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Zygmunt Bauman on the norm of stressful cities

[THIS WEEK] Stressful cities are inevitable, Zygmunt Bauman reminds us, writes James Pallister

Mid-way through Zygmunt Bauman’s lecture at the top floor of Sheffield University’s Arts Tower the fire alarm went off. All 100+ of the assembled students and teachers trooped down 16 storeys to the square below, evacuated thanks to – rumour had it – a PhD student’s burnt toast.

It was, as the esteemed sociologist (pictured below) pointed out, a good way of illustrating his point that living in cities was inherently unpredictable and as a result, stressful. People were attracted to the heterogeneity of cities, to get away from what Marx called the ‘idiocy of the countryside’. But the very nature of these spaces, filled as they are with strangers – those unpredictable sources of both disquiet and promise – make city living inherently unnerving.

Richard Sennett, referred to by Bauman as ‘the wisest social thinker today’, has written about Le Corbusier’s hatred of the ‘impurity’ of the street. Bauman also explained his belief that single-programme living spaces and the barriers of gated communities devalue our social faculties. He said the problem was that slowly, imperceptibly, you lose the skills of dialogue necessary to communicate with others and negotiate conflict. Sennett has written extensively on the reasons behind this, but they are vividly illustrated in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of The Vanities. When Sherman McCoy and his mistress find themselves in Harlem, terrified, it becomes clear that the perfect isolation of their Manhattan existence has not emancipated them from fear but flung them deeper into it.

Bauman advocates Sennett’s strategy of ‘informal, open cooperation’ to deal with timeless and new problems. ‘The city’, the 87-year-old Polish émigré ended optimistically, ‘could be a laboratory for new ways of living together, not despite our differences, but because of our differences’.

Zygmunt Bauman was speaking as part of the University of Sheffield’s ‘Social Production of Architecture’ series, alongside Anna Minton and Katherine Gibson

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