Politics & the City

As with most chapters we have read so far, this one started off with a problem of definition, what is a ‘city’. Early cities were walled off and functioned as the center for administration, politics, and economics for the surrounding rural areas. There was a distinct difference between a city and the surrounding area. Modern day cities exist in a much larger gray area. Urban sprawl has extended to reaches of the city boundary but it is hard to define when the city actually stops and a different suburban region begins. Are commuters who spend a majority of their day within the city still considered rural? This brings us to urban politics, the problem defining it and who is involved. Cities are not only involved directly with their surrounding hinterlands, but are also involved with wider global processes which may affect how the city functions and develops. When defining urban politics it must be noted that it refers explicitly to urban issues. Politics may take place in an urban setting but if it does not affect the urban area directly, it is not urban politics. According to geographer David Harvey, cities are limited by their labor power and the tendencies of consumption of different social groups, which I will discuss later while I address the issue of gentrification. As different groups form, whether its labor unions, capitalist groups, or social groups, urban politics arise from power struggles over resources, service provision, and social issues as well as collaborations of groups with similar interests and political negotiations. This separates urban politics from state politics by showing a distinction between national interest and city, or urban interest.

Infrastructure plays and important role in human life and with such a large percentage of the population living in or around the periphery cities, it is an important topic when discussing politics in the city. Sociologist Manuel Castells proposed that political conflicts over ‘collective consumption’ constitute the very core of urban politics. It is often taken for granted in the Western world, but clean water and properly functioning toilet are not a guaranteed thing. As people flock to the cities looking for more opportunity, the current infrastructure is usually not up to the task of such a large influx. There are not enough apartments in the city so people form ‘slums’ or informal settlements on the periphery. They often lack water and waste treatment, whether it be garbage or human waste. These informal settlements are sometimes viewed as a stain on the city and through limited allocation of infrastructure, governments or affluent urbanites may try to ‘push’ them away from the city. Recently, partnerships have formed, including non-governmental, private and public organizations, as well as participation from the community. This often means one non-governmental organization runs the operation with the help of a few well-connected individuals or groups. It leaves the ordinary people out of the mix and puts profit above public needs. This was the case in Mumbai when the toilet blocks were built but were not able to be kept up because it was the public’s job to pay for it. This brings be to gentrification.

Gentrification is the process a middle-class ‘taking over’ a working-class neighborhood. There are mixed views on this because it raises the standard of living but also displaces a large percentage of the population who can no longer afford to live in the area. The cause may seem noble but the implications are far less savory. Whether the purpose of gentrification is just to breath life into a dead part of the neighborhood or whether or not it is used as a means to segregate not only a particular class, but also a race, is under debate. The case of the Aboriginals in Australia points towards a much more sinister plan than an economic revival. I feel that capitalism may act as more palatable word for the racism and classism that is involved with the urban and political structure that is present in urban environments.

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