Richard Sennett and Pablo Sendra on Mutual Aid and Density in Times of Urban Crisis

Metropolis spoke with the pair about their new book, which expounds on the bottom-up, accordion-like features that make cities resilient.
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In Designing Disorder, drawings by architect Pablo Sendra lay out a flexible framework for urban development and infrastructure. Courtesy Pablo Sendra

Early in Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City (Verso), a new book from architect Pablo Sendra and urban scholar Richard Sennett, the two observe: “A vital and open city does not occur naturally.” It’s a simple observation, and one that feels particularly timely today. As cities face acute design and infrastructure challenges, coupled with decades of damage to the social safety net, residents are taking a range of creative steps toward making their cities more livable, the kinds of urban experimentation that the authors encourage in the book.

Metropolis asked Sendra and Sennett about mutual aid networks filling the role of the welfare state, the necessity to think beyond top-down planning, and how to make cities more resilient and adaptive to future crises.


Both in Designing Disorder and in The Uses of Disorder, which [Sennett] wrote in 1970, there’s an emphasis on the need for people to be better equipped to handle their own problems. What does that mean in the moment we’re in?

RS: For Americans and even for Brits, relying on a top-down organization to keep people safe is not good. We have public health systems quite damaged by neoliberalism, so we must invent ways of survival when the state’s real interest is control. That’s the real point of The Uses of Disorder: If the state is weak or abusive, in order for people to prosper, they have to make their own mutual aid networks, and they have to live in environments that allow them to translate these social environments into how they physically occupy space together.

PS: These networks of mutual aid and support have happened because of necessity in these difficult situations. But I think that in general, beyond these situations, the government shouldn’t just wait for them to happen, because they don’t happen naturally, they need certain conditions that are urban or social. So how do we encourage them to develop, so that we don’t need to reach these kinds of situations for them to emerge?

There’s a lot to learn in order to build a more resilient future where support networks and communities can survive through future lockdowns, when heatwaves or floods prevent people from using public space, putting a lot of pressure on the welfare system. Now is a good time to strengthen the networks within and between communities.

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A patchwork of green and recreational infrastructure could dynamically respond to changing threats and crises in the city. Courtesy Pablo Sendra

What are some of the key architectural and physical interventions you feel are most necessary to incorporate following the pandemic?

RS: I think on the architectural and physical side, what this shows us is that we need much more flexible systems of building, like an accordion, to extend, change, and adapt as a crisis comes and goes. Most of the housing we have is very hard for people to adapt – sometimes, you need a big apartment house to be able to pull neighbors apart, when that’s needed, but not forever.

I’m also convinced that the way we should rebuild is to reorient construction so that we build green. In particular, that means rethinking the confusions we have about density. We equate density with crowding; but density, which is a very green and good thing, is not the same as crowding, which presses people together. There are lots of ways to design density so that it too is flexible, so that sometimes people are crowded, sometimes they aren’t. We can’t give that up. We can’t go back to suburbia, which is horrible from an environmental point of view, a horrible thing that shows we’re afraid of making contact with people. Pablo’s designs are a way of thinking about how to create a green infrastructure, which can contract and evolve as the nature of the threats facing people comes and goes.

At the end of the book, you briefly offer Hudson Yards as the anthesis of the urban design principles you hope to enact. What about that project in particular bothers you?

PS: I think Hudson Yards illustrates how global capital controls urban space today. It appropriates concepts like flexibility and public space and creates a fake public space with all sorts of fake flexibility through a huge structure that operates in the public realm while supposedly adapting to different events. It creates a spectacle in the middle to take pictures with [Heatherwick Studio’s Vessel]. I think it shows a lot of the ingredients of how global capital has monopolized urbanization and made it into a product over the last several decades.

RS: Hudson Yards was a $26 billion investment in something that people don’t want. Many of the apartments haven’t sold. The public space is a disaster, there’s no one in it. Because it’s a controlled public space, a podium that’s up one level from the street.

So it’s very controlled, but it’s also a failure on its own terms. The notion that the upper 1% has infinite consumer desires that can only be satisfied in cities is not true. The tragedy is that by building this rigid, unwanted, and also very ugly public space, the $26 billion that could have been spent on schools, housing—all sorts of things that would have made the city more viable—is gone, whereas they chose to spend it on something which makes the city less attractive to most people. It’s the ultimate top-down insertion into a city. It’s a tragedy about imposing a top-down economic and urbanistic energy into the city that can’t be done. You can only you can only infuse energy into the city our way. That’s how cities become more robust, through the kinds of things we’re writing about. They don’t become more robust through Hudson Yards.

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Categories: Cities