Running out of Room

What causes housing problems, and why do they perpetuate in the face of concerted efforts to solve or even mitigate them? The list could be enormously expanded. However, though the concepts outlined in the following pages are aimed at elucidating these and other questions, no attempt has been made to answer them in a methodical fashion. Where relevant, all I have indicated is the manner in which some of these questions may be understood and answered according to the proposed schema. The concepts–which are both conclusions from the historical analysis, and building blocks of an eventual radical theory of urban development–are most usefully grouped under three categories. Firstly, those which provide the impetus for urban developnent, or decay, in the sense of determining the directions, objects, limits and/or rate of such developnment or decay. Secondly, those which constitute formative mechanisms whose function is to translate the pressures arising out of the first category into a social and spatial reality, and thereby to determine the actual shape of the city.


Thirdly, those which relate to ‘crisis management’ in that their object is to mitigate problems or conflicts which emerge from the   day-to-day operation of those variables grouped under the first two categories, thereby ensuring that the process of urban development proceeds relatively snoothly. These three categories of concepts and variables are discussed in the following six sections of this chapter. The chapter will conclude with an examination of the nature of the housing problem in the light of the proposed conceptual framework and an indication of radical praxis in relation to housing problems. Urbanism and the Mode of Production. The first set of concepts and variables are grouped together because they all provide, either singly or through their mutual interaction, the impetus for urban development, or decay, by determining the directions, objects, limits and rate of such development or decay. These are discussed in this and the following three sections of this chapter.


To begin with, we must conceptualize in broad terms the nature of the phenomen6n we wish to explain–we must develop a general   notion of what the city is in reality. This might seem trite, even tautological, but it is important as a datum–an indication of the most appropriate mode and sequence of enquiry, and a continual reference point that the enquiry is still on track and has not strayed, from explaining reality, into meaningless abstraction. It is doubly important because assumptions about what the city is in reality inevitably get embedded into the theory as structural features.


Thus wrong, or unrealistically abstract, assumptions lead   to incorrect and unrealistic theory. For example, a major shortcoming of the neo-classical theory of location and land rent is the naive and incorrect view of the real world upon which it is based.


Surely its proponents understand, from their own experience, that the city is not a “featureless plane” upon which sovereign firms and households compete by making trade-offs between land area and accessibility to the “centre” in order to maximize efficiency and “utility” respectively, thereby arriving mysteriously and harmoniously at a “pareto-optimal” static equilibrium state in which everyone is satisfied because improving one person’s lot would automatically deprive someone else; that urban land use patterns evolve sequentially, not instantaneously; that social and political power pervades the land market and is a significant structuring force; that social and physical infrastructure (schools, sewers, roads, etc.)


investment markedly influences land rent and location decisions, does not obey competitive market criteria and does not simply “happen” the instant pareto optimality is reached; that whether a home is rented or owned influences land rent and locational criteria; etcetera. Neither the fact that these “assumptions” make it easier for the advocates of neo-classical theory to model and quantify “reality” nor the fact that their results loosely approximate the real-world situation (only with respect to land rents) should detract from the fundamental unreality of their view of the city. Such myopia merely serves to justify both the theory and the objective inequalities of urban existence. In order to avoid this trap, it is essential to make   constant reference to an arguably realistic datum of ‘what the city is.’


The historical study indicates the following preliminary definition: The city is a spatially structured enviromnent created by society for the purpose of supporting and perpetuating a certain mode of production and reproduction of real life, in its totality; an environnent which both reflects and reinforces, though potentially threatens, the snooth functioning of the mode of production and reproduction. This complex statement holds the key to the set of forces which provide the impetus for urban developnent. I will briefly discuss sanme of the more important ones and simultaneously outline the concepts and variables which are appropriate in gaining an understanding of these forces and, therefore, in constructing a theory of urban developnent.


The first important concept is the mode of production and reproduction of real life. What does it mean and why is it so important? In 1990 Frederick Engels wrote that “the ultimately [though notthe only] determining element in history is the production  and reproduction of real life.” He was defending the materialist conception of history which argues that a group of individuals cannot survive on the basis of individual action; rather, in order to ensure their survival they must develop a certain mode of social organization and cooperation which enables then, as a social unit, to develop appropriate tools and techniques for changing the natural environment, and to apply these towards socially defined ends.


The totality of these social relations, tools and techniques, and socially defined   15] ends constitutes the mode of production. The mode of production, as opposed to legal, political or ideological systems, is accorded the status of primary determinant of the structure and evolution of a social formation because of its intimate connection to the material survival of that social formation, at whatever stage of development it has reached. This philosophy formed “the guiding thread of my studies”” for Karl Marx, and his formulation of it bears lengthy quotation in view of its centrality to the theory of urban development.


“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness…



May 13, 2018


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