“What is well known, precisely because it is well known, is not known. In the knowledge process, the commonest way to mislead oneself and others is to assume that something is well known and to accept it as such.” – Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit
“. . . the main battle in imperialism is over land.” – Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism
The biblical figure of Nimrod, the king of Babel, provides an interesting figure for urban development studies. He was both a hunter and a constructor of cities. His prey was in human form, which he found tilling the fields in the territories surrounding the city. The city was an enclosed space where Nimrod set about constructing his famous tower by putting to work his newly captive labour force. For the king of Babel, all that existed outside the city served only to enrich and empower it. In other words, urban influence and power depended on a formal territorial differentiation between internal and external spaces. Moreover, this example shows that land is more than just a territorial phenomenon. In the figure of the King, it relates questions of territory to sovereignty and the power that determines what can be built and where, and for what use?
But what use are biblical myths for understanding the modern world and the problems that urban development faces every day? Well, for a start, matters surrounding zoning policies and their effects on the built environment – not to mention the value of land – show that this essential issue retains its relevance. As urban developers, land usually appears as a uniquely practical consideration, even down to the basest geological definition. After this, private property presents a legal perspective on the right to build, and geographical land kowtows to economical reason so that it can be expressed as an exchange value. Lastly, the right to live and build in the city has recently begun to take on a new nationalist physiognomy. As immigrants and refugees are in equal measure welcomed and rejected from our cities, one thing has become certain: the meaning of land has morphed into notions of homeland and nation.
Nationality is not only a cultural or political issue. It also carries a direct aesthetic impact. In cities such as London, Paris or Madrid, spaces both public and private are crammed with memorabilia to our national heroes. And this is not limited only to statues: parks, buildings, roads and squares all bear the names of our illustrious forebears. The grand European capitals undoubtably possess an impressive catalogue of architectural patrimony. Moreover, they demanded unparalleled wealth and ambition to build. But under what conditions was it possible to produce such a decadent architectural aesthetic? If our enquiry is limited to examining the importance of land for urban development, then this question should be reformulated thus: what conditions does land impose on the possibility of constructing the metropolis? The answer might not be as apparent as we imagine.
Firstly, land is not reducible either to physico-geological phenomena or to territorial extension. English language speakers are overwhelmed with semantic possibilities when discussing land. It is territory, nation, homeland, a parcel of immovable property, the topsoil on which we farm, the geological crust on which we build. It’s all of the above and more. Nevertheless, it shares with its Proto-Germanic antecedents a semantic tension, suspended somewhere between space and place. As is turns out, this tension is not without precedent in other ancient languages.
For instance, ancient Greek had at least three terms with similar meaning: chôra, topos and kenon. However, by Plato’s time a nuance had developed between their meanings which persists in our understanding of these terms to this day. Chôra was famously described in the Timaeus as a “receptacle” where the eternal forms encounter the sensible world. On the contrary, topos takes on a relational character – not just a receptacle, but the difference between here and there. Finally, unlike the others kenon is not noun, but is rather a substantivized adjective. Epicurus’ came to understand it as the emptiness between atoms. It is a total and absolute void.
The tension between absolute space and relational places is central to Plato’s approach to planning the ideal city. He recognised that in the city not all space was equal, and that private interests would eventually lead to disputes over land. Accordingly, a rational city-state should anticipate this by parcelling up the land into a grid, thereby avoiding civil disputes. This was hardly Plato’s innovation; the Hippodamian plan was already being enacted at nearby Piraeus. However, Plato recognised that this wasn’t practical for already established states. Instead, they would have to legislate to mitigate the civil unrest that property disputes will inevitably produce. Recognising the potential groundswell of ressentiment among the underprivileged classes, Plato recommends that states enact “purges” in order to prevent this. Short of exile of death, those unlucky souls would need to be “tactfully” transferred to the colonies.
By no means are these exclusively ancient solutions to ancient problems. In truth, both of these strategies have been routinely practiced throughout the birth of the modern metropolis. The urge to establish rational spatial order in the city is a recurrent theme running through treatises on urban development since the Renaissance. One only has to walk down the grand boulevards of contemporary Paris to realise that radical urban reconstruction as a cure for perceived social ills is not necessarily a new invention. However, even Haussmann’s reforms had their limits, and the “rationalisation” of the urban environment has always needed to rely equally (if not more so) on the second “political” strategy, namely, exclusion, deportation and exile to foreign lands.
One such example of this strategy was found in responses to the growing problem of vagrancy in 17th and 18th century European cities. In fact, the compact between the “purging” of dispossessed underclasses and the development of European settler colonialism was not incidental. With the enclosure movement in England growing apace during this time, the ideal conditions were created for the imprisonment and transportation of captive labour to the colonies. Peasants and yeoman were violently expelled from their lands and began to overwhelm the towns and cities in search of work. An effort to criminalise vagrancy was not only a means to drive down delinquency and indolence, but was also a means to populate the colonies with indentured labour.
As the metropolitan cities expanded demographically, so too did the colonies. The relation of metropolis to the colony was from the outset one of mutual economical dependency. The land that was tilled by servants and slaves in the colonies produced the raw materials that would subsequently be transformed into commodities in the factories of London, Manchester and Glasgow. With the industrial revolution flourishing, land referred back to a geographically distant place. As such, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that soil samples taken from the former Black Belt plantations reveal an intimate and concealed relationship to the city that grew out of its distant, fertile lands.
The question of the appropriation of land in the New World was therefore always especially pertinent for urbanisation, both in terms of wealth and morphology. Accumulation of more land in the colonies meant greater yields on cotton, tobacco and sugar, which in turn lead to the intensification of industrialisation back home, and the subsequent growth of an urban proletariat. Indeed, this is still largely the case, and depends always upon uprooting cultures and dispossessing lands. In this sense the relational logic of topos, which imparted the white European imaginary with the possibility of expanding its horizons through colonial expansion, always tacitly depended on the postulate of kenon – emptiness that can be freely appropriated.
Appropriation was almost always a violent affair, in spite of the European myth of “vacant lands” lying waiting to be settled. But bloodletting and theft of the indigenous populations was insufficient to “fill up” the spaces that this process opened up – the spatial logics of settler colonialism required a more rigorous approach. To clarify this, we should look to perhaps the first attempt by “European” settlers to systematically colonise a foreign land, namely in Ireland. The key term here is the systematisation of appropriation – it concerns not just conquest at the barrel of a gun, but the inscription of lands into property law. This scientific approach to conquest featured the first comprehensive attempts at colonial land surveys. In an extreme sense, land must be understood here exclusively as a legal phenomenon, rather than a geographical one.
Without this juridical dimension the economic connection of the colony to the city would remain contingent since it would reflect only the personal whims of individual merchants and entrepreneurs bringing looted treasure back from abroad to spend in the metropolis. While this was undoubtably the case during the early centuries of merchant capitalism, very soon competition forced the inscription of acquired lands into property law. In this sense, the relation of e.g. Victorian London to colonial Virginia is not only concealed through a spatial separation, but also through the economic systems that regulate this separation. In other words, the bloodstains of expropriated and enslaved peoples could not be detected on the bank orders that financed the acceleration of industrialisation and urbanisation back home. As Karl Marx wrote: “the veiled slavery of wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the New World.”
The “veil” which Marx’s speaks of, is civilisation. For the political economists, its authority flowed from the relationship of land and labour. In Ireland, Petty made the critical observation that the value of land is always relative to the labour that is performed upon it; land that wasn’t cultivated to the maximum degree was merely “wasteland”. As such, justification was afforded to the practice of deracinating the subsistence peasant farmers, who were given the choice either to starve or work for a master. Crucially, for Petty and his followers, farming for subsistence was framed as more than just a problem for the valuation of the land. Anyone unwilling to fully exploit the lands to produce value, was deemed as uncivilised and backwards. In this way, racism emerged against a backdrop of land and labour. Entire populations were examined under the abstracting gaze of the economist’s microscope; no trace of their humanity was left once the power of economic reason had rendered them mere figures in a landowner’s copybook. In its place ideologies of racial difference began to emerge, slowly evolving into discourses on biological racism that scars our urban landscapes to this day.
On the back of this enormous territorial expansion, the great European cities became centres of consolidated wealth and power. The connection between these two elements was inscribed in the democratic national constitutions, which initially enfranchised only property owners. The right to dispossess others’ land was thus hardly difficult to justify for those individuals who held exclusive rein over the social and political institutions. Moreover, absolute control over a racialised slave-labour force ensured that more wealth than ever was effectively hoarded jealously behind city walls, and nation states grew into vehicles for propagating imperial ambitions. However, if slavery is an extreme example of this logic of disenfranchisement then its ultimate demise would offer scarce hope for a better future. For example, as the dust settled on emancipation and the American Civil War, the former slaves found themselves with no land, and no means of subsistence except returning to work the fields for their former masters. Without access to the land, the newly emancipated slaves were simply condemned to new forms of ersatz slavery implicitly endorsed by the state.
As a result, many left the South, settling in cities in the Northern industrial heartlands. As thousands of former slaves flocked North, they found themselves crammed into ghettoes and slums, disenfranchised and racially segregated. To prevent social unrest, police forces across the country systematically repressed these populations, driving them incessantly to reassert their rights to emancipation. Notions of new national unity were illusory at best, and covered over the double theft exacted on the bodies of black Americans, who remained rootless and once again excluded from the new nation. For these people, access to the land which was denied them meant more than the refusal of economic opportunity – they were also being denied a homeland. Here we can see the dislocation of racialised populations is intrinsic to the process of urbanisation itself. It functions through a form of inclusionary exclusion which is perceptible once we pay attention to the final conceptual dimension of land, namely, homeland. Or more precisely, in the absence homeland.
It is therefore not surprising that contemporary struggles for recognition have centred on reshaping the urban aesthetic. Pulling down statues of former Confederate generals or European slaveowners addresses one aspect of of this effort, but it should also be framed as a series of staged-battles occurring in a process of emancipation from the yoke of private interests that has shaped and continues to shape the urban environment. Each time a statue hits the ground, a new image of history becomes possible for our cities: the possibility for a people to be no longer foreigners in their own land. For the time being this remains merely a possibility, and urban development practice needs to find ways to respond by reshaping the city as an emancipatory space where land isn’t felt as a loss. Perhaps the first task is to read our cities like a palimpsest of dispossession written upon racism and violence. Through a fragmented and incomplete collection of testimonies, we might begin to see the centrality of land in the formation of our cities. Of all its many meanings that can be read in the sedimentation of history that forms the bedrock of urban development, it must now find a new meaning for itself for a new era.
In this issue, recurrent themes of dispossession, dislocation and exclusion are brought to prominence through a series of detailed analyses in a variety of contexts. Katherine Miller discusses the importance of aesthetics for techniques of urban exclusion along the vanishing Palestinian coastline, touching on Fanonesque ideas of the psychological demoralisation of colonised peoples. The centrality of aesthetics is again explored by Kostas Manolidis in reference to examples of aborted urbanisation in Greece, providing a new perspective on theories of surrounding the urban/rural interface. In another revealing article, Julian Raxworthy critiques the conceptual use of land for landscape architecture by proposing a set of definitions for landscape practitioners to interrogate. Serafina Appel returns to the theme of colonialism in an analysis of the persistence of settler colonial mindsets governing the legal and political conflicts over territorial rights in present day Canada. The interaction between right and territory is treated in a different light by Erich Wolff, for whom risk-management is examined as technocratic dispositive for control over urban development projects. Ava Lynam discusses the role of land governance processes and their impacts within the context of formal and informal settlements at the peri-urban interface produced by China’s rapid urbanisation. Sophie Jerram reflects on the impact of a temporary supply of vacant sites, mostly free of rent, for cultural and community uses across four New Zealand municipalities. Finally, Mira Idris and Razan Bleidi continue the topic of informality while taking a look at how the inhabitants of Ramallah produce spaces from existing architecture, and find a way to recreate the city in their own image.
Looking to the horizon we wonder which new ways of conceptually interrogating the land are opening up to us. For a start, we might consider redirecting our gaze towards the skies, rather than downwards to our feet. Land is often conceptualised as belonging to the earth in some way, but for the first-time outer space is where a new supra-geopolitics is being played out. The consequences of this new frontier are only beginning to be understood, and its effects are felt in every aspect of our urban existence, from communication systems, to surveillance and geo-location. In many respects, we are beginning to actualise Nimrod’s divine ambitions. Meanwhile, we mustn’t forget how these celestial heights have been and continue to be scaled. The city is relentlessly dragging itself into this world, dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and sand.
Main Cover Image: The background of our cover image is taken from the article ‘Defaced land. Reading the marks of a social obsession’ by Konstantinos Manolidis. Konstantions sourced this image from Google Earth. It shows the unfinished development at Mpouros, Evoia.