The cities that will come after the pandemic

13 January, 2021

Following an old reflex, large capital funds are responding to the runaway crisis by moving from industry to real estate speculation. However, it doesn’t look good for them either: in the big Spanish cities the rental supply has doubled and prices have dropped between 7 and 9%. Underneath lie the changes that the crisis and the pandemic are starting to bring about in the cities.

During the last year, a part of the petty bourgeoisie was doing the numbers and fabricating a narrative in order to justify moving away from the same urban centers that it had been gentrifying since the nineties. The idea is to use the city house itself as an income generator and to buy a single-family house with a garden in the rural outskirts of the city with the proceeds from renting the city house. The extension of teleworking in offices and among civil servants of a certain level from all over Europe, reduced the added costs of living further away from corporate headquarters. Some pioneers in Italy, France and Spain started a new return to the countryside, a luxury one this time. Immediately some regions began to compete in order to attract those relatively high-income teleworkers and the state saw an opportunity for a new kind of rural repopulation.

The recapitalization of the city

In the meantime, we were bombarded with a raving history of urbanism in which Haussmann did not cut open the great boulevards to prevent the masonry barricades of the Parisian proletariat, but to create healthy air currents. This was not an innocent move, the propaganda campaign was followed by hordes of architects presenting those reforms that the pandemic made desirable. All of them were in agreement because… they had nothing to do with Covid, in fact they predated the pandemic and were in line with the urban projects linked to the Green Deal.

What they were trying to peddle to us, taking advantage of the receptiveness created by the massacre, was the model that the Barcelona city council intends to lay down, and which is internationally led by the Paris city council under the motto ofa city where everything is only a quarter of an hour away.

It basically involves cutting the space occupied by cars by 70%; increasing the area per person in newly built homes; and encouraging a whole new sector of co-working businesses, private nurseries and tourist apartments on the first floor of the properties themselves. This is in fact an attempt to recapitalize the city by conceiving the neighborhoods as small, overlapping urban villages where the limitation of private transport would reanimate local retail, creating a captive local public for the shopkeeper and the merchant.

Needless to say, all these houses with less floors, more square meters per person and more services, are also going to be more expensive. What’s more, most of the neighbors would not even be able to afford to make any renovations to approach them. Therefore, these urban fantasies, this dream of the petty-bourgeois city of stable neighborhoods, decentralized offices, large houses and happy shopkeepers, can only attempt to become a reality within the framework of a gigantic transfer of income from labor to capital: the Green Deal. In its urban translation, the EU plan means revamping over a million homes in Spain alone. The process will be encouraged partly with public aid and partly, as in Germany, with green taxes on housing. If we translate it into the reality of the neighborhoods and add this to the previous urban plans, the result will create the basis for a new gentrification. The old neighborhoods will no longer be there, now the goal is to gentrify the city practically in its entirety by expelling the urban proletariat to its periphery.

When capital creates the city from scratch

In times of crisis the struggle to place and attract capital multiplies. Egypt is entrusting a good part of its strategy to refloat national capital to enormous urban projects. The new capital alone is expected to attract $58 billion in investments. The Emirates has its own project, Masdar. But the flagship project is Saudi: Neom.

Neom echoes in its argumentation and in its solutions those of Arturo Soria 140 years ago. Instead of the tendency to concentrate the growth of investment value in the center that every city that grows in rings around its foundational nucleus has, Neom is a linear city of autonomous neighborhoods, superimposed and united by a big garden. Instead of streets, spaces; instead of a central avenue, a railroad. It also upgrades the nineteenth-century streetcar with a high-speed train, factories mutate into financial centers, and gas distribution gives way to renewable energy power plants. And, of course: services, a holographic moon, artificial rain, energy and irrigation are managed through an intelligent network controlled by an Artificial Intelligence. Because Neom tries to materialize an old dream of the ruling class: not having to see or share space with the exploited. The documents concerning the first sketches of the project, leaked a little more than a year ago, talked about replacing all workers with robots in practically all fields, from maintenance to domestic work.

Beyond the classist delusion, the underlying thoughts are not very different from those found in Paris’ or Barcelona’s planning. The difference is that here the aim is not to revalue an old capital accumulated over centuries, but to attract a mass of capital to which it will offer a credible return on investment with a new use and a population that will only move if the companies move first. In the official presentation made by Prince Salman he spoke of between 100,000 and 200,000 million dollars of investment for a population of one million inhabitants.

The city of the future?

If the class struggle left scars in the form of avenues designed to disperse insurrectionists and highways designed to divide classes and contain demographic flows, capital accumulation literally shaped the city under capitalism. It progressively opposed it to the countryside… until the rural world was left desert. It shaped its image and resemblance, distributing space within time the way capital did: monstrous Manhattans with impossible prices for their downtown areas, and a mass of mini-flats and neighborhoods for the workers, as devalued as our labor power is.

The force and drive of accumulation is what makes the recapitalization plans of the old European cities utopian -or cynical-. We have seen for years that when it works, it gentrifies and expels workers and pensioners. And if it fails, it breaks down the social fabric to the point of lumpenization. Nor will accumulation be more lenient with the urbanistic fantasies of the Saudi princes. There is no country club without a slum, there is no ghetto for the rich that is sustainable without a more or less contiguous bantustan… and of course, without an exploitative structure to extract wealth to keep them as a class.

What we are seeing is not the city of the future, but the delusions of the bourgeois city, the ruling class and its planning petty bourgeoisie which are trying to take the denial of labor and workers to the extreme. They do not want to see what they have turned the whole of society into. They claim the city for themselves and call that nightmare the future. But the future is just the opposite. The future is the non-city in a society without exploitation.