On Leeds and other citiesA conversation with Zygmunt Bauman, sociologist, and Irena Bauman, architect, atLawnswood Gardens, Leeds, home of Zygmunt Bauman, 8 June, 2004.Published in Arkitekten #14-2004.Zygmunt Bauman (ZB)You know, what I think about the city today is, there are two significant points: One, thecity is a camping ground of globalization processes. And the second is, that the city todayis the dumping ground for the problems which are produced by the globalizationprocesses. Closely connected to this second point is, that the city is a laboratory, in whichthe forms of human habitation under this impact of these problems created byglobalization, are designed, experimented with, put to a trial, tested, rejected, accepted,and so on. So the city is a laboratory. The city is torn between two tendencies, that I termmixophilia and mixophobia. Mixophilia, the tendency of coming together and listening tothe ‘others’, and mixophobia, the separation of people, the isolation of separatecommunities, and maybe the ultimate meaning of the so-called multiculturalism is actuallythe separation of cultures.Henning Thomsen (HT)You very much talk about the ‘global’ cities, but what about the so-called regional cities,like Leeds or others. Cities that maybe are not quite so much at the ‘edge’ of globalization.ZBSmall places….? Well small cities are all, in a sense – that was actually my fear 20-30years ago – they are what Karl Marx called ‘ moral devaluation’. Moral devaluation ofmachinery. Machinery, perfectly capable of doing a job, is rejected, not because it breaksdown or cannot be repaired, because there are other machines, which offer some extrathings. Richard Sennett among other things described how that happened in bakerys inNY and Chicago. That instead of one oven, which was dedicated to just one kind of job,this was rejected in NY bakeries, and replaced by ovens that could switch from one type ofjob to another, from one kind of baking to another. Little towns - This is what I thought 20-30 years ago – were undergoing this process of ‘moral devaluation’, simply because thebig cities offered new kinds of services, quite recently invented, which however wouldn’twork in a small town with a small population – simply on the basis of economics alone. Inorder to expose yourself you had to go away, and emigrate, leave the little towns.HTBut is this a general trend. Leeds for instance, a ‘small’ town in comparison to global cities,seems to be growing in population.What does Leeds mean to you?ZBI prefer Lees, for example, to London. Leeds is more made to human size. Maybe if I wasborn in London I would see it differently. But since I am not, I find every visit to itoppressive, tiring and so on. I think that every person coming from a relatively smallerplace to a place like London would experience this.
I consider Leeds very comfortable. Leeds offers me a balance between my culturaldemands and cultural offers.HTAnd Irena, you stayed in Leeds as well.Irena Bauman (IB)I did. After architecture school in Liverpool, I came back, and for some reason I stayed atmy parents house. It was the time of the 80’s recession, and it took 6 months to land a job,and the job happened to be in Leeds. I needed the job experience to qualify for practising,and I thought it would be okay to stay for a year in Leeds. Meanwhile my partner arrivedfrom London (Maurice), and he got a job and we stopped leapfrogging. And after a while itdidn’t matter. We grew very fond of Leeds. It became a city with lots of friends andopportunities, and this created our life. So I haven’t really been rebelling against Leeds.HTSo there was no urge to go to London?IBI tried to go to London. It was what I wanted to do to get a job but I didn’t succeed. Now,looking back, I see London as a fantastic city to go and visit. I go there whenever I canhave a day or two off. But I actually share what my father just said, that in terms ofeveryday life, it has become almost impossible to have a meaningful life in London. Tomany choices, to many threats, it is a city which is forever caught in its own threat,because of sheer size of population. Whenever I go to London there is a least always onetube line not working or closed, because someone forgot a handbag or somebody saysthey might have seen something suspicious, or simply because there are somerepairworks going on. There is just always a crisis with just moving about in the city. Andthis is not a comfortable situation to live under every day. It is very suitable for youngergenerations and probably also for the wealthy elder generations, who can afford to exploitall that a city like London offers. But for the rest of us living in London is and would be justhard work.HTTubes closing down because of bomb scare, doesn’t this also happen in Leeds?IBThere was one instance two or three years ago. But that is all I can remember. Somepeople do not go to say Oxford Street in London any more, because they think that this isthe place where say a terrorist attack would occur. In Leeds there is no place like that, thatone would try to avoid because of a fear like that. As I see it, small towns, regional cities,at this time have massive advantages over global cities. We just have to understand it.And this is also why I don’t necessarily agree with my father, when he says that the city assuch is becoming a city of separate communities. In a city like Leeds it is still possible tobe reasonably together. It is possible to have this varied crowd in the city.HT
Does this have to do with size?IBI think size is absolutely critical. In Leeds, wherever you are, it takes you 15 minutes to getinto the countryside. There is still a connection between humans and nature. And one ofthe things that people quote about London is this suffocating feeling of just not being ableto get anywhere outside the manmade environment. There is no relief from it. Friendscoming from London to Leeds say that this must be one of the most benefiting thingsabout a city as Leeds, this close access to countryside.HTIs this the brand of leeds, its identiy?IBLeeds is one of the most unbranded cities. It hasn’t got an identity. It is trying to find anidentity, but in actuality it is rather neutral. Unoriginal. Unspectacular. Good regionalcenter. This is what Leeds has always been. It has been smug and selfsatisfiedanunambitious. But now, because of all the pressure of other cities, trying to find theiridentity, Leeds is also lining itself up in this competition.I really don’t share the rather pessimistic view, that market forces and commercialactivities are really the only major force in developing cities. For what I see at the time, isreally individuals making choices, and rebelling against that trend.I was recently shown a very interesting slide at the Treasury (finansministeriet), thatmeasured the national gross product, the wealth of England, against levels of happinessthrough the last 40 years. And whereas the national gross product was rising rapidly overthe last four decades, the level pf happiness stayed steady. Don’t ask me how the levels ofhappiness were measured, but when the researchers asked what the reason for this couldbe, that our wealth did not bring us more happiness, the answer was always the same,that it was because of the social injustice related to the rise in wealth. So I think there is abig difference between marketing agents, powerful developers, who try to install thoseideas of branding, of uniformity in our cities. And what they actually want, is consumers.I think there is a lot of rebellion against this, that shows in various scales from communitiessetting up arts festivals to create identity in their own neighbourhood, to people actuallymoving away and out of city centres. In a research made public recently, there was anoverview over different types of people. And six new types had been added to the list now,one of which was people actually moving away from the city centre. These people are notretired people or youngsters, but people working, people like us. They just decide that thiscompetitive type of life is simply not what they want anymore.So while the global forces are putting pressure on all of us, coming back to a city likeLeeds, this is a city that has not understood its own strength in a time like this. All thepossibilities of becoming extraordinary to live in. It has beautiful countryside, goodconnections to other places, it’s got a cultural life, its small enough to be familiar, smallenough to be shaped by its citizens, they can actually do something in Leeds. In Leedsyou can still be heard, so to speak, quite unlike London.
So I think regional centres will find a new voice, a new identiy, but the search for this is notyet put into a philosophy or theory.ZBThere is always this problem of how spacious is an identity. Does leeds hold enoughintegrating power to overcome the local identities of its various neighbourhoods?Headingly for example is a place with a lot of character of its own. So do also some of therather poor areas of Leeds, like haunslet or arongly, have a rather strong character of theirown. And wonder wether someone living in headingley would say I am from headingley orI am from Leeds. In London for example, this is already pushed extremely far. As britishcouncil scholar 45 years ago, I lived in Highgate, in an attic in a little house, where theowner was a skilled worker and she was primary school teacher. Not exactly the bottom ofsociety, but honourable middle class rather. I was going every day to the west end, wherethe university was. One day the lady of the house confided to me, that when she wasmarried, we celebrat5ed our wedding in the west end. And that was the last time they hadbeen to that part of London. So that is how much – or how little – they were Londoners.And this applies to the real genuine settled Englishman.I once hired a black girl from chapeltown for a photographic session. I brought her here, inmy car, and back to chapeltown afterwards. When I took her here, she already started tofeel very uneasy when we hadn’t yet fully left the area of chapeltown. She was born inchapeltown, but hadn’t even been to the part of chapeltown we went through to get here.So she was from chapeltown, and would have a hard time identifying herself with anabstract notion like leeds.When we came here to leeds 33 years ago, leeds though was branded. It had a rand.Whenever there was a tv series, and one of the characters had to leave the series, theformula was always, that he went to leeds. Which meant that he disappeared. Leeds wasthen a Siberia of a sorts. And now again it is branded, because the English version of sexin the city, called love in the city, was placed here in leeds. Alledgedly the uppies fromLondon now leave London in the afternoon to go partying in leeds, and are still able tomake it back to work in London the next day.So somehow I feel that this notion of an identity of a city, is a rather imagined entity. Acomplex notion, of criss crossing ideas and sets of ideas.HTWhat does this mean to someone like you building in the city. Are you building in leeds orrather in chapeltown or headdingley and so on?IBI don’t think it is entirely right what my father says. Because there is usage and facilities inthe centre of the city that everyone sooner or later has to ‘plug’ in to, like the train system,a bank or a theatre. So the city centre is there as a capacity for everyone to use.
Leeds, though, currently are on their way to make some drastic changes to their citycentre, where they want to redevelop the market area– which is truly one of Leeds finestassets in my view - where they want to get rid of some of the more uneconomicalactivities, the poor peoples part of the market. They want to squeeze them out byincreasing the rent of the stalls. If these parts of the city centre get squeezed out, there willbe less to come into the city for, and the city centre would loose out of one of its majoradvantages right now, of being a rather democratic city centre. So its not all true that citycentres do not have a part to play in city identity, but my father is right, that ones realidentity lies in the immediate neighbourhood, where you live. The task of the city centre inthis view then should be, to provide a good mix of overarching facilities which areaccessible and desirable by all the citizens of the city.Another current question is how to activate people more, have them participate in civic life,in politics, in democracy. And really only the city centre has the capacity to provide thatkind of civic activity on a city scale that can allow a city to come together. This also to mesays that we mustn’t give up on the city centre.ZBPutting it in other words, maybe more general, what we speak of is an assembly groundwhere people can come together. It’s a time and space question. For example the sameplace could serve during the working day as a commercial centre and in the evening as agathering point, sometimes the two times are maybe even overlapping. Go to Milan forexample, or other Italian cities or Spain, for example, and you see enormous flocks ofpeople coming together in specific places, where shopping seems only to be a pretext forgathering. And I agree with Irena, that these places are important. Places like these areprobably the material embodiment of the supralocal ties. You can refer to a city and itsidentity through these places that attract people from all corners of that particular city.IBIn England I think we are currently missing the point with regards to this. We cannot assuch import, as some say, the experience of other cultures, like the Italian or Spanish, ofcoming together. . being together is a cultural issue. You create a nice backdrop for it, butyou cannot make people come, and be together. In England we have this dreadfuldrinking culture, and we do not have a culture of city centre living with a mix of activities.Thus the city centre is never a neighbourhood. And now that we are creatingneighbourhoods in city centres, they seem all to be gated communities, looking the same,completely separate from the rest of the public realm. So the answers we are trying to find,cannot be found in architecture as such and building, but have to be strategies that arealso political strategies. There has been talk for example of new licensing laws and so on.Because when you go, for example to the city centre of Leeds in the evening, it iscompletely taken over by 18-25 years who are absolutely drunk. It is just not a nice placeto be in.The central thing is still, that we have to have some choices, no matter how global webecome. Places that simply just maximize one or two issues, like the commercial ones, aresimply not places in which we as citizens can make choices any longer. Hence theycannot really become good places to live.