forA Questionnaire
A City for All

by Philippe Rekacewicz
9 Nov 2021

1.  What is the most thrilling urban situation that you have ever experienced?

In the 1970s, I was traveling with my parents on the way to Santiago de Compostela during the Easter celebrations, and we stopped in Oviedo, a small town in Asturias. The town was crowded with people walking along the main avenues, taking part in religious processions. There were brass bands everywhere, playing beautifully harmonized melodies. It was soft and very invested, the musicians walked slowly through the streets, leaving time for the crowd to follow and mingle. The music made the city a wonderful and enchanting environment, people smiled and chatted, the owners of shops and bars or restaurants came out to offer drinks or food. The city became, under the “protection” of music, a social space that resembled a big family reunion. I thought this is exactly what a city, a living environment should be.

Two other situations that have left an imprint on me, still very vivid, were experiences that I think about very often, with fear (at worst) and amazement (at best).

One relates to Bujumbura, Burundi in the mid-1990s, when the country was living with sporadic massacres. Unlike the genocide in neighboring Rwanda, which was very concentrated over a short period of time, Bujumbura was a “city at war” without war. Everything was rather quiet, you walk down a street—and an hour later you hear that an armed group came down the hill, massacred fifty people and burnt down the houses, then disappeared as quickly as they had come. Every time we had to go out, we had to prepare for at least an hour to choose the route, to find out from the network about dangerous places, open or closed, movements of suspicious groups. The city was organized accordingly, and small stalls with basic necessities appeared on every street corner so that inhabitants could minimize their shopping trips. Leaving the house, walking 100 meters, buying oil, milk, or grain, and returning home—all with fear in the stomach. After days of this regime, me and my colleagues began to get used to this wired and deadly situation, we, the population, and the entire city adapted to what was happening in a very resilient way.

The other one that left an indelible mark on me was a double urban journey I made two decades apart. The first, in Berlin, along the wall in the mid-1980s. The second, in Jerusalem, along the other wall in the mid-2000s. These two long walks, or wanders, along these infrastructures of separation (walls, fences, watchtowers, armed soldiers, surveillance systems) plunged me into another kind of “city at war without the war”: the divided city, cut in two by history, reflecting the human failure to imagine a political solution that would allow circulation. In Berlin, I saw separated families waving to each other from a distance. In Jerusalem, I saw Palestinians spending hours in checkpoints, taking a ten-kilometer detour to reach a dental clinic located just 150 meters from their apartments on the other side of the wall. As an urban experience, I felt it to be “the end of the city,” in the sense that I see the city as a place of gathering, of meeting, of exchange, everything that makes it rich.

2.  How would you define “the urban” at this moment in time?

The urban environment today, from my point of view as a geographer-cartographer—in other words, as a person particularly sensitive to space and territorial production and organization—is a place of aggregation wherein a lot of actions, expenses, materials, and infrastructures can become very cheap if we share them. It is, above all, a participative and collective place, where the pooling of materials and operating methods must facilitate greater access to a style and a standard of living that would be otherwise totally inaccessible if each household had to assume these investments alone. Finally, the urban is a lifestyle in itself, which includes the other, the common, and the collective in the sense that this collective is informally associated to participate—to the extent of its skills—in the smooth running of the city. It is a collaborative and cooperative place.

3.  What is the most urgent and relevant issue regarding that notion of the urban, both today and in the future? How would you approach it in terms of existing—or not yet existing—methods of analysis, discussion, and action?

Drawing from the above, an absolute priority has to be the involvement of inhabitants, communities, minorities, and citizens that need to regain a certain level of sovereignty in their lived environment.

Also, it seems to me, that the great urban revolution of the near future would allow the urban city to be created, developed, designed, not only by democratically-elected politicians and professional urban planners, according to political and economic needs. But according to the needs and, above all, the desires of the citizens who live in the heart of the city, who have lost their voice and decision-making power.

This also means thinking about the city in terms of nature and the environment, and in particular conceptualizing a way of integrating vegetal life into the “stone, ice, and metal” of the urban environment, as well as considering other non-human life (from viruses to foxes, ants, and bees).

Finally, the other urgency of city management is to rehabilitate “a city for all” in financial terms, and therefore to create a platform for reflection and action to strictly regulate the land, so that housing, space, plots, and other territories are finally considered a common good that can change hands at a reasonable price and, moreover, be equitably shared.

The city, in this sense, is a political project where political action serves and protects the rights of citizens (to have pleasant living conditions, to move around safely, to have access to vital health, education, and cultural infrastructures), but also to uphold their duties (to respect the community, to share resources).

4.  Choose the three notions of most significant interest to you from the forA on the urban open call keywords* and define them concerning the urban.

Aesthetics—The city should also offer food for the mind and soul, to allow for experiences of beauty, to be able to move with elegance in an urban environment that offers interesting architectural forms, open, large, and elegant perspectives. And of course, to complete these physical and formal aspects of the city, it is necessary to think of an important vegetal device that reinforces the quality of the air, maintains the freshness, and brings (a little more) beauty. It includes a permanent presence of art, whether street performances, installations, design, theatre, music, or dance.

Urban planning—The development of the urban—if we consider it the property of the people—should be organized publicly and decided among the collectivity, taking care of what communities express as their basic needs, will, and wishful thinking.

Community—The urban experience is worthwhile only if we can share responsibilities, duties, and pleasure. In a capitalist world in which power has conscientiously monopolized almost all responsibilities and goods, considerably fragmenting and dismantling civil society, it is now time to rehabilitate the community as a responsible, strong, well-organized body, able to give a powerful response focused on serving the public, to counter the appetites of speculators.

Philippe Rekacewicz is a geographer, cartographer, and information designer. He worked as a journalist for Le Monde diplomatique between 1988 and 2014. During this time, he also headed the cartographic department of a relocated office of UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) in Norway. In 2013, he launched with Philippe Rivière, a research website dedicated to radical and experimental cartography and geography.