John Rennie Short is a Professor in the School of Public Policy. He is author of 48 books, and many papers in a range of academic journals His work is translated into Chinese, Czech, Japanese, Korean and Spanish. His essays have appeared in Associated Press, Business Insider, Citiscope, City Metric, Market Watch, Newsweek, PBS Newshour, Quartz, Salon, Slate, Time, US News and World Report, Washington Post and World Economic Forum.

Urban imaginaries are constantly changing constructs that move back and forwards from representations of reality to effective constructors of reality. Urban imaginaries fill out the world with hopes and wishes as well as facts and observation, they affect and influence as well as describe and explain. They harness material interests and embody, shape, inform and condense power relations. An urban imaginary is a contested space not a final destination.

In my recent book, The Unequal City, I explore a number of urban imaginaries in what I have termed the Urban Now, including the securitized city, the smart city, the green city and the cosmopolitan city. Here, I consider just three. The global city has a number of distinct characteristics including the promoting of global connections, hosting global events, and inserting the city more firmly into an emerging set of business practices, urban policy semiotics and cultural values. A concern with global reputation is often used to solicit support for major redevelopment projects. The hosting of megaevents such as the Olympic Games is the prime example of city elites using a global event as way to force through development in the city. There is backlash to the effects of global city projects, especially in rich cities less dependent on attracting mobile capital and more democratic cites where the public has a say. Calgary’s recent failure to achieve majority public support for a Winter Olympics bid was just the most recent example of a backlash against expensive megaevents with high costs and uncertain benefits. There is also the cultural backlash to the cosmopolitan element of the global city expressed in xenophobic nationalisms.

Figure 1. Large pools of mobile capital are being invested in global cities: New building in Bangkok (Photo: John Rennie Short)

The neoliberal city involves attempts to restructure labor, housing and land markets in order to maximize profit and reduce business taxes. It is concerned with a narrow band of urban competitiveness. As capital becomes more mobile and fluid, city elites are eager to retain the profitability of existing capital investment and attract new ones. The mantra of urban competitiveness provides both a metric and discourse to remake labor and land markets.  City government is recast from a form of income redistribution or provider of public goods and services for citizens and more as an engine of private economic growth. This shift to a more entrepreneurial city involves an increasing use of public/private partnerships and the privatization of public goods and services.  It mobilizes public resources for private gain and recasts citizens as consumers and non non-consumers as threats.

The humane city is an umbrella term that covers a range of ideas and practices. Other writers have used the terms ‘right to the city’, ‘emancipatory city’ and ‘cities for citizens’.  Henri Lefebvre, for example, defined the right to the city defined as the right to access, use and enjoy the city and fully participate in the production of urban space. I employ the term the ‘humane city’ to refer to cities where ordinary people can lead dignified and creative lives.

Figure 2 Building for the 2020 Games in Tokyo (Photo: John Rennie Short)

The humane city shifts concerns away from narrow definitions of citizenship and individual rights to broader and more all-encompassing definitions of urban habitation. The humane city imaginary raises important questions about how individual and collective rights merge and fold into one another, and how we should be building humane cities that are livable and fair as well as productive and sustainable. At root it is concern with a more compassionate city.

John Rawls famous thought experiment on social justice was to ask: what rules would we draw up assuming a veil of ignorance regarding out characteristics? However, we could also consider the alternative: that we know exactly whom we are and what others are like, and that we draw up rules based on this knowledge, but with compassion, by which I mean a feeling of deep sympathy. A basic requirement of a more compassionate city is that we can imagine ourselves in the lives of others.

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Short, J. R. (2018) The Unequal City: Urban Resurgence, Displacement and The Making of Inequality in Global Cities. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Short, J. R. (2018) Hosting The Olympic Games: The Real Costs for Cities. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Short, J. R. (1989) The Humane City. Oxford; Basil Blackwell