The Modern Urban Form as a Capitalist Construct

I could not, in the course of a fifteen-minute internet search, find a definite first attestation of the expression “to go to town,” meaning to do something with great energy or exuberance. That a number of sources report a probable 19th-century American origin is not surprising given that the idiom rests on a metaphoric use of a literal activity of going to a town or a city, in a context of frequency and ordinariness which is both relatively recent in the scheme of things and far more common at that time in the so-called New World than in places where the robustness of prior urban patterns remained a factor. No spurious etymology, listed among backronyms in Facebook posts, would convince the serious student of urban history of an earlier origin, for in such contexts “town” was as likely to be where you’d start off from as where you’re going.

Today we “go to town” in order to work, to buy things, to do almost everything except sleep. The prevailing image of the city or town specifically excludes the dwelling function of all except the invisible poor and a minority of eccentrics. The city is seen as a thing properly made up of office blocks, and this remains the dominant image even over half a century after the advent of the shopping mall, the office park, and the greenfield campus. The city is there, where the tall buildings are; not here among the houses. And in the way of such things we have a sort of default assumption that it has always been this way. Yet the characteristic urban form of a concentration of work-places surrounded by a belt of housing — a concentration of capital surrounded by a diffusion of labour — is a relatively recent phenomenon.

It is remarkable that the history of this urban form follows the emergence of capitalism very closely, just as the popular perception of the former mirrors that of the latter. The history is complex and takes in numerous makeshifts and intermediate forms, doubtless in response to the spatial logistics of early factories. Factories were often extensions, at first, to capitalists’ country homes, gradually revealing the need to accommodate workers drawn from an increasing rural radius as the Enclosures of the Commons progressed, resulting in “Coketown,” as Dickens called his fictitious example of the type. Less frequently, urban capitalists contentiously bought out their poorer urban neighbours in order to expand their factories, creating what would much later become dedicated industrial areas through the use of progressivist zoning initiatives. The common factor was that factories were typically adjacent or attached to the homes of capitalists: it was the workers who were required daily to travel to the capitalists, not the other way around.

This pattern of topper-and-fat-cigar’s mansion being right next door to the satanic mill seems odd to our modern urban sensibilities, but it was familiar enough to ring true in fiction as late as the outbreak of the Second World War. It was, however, essentially a survival of earlier urban forms, rendering the imposition of the capitalist system of production thereon particularly stark and disturbing. It began very early to cry out for an urban-design solution.

The dormitory railway suburb enabled middle-class white-collar workers to escape the increasingly industrial character of formerly very human cities through daily commutes to places of clerical and professional employment. This was the beginning of a development which would ultimately result in the sprawling automotive suburbs which characterize virtually every city in North and South America, the Antipodes, and sub-Saharan Africa, and surprisingly many in Europe and Asia. The industries eventually left the central areas due to zoning legislation which initially had at least an ostensible humanitarian aspect, but soon became one of the most powerful instruments in enforcing the capitalist urban form to the exclusion of any alternative. Inhumanity remained in the spatial quality of what we would eventually call “the city.”

Even now — as the Overton window slowly shifts to include questioning of the wisdom of urban zoning — we too often hear that zoning exists so that we don’t get a chemical plant next to a kindergarten, and to that end we must outlaw haberdasheries next to homes. Yet I have not yet encountered an analysis of the way zoning legislation actually creates and maintains ideal spatial conditions for capitalism. I use “zoning” in its broad sense here, not only in terms of the restriction of certain urban functions to specific zones, but also all the attendant requirements regarding setbacks, bulk, heights, parking, etc. All these together serve to create a division of landscapes tailored to the demands of capitalism.

My brief definition of “capitalism” is a system characterized by a specific design of market and corresponding business model in response to the historical creation by political means of both a structural superabundance of available labour for hire and a concentration of capital in the hands of an elite, thatsubsequently manipulates processes of technological development to the exclusion of alternatives in order to exploit these conditions. This implies not only a wage system, but a mass wage system characterized by large numbers of employees employed by a small number of employers: and not only to enable this system but actively to necessitate it, through the adoption of techniques of production which are viable only at a corresponding scale. To this end, product designs are normalized which cannot be manufactured economically except by these techniques, in volumes of output far in excess of any level of demand which is not expressly engineered. Thus labour relations, technology, product design, and the consumption of industrial output are intertwined, and have been so in every state industrial policy the world over since Mussolini sought to make it so by casting each sector of Italian industry as a unified corpus analogous to the armed forces of the state.

Every government in the world thus attempts to choreograph its society so that promised “jobs” dovetail with promised “productivity” in a context where it is perfectly obvious that all these widgets are going to be absolutely necessary. This is mostly policy waffle, legislation empowering one level of bureaucrats to empower other levels of bureaucrats to empower yet others, but where it has teeth is above all in urban zoning. That is where actual coercion happens.

There are two aspects of the prevailing modern urban form, as enforced by zoning legislation, which specifically serve the needs of capitalism. Firstly, this urban form supports the wage system by creating scarcity in economically fertile property. The value of the tiny portion of urban property suitable for any kind of economic activity inflates its market price drastically, so much so that simply owning it becomes a viable occupation in itself. This is an excellent example of commodification arising out of the structural effects of legislation. Here is actual policy and legislation determining that the property of some may constitute capital, and that of others may not. It literally and directly enforces capitalism.

It is not only a matter of allowing economically fertile uses here and disallowing them there, such that merely changing the laws would make everything right. The legislation actively requires that the property occupied by workers be physically unsuitable for economic activity. Everything in the bucolic-manqué vision of the suburbs is determined to ensure this unsuitability. Distances are long; street-scapes are boring and designed to create an impression of slow pedestrian progress; street layouts militate against pedestrian accessibility; buildings are set back far from any possibility of passing trade; low buildings require functions to be placed side-by-side, further increasing distances and dampening pedestrian interest; parking requirements multiply floor-area demands and create inhospitable environments; etc. etc. etc. Even in the absence of legislation, fixing this would require that inhabitants perform feats of cadastral coordination involving complex land-area trade-offs among themselves, with possibly uncertain legal implications, always in jeopardy of one party scuppering the entire project — apart from spending lots of money directly on construction. If it seems as if the classic low-density dormitory suburb could not be a worse environment for small-scale trade if it were specifically designed to be so, it is because it was specifically designed to be so. The primary characteristic of the classic low-density dormitory suburb is that it is useless as capital.

Secondly, the prevailing urban form represents a high-consumption environment. This is not only due to the greater bulk of real estate being constrained, as shown above, to being a net drain of wealth rather than a source. The suburbs are where money is  spent and not at all made, not only because the making of money is both made impractical and directly outlawed, but also because everything about its functioning is designed to require spending as much money as possible. Getting from A to B — not least getting to one’s job in the wage system and back — requires buying, maintaining, and fueling a vehicle, which costs money. Leaving one’s home unoccupied through the day creates layers of security issues, the resolution of which is more complex than it might initially appear, and costs money. Leaving children unattended creates a need for systems whose desirability is questionable, with layers of concomitant demands, all of which cost money. Communicating with others, under these least favourable conditions of contact and proximity, costs money. Juggling any kind of logistics in this environment is likely to cost more money than it otherwise might. Maintaining buildings costs money, which might not be as much of a problem if those self-same buildings generated an income. Maintaining municipal services over inordinate distances costs money, which the city demands from its inhabitants. Doing something, if only to prevent erosion, with all that land one purportedly owns but the zoning legislation does not allow one to build on costs money. Disused lawns still cost money — and that is the least of the damage they do.

All this money goes to maintaining the stream of widgets which capitalist industry needs to keep pumping out by their millions if it is to function at all. These are for the most part not widgets anyone desires in themselves: were it not for the environment in which they are consumed they would most probably not be consumed at all. And if it is bad enough in the case of those among the wage-employed who have the wherewithal to keep up this rate of consumption, what of those who do not? What of the figure trudging along the side of the four-lane stroad, because they cannot afford the car the road was designed for? They are doubly excluded, first by being required to negotiate this environment lest they have no access at all, and second by not being afforded the means to do so.

Thus the modern urban form creates a degree of poverty which has no other origin and which would not exist but for the urban form. It contributes materially to the background poverty on which capitalist labour relations rely. It supports the wage system in more ways than one.

The importance of this is to understand that the modern urban form is not an organic historic growth but a structural project of capitalism. The legislation driving it is not the mere codification of any revealed popular will; it is not the formalization in law of what people are going to do anyway (what would the point of that be?) but the coercive imposition of patterns of land use wholly contrary to the overwhelming trend of spontaneous patterns of human settlement the world over, throughout history. Free people just don’t create cities like the ones we have come to regard as normal.

Of course, that rascal Chronos is standing by to claim the work of capitalism as his own, leading us to believe that the urban form of capitalism just happened to emerge, quite independently of capitalism, simply because it was 1849 or 1949 or whenever — just as we are told that the capitalist factory, the embodiment of the capitalist mass wage system, just happened to emerge by itself. And lest we offend Lord Chronos it is too easy to be content with the blithe superimposition of a cooperative status onto the basic architecture of capitalist industry, under the assumption of a spectral authority of “history” which decrees that the basic architecture of capitalist industry is ordained to be — instead of questioning the functional structure of its processes much more deeply.

So too for the urban form which now dominates. Understanding it as a specific structural process of capitalism and not a historical inevitability allows an exercise of counterfactual imagination in which we ask concerning urban form, if not the actual history of capitalism, then what can be imagined in its place? This exercise provides at every turn a grounded default projection, a human pattern with a wide application and a long history, rooted in the realities of human stride and stamina: not “anyone’s guess.” It is wholly baseless to assume as a default, absent specific design to the contrary, the persistence of the capitalist city in an anarchist future.

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