OTHER POSSIBLE : THE CITY OTHERWISE

Illustré par :

Herbert Marcuse liked to say that « after the revolution, we will raze the cities and rebuild them ». For the city, a densely populated area where most of the activities of the « modern world » are concentrated, except, and significantly, agricultural activity(1) has progressively become the testing ground of capitalism and has been shaped according to its ultimate objective: to increase profits, at the cost of a concreteization of its spaces and an atomization of individuals, relegated to the rank of passive consumers. Stopping on the outskirts of a large « artery », observing a shopping mall, an office district…, offers an often stunning vision. And would the person who is not surprised, who is not doubtful, react in this way if he had not been born in a society that has formed him as he is? A society whose objective reality has gradually become the subjective reality of the subject. Where what he sees is perceived as something natural for which « there is no alternative », to what is however only the result of political choices.

THE REIGN OF THE CAR! 

The city has been shaped by and for capitalism.  » The company that models all its surroundings has built its special technique to work the concrete base of this set of tasks: its very territory. Urbanism is this taking possession of the natural and human environment by capitalism which, developing logically in absolute domination, can and must now remake the totality of space as its own decor(2) « .

This colonization of space, the automobile is today the main function. His crazy « evolution » is a proof of that. At the end of World War II, there were just over 50 million units in circulation, compared to over one billion today, with an additional 100,000 new vehicles added every day(3) ! Between 1977 and 2011, the number of private cars in Belgium increased from 2.7 million to 5.4 million; between 2007 and 2011 it grew by 7.1% and 22.5% between 1997 and 2011(4). The Brussels-Capital Region has 513,000 passenger cars, the province of Liege 501,000, the province of Namur 226,000, Walloon Brabant and Hainaut 197,000 and 605,000 respectively. Nowhere do we see a reduction in these figures: the individual car has conquered people’s minds and, very often, the question of the relevance of its use is no longer asked. In Ixelles, Lasne and Uccle there are about 600 private cars per 1000 inhabitants, 282 per thousand in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, the level of wealth of the municipality often going hand in hand with the ability to afford a private car; a document of the federal public service economy noted recently under the title « The poor and their way of life »: « due to lack of financial means, more poor people do not own certain basic consumer goods (sic!) such as a television and especially a car and a computer. For example, seven times as many poor people say they cannot afford a car (25.2% compared to 3.6% of the rest of the population)(5) « .

Paradoxically, this « basic consumer good » that has largely destroyed the city is at the same time schizophrenically experienced as the possibility of escape: « « The city » is felt as « hell », we only think of escaping from it or going to live in the provinces, while, for generations, the big city, object of wonder, was the only place where it was worth living. Why the change of heart? For one reason: the car has made the big city uninhabitable. It has made it stinky, noisy, asphyxiating, dusty, clogged to the point that people don’t want to go out at night. 

So, since cars have killed the city, we need more and faster cars to escape on highways to even more distant suburbs. Impeccable circularity: give us more cars to escape the ravages that cars cause(6) ».

Moving around in a car has gradually become a natural movement of the body: any critical observer spending a few hours in a residential area will always be surprised to see people leaving their homes, taking a few steps, and getting into their cars; coming in, going out and leaving again with their cars, as if the car were an indispensable physical prosthesis for their « mobility ». We can go for weeks without seeing a neighbor in our neighborhood, except if we are lucky enough to be heading for our car at the same time. It is that in this humanly, socially and ecologically illogical logic, taken hostage by the proverbial economic argument of the necessity of employment — « we must continue to produce cars because they are indispensable to a growth society » -, man has lost the capacity to think differently. The user « is unable to imagine the benefits of abandoning the automobile and using one’s own muscle power. The user does not see the absurdity of transport-based mobility. His traditional perception of space, time and proper rhythm has been distorted by the industry. He has lost the freedom to imagine himself in a role other than that of a transport user(7) « . Confirmed in its choices by advertising, which has made the automobile industry its main client, the car has also become an object of comparison, an illusory social springboard for the less fortunate, an object of conspicuous consumption for all. 

Shaping space and habits, the needs of capitalism progressively became individual needs: a car was needed for the children, the vacations, the work, the family… it was needed to « be somebody ». « A man who buys a car probably thinks that he needs it to get around, when deep down he might prefer not to bother with it and knows that it is better to walk to stay healthy. His envy is likely due to the fact that the car is also a status symbol, a proof of business success, a way to please his wife(8) « . Certainly, if the construction of our societies was made according to the car, reducing more and more the real possibilities of choice, the fact remains that the question of the reality of the need and of the possibility of seeing it satisfied by all without harming nature and each one, was not posed anymore. Each one of them selfishly taking advantage of his « achievement » and confirming each time, by his participation in the construction of the whole, the myth and its indestructible reality. 

However, a simple rationality, except the one we are told is « economic », shows the nonsense of the all-car(9). In addition to the time, energy and money that the car represents, which has become a basic good, and has gone from being a « luxury » object to an object of mass consumption, the insecurity carried by the car at various levels is no longer mentioned. At most, we try to ward off some of the most harmful effects of its massive use, as if they were only accidental events that we imagined we would one day be able to eradicate (10). When the mass media evoke insecurity, it is most often to relate the aggressions, brawls or thefts of which some people are victims, or to instill fear with terrorism without identifying the structural causes of this social violence. However, we never, or rarely, hear about the insecurity that the automobile represents for pedestrians and cyclists; the noise pollution that it causes; the air pollution that it generates. 

THE CITY WILL BE WITHOUT INDIVIDUAL CARS… OR NOT 

To evoke the city and its necessary change is therefore, inevitably, to attack the myth of the automobile. It is not to focus on an aspect, secondary, among others, but it is to attack a central point of the urban decay, of the sprawl of the suburbs, dormitory cities, of the atomization of subjects locked up in their steel cage; it is to denounce the social malaise of which it is at the origin. To denounce the « hell » of the city is inevitably to provoke the guilt of many individuals who see it as an attack on their privileges. It will undoubtedly be necessary to make people think about our practices and the advantages of abandoning the individual car, which has progressively granted itself an inalienable right of pre-emption over public spaces. Ghent (pedestrian center of 30 hectares), Namur (2.5 kms of pedestrian streets in the center), Hasselt (pedestrian center and free buses), … some cities have tried to reappropriate the spaces. For the answer to the question of this deprivation of public space is quite obvious: « Doesn’t a car, like a villa with a beach, occupy a rare space? Doesn’t spoil the other users of the road (pedestrians, cyclists, streetcar or bus users)(11) ? ».

However, this aporia of the individual car for all does not come to light, mainly for two reasons according to André Gorz: 

1. the success of the car is based on the fact that it materializes the bourgeois ideology of « who wants to can » and « every man for himself », transforming the city into a motorized urban jungle. Each motorist, whether he likes it or not, by his use of the car adheres to the competitive logic of our commercial societies, it is enough to observe the motorway traffic to realize it. 

2. While the generalization of the individual car carries with it the consequent loss of its use value (more and more cars limit the advantages of speed of travel that were conferred on it), we never witness — or only slightly — the ideological devaluation of the car. « The generalization of individual motoring has displaced public transport, modified urban planning and housing, and transferred to the car functions that its own diffusion has made necessary. It will take an ideological (« cultural ») revolution to break this circle. It is obviously not to be expected from the ruling class (right or left)(12). »

SELF-QUESTIONING »… TO QUESTION EVERYTHING ELSE 

A decent city cannot emerge from a city made by and for the automobile. Everything it may propose will necessarily enter, in one way or another, fundamentally or in some details, in opposition to the car; and, on the other hand, everything it will propose to flout this omnipotence will see the emergence of viable social and ecological possibilities that will not be « the car ».They are not « subordinate complements » but rather new ways of considering the relationship with oneself and with others. 

Rethinking the city will therefore inevitably require a renewal of the capacity to use its legs, a mental disembodiment of the « all-transport », which we must wait for the initiatives of citizens’ groups and collective actions (in the sense of civil disobedience and reappropriation of public space, such as those of « Reclaim The Street » or of the critical masses). This will logically have to be accompanied by a modification of the city’s activities. « By changing the city, we will provide a lever for societal change and for changing the way people experience their relationships and their inherence in the world. The reconstitution of a liveable world presupposes polycentric, intelligible cities, where each neighborhood or district offers a range of places accessible to all, at all hours, for self-activity, self-production, self-learning, exchange of services and knowledge; a profusion of crèches, public gardens, meeting places, sports fields, gyms, workshops, music rooms, schools, theaters, library-videotheques; apartment buildings with spaces for circulation and meeting, playrooms for children, kitchen restaurants for the elderly or disabled, etc.(13). »

The first obstacle may well be mentalities (see below: « One street down… what possibilities for change in the face of popular resistance »). Not so long ago, however (in 1991), the European Economic Community (EEC), which cannot be suspected of being in favor of degrowth, published a report entitled « Research proposal for a car-free city », which concluded: « Cities

Car-free cities, urbanistically designed according to the model of the Green Paper and equipped with a new transport system specifically designed for them, are not only more liveable in all respects (both socially and ecologically), more accessible and traversable in a short period of time, but could be achieved at the cost of much lower investments in mobility than today, with a transport system that is less costly to manage, significant energy savings, improved visual enjoyment and a return to each of its inhabitants of a significant part of his or her time(14) « .

Could we imagine such words today… 

A.P.

Notes et références
  1. Voir « Alerte paysanne », numéro spécial de Kairos, février/mars 2013.
  2. Guy Debord, « La société du spectacle », Éditions Gallimard, Paris, 1992, p.165.
  3. «Désobéir à la voiture», par Les Désobéissants, Éditions Le Passager Clandestin, 2012.
  4. Ces chiffres sont tirés du document publié par le SPF Économie, PME, Classe Moyenne et Énergie, «Les voitures en quelques chiffres». Voir statbel.fgov.be
  5. Voir economie.fgov.be/fr/binaries/pr128_fr_tcm326-31933.pdf.
  6. André Gorz, « L’idéologie sociale de la bagnole », texte publié dans la revue Le Sauvage en 1973, puis dans son ouvrage Ecologica. Disponible notamment sur le site des renseignements généreux : www.les-renseignements-genereux.org.
  7. Ivan Illich, «Énergie et équité», in Œuvres Complètes, vol.1, Fayard, Paris, 2009, p.398.
  8. Edward Bernays, «Propaganda, comment manipuler l’opinion en démocratie», Éditions La Découverte, Paris, 2007, p.63.
  9. Voir pour un état des lieux succinct montrant l’aberration de la voiture par les ravages qu’elle produit, la charte du réseau carfree: http://carfree.free.fr/index. php/2012/02/02/charte-du-reseau-mondial-carfree.
  10. Voir «les accidents de voitures ne sont pas des accidents», Kairos avril-mai 2012.
  11. André Gorz, « L’idéologie sociale de la bagnole », Ibid.
  12. Idem.
  13. André Gorz, «Ecologica», Éditions Galilée, Paris, 2008, p.163.
  14. «Quand la Commission européenne voulait créer des villes sans voiture », voir www.carfree.fr.
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