THINK | Culture War

Posted on 07/04/2011

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It’s a serious question, one that I am starting to explore. Is urban development and planning the site of new culture wars, raging on the ruins and relics of old culture wars? The writings of Mike Davis, David Harvey, Henri LeFebvre and others tends to speak to this proposition.  There’s a much cited cultural turn in urban discourse, politics and practices and so the idea of culture war in and for this territory is not surprising and probably not new. It feels like a scramble sometimes. Most recently, the piece I’ve read which highlights this is Dan Hill’s ‘review’ of the National Urban Policy discussion paper published in Architecture Australia (‘Same Old New World Cities’, Architecture Australia, Mar/Apr 11, with an extended remix online at facebook). For convenience, I will just focus on this paper rather than write more broadly. A few key turns of phrase in Hill’s piece express that the wrangling over the future of our cities will be fought as a culture war. In the first instance, Hill identifies the absence of a ‘national narrative’ in the discussion about cities. For me, this is fundamentally a cultural negotiation, hinging in part on broadly posed ideas of cultural identity and its inflection in land and country. In all the flourish towards a national cultural policy, why weren’t we drawn into a national narrative there either?  He points out that there is continuing emphasis, even fixation, on symptoms rather than drivers of cities. This tends to position planning instruments more centrally than the should i.e. planning instruments, like infrastructure, are “not what the city is for”. The platitudes in urban planning and design – a kind of ‘un-thinking’ – today have a hegemonic ring about them: we can safely travel the world and step into ‘world cities’ that are paved with strategies naming them liveable, prosperous and sustainable. This points to normative textual and rhetorical strategies that continue to fail the livedness or realness of our cities. As Hill further explains, “we don’t make cities in order to make infrastructure. We make infrastructure in order to support cities.” Hill has much more to say – about resilience, vision, hyperlocalisation, post-traumatic urbanism, un-building and shared value – and the entire essay seems to read as a signal that culture war (and this is unlikely to be Hill’s intention) is looming beyond the ‘contested space’ of localised skirmishes and resident actions opposing urban development and ‘planning shift’.

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