Global Cities and Their Discontents: Saskia Sassen and Teresa Caldeira in Conversation
By Sophie Gonick
June 13, 2019
Photo Credit: Helena Wolfenson
Sophie Gonick (Ph.D. City & Regional Planning ‘15), contributing editor to Public Books and Assistant Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University interviewed Teresa Caldeira, Professor of City & Regional Planning at UC Berkeley and Saskia Sassen, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. The conversation was produced from a new partnership between Public Books and SFMOMA’s Public Knowledge project called Cities, Knowledge, and the Digital Age, which explores how technology has transformed cities.
In the conversation, the three discussed how practices of direct democracy in the Global South have been used to affirm the rights of citizens to the city. The relative autonomous power held by cities makes space for alternative modes of politics and inhabitation, such as preserving the rights of its inhabitants regardless of national citizenship, even as national policies become more restrictive.
In this timely discussion, Caldeira and Sassen suggest how direct popular participation and the extension of citizen rights in the city through protective policies might be seen as models to address pressing issues like gentrification, housing shortages, and property speculation in the Global North.
Parts of the conversation are excerpted below.
On what San Francisco can learn from the Global South:
Teresa Caldeira (TC): Many cities are creating practices of direct democracy and consolidating the notion of urban citizenship. Those experiments usually are experiments of deliberative democracy, of direct popular participation. They also frequently affirm the rights of citizens to the city regardless of national citizenship.
So cities can have very important roles in this political moment, in creating by themselves important policies that uphold the rights of residents regardless of their political citizenship status. The city of San Francisco already has some of this: for example, making health care available and affordable to uninsured residents; the municipal ID card; sometimes the right for noncitizens to vote for the school board; and transformation into a Sanctuary City. Those are all things that cities can do and are doing.
On preserving the common good through legislation:
TC: [There is] a [type] of urban legislation that has been adopted in the last two decades, which comes out of a movement called the Movement of Urban Reform. This has generated an incredible amount of legislation all over Latin America, and the most significant are the two federal laws, one in Brazil and one in Colombia, that establish that cities and property have to fulfill a social function. This means that the common good, the interest of all, has to be prioritized over private interests. As a result, for example, property in cities cannot be simply put aside for speculation. If land is put aside for speculation, this can be overtaxed and that money can be used for social projects in the city. These mechanisms of overtaxation create money that can be distributed to projects of urbanization in precarious areas of the city, for example.
On affordable housing:
Saskia Sassen (SS): The city is a space for communication. It’s going to be easier to lay things bare and to make things understandable to the residents of a city, whether they are highly educated or not, via the housing question. When it comes to the housing question, one immediately understands: because of financialization, because of treating physical houses as investments, one understands that the housing is misused. Because you are really trying to transform it into something else, to the benefit of high high-level investors. You now bring in your reality, because the example is right there in the city itself.
On the importance of citizen participation:
TC: I think that if I look from the perspective of these poor peripheries that I’ve been studying for many years, if they went from worse to better, if they have been transformed and become reasonable spaces with some kind of infrastructure and some kind of improvement in the conditions of life of their residents, it was not because the government decided to be nice. It was because citizens protested. Without organized social movements, nothing happens. There is not going to be policy to improve the conditions of life of segregated areas, of poor areas, just, like, for free. And people are totally aware of that. If they are not organized, if they do not demand, if they don’t claim their rights, nothing is going to happen.
On the role of technology in social movements:
TC: One of the most interesting things that technology is helping to promote is new types of political actions, like, as we all saw, the protests all over the world that are based on the use of communications technology. It’s not that the people would say that, now, technology will substitute for public life and life in the streets. I think that that’s not exactly what happened. Technology enabled a new kind of appropriation of public space that happened in unpredictable ways and that transformed the ways social movements are organized. And that was not by design.
Read the conversation in full here.