Urban Drama: Talking about Cities with Noah Toly and Milton Friesen, Part I
Urban Drama: Talking about Cities with Noah Toly and Milton Friesen, Part I

Urban Drama: Talking about Cities with Noah Toly and Milton Friesen, Part I

Shining a light in the shadowed backstage of global cities.

In conjunction with the Redeemer University Centre for Christian Scholarship annual conference, Comment senior editor Brian Dijkema sat down with Noah Toly, associate professor of Urban Studies and Politics and International Relations, and director of the Center for Urban Engagement at Wheaton College, and Milton Friesen, program director for Social Cities at Cardus. The conversation took place in the Cardus offices after a breakfast at Rankin's Bar and Grill, home of the "Worst Cup of Coffee," and a tour of Hamilton's industrial sector.

Brian: Comment is interested in cities. Last year we did an issue called "The Other Side of the City," which looked at the underside of cities—the parts that don't make it into the tourism brochures. Today we're lucky to have two scholars and experts on urbanism, and I wanted to start with something that you would not necessarily expect: the pope.

Chicago has an elegant façade and a deeply shadowed backstage, and it always has.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis has this little line about cities that I found fascinating. He says,

We cannot ignore the fact that in cities human trafficking, the narcotics trade, the abuse and exploitation of minors, the abandonment of the elderly and infirmed and various forms of corruption and criminal activity take place. At the same time, what could be significant places of encounter and solidarity, often become places of isolation and mutual distrust. Houses and neighborhoods are more often built to isolate and protect than to connect and integrate.

He opens with the "other side of the city," almost as if he's saying that the bad side of cities is to be expected from sinful human beings in a world where evil is in play, but he goes one step further and highlights the possibility that this "other side" is an opportunity for solidarity, where we can see one another face-to-face in unique ways that we couldn't in a more spread-out environment. Yet we build to isolate and protect rather than to connect or encounter.

Do you think this is true? Do we build our cities to isolate and protect? If so, why?

Is there a possibility that we could develop our cities in ways that don't perpetuate those divides?

Noah: What first comes to mind for me is a quote from Janet Abu-Lughod, who is one of the foremost urban sociologists of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and a top urban historian as well. She writes that Chicago has an elegant façade and a deeply shadowed backstage, and that it always has. I think this is true of many cities.

What is interesting about that metaphor is it's drawn from theatre, and not many people see its depth at first. They think this means Chicago has its fancy parts and its less fancy areas. But in theatre there are people who get attention, who receive acclaim, who seem to be the center of activity, and then there are people who are behind the scenes making sure that all the work happens so that the show can go on. And that's what we don't often see.

I think the quote that you read from Francis actually does help us to understand something true about cities, which is that we build them in ways that separate people but that these separations often go unnoticed. Even when we see the separation, we often don't see the integration of the work that's going on in the city—that what goes on behind the scenes in the places we don't see or the places that make us uncomfortable is often essential to the work of the city. It's often essential even to what's going on in the elegant façade.

Obviously with Chicago—and this is true with lots of US cities—there is even deeper intentionality to that metaphor in that the people who are behind the scenes in the theatre are wearing black. And I can't help but think that Abu-Lughod was intentional about that as well: that often it's minorities in US cities (it's certainly true in Chicago) that are in this deeply shadowed backstage doing the kind of work necessary for the show to go on, even in the elegant façade, and yet not getting any of the attention, but instead getting neglect, vulnerability, and distress.

Is there a possibility that we could develop our cities in ways that don't perpetuate those divides? Absolutely. Are we doing that right now? Not often. In some ways we do it, but by accident. Saskia Sassen discusses the "production of presence," where we juxtapose the wealthiest folks in the advanced-producer and financial-services sectors with the least wealthy and most vulnerable in consumer-services sectors, and in informal sectors as well. I think she actually expects too much of the politics that will emerge from that, but I think the encounter needs to be a lot more intentional and a lot less accidental.

Brian: Tell me what you mean by "encounter." What would an actual encounter between the façade and the workers—the garbage truck drivers, those who serve the catered lunches to law firms, the daycare workers—look like? Is it actually the design of the city that prevents this, or is it more about the way people are wired?

Noah: Some of it is the design of the city. I think we can actually design things in ways that prevent people from coming together. Where do we put our green spaces? Where do we put our transportation routes? Where are the stops in our transportation hubs? Who has access and who doesn't to those kinds of amenities and even necessities? Some of it, though, is political. It's less about design and more about commitment. A basic commitment to involvement with and empathy for people who are not like us—that can be facilitated by design, but it goes far beyond it.

...there is much more to cities than formal power.

Brian: Milton, your work on social isolation and the decline of social capital in cities is an obvious connection to this point. How would you respond?

Milton: I think the implication that we can design cities carries a ton of freight. One of the assumptions of design is that someone actually controls cities. I think that's only very partially true. Let's take Noah's analogy: that there is the show and then there's a background, a façade of one kind and then another reality behind it.

I think that that's also true when we talk about who controls and who actually designs and builds cities. When things aren't going well, you hunt for the villain. But when you interview everyone and look at everyone, you sometimes don't find "the" villain. You find that there's some systemic issues in questions and processes, and that there's no single individual who is sitting there pulling all the strings. There is no wizard running everything, and this has always been the case with cities.

You can find as many ranges of expression of human good and evil in a slum as you might find in a corporate office.

Now we can see degrees of control, but there has always been a sense in which cities have their own peculiar unfolding, and I think context makes a huge difference. I point to the work that I do with Abdou Maliq Simone. His work on relational infrastructures and particularly in the informal side of cities is instructive. When we're talking about planning, design, architecture, those sorts of questions, we're immediately talking about the privileged side of the equation; those with power. Those with that formal power are a minority.

But globally we know that the most significant chunk of urban growth and development is happening in the informal side of the ledger, operating outside of formal markets, outside of formal legal structures, generally out of necessity, for survival.

I think we can find some very interesting clues about the dynamics of cities in those spaces. In many global cities there's land that people don't own, but they begin to live on it and settle and develop it despite the fact that nobody is fully in charge. Yet out of that informal setting functional communities arise. In many of our North American cities we don't remember this very well, but they too had stages where they had significant informal development that actually underwrote their later economic growth and success.

You could go to Winnipeg, you can go to Chicago, you can go anywhere—Montreal, Toronto, New York—and find a much larger part of the city that has informal roots. It didn't start professionalized, it's not orchestrated by people in formal power, it wasn't "planned." It's orchestrated by other dynamics, and I think those dynamics are very interesting because they're closer to the real social fabric of cities.

We need more urban pioneers.

In these places, as Simone argues, you see a greater reliance on the relational infrastructure. He doesn't mean people chatting and getting to know each other and feeling like they belong. He means a kind of social infrastructure that makes it possible to function in urban spaces even where formal infrastructure is absent or dysfunctional.

Of course this has all sorts of the usual dynamics of exploitation and collaboration for good and ill all mixed in it, but when you have a much thinner formal infrastructure, the social and relational infrastructure becomes really critical. If we want to know how cities grow and develop as places of encounter, there are important clues in those basics.

Brian: Are you saying that that informal infrastructure is more real or better than the formal one? Do we lose something when it becomes formal? Or maybe I should ask: How could the formal designers and planners and infrastructure makers—those in power—incorporate that informality into their design? What would that look like?

Milton: I'm being more descriptive. If you're going to go and look at cities and you're going to be observant and pay attention to what happens, you see that there is much more to cities than formal power. This is not to valorize informal developments or slum areas, nor does it speak against the more developed parts of cities. It's just very important to understand that they coexist and are mutually interdependent.

You can find as many ranges of expression of human good and evil in a slum as you might find in a corporate office. It will be by different means, but there is no less of the exploitation or of the opportunities to do good, to do well. My point is only to say that sometimes in the developed world we forget that cities continue to rely on that informality. That tenuous idea of the backstage crew remains present though it has different forms, expressions.

We just have to think of these tensions. We have not progressed beyond them just because we have mature infrastructure in so-called world cities. Absolutely not; we live with them in different forms. I think those who work in planning and development or who think about cities from a strategic level have to recognize that this informal, social architecture is as essential as it has ever been.

David Gouverneur's work tries to look at how you take an existing informal reality and help it to integrate more effectively with the formal developments. For instance, you can offset some of the worst parts of slum life by introducing clean water and improving access to work and housing. But it has to work with what's there. Just mowing it all down and starting over doesn't work. We've had experiments with that, and they have generally been unsuccessful. How do you take that organic living thing and not destroy the social infrastructure when you overwrite it with physical infrastructure, but allow it to more effectively integrate with what's going on at a more formal level?

I think that art and craft is one we must get much better at that. We've done it ad hoc in some of our North American cities, but we've forgotten how that happened. We need to remember how that works. And here I think we can learn from developing countries how that is being done well and where it is being done poorly. We need more urban pioneers.

Brian Dijkema
Brian Dijkema

Brian Dijkema is the Vice President of External Affairs with Cardus, and an editor of Comment. Prior to joining Cardus, Brian worked for almost a decade in labour relations in Canada after completing his master's degree with Cardus Senior Fellow, Jonathan Chaplin. He has also done work on international human rights, with a focus on labour, economic, and social rights in Latin America and China.

Noah Toly
Noah Toly

Noah Toly is Executive Director of the Center for Urban Engagement, Chair of Urban Studies, and Professor of Urban Studies and Politics & International Relations at Wheaton College. He also serves as Non-Resident Senior Fellow for Global Cities at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where he had been named an Emerging Leader in 2011. He writes and speaks on urban and environmental politics and served as editor of the Routledge series Cities and Global Governance. In 2012-2013, he served as Senior Fellow at the University of Chicago’s Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion. In 2015, he was named the inaugural recipient of the Emerging Public Intellectual Award. Dr. Toly has served on the faculty of the Free University of Berlin's Center for Global Politics, the Steering Committee of the Thriving Cities Project, the research team for the Project on Vocation and the Common Good, and the Advisory Council of Together Chicago. He and his wife, Becky, have three children.

Milton Friesen
Milton Friesen

Milton Friesen was Program Director, Social Cities for Cardus from 2008 to 2020.


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