of inclusion requires us to re-think our cities and the relationship between the centre and the suburbs. City planning can either promote or dismantle social cohesion. The “new city” is a political thought, interpreted in the highest and most noble sense of the word “polis”. The “New city” gets to grips with the quantitative dimension of urbanisation, especially in the countries in the southern parts of the world, Asia, Africa, where the depopulation of the rural areas has caused overcrowding in the megalopolis cities, putting greater pressure on the environment. And this also means a larger number of refugees. In 1978 there were 6 million refugees, in the strictest sense of the word, that is, people fleeing from political, ethnic or religious persecution; in 1995 they had increased in number to over 22 million, excluding those who had become refugees for environmental reasons, some migrating from country to country, and others fleeing elsewhere within their own borders, with an overall additional increase of 22 million.

In 2016, the number of refugees exceeded a record-breaking 64 million. “The effect of this flow of human beings will be felt, especially in the cities and the surrounding areas”, notes Tickell. The “new” city is the - sometimes successful - attempt to combine the ideal with the real. Tickell ends his introduction as follows: “The book by Richard Rogers is a message of hope. It shows how the fair, well-balanced and above all compact city must be pluralist and integrated, varied and cohesive. The result should be, in the words of Richard Rogers, a high density city with many centres, an eco-friendly city, one that favours human contacts, a city of different, mixed activities, one that is fair, open and, last but not least, a city that is capable of showing beauty, in which art, architecture and landscape can stimulate and satisfy the spirit. Richard Rogers shows us how this can be done”.

In the divide between centre and suburbs, notes Ilda Curti, one of the top Italian urban regenerators, the historical centres now risk taking on the artificial semblances of “amusement parks”, in which the functions for which they were created are excluded or rendered sterile. Instead they offer reinterpreted, sometimes trivialised identities, crushing themselves around a historical identity that is crystallised, unchangeable and reiterated over time.

In this perspective, the urban suburbs and the neighbourhoods not located in the centres risk, on the contrary becoming service areas, piled high with functions for which there is not enough space in the ‘developed’ city. Places in which the untidy scraps of the contemporary city find a physical, well-planned urban location in which they are easy and handy to use. But often they are not capable of generating local projects, visions of indigenous development that are able to assign value - albeit of the intangible, immaterial type - to a collectivity that is spatially hemmed in”. Often, Curti notes, “the urban suburbs are, more than other areas, places where contemporary life is produced and consumed: the social mix of the residents, the multiculturalism and cohabitation, the difficulty of sharing public spaces and private relationships turn them into laboratories in which a new kind of citizenship is tested out, where the rules of how we live side by side and relate to one another are continuously cast up for debate.

It is in the suburbs, in the neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the historical cities that contemporary society multiples itself, in many different shapes and sizes, often taking on forms that clash with the concept of a crystalline, glossy modernity. They are often the laboratories of social innovation, because it is in the recesses of their untidiness and conflicts that languages, cultural forms and methods of expression contaminate one another. The very future of the planet passes through an intense rethinking of the “City”. Others will tell of pilot experiences (like that of the redevelopment of the Brazilian favelas, experiences in which Italian Cooperation has played an active, pro-active role.

Here, it is important to highlight the fascination of this challenge, City versus urban Forest. And I cannot find words that are more evocative and deep than those used by cardinal Carlo Maria Martini in his “Towards Jerusalem” (Feltrinelli): “The destination of the human pathway is neither the garden or the countryside, however fertile and attractive it may be, but rather the city...It is the city described in the book of Revelation, with twelve gates, twelve thousand stadia long and thick; so a city in which all the peoples of the earth are called upon to come and live. Its gates will never be closed during the day and there it will never be night (Rev. 21-25)”. Cardinal Martini was looking towards the future, with the same extraordinary intellectual precision that accompanied him throughout his life, reminding all of us that “We do not necessarily need to have an ideal city in front of our eyes, but at least an ideal of a city”. habits and identity...”. Defining the characteristics of a “New city” is the biggest intellectual challenge of our times. Because it obliges us to design beyond the emergency, to intertwine different kinds of knowledge. “The city is a discourse and this discourse is truly a language: the city speaks to its inhabitants; we speak to our city, the city where we are, simply by living in it, by wandering through it, by looking at it” reflects Roland Barthes in his “Semiology and Urbanism”. And at times, urbanism explains much more abut the reasons behind a conflict than geopolitics or diplomacy are able to do. This is true for one of the cities that I have visited most frequently for work in the Middle East: Jerusalem. Holy city, City that is fought over, in whose name atrocities have been committed and “miracles” performed. To understand the real Jerusalem, writes Paola Caridi in her wonderful book “Jerusalem without God. Portrait of a Cruel City” (Feltrinelli), “we don’t need the usual, infinite tourist guides, intent on providing hordes of details when defining each individual stone with the slightest link to religion. Maps, floor plans and town planning schemes are what we need...”. Because Jerusalem is a “separate body”. “Lines, borders, walls, one here and one there. Here, where I am and on the other side, where the ‘others’ are - notes Caridi, who has lived in Jerusalem and knows the city like few others - Deciding on a town planning scheme in Jerusalem therefore means throwing oneself headlong into the process of peace. The two-state solution indicated by the Oslo Peace Process, and that is Israel and Palestine side by side, with Jerusalem as the capital, along the 1967 divide, is impossible to implement. This is due to the town planning strategy and because - as a result the city now has a population with a different, in fact a very different balance from that of 1967. Others will tell the stories of unique experiences, of the virtuous redevelopment of degenerated places transformed into pieces of “New city” (for instance the experience of the favelas or that of Medellin). Here, it is important to highlight the fascination of a commitment in which Italian Cooperation plays an active, pro-active part, and on which the very future of our planet depends.