City as political idea

Krzysztof Nawratek’s book City as a Political Idea was first published in Polish in 2008, it became synonymous with Poland’s Right To The City movement and widely read by members of informal coalition – the Urban Movements Congress – comprising urban activist groups from all over Poland. Published in English in 2011, City as a Political Idea seems more relevant than ever to a discussion about urban citizenship that asks what urban citizenship means now in these post-recessionary times.


Krzysztof Nawrat

Krzysztof Nawrat

Dr Krzysztof Nawratek is a Master of Architecture programme leader at the School of Architecture, Design and Environment, Plymouth University, Educated as an architect and urban planner, he has worked in Poland, Latvia and Ireland. An urban theorist, he is also the author of Holes in the Whole. Introduction to the Urban Revolutions (Winchester 2012), Architecture and Urbanism of Radical Inclusivity (ed. Forthcoming Barcelona 2015) and Re-Industrialisation and Progressive Urbanism (ed. Forthcoming New York, 2015).

He is interviewed here by Stacey Hunter co-editor of The New Metropolitan, at the University of Edinburgh.

Stacey: What is citizenship? You write that:

We experience it the most when we do not have it. When one is excluded from a community then one can see its strength …

Krzysztof: Yes, there are a few ‘proper’ definitions though what I am really interested in is the various acts of becoming citizen.

Stacey: Right, and you discuss the contemporary condition of ‘almost citizenship’

Krzysztof: Yes, this could be linked to the ‘denizen’ concept Guy Standing talks about, while talking about pracariat. To give an example – I have been living in Riga, Latvia between 2003 and 2006 and Riga was very interesting to me since a 30% of the population has not Latvian citizenship – but before Latvia joined being a citizen was almost irrelevant. They could live their lives successfully, they could work, use health care and education. However when Latvia became part of the European Union the idea of citizenship suddenly became very important. People used their Latvian citizenship to go outwards to the UK, Germany or Sweden. For example, in UK today if you talk to Latvian immigrants they are mostly Russian speaking This is where the idea of the plug-in citizen is comes from.

Riga's Doma Laukums (Cathedral Square)

Riga’s Doma Laukums (Cathedral Square)

Stacey: And this in turn relates to the notion of the Citizen-Consumer you write about in City as a Political Idea in terms of citizenship in urban space and the overwhelming advantage that global corporations have gained over ordinary people.

Krzysztof: Yes, Plug-in Citizen is a way to define how people are interacting with the social, economical and political infrastructure of the city but it is also a project suggesting a need to create an institutional tools to allow newcomers integrate into the city. Citizenship in democratic countries means you can vote and therefore influence the community. So in the most recent election in Greece, we see a claiming back of the idea of citizenship. Citizens in Greek cities could really be involved in defining the political sphere; how much it belongs to them or how little it belongs to global financial institutions. Similarly, the book is an attempt to claim back the city as a community where citizens can define its fate.

Stacey: Can you say a little more about what you mean by the city as a community?

Krzysztof: Becoming part of a community, whether at the level of your neighbourhood or at the level of a city or in a national sense can differ immensely. To use the example of Estonia, different regulations once meant that people without citizenship (mostly Russians) could vote on a local level but not a national level. So I’m talking about a mechanism for allowing people to be involved in a life where they live. Citizenship as we know it is important because it give certain rights – but here we need to define what exactly these rights are – do citizens have granted free healthcare? Free education? Accommodation? Work? So when we talk about citizenship we must look at it from the perspective of rights (and obligations). An access to social infrastructure I define as a process of plugging – in. From this point of view, citizenship granted by cities could be more important than citizenship on a national level.

Stacey: How can one be involved more deeply at a city level?

Krzysztof: The most important aspect is the way how the political, social, economical structures are defined, so it’s not so much about the individual and more about the institutions of the city. What city would like to provide for its citizens and what the city – as a community and institution – is expecting from them.

Stacey: In City as a Political Idea you state that the reintegration of urban space using urbanism or land use planning is not relevant enough precisely because their role has become purely regulatory, instrumental and expert:

The only effective remedy would be to reclaim the City as a political idea, as a self-governing organism. Not planning, not social programs, but politics is the path of salvation for cities.

Stacey: I agree, and I think it is significant to the discussion about urban citizenship, especially when I think of Scotland’s (contemporary) experience of using New Urbanist theories to try to counteract sprawl and to produce ‘community’ at a city scale.

Krzysztof: If you talk about New Urbanism, you are talking about a certain type of citizen, and New Urbanism uses pastiche to define what community is.

Stacey: Exactly.

Krzysztof: There’s nothing wrong with some of aspects of this idea – walkable neighbourhoods or balanced development of jobs and housing are nice concepts, the problem is that New Urbanism is based on wrong, dated idea of community. It rejects not only multi-ethnic diversity (it could be implemented into New Urbanist agenda) but it ignores fact that people are coming and going, we have huge number of users of cities – like students, tourists, immigrants – not permanent residents. Urban spaces are less often places where people live for years and years. Current urban society doesn’t fit to the New Urbanist model which sees citizenship as very stable with permanent structural bonds. It’s naivety is not connected with the world as it exists now.

It is slightly surprising that New Urbanism is so important in Scotland – I was under the impression that Scottish nationalism is inclusive – you can become Scottish. It’s not about blood and soil. The referendum was based on the principle that any resident can vote and I think it was a very encouraging principle. Taking it as a point of departure we should – I think – discuss a very different model of urban development in Scotland, based on defining different mechanisms (or as I call them – interfaces) allowing diverse people to plug-in into local and city’s communities.

We need several different ways for people (students, immigrants) to create communities, at an institutional level. In Plymouth we have a population of 260,000 and about 30,000 students. They exist and are recognised only on an economic level by the city. Which if you think about it is quite shocking. It’s a massive group of people, though there for a short space of time, we could show a willingness to creating different layers of plugging in. Planning for spaces where these people can be part of a community and meet is where planning is important but we need a more flexible usage of urban structure. The current interest with pop up businesses and shops reflects an appetite for this.

Stacey: In Plymouth as in Edinburgh students are a resource to be exploited, or seen by some parts of the community as a huge problem.

Krzysztof: Yes, instead we could allow these people to be part of the community, be part of something bigger and creating spaces where these different communities could meet and integrate. Global Scot which links and brokers with its knowledge of the Scottish system language and regulations could be an interesting inspiration. Cities could consider granting some kind of special type of Citizenship for students, some kind of extended and developed the alumni tradition.

Stacey: In the book you discuss ‘dirty’ managerial governance and it’s relationship to urban citizenship projects where you say the revitalisation of urban space often concerns only space and the economy and completely ignores social problems.

The ultimate goal is to push the revitalisation of disadvantaged areas and groups outside the administrative boundaries of the city. Here we see the fundamental difference between ‘dirty’ managerial governance and the management style in Singapore. ‘Dirty’ managerial governance (not all of them are, of course) is a cynical use of the masks of ‘common good’, ‘global competition’, ‘protecting the most vulnerable’ and – above all – ‘freedom’, in order to protect and promote the strong, rich and privileged.

Krzysztof: In Singapore the roots of managerial governance is a socialist idea. It’s clever and nasty at the same time as it allows grants certain people citizenship, but the system uses poorer people from surrounding areas to serve Singapore citizens. But citizens of Singapore are protected and supported. The new Prime Minister of Greece establish that the agenda is for the citizens of Greece, not bankers or corporations. In contrast – many years ago I had a chat with former mayor of Riga who told me about his strategy which was to kick out Riga’s poor and attract rich people. We come to the question how do we define the democratic community? The city that I try to define is connected in to idea of Polis, as a democratic community. People together are defining their own future, their own fate. This Mayor was acting against citizens of Riga, and he tried to justify his approach by a ‘common good of the city’. This is a very dangerous attitude, clearly anti-democratic, very often clearly connected with serving local and global elite – London could be a good example – the land is increasingly owned by foreign investors – this mechanism works against people currently living in this city.

Riga's Doma Laukums (Cathedral Square)

Riga’s Doma Laukums (Cathedral Square)

Stacey: Do you suppose the invisibility – in part the sheer incomprehensibility of the forces that shape contemporary cities is deepened by a largely digitised public sphere of governance? I refer in part to this excerpt from your book:

“Authority has become so fragmented and volatile that any rebellion against it now seems like a silly fight with a windmill.”

Krzysztof: Yes, the problem is that from a political point of view it’s too dispersed, it makes any political movement passive by default as there is no specific place or point it could ‘attack’. Defining key elements of political structure is important. Okay, the power is dispersed, but there are still key people and places in the city that we can consider if we want to make a change – it’s not about rejecting the reality of power but about not being drawn into and endless analysis about power.

For example – the wealthy 1%, in fact much more less – there are about 80 people of a global financial elite. We don’t need to know precisely how they accumulate the power, we should be able to define how to take this power back. ‘Forget’ a Foucaultian understanding of dispersed power and just name kay people and institutions!

Stacey: You write in the book that –

Public spaces have no significance for the city today. They lost their political significance, and today they exist in closing cinemas

– I agree in part that public spaces have largely lost their political significance, though there are exceptions where past significances can be invoked. But what are the spaces that might reintroduce politics into the everyday daily life of cities?

Krzysztof: From an architectural point of view there is a obsession with public space – or what architects define as public space. Places where the people will come and create social bonds in a primitive materialization of of the Habermassian public sphere. But the real problem is, that these spaces are seen as separated from the mundane urban structure, they are seen as spaces of exceptions, of play and fun. The Hausmannian boulevards [of Paris] were designed to prevent riots – in 1968 they were occupied – this is the moment when the students’ become recognised as a important political actor, when they achieved ‘infrastructural power’ because the were able to disrupt the normal city life. I’m not interested in spaces of carnival or fun, I’m more interested in politicising common spaces that can disrupt, ‘normal’ spaces – spaces that are essentially important parts of the city.

Stacey: May we conclude with your view on something central to one of The New Metropolitan’s preoccupations, what is the effect on urban citizens of austerity in Europe?

Krzysztof: The current problem in austerity type states where welfare is being dismantled is the way that people can be part of a community is diminished. It’s undemocratic, dangerous. It transforms citizenship to make it unimportant. If you allow me to come back to Riga just after Latvia became independent – it this period even non-citizens were still guaranteed access to free education, health care and social housing. Compare it with an ‘austerity state’ where even citizens are losing right to free education, health care and housing. So to define a citizenship we first must define a community she is a citizen of.


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