The housing complex located at the Rue des Brigittines in the heart of Brussels was once the flagship project of the social housing development. It now has become a symbol of the degradation of the quality of life for the poorest social groups, underlining the urgent need for an ambitious plan to deal with spatial inequalities. | Die Großwohnsiedlung an der Rue des Brigittines im Herzen Brüssels war einst ein Leuchtturmprojekt des sozialen Wohnungsbaus. Heute ist es ein Symbol für die abnehmende Lebensqualität bedürftiger sozialer Schichten, das die Notwendigkeit eines ambitionierten Planungsansatz für räumliche Gerechtigkeit verdeutlicht. © Artgineering
GAM 15

Social Inequalities, the Urban Question and Financial Crises

Bernardo Secchi

The western world has lived through its share of crises. Those of great importance were multifaceted, being simultaneously economic and financial, institutional, political, social, and cultural; they led to reflection in each of these fields and to the search for radical solutions to the unease and problems that arose in each. Some of these crises, possibly those most important and longest lasting, coincided, unsurprisingly, with the emergence of a fundamental urban question. The world emerged differently from each crisis, and so did the city: different in its spatial structure, in its role and its function, and in its image.


The modern city, for example—formed by “questions of housing” and the Baudelairian metropolis—is different than that of the ancien régime before it, partly because of its “polemic against luxury.” Each of these city models not only symbolically represents a different social order, but also acts to form the basis of its own expansion. Similarly, the metropolis at the beginning of the twentieth century—the vertical city epitomized by New York—is different than Haussmann’s Paris, Victorian London or fin de siècle Vienna, icons of the nineteenth century and cities of which the early twentieth-century city retained many aspects, just as the city of the nineteenth century retained aspects of that of the ancien régime. The early twentiethcentury metropolis adds peripheries to that of the nineteenth, to which the city of the late twentieth century adds the scattering of the “diffuse city.”[1]


With each crisis the urban question reappeared with new themes, new conflicts and new subjects, and new systems of alliance and compatibility, in which different ideas of equality and inequality and their respective spatial order can be discerned.[2] The crisis of the beginning of the twenty-first century—a crisis that matured slowly over three decades of growing inequality, and that is likely destined to last and influence western economies and societies to a greater extent than we wish to believe—coincides, as do others of the past, with the emergence of an important and layered urban question; a question whose true character is only tentatively acknowledged. At the heart of this crisis’s many dimensions lie social inequalities: the greed of the rich,[3] the progressive dismantling of the welfare state, and the diminishing quality of life of society’s poorest groups. Social inequalities are perhaps not so much a result of the crisis, but rather are among its very causes; causes that are by no means incidental. The old and the new rich, as much as they may consume from within their protective enclosures, will never provide a sufficient demand to guarantee the growth of the economy, of a single country or of the planet. No economy has ever grown through the production of luxury goods alone, while technical progress means that an increase in global production will require less and less labor.


With the 1970s began a new and global phase of accumulation that, more than ever before, requires the formation of vast markets. The planet’s gross domestic product is increasing, but growth is no longer distributed according to traditional geography that privileges the oldest areas of industrialization and development. We are witnessing an extraordinary spatial redistribution of the production and formation of wealth, accompanied by an equally extraordinary redistribution of the population across different parts of the planet, both between nations and within countries themselves. Due to this redistribution, some countries are able to develop and increase national well-being, while historically advanced countries—those in which the welfare state was originally conceived and introduced—suffer the consequences in the form of unemployment, growing difficulties for younger generations in entering the job market, and rising poverty.


The violent urbanization in Latin America, Japan, China, India, and various African countries—an urbanization that, strangely, no longer generates the anguish it produced in European and North American cities at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century[4]—is crucial for the development of large, spatially concentrated and globally integrated markets. It is rarely accepted or understood that new forms of territorial occupation worldwide signal a definitive break with past forms of political, economic and social organization. Likewise, it is reluctantly accepted that urban and territorial reforms are a universally unavoidable component of comprehensive “biopolitical” visions and actions; that the city, always thought of as the space of social and cultural integration par excellence, has in the last decades of the twentieth century become a powerful machine for the suspension of individual and collective rights. These policies, like all policies, required an ideology and a rhetoric: the ideology of the market and the rhetoric of security. Both have pervaded the last decades of the past century, relying on a coherent spatial policy and on the interplay of physical devices that make visible the separation of social classes, in the way that it was once possible to visibly perceive the separation between factory and workers’ districts, on one side, and offices and exclusive neighborhoods on the other.


In June 1937, the National Resource Committee presented President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with a report titled “Our Cities: Their Role in the National Economy,”[5] the first large-scale study of the conditions and problems of the city in the United States. In 1909 the same National Resources Committee had published a report for presentation to President Theodore Roosevelt, concerning living conditions in the rural world. It was the widespread belief that ruralism was at the root of American democracy. In the words of Frank Lloyd Wright: “‘Ruralism,’ as distinguished from ‘urbanism,’ is American, and truly Democratic.”[6]


In the chapter of the 1937 report dedicated to emerging problems with the national economy, then still in a phase of profound recession, stark disparities in income and wealth within urban areas were given top priority. This observation led the committee to suggest considering the city—a place where half of the American population was living at the time—as a fundamental resource for the recovery of the economy, not least due to the large quantity of human capital and broad spectrum of skills they contained, and consequently to propose a large-scale plan of public works, rehabilitation of the poorest neighborhoods, and construction of dwellings.


Similarly, and for the same reasons, cities and large urban areas are today still considered a resource: a recyclable and renewable resource[7] that deserves more attention from both national and transnational policies. Of particular relevance is the fact that long periods of recession can be avoided by the redistribution of production and of the population—redistribution that inevitably implies a significant redistribution of wealth, as was the case during periods that guaranteed sustained growth and a reduction of social inequality. A redistribution, in other words, that finds its grounding not only in relation to democracy, now weakening in most western states,[8] but also more fundamentally in the need to give new impulses to economies by way of increased demand.[9]


If the “glorious thirties” were stimulated by fast cars, clean bodies,[10]  by the production of cars and domestic appliances and the infrastructure and equipment they required, in the near future it will be necessary to invent new ways to achieve full employment—a notion that itself may have to be conceived differently, characterized by a reduction in activity and, above all, by a different structure of employment and a different relationship between work and society. Crises and the urban question will offer considerable opportunities. In not seizing them we risk aggravating the problems rather than contributing to their resolution.


Environmental problems connected to climate change, for example, and those of accessibility—of a system of mobility, in other words, that guarantees the rights of citizens—imply a policy of public spending radically different than that practiced by most European states. The case of Los Angeles, described by Tim Cresswell and Edward Soja, can serve as both a suggestion and a lesson.[11]


In 1994 users of Los Angeles’ public transit system, organized by the Bus Riders Union, filed a collective lawsuit against the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA). The agency had raised the price of bus tickets and was planning on investing considerable resources in the construction of a rapid transit network connecting the central business district to the suburbs; a network that would favor the richest part of the population. The users of public transit are mostly Latinos, who clean offices in the early morning before taking care of gardens and carrying out domestic work, relying on public transport many times over the course of one day. The Supreme Court awarded them victory on the basis of the first amendment, which bans all forms of discrimination, and obliged the MTA to improve transit services with buses before making any type of investment in the metropolitan network. This case shows that the rights of the poorest in the population can be safeguarded on the basis of existing norms; that “the politics of rights are open and can create openings and that these openings (and closures) are constructed in and through space and place.”[12] This also suggests that in Paris, as in Brussels or in Moscow and in other cities, policies can be adopted that promote diffuse, small-scale initiatives instead of monumental and spectacular works, in order to guarantee porosity, permeability and accessibility to nature and to people: to all that change the  city in the way other great crises have changed it in the past.


In more advanced projects and visions,[14] the symptoms and the potential of such transformations are already visible. The latter imply a need for renewed reflection on the spatial structure of the city; a need for recognition of the importance of territory in forming this structure and recognition of the role of capillary and isotropic infrastructure, capable of conferring on the city and territory a greater and more diffuse porosity, permeability and accessibility; for ambitiously designed public spaces, considering those of the cities that preceded us; and for renewed reflection on the dimensions of the collective. Urbanism will emerge transformed, as will the city. New alliances must be built within the city and between its related disciplines. Urbanists, but also economists and sociologists, must once again enter into conversation with geographers, botanists, hydraulic engineers; more than in the recent past, they will have to submerge themselves in individual and collective imaginations.


It is possible that things will worsen in the near future, but in order to overcome the economic crisis and the recession we must stimulate the demand of the plus grand nombre, not that of social and technological niches. For this reason, it is necessary to further develop democracy while reducing the inequalities of space. ■



Translation from Italian: Katie Filek


This text forms the final chapter of Bernardo Secchi’s book La città dei ricchi e la città dei poveri (Roma and Bari, 2013), 71–78. The “urban question” is a term coined by Manuel Castells in his eponymous 1972 work (La question urbaine), now a classic of Marxist urban sociology. The term was intended analogously to the “social question,” an urban planning matrix for the literal reinforcement of social inequalities. Over time it has been expanded in various ways in the context of left urbanism criticism, including by Bernardo Secchi himself, who supplemented the term with ecological and social dimensions.



[1] Francesco Indovina, La città diffusa (Venezia, 1990).

[2] See Pierre Rosanvallon, La société des égaux (Paris, 2011), 14–20.

[3] See Joseph E. Stiglitz, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy (New York, 2010).

[4] See Bernardo Secchi, La città del ventesimo secolo (Roma and Bari, 2005).

[5] National Resources Committee, “Our Cities: Their Role in the National Economy,” report of the Urbanism Committee (Washington, 1937).

[6] Frank Lloyd Wright, “Modern Architecture, Being the Kahn Lectures (Princeton),” in The Essential Frank Lloyd Wright: Critical Writings on Architecture, ed. Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer (Princeton and Oxford, 2008), 159–216, esp. 212.

[7] See Paola Viganò, “Riciclare citt.,” in Re-cycle, ed. Pippo Ciorra and Sara Marini (Milano, 2011), 102–119.

[8] See Carlo Galli, Il disagio della democrazia (Torino, 2011).

[9] See Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality (New York and London, 2012).

[10] Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge, MA and London, 1995).

[11] See Tim Cresswell, On the Move (New York, 2006), 167–174; Edward Soja, Seeking Spatial Justice (Minneapolis, 2010).

[12] Nicholas Blomley and Geraldine Pratt, “Canada and the Political Geographies of Rights,” in The Canadian Geographer 45, no.1 (2001): 151–166, esp. 163.

[13] See