a text by Stefano Boeri, on ABITARE 513 issue

The Anti-city, the risk of the disintegration of our urban societies, is not only a phenomenon linked to social exclusion and the stigma of rebellion. There is an Anti-city which is much more powerful and widespread and which every day changes the spaces where we live our lives, something which is breaking up our society, in Italy, in Europe and in many other parts of the planet. The Anti-city is not only that which emerges from the fact that too many similar kinds of lives are concentrated in spaces which are too alike, and where urban revolts explode, showing a total alienation from the urban condition. The Anti-city is a source of deep energy and is apparently peaceful, and it does not oppose itself to the cities where we live. It tends, on the other hand, to erode it from within. Without making big gestures, it moves quietly and often invisibly within the mechanisms of reproduction of contemporary urban space; it breaks down connections, and unties knots, it compromises the very workings of the city.

The Anti-city which worries us today is not born from exclusion or a sense of revolt, but from the fragmentation and dissipation of those vital energies which flow in every corner of urban life. This Anti-city does not grow through processes of concentration and closure, but rather in those where urban connections are diluted. It does not create an alternative to that city we have inherited from centuries of history, but is, if anything, a more recent version of it, something postmodern.
While it is part of contemporary life, the Anti-city co-exists with other historic forms of production in the city, with its important social and physical divisions linked to industrial modernity, the expansion related to the Renaissance era, the mono-centrism of  the medieval city. In order to develop, it has no need to destroy the physical legacy of the city, but tends, rather, to conquer it from the inside and reconfigure its spaces, erecting barriers and breaking them up.

The Anti-city is nothing other that the city which we are aware of and where we live; it is not a form of cancer and nor does it represent the death of the city. It is an underground city which has always flowed in the veins of every urban community. A river which collects urban energies linked to daily lives and pushes them towards individualism and fragmentations which, at times, explode.

Fragmentation does not mean an absence of community, the absence of rules, the absence of physical and social order. The vibrations of the Anti-city are born from within the need to “make the city”, the anti-bodies which work against the need of people to live together and to recognise themselves in those forms. And like all anti-bodies, those of the Anti-city have an important function: they help to avoid anonymity, the loss of identity linked to blood, race, culture, religion which the sharing of space can produce.

But there are episodes, periods and epochs when the Anti-city stops working as a necessary counterpart to those aggregative pulses which push forward urban society; it stops being a necessary break from the over homogenous nature of ordinary urban space, between one house and another, one neighbourhood and another and between one city and another. In these periods the Anti-city begins to dominate, it becomes all-powerful; it even sets the rules for daily life. Its energy – which is no longer contained or controlled by the power of links to neighbours, by density, by the urban condition – is freed up through a myriad of small activities, which dilute the value of human relationships and construct enclaves where there is no social or cultural variety. It weakens relationships between different communities and transforms differences of identity and culture into physical barriers. Today, we are living in one of these moments.

This is the time of big urban areas, the time when cities have had success on a global scale and the urban condition has become pervasive. But the global success of the political, economic, symbolic model of urban life, which is considered by everyone as the most efficient way to live in the world, runs the risk of undermining the essential aspects of the way the city is made. Often, in reality, it is the anti-urban values which are winning, with the accelerated speed or urban growth, the megalopolis created by unstoppable internal migrations, and the numerous edge cities produced by uncontrolled decentralisation.

In the period when the urban condition is winning, the Anti-city is building huge cities without borders across the world, places which are extending into those areas which were once used for agriculture or simply left to nature, and these new cities are made up of a number of mono-cultural islands which are uninterested in the workings of the geographical and anthropological organisation of which they are part.

Yet, even at this time, paradoxically, the Anti-city remains an essential part of the creation of the city. It cannot stop feeding off those energies which are pushing towards the coming together of spaces and social groups, in order to fragment and weaken them; those energies which bring people together and create links between them, which connect up identities and favour the sharing of experiences and daily practices.

For all these reasons, today more than ever, we need to understand the Anti-city in all its forms, and recognise these forms with clarity, while avoiding the temptation to see them not as part of our own lives. We need to understand where and how they work, what rules they follow, how they push themselves. Because we are the Anti-city: like it or not.


Photo by Antonio Ottomanelli