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Uncertainty and Urban Life
Austin Zeiderman, Sobia Ahmad Kaker,
Jonathan Silver, and Astrid Wood
Octavia is a city formed in the imagination of Italian writer Italo Calvino (1974: 75). It is a “spider- web city” hanging over a void between a pair of steep mountains, “bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks.” Getting from place to place requires great skill, for there’s nothing but clouds below for hundreds of feet until you hit the valley floor: “You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands.” The entire city is sustained by a mere “net which serves as passage and as support.” Rather than rise up from this foundation, everything else dangles beneath: “rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb- waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.” What could be more precarious, more uncerPublic Culture 27:2 doi 10.1215/08992363-2841868
Copyright 2015 by Duke University Press e s s ay s
This project has been undertaken both collectively and individually. The conceptual framing emerged from a conversation about common threads running through our respective cases, after which we agreed that uncertainty was a way to describe our shared observations. The introduction was written by Austin Zeiderman in consultation with Sobia Ahmad Kaker, Jonathan Silver, and
Astrid Wood. The collaborative endeavor began after all of us had concluded extensive field research in our respective sites. Yet data collected individually were reanalyzed collectively with a fresh eye.
The empirical sections were written individually with feedback from the other authors. The conclusion emerged from collective identification of cross- cutting themes. It was written primarily by
Zeiderman with substantive input from Kaker, Silver, and Wood.
We would like to acknowledge the support of LSE Cities and in particular Ricky Burdett and
Philipp Rode for enabling this collaboration. We would also like to thank all the participants in the
Urban Uncertainty workshop series that ran from 2012 to 2014 in London with a final event in Delhi.
The following people commented generously on this article or the ideas contained within it, and to them we express our gratitude: Richard Sennett, Gareth Jones, Suzi Hall, Gunter Gassner, Murray
Low, Ian Gordon, Alan Mace, Hyun Bang Shin, Jennifer Robinson, Nikhil Anand, and two anonymous reviewers. We also benefited greatly from Eric Klinenberg’s editorial guidance. Thanks go to
D. Asher Ghertner, Malini Ranganathan, and Kavita Ramakrishnan for advancing our collective thinking on urban uncertainty with their own insightful contributions.
Published by Duke University Press 2 8 2 tain, than such a city, where systems of sustenance and livelihood hang by a thread and the simplest journey might send one plummeting into the void?
But here’s the twist: “Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities.” How could it possibly be so? Because
Octavians are aware of that which elsewhere remains concealed. The essay concludes: “They know the net will last only so long” (see fig. 1).
Calvino’s Octavia prompts us to consider uncertainty as an important dimension of urban life. In some respects, it has long preoccupied attempts to plan, build, and govern cities. Architects and urbanists of a modernist persuasion have often sought antidotes to that which cannot be known or managed: the “model” incarnates a vision of future possibility; the “zone” separates areas with ambiguous boundaries; the “census” enables calculations on which to base interventions; the “plan” offers an authoritative promise of the city to come. However, uncertainty has been a problem not only for professional urbanists but also for inhabitants of cities. Early theorists of the modern urban experience were deeply concerned about the social and psychological effects of city life. In opposition to what they assumed to be the regular, stable, and familiar routines of rural existence, the city was defined as a fundamentally unknowable and unpredictable environment.
What Georg Simmel (1969 ) called the “mental life of the metropolis” was a response to the frenetic tempo, the unbounded multiplicity, and the infinite complexity of the modern city. If one responded to all external stimuli, he worried, “one would be completely atomized internally and come to an unimaginable psychic state” (ibid.: 53). An attitude of impersonality, anonymity, and indifference was thought to be a defense against the fundamental uncertainty of the modern metropolis. This duality in the legacy of urbanism — uncertainty as a feature of urban life, uncertainty as a target of urban intervention — leads us to investigate both situated experiences of uncertainty and attempts to mitigate and manage it.
Though the problem of uncertainty has its place in the history of urbanism, it has taken on new urgency of late. Urbanization, Neil Brenner (2013: 85) observes, “has become one of the dominant metanarratives through which our current planetary situation is interpreted, both in academic circles and in the public sphere.”
Yet there is disagreement at the most basic level over how to describe the global
Figure 1 Han Feng, Floating City (2013). Installation, color inkjet and parchment paper. Aichi Triennale 2013, Japan
Published by Duke University Press
Urban Life 2 8 3 urban condition and how best to analyze and interpret it (e.g., McFarlane 2011a;
Brenner, Madden, and Wachsmuth 2011). As received paradigms of urban theory have come into question, there is a proliferation of analytical frameworks competing for dominance (Brenner and Schmid 2014; Roy 2009b; Scott and Storper 2014). If there is any consensus about twenty- first- century cities, it is around the impossibility of predicting what they will become. A parallel situation exists in the realm of urban policy and practice. Beyond the perfunctory projection that “the future is urban,” there is no shared vision of how this future will unfold.