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Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities in the 21st Century

Friday, February 5th, 2010

The heart of Leonie Sandercock’s Cosmopolis II lies in its subtitle, Mongrel Cities in the 21st Century. The mongrel nature the author considers is the accelerated multiculturalism of cities due to what some are considering an “Age of Migration.” While Sandercock suggests there are four ways in which cities are being socially and culturally reshaped, an argument may be made that the main focus of the book could be distilled to one of them primarily–international migration–with a lesser, but equally important emphasis on all forms of minority integration. Cosmopolis II addresses the age of migration by deconstructing the planning process and offering a reconstruction that co-opts modernism’s visionary nature and enthusiasm while adhering to a postmodernism acceptance of many narratives.

Planning needs to be deconstructed when faced with heightened flows of migration. Unlike large flows in the past, which were fairly homogeneous and amongst a handful of countries, the new ones are multinational creating an unprecedented plurality in many urban landscapes. In Europe, open border agreements fostered by the EU have facilitated a drastic change in the ethnic make-up of many countries. In some cases, this demographic shift is occurring in a time frame so short, that standard planning practices can’t accurately address the sweeping changes in neighborhoods, let alone in entire cities. Despite increase attention on its southern border, the United States continues to see high levels of immigration of both documented and undocumented individuals. Once across the border, however, the new arrivals are either dispersing to increasingly nontraditional locations of residence or concentrating at levels that have heretofore been unseen helping to create what are now urban areas just north of the border. Additionally, continued political strife in African and Middle Eastern countries is supplying a steady stream of the dispossessed that, if not forced into a new urban experience in an unfamiliar city, are creating vast refugee camps in their own right.

This time of a hypermobile global population demands an equally flexible planning process. The rapid and exceedingly dense multicultural change in cities requires a planning that breaks free of the rational measures effective at developing infrastructure. The speed of change and randomness of migration flows demands way more flexibility than a comprehensive procedure, which starts and stops on a dime and may take years to complete. Sandercock observes that the dense multiculturalism has created neighborhoods, cities, and countries that may contain multiple publics. And while Sandercock offers a “Radical Postmodern Planning Practice” paradigm that relies heavily on the communicative nature of those that have come before her such as John Friedmann and John Forrester, the resulting paradigm suggestion is not as revolutionary as the way in which she deconstructs the planning process to get there.

The most striking feature of Cosmopolis II is the consideration of “story.” In order to deal with multiculturalism, she first deconstructs that to determine its exact meaning. She finds that the new multicultural societies are collections of diverse peoples with a common bond not based on race, religion, or ethnicity, but on a shared commitment to a political community. Unlike the popular and homogenized history of Industrial-era United States immigration, these new communities are not static and will not eventually become “melting pots.” In order to deeply understand this community, it is important for planning to be political, and the planner to understand the history, customs, and desires of each immigrant community that makes up the larger whole. The planner needs to understand their “story.”

The author then argues that to understand the story of someone else, a planner must understand the stories created by planning and the ones excluded by it. She states, “In order to imagine the future differently, we need to start with history, with a reconsideration of the stories we tell ourselves about planning’s role in the modern and postmodern city,” adding, “If we want to work towards a politics of inclusion, then we had better have a good understanding of the exclusionary effects of planning’s past practices.” With that, the author then briefly examines how the history of planning has systematically excluded the stories of women, gays and lesbians, Native Americans, and African Americans from the history of planning. This exclusion implying that until planners understand these “planning insurgencies” to be of equal value as the myriad of paradigms discussed in planning education programs across the country, the possibility of planning being able to address single neighborhoods with a myriad of marginalized voices is not high.

After focusing the lens of story on where planning has been, Sandercock then operates on a meta level and presents case studies, or as she intimates earlier in the book, what could function as stories imparting wisdom from elders to those in search of knowledge. These provide the reader with the only semblance of practical procedural knowledge. And, while effective in that role, it is emblematic of a critique that may be leveled at the book. As a planning tome, the focus rests squarely on the community building social side of the issue at hand. Discussion of the physical is nascent at best, and the consideration of any quantitative perspective is entirely absent. Granted, the theoretical analysis is so detailed that strands of the physical or quantitative are not hard to see. For example, when considering the author’s train of thought concerning dense multicultural neighborhoods, an immediate thought for cultural geographers may be, how does the neighborhood provide for multiple houses of worship? This is a topic the book touches on briefly. The statistical nature of the immigration flows are not detailed, but the general nature of the flows is easily enough understood through the book’s discourse on the subject.

Sandercock examines what works and what does not, then utilizes story to consider the future. In detailing the varying ways stories can be used in planning–as catalyst for change, speculation on the future, tool for mediation, non-verbal representation, etc.–the author furthers the concept that communication is a necessary tool in understanding the “other.” This understanding is crucial when one of the common responses by both immigrant and native is to fear each other. In a dense multicultural neighborhood, that fear is subject to dangerous economies of scope and scale.

As stated previously, Cosmopolis II does not offer an especially groundbreaking planning paradigm in response to the new age of migration. Sandercock’s “Radical Postmodern Planning Practice” paradigm functions as a subtle tweak to what has been presented by other theorists who did not have the opportunity to present discourse in a time when the nature of migration has radically transformed in speed and scope. The book may be critiqued for having too narrow a focus in terms of planning, relying on concerns of community without substantial, or any, consideration of the physical or quantitative. Some may also find the sheer density of the information and a narrative that is occasionally tangential to be a distraction to the author’s substantial vision. Incidentally, this is a critique easily levied against another sprawling work published in 2003 that had significant impact on the discipline of geography, Connell and Gibson’s Soundtracks–indication that perhaps, it is a critique worth having.

Regardless, Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities in the 21st Century is an indispensable addition to the library of planning theory. It is easy to dismiss globalization as a theoretical construct spatially removed and homogeneous in nature. In reality, globalization means that the local is becoming more heterogeneous. Sandercock’s critical examination of planning theory’s history of exclusion is a bold and welcome statement in a world where the global is next door. Her use of story is equally bold and welcome for an understanding of planning theory’s future of inclusion.

Michael is a doctoral student in urban planning and public policy at the University of Texas at Arlington. You can follow him on Twitter here, visit his website here, and listen to his band here.