The future is in memory

The European cities are characterized by their long history, which means that, with rare exceptions, they have developed around an original nucleus, often of multi-millennial age (which today we agree to call precisely the historic center ), through a series of accretions later. This original nucleus is sociologically characterized by the circumstance of containing the ‘sacred’ areas ( hallowed) of the city, ie those removed from the market: the cathedral and the other churches with their sagrati, the town house or town hall, and other public areas such as the brolo, at the time the defensive and oppressive fortress, the castle or the palace . These public functions are ‘sacred’ (some even with religious sanctity) simply because they can not be sold and are removed from the market. Not because they have no value, but because they can not be sold. 

This sacredness has acted in gyro history, procuring stability due to the centripetal presence of the ruling classes, not so much because in the center there were not even the poor (in fact, in the traditional city the popular classes coexisted closely with the patricians), but because the dominant classes settled in the center, with their social habits and practices and their collective institutions. So immigration from urbanization, especially in the various waves of intense urbanization and industrialization, has been added in layers, giving life to the ‘suburbs’ and to those successive circles that characterize precisely the European cities: from the medievalfaubourgs and neuburgs or newburies , to the Holy Bodies of Milan, to the workers ‘barriers and the red belts ( ceintures rouges ) of the suburbs or workers’ banlieues of the late nineteenth century. 

The latter are then those that have left their mark on memory and collective toponymy: when we talk about problems in the suburbs we immediately think of the ‘ huge Parisian suburbs’, the working-class suburbs of Milan, Genoa and Turin and so on. In Paris, in particular, where this image was forged, it passed from the suburbstraditional to the ‘black belt’, an area theoretically removed from construction for military reasons around the walls of fortifications of Thiers, in which however developed a spontaneous and tolerated settlement of poor, transient, small criminals (called apaches ) and tens of thousands of garbage collectors, the famous biffins , that (before the prefect Eugène Poubelle imposed in 1884the hygienic dustbins in tin) every morning, before sunrise, silently swept through the courtyards of the Parisian houses, transporting in their out-of-town settlements all kinds of rubbish, which was meticulously recycled. The subsequent industrial development, partly by expulsion from the inside, but above all from the outside, led to a settlement of artisans and workers which became the rouges ceinturesespecially starting from the moment in which, after the First World War, military power transferred to the City of Paris the band of respect outside the walls, become obsolete: a crown of 34 kilometers by 400 meters.

In North American urbanization, on the contrary, cities were born around functional nucleuses such as ports, crossings of roads and railway stations. The social marginality did not coincide automatically with the spatial marginality (referring to peripheral places of an original nucleus): sometimes to be marginal it was enough simply to be on the wrong side of the tracks , but the fundamental point is that, in those cities, everything the territory is subjected to the capitalist mechanisms of rent, so even in the central area everything is always ‘on sale’. 

Indeed it is precisely in the central areas, where, for reasons well explored by economists and geographers of central place theory, the effects of rent are more energetic, which are created (and are destroyed) areas of social marginality. The visitor is always struck by the evidence of this almost total soil asymmetry in the US cities, which makes the old man stand side by side with the new. The population distribution mechanisms are strictly economic, and the central areas are often left to degrade (even with the instrumental input of families of marginal populations such as Afro-Americans or Caribs) to bring down prices, as in the case of the so-called blockbusting.

 In any case, as intuited by the scholars of the School of Chicago, the central parts of the cities of the United States offered all the niche conditions for the settlement of new populations, above all of immigrants, thus giving life to that social ‘mosaic’ which, even today, it characterizes those urban realities: the Jewish ghetto, Little Italy, Chinatown, the Yorkville of the Germans or, more recently, the black and Latin-American ghettos. It is there that we find the problems of urban suburbs, peripheries understood in the sociological and non-spatial sense, which are called inner city problems .

In the real suburbs in the spatial or geometric sense, the middle classes have instead moved, with a process started in the 1920s, but completed after the Second World War, and today stabilized, but not necessarily in a definitive way. The reasons why the American middle classes have moved to the suburbs are many, and we can not reconstruct the whole process that has actually created a new urban form that gives its stamp to the urbanization of the 21st century (Beauregard 2006 ) . 

Suburbanization has however triggered a filtering downprocess, that is, the passage of construction in good conditions to disadvantaged social classes, and, paradoxically, has contributed to the improvement of the housing conditions of the less well-to-do classes left in the city center, reducing the segregation of the ghettos. The result is the classic social morphology of American cities, which has often been likened to a donut or donut , with the upper classes and the poor outside inside.

In both cases the spatial organization of the territory acts as a visible network on which, in correspondence with the great flows of human mobility, different populations are entangled, characterized by diversity of income, social or geographical origin, age, material organization and so on . In these currents, individual decisions are not absent, but individual rationality lies within contexts shaped by collective processes. These are the dynamics that the sociologist Émile Durkheim, speaking precisely of the movement from the village to the city, defines a current of opinion, a collective thrust, and the relationship between individual decisions and constraints of context can be understood by the concept of ‘ structuring ‘elaborated by the sociologist Anthony Giddens. 

North American cities and European cities create opposing camps and offer images that are exactly mirrored: in European cities, the most recent populations, usually the poorest, aggregate in successive layers around the historical nuclei, while in the American urbanization the suburbs are, so to speak nourished by the center, by ‘escape’ outside the middle classes, and the popular image is that, quoted, of the donut. In the great metropolis of underdevelopment, urban suburbs have developed for accrezione, in a certain sense according to the European model, but with two profound differences: the weakness of the historical nucleus (often of colonial or premodern origin), with little or no urban infrastructures in external area that sometimes covers gigantic extensions;favelas , shanty towns or bidonvilles .

 Even the Italian cities, for relatively short periods during the acute phases of post-war urbanization, have experienced similar phenomena on a very small scale, with the Roman townships or the Milanese cores, but the difference is precisely the dimensional scale and the social level that, in the less developed regions of the world, they make the structural and gigantic phenomenon. However, it should be added that the structural factors that we will examine more thoroughly ensure that, almost everywhere, but especially in the most developed areas, the 21stsec. is characterized by a model of urbanization that overlaps with the different existing models, and that in Europe, above all, has come into conflict with the traditional model of urbanization, whose defense represented a particular concern for Jacques Delors in the last years of his presidency to the European Commission (see its introduction to En quête d’Europe) La ville: les carrefours de la science et de la culture , 1994 ).


The city, any city, is an ambiguous object or, if we prefer, consists of several phenomena that, although interacting, are placed on different levels: regardless of the definition of the city that you want to adopt (theme that goes beyond the tasks of this essay) every human settlement consists of two entities. We can call them layers or spheres of reality , plans or even ontologies , the fact is that one of these areas is easy to describe, because it includes the city that we see, the physical city, an object always imposing and imposing, even when it is not of dimensions very large. We could call this entity the visible city or, better, the observable cityto avoid confusion with a hypothetical invisible city, which is there, but hidden, like the courtyards of the forbidden cities.

 The observable city is made up of buildings, buildings and structures, but also of physical persons and animals, and all the objects that are placed there, in addition to the orographic substratum that contains it and which in some cases is powerfully shaped. , for example, to the dams of Amsterdam, New Orleans or Venice, or to the San Francisco road junction, which is perpendicular to the elevations of the place. The observable city can be very large and complex, so much to tear away the universal admiration, but it does not constitute a theoretical problem: here is “the City is there”, as the inhabitant said pointing to Byzantium to the wayfarer, istinpòlin (eis ten polin) from which the name of Istanbul. But behind (in front, below, above, inside, perhaps around, in short, closely interconnected with) this city there is another that is not observable with any kind of physical wavelength, but that produces, in the literal sense of ’cause’, ‘fa’, ‘build’, the visible city. 

It is urban society, with all its characteristics, demographic, economic, political and cultural, without which the city would not be as it is, indeed it would not be at all, because the city is not a natural fact, a mountain of stone on to which the human mold spreads, adapting itself, but an artifact, produced as a result of certain social processes, not always transparent and not always reconstructable in the intention-realization path, but in any case existing. «Every city – uses those who love rhetoric – has a soul», that is, it possesses certain characteristics that are perceivable as unique and original, and that distinguish it from other cities. All of us, sooner or later, have been practicing, from ordinary observers or urban experts, trying to reconstruct the exchange protocols that link the stones to the spirit, the observable city to the society that produced it, asking what collective intelligence has built that particular palace or sacred building, that intricate set of buildings, streets and squares, especially when we are faced with the fascinating traces of missing urban civilizations.

Archeology, the history of art and architecture, and other social sciences that deal with the past of places, in the last few centuries have greatly contributed to the knowledge of the origins and evolution of the urban phenomenon. Together with the functional sciences of the city, ie geography, economics, sociology and the like, which enlighten us on the material bonds, within which we must move to build a city, the various urban disciplines have allowed us to accumulate a growing amount of data on the relationship between the architect and the artifact. Many mistakes have been made and continue to be committed, especially when one proceeds morally or ideologically, because the matter is slippery. 

In fact, the numerous attempts to link the nature of the peoples to the physical characteristics of the settlement territory have produced large quantities of common places, but few scientific certainties. Instead, literature offers us numerous and egregious examples of studies that demonstrate convincingly how the attractive facades that fill the banks of the canals of the Dutch cities, with tall and narrow houses, derive from economic needs, and in general the ornate of the residences and of the medieval city halls was the expression of the meaning of a public city, which we do not find in the medina of the Arab cities, where the splendor is all inside, or how the Roman cities were derived from military models orMadrid’s avenidas from imperial needs and so on (M. Romano, The Aesthetics of the European City: Forms and Images , 1993, Romano 2004 , 2008 ).

There is then another level of complexity, because if the city is the product of urban society (and that city ​​is the product of that urban society), the inverse relationship is also true, that is, that the city represents the context in which it develops. or a certain type of society moves. We mentally compare the type of social interaction that we can observe in a neighborhood of ‘bass’ like the Pallonetto di Santa Lucia in Naples or the souk of Marrakech, on the one hand, and the edge citiesof Los Angeles, the canton of Basel or even the most familiar Brianza, on the other. You do not need to add anything else, also because this is a specific point of the discourse on the outskirts and therefore it will be necessary to deepen it. Here it will suffice to note that while on the protocols of transformation from society to city we have a lot of knowledge, on the reverse process – what kind of physical city causes a certain type of social relations – we have few and often conditioned by ideological attitudes.