Pour la recherche urbaine

Adisson F., Barles S., Blanc N., Coutard O., Frouillou L., Rassat F. (Eds.). (2020). Pour la recherche urbaine. CNRS Éditions via OpenEdition, 441p.

Pour la recherche urbaine est un ouvrage de prospective nationale de la recherche urbaine, initiĂ© par Sabine Barles, Nathalie Blanc et Olivier Coutard, sous l’Ă©gide du CNRS, dans le but de rĂ©flĂ©chir Ă  l’avenir de la recherche urbaine en France, au sein d’un collectif pluriel en termes d’approches, de points de vue, d’affiliations et d’anciennetĂ© de carriĂšre. BasĂ© sur les dĂ©bats de six journĂ©es d’Ă©tude et d’une Ă©cole thĂ©matique entre 2015 et 2016, cet ouvrage livre une synthĂšse riche de ce qui se fait actuellement dans la recherche française sur les villes, des questions nouvelles posĂ©es par les villes contemporaines et les processus qui s’y jouent, et enfin les directions  de recherche esquissĂ©es par les travaux et dĂ©bats rĂ©cents. La ville et la recherche urbaine y sont considĂ©rĂ©es dans leurs dimensions sociale, gĂ©ographique, Ă©conomique, matĂ©rielle, politique et environnementale. Cinquante-deux auteurs y ont pris part. CoordonnĂ© par les trois instigateurs ainsi que FĂ©lix Adisson, LeĂŻla Frouillou et Fanny Rassat, il a Ă©tĂ© publiĂ© cet Ă©tĂ© par CNRS Éditions et est accessible gratuitement en ligne. Il couvre en quatre grandes parties et seize chapitres les grands domaines de la recherche française sur les villes et propose des pistes de recherche, des questions et des propositions (thĂ©oriques, mĂ©thodologiques et organisationnelles) pour le futur de cette recherche. 

J’ai trouvĂ© la dĂ©marche de l’ouvrage trĂšs intĂ©ressante et sa lecture m’a beaucoup appris (autant sur les sujets qui me sont familiers que sur ceux qui ne le sont pas). Je trouve qu’il s’agit d’un outil indispensable pour les chercheurs francophones en Ă©tudes urbaines, jeunes ou plus confirmĂ©s, et en particulier lors de l’Ă©criture d’un projet de recherche. En effet, l’ouvrage permet, grĂące Ă  l’apport de regards complĂ©mentaires et collectifs sur questions urbaines, de fournir un Ă©tat de l’art de nombreuses questions scientifiques posĂ©es par les villes contemporaines, mais aussi de confronter son idĂ©e avec les perspectives de recherche Ă©bauchĂ©es dans les diffĂ©rents chapitres. Pour ces mĂȘmes raisons, la synthĂšse de cet ouvrage n’est pas aisĂ©e. Je vais donc tenter d’en livrer les principales lignes directrices plutĂŽt que de faire une revue chronologique des diffĂ©rents chapitres.

 


 

Tout d’abord, la richesse de l’ouvrage s’exprime par la diversitĂ© de nature des chapitres qui le composent.

Certains se prĂ©sentent principalement comme une revue thĂ©matique de la littĂ©rature. Ils offrent au lecteur un panorama de rĂ©fĂ©rences classiques et contemporaines sur un aspect de la recherche urbaine. C’est le cas selon moi du chapitre 1 sur les approches critiques, ou du chapitre 7 sur l’Ă©cologie urbaine (considĂ©rĂ©e ĂĄ la fois comme Ă©cologie dans la ville, et Ă©cologie de la ville).

D’autres chapitres proposent plutĂŽt une forme de position de recherche collective. C’est le cas par exemple du chapitre 3, dans lequel les autrices plaident pour l’usage de l’expĂ©rimentation comme mĂ©thode alternative de recherche urbaine, c’est-Ă -dire la prise en compte des citoyens, de leurs visions diverses de la ville, de leurs ressources vernaculaires et d’une forme d’improvisation dans la conduite des projets urbains. Le chapitre 9 prĂ©sente aussi certains aspects d’une position de recherche, en l’occurrence sur l’approche de la ville “par la rupture”. Les auteurs soutiennent que les crises (Ă©pidĂ©mies, attentats, sĂ©ismes) permettent de rĂ©vĂ©ler – et de donc de mieux comprendre – le fonctionnement et l’organisation des villes. “Aborder l’étude du risque par la crise pousse Ă  l’approcher Ă  partir des enjeux et de la fabrique de l’urbain. De ce fait, l’approche est plus dĂ©cloisonnĂ©e et interdisciplinaire, car aborder le risque par les alĂ©as tend Ă  disciplinariser l’étude, Ă  la segmenter en fonction de la nature de ces alĂ©as. [
] En effet, l’étude des risques urbains Ă  partir du phĂ©nomĂšne perturbateur transforme gĂ©nĂ©ralement celui-ci en principe actif, extĂ©rieur Ă  la sociĂ©tĂ© urbaine, faisant de cette derniĂšre un objet subissant. […] Envisager la crise en ville, […] C’est interroger l’urgence Ă  la fois comme condition de la gestion et comme Ă©preuve servant de justification des pratiques politiques et sociales nouvelles. […] C’est Ă©galement insister sur la rupture comme une accĂ©lĂ©ration du temps qui faire Ă©vĂ©nement et s’interroger sur le sens de cet Ă©vĂ©nement pour la ville“ (Sierra et al., chapitre 9, §2-4)

D’autres chapitres sont plus directement orientĂ©s vers une Ă©criture prospective. Ils identifient explicitement les angles morts et questions ouvertes de la recherche urbaine contemporaine. Dans le chapitre 5 sur les hiĂ©rarchies urbaines par exemple, les auteurs se demandent “jusqu’oĂč les grandes villes favorisent-elles la crĂ©ation d’une richesse qui peut ensuite ĂȘtre redistribuĂ©e? Jusqu’oĂč ne sont-elles pas au contraire gĂ©nĂ©ratrices de surcroĂźt d’inĂ©galitĂ©s? (Bisson et al., chapitre 5, §32); “les modĂšles de politiques urbaines qui [dĂ©coulent des recommandations de R. Florida] sont-ils adaptĂ©s aux centre des villes moyennes? (§17) ou encore “Y a-t-il des forces politiques qui incarnent les valeurs de l’imaginaire mĂ©tropolitain?” (§13). Sur le thĂšme des services urbains et de leur provision par les acteurs publics, le chapitre 10 propose aussi de nombreuses interrogations et de pistes de recherche. Le chapitre 16 livre quant Ă  lui un travail prospectif Ă  propos de la circulation des modĂšles urbains.

Enfin, le chapitre 4 se distingue du reste de l’ouvrage par sa forme. PlutĂŽt qu’un exercice collectif d’Ă©criture sur un thĂšme donnĂ©, il rend compte de discussions ayant eu lieu lors d’une table ronde sur l’avenir de la recherche urbaine.

 

En termes de sujets abordĂ©s, il est intĂ©ressant de noter que trois fils rouges apparaissent dans la majoritĂ© des chapitres de l’ouvrage, que se soit comme objets, facteurs ou ressources de la recherche urbaine : la comparaison entre villes “du Nord” et villes “du Sud”, la problĂ©matique environnementale et la question du numĂ©rique. Ainsi, les villes du Sud sont Ă©voquĂ©es, non plus seulement en lien avec le dĂ©veloppement Ă©conomique, mais pour introduire l’importance des donnĂ©es massives dans la construction de politiques publiques de planification (Chapitre 2), pour insister sur les enjeux de mobilitĂ© durable dans les villes dont l’Ă©talement se poursuit (Chapitre 5), sur l’enjeux d’une notion floue comme celle de rĂ©silience sur les financements institutionnels dirigĂ©s vers les villes qui la promeuvent (Chapitre 9) ou encore Ă  propos des mobilisations citadines (Chapitre 12). Par ailleurs, les non-humains – animaux et vĂ©gĂ©taux – sont plutĂŽt bien reprĂ©sentĂ©s dans cet ouvrage, en ce qu’ils permettent d’envisager de nouvelles dĂ©finitions de la ville (Chapitre 6) ou de mieux comprendre son fonctionnement Ă©cologique (Chapitre 7). La dimension matĂ©rielle  de la ville est aussi mise Ă  l’honneur, notamment dans la deuxiĂšme partie du livre. Le chapitre 1 l’envisage comme un marqueur de certaines approches critiques, le chapitre 8 s’en empare pour dĂ©crire le mĂ©tabolisme urbain, le chapitre 9 s’en sert pour analyser les consĂ©quences des crises urbaines et le chapitre 13 pour rĂ©vĂ©ler les dispositifs sociotechniques de la production urbaine. Enfin, l’urban gĂ©nĂ©ralisĂ© et de la gestion des communs sont Ă©voquĂ©s Ă  plusieurs reprises mais plutĂŽt comme des thĂšmes problĂ©matiques ou non rĂ©solus de la recherche urbaine française.

En termes d’approches, l’ouvrage fait la part belle Ă  l’Ă©tude des acteurs (de la production et de la gestion urbaine [chapitres 13 et 14], des luttes [chapitre 12], du foncier [chapitre 15], de la transition Ă©cologique [chapitre 7], des services urbains [chapitre 10], de la circulation des modĂšles [chapitre 16], de la recherche [chapitre 4]), de leur trajectoire (notamment dans le chapitre 11 consacrĂ© Ă  la diversitĂ© ou dans le chapitre 12 consacrĂ© aux mobilisations) et de leur visibilitĂ© (mentionnĂ©es dans les chapitre 11 Ă  14 en particulier). La notion de visibilitĂ© est aussi mobilisĂ©e dans le chapitre 16 sur la circulation des modĂšles urbains : “Y a-t-il une concentration des Ă©tudes sur certains exemples emblĂ©matiques de logique entrepreneuriale (tels les mĂ©gaprojets, les waterfronts ou les business improvement districts) et une focalisation sur certains contextes gĂ©ographiques, notamment les grandes villes (du Nord et du Sud) au dĂ©triment d’initiatives moins visibles ou de certains contextes moins Ă©tudiĂ©s et moins mĂ©diatisĂ©s qui pourraient venir infirmer les hypothĂšses d’une hĂ©gĂ©monie des modĂšles nĂ©olibĂ©raux ?” (Lemaire et al., chapitre 16, §32). Les autres mĂ©thodologies abordĂ©es dans l’ouvrages sont diverses et complĂ©mentaires : des critical studies du chapitre 1 Ă  la mĂ©thode abductive pour analyses les donnĂ©es massives (chapitre 2) et Ă  l’expĂ©rimentation (chapitre 3).

En termes d’Ă©chelles gĂ©ographiques, la recherche urbaine passĂ©e, prĂ©sente et future est envisagĂ©e depuis l’Ă©chelon du bĂątiment (cf. les toits vĂ©gĂ©talisĂ©s dans le chapitre 7) Ă  celle du monde (cf., les marchĂ©s financiers globaux dans le chapitre 15), en passant par les quartiers (chapitres 11 et 16 par exemple), les municipalitĂ©s (chapitres 9, 13 et 15 par exemple) et les unitĂ©s fonctionnelles plus larges (chapitres 6 et 7 par exemple).

En termes de contexte institutionnel de la recherche urbaine, l’ouvrage insiste sur les effets nĂ©fastes des nouveaux modes de financement de la recherche urbaine sur les objets et terrains Ă©tudiĂ©s, notamment par les jeunes chercheurs (cf. chapitre 4). Ce sujet est convoquĂ© dĂšs l’introduction: “En premier lieu, nous souhaitons redire ici l’importance de s’attacher Ă  favoriser une plus grande pluralitĂ© des thĂ©matiques financĂ©es par les appels Ă  projets incitatifs. [
]. DeuxiĂšmement, et indissociablement du point prĂ©cĂ©dent, il convient de dĂ©velopper les financements non thĂ©matisĂ©s (appels Ă  projets blancs ou sur des thĂ©matiques larges) pour permettre aux Ă©quipes de sortir des sentiers battus et des sujets rebattus. TroisiĂšmement, une revalorisation importante des crĂ©dits de base des Ă©quipes et le dĂ©veloppement de formes de financement pluriannuelles, au-delĂ  du format typique (3-4 ans) des projets ANR, voire dĂ©barrassĂ©es de la logique compĂ©titive des appels Ă  projets, seraient plus cohĂ©rents avec le temps long de la recherche (surtout quand elle se veut interdisciplinaire) et des changements urbains.” (Adisson et al., introduction, §25). La collaboration interdisciplinaire avec les “sciences dures” (informatique, ingĂ©nierie, physique, biologie) est interrogĂ©e dans le chapitre 2, tandis que le chapitre 4 analyse l’importance de l’organisation de la recherche sur les production scientifiques. En particulier, “et c’est le […] paradoxe, les thĂ©matiques de la recherche urbaine sont foisonnantes et les Ă©vĂ©nements scientifiques sont nombreux, mais l’hyperspĂ©cialisation conduit Ă  un manque de dĂ©bats transversaux et thĂ©oriques ainsi que d’espaces et de temps pour les structurer.” (Adisson et al., chapitre 4, §37-8)

 

Cet ouvrage se rĂ©vĂšle comme un beau plaidoyer “pour la recherche urbaine” collective, plurielle, interdisciplinaire et critique. Il retravaille des questions trĂšs classiques sous des angles nouveaux (‘L’urbain par ses limites’ dans le chapitre 6 ou la sĂ©grĂ©gation par la diversitĂ© dans le chapitre 11) et propose des analyses de questions nouvellement classiques (comme celle des smart cities  dans le chapitre 2 ou celle des mobilisations citadines dans le chapitre 12). On pourrait  toutefois interroger le choix de mener une prospective de la recherche urbaine nationale sans questionner ou expliciter l’existence (ou non) d’une spĂ©cificitĂ© française de cette recherche.

Pour mon projet sur les inĂ©galitĂ©s urbaines, le chapitre 5 est venu conforter mon opinion que les inĂ©galitĂ©s Ă©conomiques dans et entre villes mĂ©ritent une attention plus grande et que la recherche urbaine reste encore largement Ă  faire sur ce sujet. Je souscris donc tout Ă  fait Ă  l’appel de B. Bisson et al. :

“Quelle est la contribution exacte des villes Ă  ces inĂ©galitĂ©s ? Les villes permettent-elles de maximiser la richesse collective et donc les revenus Ă  distribuer comme le soutiennent les thĂšses sur la surproductivitĂ© des mĂ©tropoles ? Dans ce cas, le problĂšme des inĂ©galitĂ©s pourrait ĂȘtre corrigĂ© par des mĂ©canismes de redistribution. Mais une autre hypothĂšse peut ĂȘtre faite : les grandes concentrations urbaines ne seraient-elles pas la cause du problĂšme ? [
] Piketty a prolongĂ© ses analyses en soulignant une dynamique de concentration spatiale d’un capital devenu patrimonial. Il a notamment appelĂ© dans un rĂ©cent article des Annales Ă  approfondir « […] les dimensions gĂ©ographiques et spatiales du capital et les effets d’échelle » (Piketty 2015, p. 132). Cet appel, qui esquisse de nouveaux champs de recherche, mĂ©rite d’ĂȘtre entendu par les Ă©tudes urbaines pour approfondir les connaissances sur les mĂ©canismes de production des inĂ©galitĂ©s, notamment monĂ©taires, au sein des villes et de leurs relations pensĂ©es Ă  l’échelle des systĂšmes urbains.” (Bisson et al., chapitre 4, §36)

 


 

Je partage ici, le type de document sur lequel s’est appuyĂ© mon compte rendu. Il est constituĂ© d’un recueil de passages du livre que j’ai considĂ©rĂ©s comme importants.

À ce jour, je n’ai pas connaissance d’autres comptes-rendus de cet ouvrage.

City of segregation

Gibbons A., 2018, City of Segregation, 100 years of struggle for housing in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Verso, 226p.

This review is slightly experimental, as it presents the work of Andrea Gibbons’s City of Segregation by relating it to three other books I have read alongside it over the past year, all of which explore, in complementary ways, the entanglement of space, race, class, gender, sex, family and the carceral system in American cities over the past century:

  • Shabazz R., 2015, Spatializing Blackness: Architectures of Confinement and Black Masculinity in Chicago, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 153p.
  • Wideman J. E., 2005, Brothers and Keepers: a memoir, 272p, Mariner Books
  • Wolfe T., 1988, The Bonfire of the vanities, Toronto: Bantam Books, 752p.

 


 

  • City of Segregation is the work of a geographer, Andrea Gibbons, who explores how the ideological values of white privilege were enshrined into spatial patterns of land values in Los Angeles, despite civil rights struggles and fights for integration. She aims to show how this relation affects the social and racial makeup of the city nowadays. I encountered this book at its launch during the Royal Geographical Society annual meeting in August 2019. This conference had Rashad Shabazz as one of its keynote speakers.
  • Spatializing Blackness, by Rashad Shabazz, sits at the intersection of human geography, Black cultural studies, gender studies, and critical prison studies. It focuses on the spaces of Black masculinity in Chicago at different points in time, using the carceral framework to understand the various ways in which Black men have been spatially contained (in the Black belt zone of the agglomeration from the end of the 19th century, in the space of their own kitchenettes during the 20th, and in actual prisons in the 21st) and the effects it had on this population.
  • Brothers and Keepers is the work of an academic in Africana Studies who is also a novelist. This book contains an account of his and his bother’s trajectories from their youth in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania to their adult life. The book tries to explain how and why a decisive divergence in life paths happened between them (John Edgar became a university professor and award-winning novelist, whereas his brother Robert served a life-sentence in prison for robbery and murder). Through Wideman’s reflections and conversations with his brother, we are offered a complex picture of the challenges faced by Black youth in 1970s Pittsburg, but also of the spatiality of humiliation during prison visits and of the geographical implications of social mobility. I learned about this book via C. Jaquet’s Les transclasses ou la non-reproduction, reviewed (in French) on this blog.
  • The Bonfire of the vanities is a popular novel of class and race inequality set up by Tom Wolfe in his familiar environment of 1980s New York City. After a wealthy white Upper East Side banker hits a young Black man in the Bronx and runs, the whole city (from the media to the justice system, from Wall Street to the Bronx) seizes this story to reveal its double standard towards race, wealth, gender and space. Over 30 years later, The Guardian reports that the Upper East Side “remains the same” whereas the Bronx is now experiencing social regeneration, gentrification and displacement.

Although the four books differ in their formats, goals and perspectives, I found an interesting relation between them which sheds a complementary light on different time periods (for example, the 1970s and 1980s from the last two are the missing decades of Gibbons’ temporality), different gender groups (Shabazz focuses on masculinity, whereas Gibbons uses strong female leaders and feminist actions to inform her work), different cities (LA, Chicago, Pittsburg, NYC), different points of view (Tom Wolfe clearly tells his story from the point of view of his white characters, whereas John Edgar Wideman’s book stems from his own reflections and his brother’s words on what it means to be a man in a Black family, in a city with a history of discrimination, in groups of Black peers and in groups of white peers, on basketball pitches and university campuses) and different approaches (from academic to auto-biographical to fictional). This diversity only hints at how a wide subject of broad significance racial segregation in US cities is, and how current an issue it remains: “These histories of centuries of racism and segregation have shaped urban geographies to insulate and isolate many whites from the realities faced by residents of poorer segregated communities, whose exploitation and abandonment have been central to a suburban prosperity driven by development and government investment. The opportunities of suburban living have become taken for granted and treated as normal in press and television, while residence in these same suburban neighborhoods insulates families from any kind of challenge to these commonsense feelings of entitlement. This is a key aspect of what I join others in referring to as white privilege. Segregation insulates whites from the knowledge of the ghetto and any disturbing views into poverty, as well as from their own complicity in its continued existence through their support of the status quo.” (Gibbons, 2018, p.9-10).

 


 

City of segregation originates from a double ambition: 1/ understanding how racial segregation survived the efforts and “victories of a vibrant civil rights movement” (p.1), and 2/ using this knowledge to fuel militant organizing work and finally put an end to this segregation. According to Gibbons, segregation “is assuredly nothing natural; it has been built in LA just like it has been built in cities across the US, year by year and decade upon decade, with immeasurable impact on equality, well-being and life itself. Shocking inqualities in wealth – much of it grounded in the homes people own – continue to haunt Angelenos: Mexicans have a median wealth of $3,500, African American of $4,000, and whites of $355,000.” (p.1). After an introduction which sets the context of racial segregation and urban development in Los Angeles, the book is divided into three chronological parts.

The first part of the book takes us from the early 20th century to the landmark year of 1948. It tells the story of the de jure segregation in US cities, whereby people of colour were refused the freedom to choose their place of residence by restrictive convenants, by active opposition from the likes of the KKK and white supremacists, but also by profit-seeking professionals of the housing market (who equated land value with homogenous white space). Black families were contained within the racial boundaries of the ghetto in Los Angeles or of the Black Belt in Chicago, in order to reduce the interactions between Blacks and whites (Shabazz, 2015) as much as to preserve the privilege and value of white homes (Gibbons, 2018). “African Americans and other groups forced the ghetto walls back in two ways: through an unorganized but constant pressure by individuals buying and occupying property against great odds, and through local attempts to organize wider campaigns against covenants” (Gibbons, 2018, p.20), at the risk of harassment, racist attacks, arson and even lynching (Shabazz, 2015). This first part of Gibbons’ book is investigated via a meticulous archive work through several decades of publication by the California Eagle and its editor’s autobiography. “For Charlotta Bass, as editor of the California Eagle, as well as the editors of a second Black-owned paper in LA, the Sentinel (founded in 1933), real estate transactions were a race matter worthy of front-page headlines.” (p.27). Besides acknowleging a feminine figure leading the fight against racial segregation in Los Angeles, this citation shows how much housing and restrictions imposed on Black families were central to the struggle for equality and respect. Indeed, at the start of the 20th century, when zoning became unlawful in the US, property owners “turned to private agreements – the desire for segregated white space being stronger than a court ruling.” (p.23). Within the deeds of their property, they included a clause restricting further sale and transfer to non-white people. Viewed as an act of good “neighborliness” and even patriotism, this provided white homeowners with a control over the makeup of their neighborhood and schools, thus preserving their vision of communities, the monetary value of their homes and white privilege. In the cases where non-covenanted properties were bought by racial minorities, “African American put pressure on [the contradictions of a market driven by white supremacist ideas that equates real estate values with the racial makeup of the neighborhood], but by paying exorbitant prices in areas in which whites had become so desperate to leave that they were selling to speculators at a loss.” (p.30). We find a similar mechanism in Shabazz’s account of the housing situation in pre-war Chicago, where cramped insalubrious kitchenettes rented to single Black workers contrast with the large rent income they bring to white owners profitiring from the housing crisis. “This articulation of race and class prejudice with the social value of space led to a heavy emphasis among practitioners, policy-makers, and academics on the ideal of creating neighborhoods homogenous by class and race as they sought to provide a sound foundation for a scientific and professional approach to real estate.” (Gibbons, 2018, p.25). The most striking consequence on this articulation lays in the constitution of colour-coded maps by the HOLC (Home Owner’s Loan Corporation) based on the racial composition and homogeneity of neighborhood, which informed federal credit lending after the Great Depression:

“By providing lenders with risk-free investments, it opened a floodgate of new credit to white first-time homebuyers. At the same time, it categorically denied people of color the same opportunities, defining them as a ‘permanent, calculable risk to stable property values’. HOLC maps were never meant for public use, yet they were accessible to lenders, appraisers, and government officials, and most real estate professionals would most likely have known their content. This could explain why so many realtors were in the forefront of efforts to organise protective associations, blanket neighborhoods with covenants, initiate lawsuits, and protect their own neighborhoods’ homogeneity at all costs.” (p.44-5)

As meetings, pickets and lawsuits by various organisations (such as the Negro Victory Committee or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) secured small victories, the white reaction was as violent as the their fear of losing privilege along with economic value. Finally, “in spite of widespread grassroots opposition and horror, the Supreme Court ruled restrictive covenants unconstitutional on May 5, 1948, in the landmark case Shelley v. Kraemer. [
] It was the result of decades of litigation against restrictive covenants by lawyers nationawide, years of specific strategizing by NAACP attorneys, and of course mass action and pressure directed at the federal government through the war, challenging the US’s role as the defender of equality and democracy across the world.” (p.63). However, this end of de jure segregation did not repair the economic segregation it has enshrined in space, nor the sense of identity built by Black men and women in the contained aresa of the ghetto and the kitchenettes (Shabazz, 2015), “it did not remove […] the [white] desire for separation.” (Gibbons, 2018, p.71).

The second part of the book transports us to the post-de jure segregation Los Angeles of the 1950s and 1960s, with the civil rights activists of CORE (the Congress Of Racial Equality) fighting against the remnants of white supremacy and in favour of equality on an ideological and moral level, although by ways of physical direct action when needed. It was counting without a major reality: “Capital’s need for a ‘spatial fix’ – solving the problem of overaccumulation of capital through its massive investment in suburban development intertwined with the new strategies for defending white communities, driving new forms of control and privatisation.” (p.75-6). This part of the book focuses on the housing and testing campaigns of CORE against development Don Wilson, who tried to fragment its market by the skin color of its buyers, isolating/protecting white wealthy developments (as in Torrance) and “abandonning” less prestigious developments with integrated school systems (as in Compton) to Black and minority buyers. White residents’ reaction illustrates a sadly common dynamics in US cities in the 20th century: “they fought to ensure these immediately connected spaces of social reproduction remained white, and when this failed they fled. Neighborhoods became prey to familiar block busting tactics and panic selling, as African Americans moved into a neighborhood and whites became willing to take whatever they could get for their homes.” (p.89-90). This reaction, along with freezing of homeowner taxes and the development of gating and privatisation, ensured that the levels of amenity and public services funding remained unequal, that integration remained limited in schools and neighborhoods, and that urban space and form remained a vector for economic and racial segregation, despite civil rights and legal victories such as the passage of the Rumford Act in 1963. What is more, the white residents of developments being picketed by CORE members for their discriminatory practices against potential Black buyers “recast themselves as a beleaguered minority, their own rights under attack, without making any attempt to try and answer the question of why this might be. This […] shows how they worked to overcome the destabilization of the old ideological certainties of white supremacy that Torrance was founded upon to find new forms of discourse to justify their untroubled enjoyment of its exclusive (and expensive) space.” (p.108). Gibbons concludes that the moral gains of the period, which were tremendous, did not hide the fact that efforts to integrate the different sections of population in cities had failed, creating immediate (such as expressed in Watt’s 1965 riots) and long-lasting frustrations in the Black community. In urban terms, this failure is illustrated by the widespread usage of gated comminities and other privatisation initiatives, which reflected the channeling of surplus capital into suburban developments, still following “the model laid down by HOLC in the 1930s [equating profitable real estate with] new tracts of homogenous housing protected to the greatest extent possible from ‘adverse influences’.” (p.120).

Before we dive into the third and last part of A. Gibbons’ book dedicated to privatisation of Los Angeles’ downtown in the 2000s, Brothers and Keepers and the Bonfire of the Vanities should help illustrate the situation in intermediate decades.

In New York City, T. Wolfe narrates the separation between Blacks and Hispanics in the Bronx and white professionals in Manhattan, with a great deals of fear from whites as they crossed racial boundaries, especially at night or in the subway. The novelist depicts at length the sense of entitlement of a wealthy white banker and his absolute repulsion and sense of injustice when conducted to jail in the Bronx, creating some sympathy and favourable treatment from other whites in position of authority (when it doesn’t go against their self-interest), whereas the position of Black and hispanic youth in the same circumstances is brushed as common. As the Guardian notes 30 years later, “at the end of the Bonfire of the Vanities, Henry Lamb, the young boy injured in the Bronx, is forgotten by every protagonist. He dies” without much attention or publicity, being only a resident of a project in the Bronx, found not to be a criminal but apparently not very worthy either.

In Pittsburg, J. E. Wideman describes the life trajectories of two bothers. The trajectory of the eldest brother (himself) shows social and geographical mobility, through basketball and university although at the expense of a strong sense of belonging and legitimacy. The other trajectory is one of brilliance, drugs and imprisonment, that of the youngest son (his baby brother Robert). He explains the choices his brother made as a way of becoming someone in the shadow of successful brothers and sisters, by becoming rich and famous quickly selling drugs. The geography of street corners and the architecture of the projects play a significant role in this story, along with police partiality and brutality, which culminates with Robert’s experience of serving a life-sentence in prison for murder and robbery. John Edgar narrates the spatial tools of humiliation towards the prisoners’ families, which begins with the parking lot being far from the entrance (and John Edgar’s monthly acts of resistance by parking on the guards parking lot closer to the entrance), continues with searching and waiting in crowded places, unsure whether the visit will be allowed, and ends in solitary isolation of the prisoners themselves. Given the level of mass-incarceration and its very strong racial bias against Black men (corroborated by national figures in Shabazz’s book as well), the negative consequences of this organisation are felt, suffered and resented mostly by Black families.

The third part of Gibbons’ book also touches upon the misuse of mass-incarceration against the fragile population of Skid Row. Skid Row belongs to a part of Los Angeles downtown being redeveloped into luxury lofts after decades of disinvestment by public bodies. “While some of the marketing discourse has changed to focus on selling points such as ‘live where you work’ and the excitement of the big city, in both discourse and practice it has retained key features developed through decades of struggle over residential space: defensible exclusivity, homogeneity, security, narrow definitions of community and responsibility, and increasingly privatized control over public areas. Above all, it has tried to replicate the white spaces so necessary to the social reproduction of white privilege. Unlike the development of the suburbs, however, the creation of such exclusive spaces has entailed the mass displacement of the poor, primarily poor communities of color. What we see today is segregation through an active displacement.” (p.125-6). This development and displacement is achieved through the privatisation of public space, using BID (Business Investment District): “The idea behind the BID is simple: through the self-taxing of business and property owners, they provide a level of service such as trash collection, street cleaning, and secutiry that cash-stripped cities are unable to provide. In Los Angeles this occupation of the public realm by private interests has been greatly facilitated by the city’s financial straits caused by the success of a white homewoner movement in passing Proposition 13 in 1975, which preserved their own assets by freezing homeowner taxes at the time of purchase. This decimated municipal tax bases available for public services.” (p.133). The BID leaders and managers identified the 2000 to 4000 rough-sleepers of Skid Row (predominantly Black and make) as the main threat to the profitability of their investment, and tried to displace them by all means, including state powers (for instance, the Los Angeles Police Department and courts of law). It promoted the passing of bills to “criminalise the activities of daily life for those who find themselves homeless” (p. 156), such as food distribution, public urination or outdoor sleeping. It used private security to promote gentrification and mass displacement. This resulted, with the complicity of LAPD, in a surge in tickets for minor infractions, a surge in arrests for failure to pay tickets from a very poor population, and eventually in the use of prisons and jails as a short-term solution to homelessness in downtown Los Angeles, despite its outright unfaireness. Gibbons relates the organising work from the community group of LA CAN to fight the arrests, monitor and train private security guards, but also bring the dispossession of homeless people by the police to the Supreme Court. She concludes that “Race remains as central to the urban form” (p.177) and that “neoliberalism helped rearticulate a desire and strategy to preserve spatial and racial privilege with an ideology able to justify it in non-racialized terms. [
] When the BIDs and the private market proved ineffective in cleasing downtown of its poor, the business associations running them had little hesitation in once more mobilizing and promoting the power of the state. [She] would argue that neoliberalism’s importance as an object of struggle does not change the fact that it remains disposable if it ceases to serve white domination and preserve white privileged space.” (p.179).

 

 

This 200-page book has been very long and hard for me to read, as its writing is dense, intricate – sometimes extremely descriptive and precise -, it articulates very different levels of discourse, various information sources and methodologies, multiple angles and three distinct historical periods. It probably would not have comprehended its structure fully nor identified its main messages so clearly if I had not gone into the laborious task of reviewing it for this blog. However, I now realise how this book (and the three other books reviewed alongside it) forces me to admit that the study of economic segregation cannot overlook the dimension of racial or ethnic dimension of past segregations in western cities. The intertwining and intersection of land value with race and neighborhood composition challenges our models of the economic rationale behind urban segregation as well as our understanding of the spatio-temporal scales at which the housing market operates. Here and time again, schools seem to represent the ultimate reason to justify seeking exclusive and exclusionary urban spaces from privileged families’ residence. Finally, individual and collective activism is exposed and celebrated for its heroic contributions on the route to de facto equality, in an academic book on urban form and segregation.

 


 

Here I share the type of file I use to document my readings and book reviews. It is composed of citations from the book which I considered important while reading.

Other reviews of this book have been published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, and in the Socialist review, as well as on the websites of Shelterforce and Counterfire.

 

Ordinary cities between modernity and development

Robinson J., 2006, Ordinary cities between modernity and development, London, Routledge, 204p.

“Ordinary Cities” is now thirteen years old and it features in the reading list of many urban geography university courses, from UCL (where J. Robinson is professor of Geography) to SOAS, LSE and McGill. Its concepts and messages have diffused largely in academia (cf. for instance the 1899 citations of the book in scholarly publications at the time when this post was written), yet the predominance of western cities and western scholars in mainstream urban studies is still patent and renewed with each wave of urban ‘modernity’ (if we think of smart cities, connected cities, etc). This late review of the book content thus provides a yardstick of what it has achieved (or not achieved) since its publication in 2006.

I have first encountered the idea of Ordinary Cities while reading my friend SolĂšne Baffi’s thesis on rail transportation in South African cities. The proposition was of course well indicated in the context of Robinson’s home country of South Africa, but it resonated also with my own thesis on post Soviet cities, supposedly singular and specific, where general urban models would not apply and where mordern urban theory was not made. The whole argument of J. Robinson in this book was thus extremely attractive. It can be summarised as follow: cities are diverse, and therefore so should be urban studies. More than a scientific requirement to better understand cities and urban processes around the world, this objective of diversity is deeply militant, as argued by the author in the preface to the book: “Theories of modernity, just like South African cities, have often reserved experiences of dynamism and innovation for a privileged few, and especially for those wealthy cities and their citizens who have laid claim to originating modernity. Theories of urban modernity, then, have drawn a stark line between ‘modern’ cities and other kinds of cities, variously described as Third World, perhaps African, perhaps developing / underdeveloped, perhaps colonial. At best these ‘other’ cities have been thought to borrow their modernity from wealthier contexts, presenting pure imitations rather than offering sites for inventiveness and innovation. This book is a contribution to the task of ensuring that as scholars of cities we end our complicity in such dispossessions.” (p.x). Further along in the book, she illustrates this claims quite eloquantly: “Once New York’s urbanism has been understood as just another cosmopolitan and provincial form of modernity, any anxiety on the part of other cities about lagging behind or mimicking a modernity that is always ‘elsewhere’ (Johnson 1999) becomes less plausible.” (p.73).

 

 


 

The book consists in six chapters, which take the reader from the deconstruction of the concept of modernity (chapter 1) to the exposition of cosmopolitan ways of being urban and modern through comparative urbanism (chapter 2 and 3). A whole chapter (#4) is dedicated to the critique of city ranking, hierarchizing and labelling, arguing that world cities and global cities are more than centres of control for finance and management. The fifth chapter argues that urban studies need to put the (ordinary) city back to the centre instead of classifying them into modern or developing. Finally, chapter 6 looks at the possible and diverse futures of cities through policy and planning.

In introduction, the author clearly sets the two ambitions of the book. Firstly, she states: “it is an argument of this book that all cities are best understood as ‘ordinary’. [
] Instead of seeing only some cities as the originators of urbanism, in a world of ordinary cities, ways of being urban and ways of making new kinds of urban futures are diverse and are the product of the inventiveness of people in cities everywhere.” (p.1). The change in perception is supposed to provoke a change in perspective at the world scale, by considering cities in their simultaneous diversity rather than in a sequence of modernity adoption. Secondly, J. Robinson suggests that “we need a form of theorising that can be as cosmopolitan as the cities we try to describe. This would be a form of urban theory that can follow the creative paths of urban dwellers – across the city or across the world – as they remake cities (Simone, 1998) and that can draw on the transformative potential of shared lives in diverse, contested – ordinary – cities to imagine new urban futures.” (p.3). Therefore the dual objective of scientific understanding on the one hand and militant repossession of urban studies on the other hand appears to structure the book from its start. The way Robinson chooses to tackle this dual objective in the introduction is by exposing the parochial nature of modernity claims made by Western cities and Western scholars. The appropriation of modernity by “the West” is important because it creates a universal standard of city life and innovations with which other cities are supposed to catch-up. Debunking this claim allows the identification of urban modernity outside western cities in a contemporary and cosmopolitan manner. Robinson argues that it also provides urban planners and decision makers with a wider panel of policy options, inspired from a diversity of experiences around the world that can also be more adapted to their cities, instead of applying the same past “western” recipes. This theoretical articulation of ideas is the core contribution of the book. The following chapters then consist in illustrations of the workings of the appropriation and in research strategies to avoid the dispossession.

The first chapter, “dislocating modernity”, highlights the paradox of modernity: i.e. a concept initially related to temporality which has been diverted and perverted into a spatialised assessment of who is “in” and who is “out of time”. The way in which this diversion was achieved, according to J. Robinson, is through a constant editing/re-writing of the Western urban story to remove all contributions from other cultures: “A reconceptualization of urban modernity might begin by interrogating Western forms of modernity. For these are as much a product of dynamics from beyond the West as its own ingenuity, including primitivist-inspired borrowings, actual resource extraction and political innovations learned in colonial governance (see, for example, Stoler, 1995; Comaroff and Comaroff 1997). But western modernity’s projection of itself as the generative source of creativity relies on forgetting these circulations and borrowings.” (p.19). Cities are central to this process, since they connect people, combine ideas and inspirations at a larger scale and at a faster pace than anywhere else. The rest of the chapter explores how urban studies themselves have embedded the western conception of urban modernity. She cites the Chicago School of sociology as a powerful vector in that process, in particular by noting how Park and al’s conception of the city in opposition with “primitive” and “folk” qualities of community and emotions has imposed a very specific way of urban living as the standard for city identification. This then made it hard for cities with strong community ties and non-anonymous relationships to claim their cityness, as examplified by J. Clyde Mitchell’s struggle to have (now) Zambian cities recognized as such by urban scholards, not discounting but accounting for tribal elements of culture and social relations. Robinson’s argumentation also makes use W. Benjamin’s work on Parisian arcades as urban signals of alternative and possible futures of the western city itself: “a future where the public and the private might be intermingled and where the utopian fantasies through which technological innovations were often represented harkened back to a pre-class and pre-commodity society of plenty” (p.29).

The second chapter in the book is intitled “Re-imagining the city through comparative urbanism. On (not) being blasĂ©”. It starts from the classic contribution of L. Wirth, “Urbanism as a way of life”, which Robinson shows as a claim/attempt at explaining cities everywhere based on a North-American XXth century experience (of Chicago). For instance, she notes that the high demographic growth fueled by a diverse immigration at a time of booming industrial economy on which the theory relies is a very situated moment in the world geographical history rather than a universal path for urbanisation around the world. The scientific antidote to this appropriation lies, for Robinson, in relaying the accounts of urban research from other contexts. She especially relies on the work made by the Manchester School of anthropologists in the zambian Copperbelt. “Like the Copperbelt anthropologists and many other comparative urbanists, Oscar Lewis observed that the blasĂ© attitude of Western urban dwellers, which Simmel, Park and Wirth had seen as a cornerstone of urban sociability, was not representative of urbanism elsewhere. [
] He did not stop, though, at simply noting differences from the US analysis and with J. Clyde Mitchell, Epstein, Gluckman and South African anthropologist Philip Mayer, he went on to suggest that ‘there are many ways of life which may coexist in the same city’ (1973: 130). He insisted that his observations from Mexico should make a difference to how cities in other places are understood.” (p.57). The chapter concludes with J. Robinson advocating for a post-colonial urban theory which “establish[es] conversations because of, and across, strong empirical and theoretical differences” (p.63) and, more importantly, lets ideas flow both ways between locations “from Chicago to the Copperbelt, but also back again” (p.63) .

Ordinary cities make their appearance in the third chapter as the primary material from which a postcolonial comparative and cosmopolitan urban studies might come about: “Ordinary cities, then, exist in a world of cities linked through a wide range of circulations – of people, ideas, resources – in which cities everywhere operate both to assemble diverse activities and to create new kinds of practices. This chapter therefore introduces a new tactic for a post-colonial urban studies: a form of theorising in which the resources for thinking about cities are as cosmopolitan as the cities that are being theorised.” (p.65). Therefore J. Robinson embarks into an analysis of modernity from the perspective of a diverse pool of cities (yet mostly large state capital cities). She looks at the Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur, which signal the city’s modernity to the rest of the world while excluding poor malaysian residents from it. She looks at the early Saint Petersburg where the Nevsky perspective provided the street decorum for individual performance and recognition in a context of poor infrastructure and peasant economy. She also draws from Zambian cities and how the second-hand clothing trade allowed citizens to express their modernity through styling at a time of post-structural adjustment. All these examples participate in showing that “the experiences of poor people, or cities in poor contexts, do not stand for the ‘past’ of Western urbanism – either as sites of tradition or economic backwardness – but are contemporaneous social formations that have produced diverse and distinctive ways of being urban. With inventive traditions and appropriated copies, urbanisms in poor places stand alongside other ways of being modern and can illustrate experiences of city life in other contexts. But, as we will consider briefly in the conclusion, if poor cities are not the ‘past’ or simply ‘copies’ of Western urbanism, neither, I suggest, are they its future.” (p.90).

In chapter 4, “World cities, or a world of ordinary cities?”, the author introduces the concepts of world-cities and global-cities and how their success moved the attention from the dynamic processes they were supposed to describe (the globalised economic relations between cities and concentration of command over some of these relations in a limited number of nodes) to a fixed hierarchy of cities from which poor cities are excluded, deemed irrelevant and relegated from urban studies to development studies. She offers an interesting alternative to this view, first by considering the “key sectors involved in managing the global economy” as just another form of industrial district (p.97), and second by considering the other sectors of the world network of cities, i.e. “commanding” cities as well as cities involved in other trades and flows. Considering all cities as ordinary enables such integration. “First, ordinary cities can be understood as unique assemblages of wider processes – they are all distinctive, in a category of one. [
] Second, and learning much from global- and world-cities approaches, ordinary cities exist within a world of interactions and flows. However, in place of the global- and world-cities approaches that focus on a small range of economic and political activities within the restrictive frame of the global, ordinary cities bring together a vast array of networks and circulations of varying spatial reach and assemble many different kinds of social, economic and political processes. Ordinary cities are diverse, complex and internally differentiated.” (p.108-9). The added-value of this change of perspective is argued to be found beyond urban studies and theory building, in the practice of urban planning, as it would provide decision makers with a wider diversity of inspirations for policy rather than the restricted example of so-called world cities to catch up to.

“Bringing the city back in” in the fifth chapter means considering cities in their diversity and internal inequalities. “Rather than theories of world cities, which encourage competitive behaviour amongst cities and focus on a very small segment of the urban economy or developmentalist accounts, which zoom in on the poorest and least well-provisioned areas of the city, urban studies will need to explore the dynamics of socially and economically diverse cities. Both globalising economic sectors and the needs of the poorest citizens will have to be considered, bringing the ordinary city, in all its complexity and diversity, firmly into view.” (p.117). In short, the analysis Robinson recommends at this point of the book thus comprises various sectors of city life and the economy, within cities and city-regions as well as between them, in rich as well as in poor cities. This vast program is illustrated with a very specific analysis of Johannesburg metropolitan governance within the iGoli project, although not necessarity laid out in terms of generic research tools and methodology.

Chapter 6 (“Cities futures”) implements the ordinary cities perspective into urban planning. It looks at economic prescriptions maybe by western urban economists in western contexts regarding the desirability of industrial diversity (or specialisation in the case of clusters). For example, in a section devoted to discussing J. Jacobs’ theory of diverse cities, J. Robinson notes that “Jacobs’s overall argument is that it is the everyday, tolerant coexistence of social difference and economic diversity that enables cities to bring together different people and different talents, to generate new activities and to enable innovation. Cities that encourage segregation – physical or social – from the ‘ordinary’ city, with its jumbled mixtures of uses and people, she suggests, will lack vitality and perhaps die. [
] Clearly, diverse neighbourhoods, the physical coexistence of a range of business environments and the spatial concentration of diverse activities can have the generative social and economic effects she described. But cities do not always get to be like that, and yet they remain sites for economic growth and innovation.” (p.159). However, she finds room to accomodate Jacobs’ theory within the ordinary cities framework by switching the scale of analysis from the neighbourhood to the city. “This chapter [shows] how keeping in mind the ordinary city – diverse, contested, connected – brings into view a range of potential strategies for enhancing economic growth that could encourage redistributive investments in infrastructure, as well as expand access to employment and support different kinds of livelihoods. Reinforcing the broadest agglomeration economies of cities, it has been suggested, along with encouraging diverse urban economies, might be more useful strategies than pouring scarce public resources into already successful clusters of globalising firms.” (p.164-5).

The conclusion summarises the content of the book and reinforces the double message that the author has been communicating throughout: the fact that all cities are distinctive and diverse, and that urban studies need to reflect this diversity. She adds a warning about the scientific status quo: “Facing a world of ever-expanding cities, more likely than ever before to be home to poor people, urban studies cannot continue to base its theoretical insights on the experiences of a few wealthy cities: this would doom it to irrelevance.” (p.167).

 

Towards the end of the book, I must admit I was a little disappointed by the gap between the ambitious program set in introduction and the resulting implementation in the last chapters. The book is more of a manifest in my opinion, and I completely adhere to the core ideas of ordinary cities as the diverse material of a diverse urban studies. However, I found that the applications seemed too restricted in their scope to adequately prove the author’s point rather than just claim it. The message I take home is that we need to keep in mind, while we are studying cities, that they and their residents are diverse, connected and contested. This does not make a recipe on how to actually study cities, let alone design inclusive policies, but it is a significant step forward. A second point of critique I have towards the author’s method is that, although she acknowledges and celebrates diversity in cities and within cities, her resources remain very biased towards the dominant model when it comes to academic and theoretical references on the one hand, and to the type of city considered here on the other hand (. Regarding references, it is a pity that the only theories which are discussed (and criticised) are the dominant paradigms originating from prestigious US and UK scholars (the Chicago school, the GaWC, Louis Wirth, Jane Jacobs, Scott & Storper). Non-english writers are left entirely out of the schope, and so are less well-known scholars who have advocated for diverse urban studies before 2006. It leaves a false impression that ordinary cities are a theoretical greenfield emanated exclusively from an opposition to dominant english-speaking western references, which is probably not true. Regarding cities themselves, I wondered if it was a choice to restrict the analysis to large metropolises and national capitals (New York, Rio de Janeiro, Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Johannesburg, Chicago, Singapore, Saint Petersburg, Mexico city, etc.), or just an ambiguity related to the fact that nowhere are cities defined. It seems however that smaller cities have a very important role to play in the promotion of the ordinary in urban studies. To paraphrase Robinson: “urban studies cannot continue to base its theoretical insights on the experiences of a few [large] cities: this would doom it to irrelevance”.

With respect to my project about the scales of urban inequality, I have found interesting ideas about the relationship between industrial clusters and social segregation in chapters 4 and 6, which is mediated by J. Robinson through scale: “The benefits of proximity for networks of learning, cooperation and competition in dynamic clusters and specialised concentrations in some cities would be very relevant examples of innovation through single-use neighbourhoods, a kind of ‘segregation’. But, in many cases, strong concentrations of certain kinds of activities in cities do not translate into close spatial clustering, or into close interactions amongst similar firms, or even into stable ongoing interactions with actors […]. So, in economic terms, Jane Jacobs’s ‘ordinary city’ is perhaps best thought about at a city-wide scale where the diversity of activities that she identified as crucial to economic expansion and innovation coexist and have opportunities for the interactions she saw as crucial for generating new activities.” (p.160). I also keep her overall message about diverse, connected and contested cities in mind to draw inspiration, examples and illustrations from the most diverse pool of cities possible, large and small, from across the world when approaching urban studies.

 


 

Here I share the type of file I use to document my readings and book reviews. It is composed of citations from the book which I considered important while reading.

Other reviews of this book have been published in Belgeo, the Journal of Planning Education and Research, Justice Spatial / Spatial Justice (in French), the Journal of world-systems research, Research in African Literatures and Cultural Geographies.

Géographie des Inégalités

George P., 1981, Géographie des inégalités, Paris, Que Sais-Je, Presses Universitaires de France, 127p.

Alors que je dĂ©marrais un projet Ă©ditorial sur le thĂšme de la gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s, j’ai cherchĂ© les ouvrages existants (en français) sur le sujet et trouvĂ© en premiĂšre place ce petit volume de Pierre George datant de 1981. Je ne connaissais pas le travail du gĂ©ographe sur ce sujet, ayant plutĂŽt cĂŽtoyĂ© ses Ă©crits sur l’URSS, les villes et la gĂ©ographie Ă©conomique. Au moment oĂč je cherchais ce Que Sais-Je devenu rare (seuls 15% de l’ouvrage peuvent ĂȘtre lus sur Gallica), Denise Pumain en trouvait une copie dans une bibliothĂšque familiale et m’envoyait un scan de la conclusion, sans concertation mais Ă  point nommĂ©. J’ai depuis empruntĂ© le volume et lu ce texte datant de presque quarante ans. Il me conforte dans l’idĂ©e de renouveler l’exercice aujourd’hui, car certains faits et processus ont changĂ©, mais j’ai Ă©tĂ© aussi Ă©tonnĂ©e de son actualitĂ© et de la prĂ©sence dĂ©jĂ  ancienne de questions toujours non rĂ©solues dans la gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s, et en premier lieu celle, sur laquelle je reviendrai, de l’importance de l’Ă©chelle gĂ©ographique dans la prĂ©sentation, la comprĂ©hension et la reprĂ©sentation des inĂ©galitĂ©s.

PubliĂ© chez PUF dans la collection Que Sais-Je, cet ouvrage est vu par P. George comme une actualisation de son opus GĂ©ographie de la Consommation dans la mĂȘme collection vingt ans plus tĂŽt, et qui abordait les diffĂ©rences nationales en termes de niveau de consommation, contrastant des espaces de sous-consommation et des espaces de sur-consommation. “Il a paru plus conforme aux circonstances de reprendre la question en amont et de proposer Ă  des recherches plus approfondies une prise en compte des facteurs de diffĂ©renciation des consommations Ă  l’Ă©chelle de la gĂ©ographie gĂ©nĂ©rale, mais aussi des espaces plus concrets de la vie quotidienne, Il en est issu l’idĂ©e d’une GĂ©ographie des InĂ©galitĂ©s.” (p.4). Cette approche des niveaux de vie par les conditions matĂ©rielles de leur rĂ©alisation est un point important de l’ouvrage et n’est pas Ă©tranger aux propositions d’A. Sen sur les capabilitĂ©s, mais il peut surprendre dans le contexte actuel oĂč la majoritĂ© des ouvrages sur les inĂ©galitĂ©s Ă©conomiques prennent pour acquis l’usage des variables de revenus, de salaires et de patrimoine pour dĂ©crire les inĂ©galitĂ©s. Dans cet ouvrage, l’auteur aborde aussi bien les niveaux de production agricole que ceux de la consommation alimentaire pour dĂ©crire les inĂ©galitĂ©s entre groupes sociaux situĂ©s sur des espaces diffĂ©rents (diffĂ©renciation internationale, opposition urbain-rural) mais aussi les inĂ©galitĂ©s entre groupes sociaux d’un mĂȘme espace (les grandes villes notamment).

 


 

L’ouvrage se compose d’une introduction et d’une conclusion, sĂ©parĂ©es par trois chapitres : un premier chapitre est consacrĂ© au “pays industriels”, un second Ă  “la pauvretĂ©” et un dernier (“une nouvelle donne?”) au dĂ©veloppement Ă©conomique et ses consĂ©quences en termes de nouveaux Ă©quilibres mondiaux des inĂ©galitĂ©s.

DĂšs l’introduction, la question des Ă©chelles gĂ©ographiques dans la perception, la comprĂ©hension et l’analyse des inĂ©galitĂ©s apparaĂźt comme centrale. Selon P. George, “l’espace est fait d’unitĂ©s prĂ©sentant certains caractĂšres d’homogĂ©nĂ©itĂ©, emboĂźtĂ©es les unes dans les autres. A l’intĂ©rieur de chacune d’elles se diffĂ©rencient des secteurs d’inĂ©galitĂ©s. Une gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s, comme toute gĂ©ographie, s’articule donc suivant diverses Ă©chelles. Il y a autant de nĂ©cessitĂ© Ă  prendre en compte dans une ville ou dans une rĂ©gion les diffĂ©renciations sociales de l’occupation et de la maĂźtrise de l’espace qu’Ă  mesurer les Ă©carts entre de grands ensembles continentaux.” (p.8). La dĂ©finition des inĂ©galitĂ©s est ici rendue par l’idĂ©e de diffĂ©renciation entre zones homogĂšnes. Le parti est pris dĂšs le dĂ©but de l’ouvrage de s’intĂ©resser avant tout aux inĂ©galitĂ©s (et donc aux diffĂ©renciations) de niveau de vie Ă©conomique: “Quel que soit le caractĂšre choquant des discriminations liĂ©es Ă  la naissance ou Ă  l’appartenance Ă  une collectivitĂ© ethno-culturelle, les grands contrastes de conditions de vie et mĂȘme, Ă  la base, de chances de survie, reposent sur la rĂ©partition des moyens d’existence. [
] ConcrĂštement, les clivages les plus perceptibles des inĂ©galitĂ©s Ă©conomiques et sociales se projettent sur l’utilisation de l’espace.” (p.7). L’objectif de cette gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s est donc de prĂ©senter les inĂ©galitĂ©s Ă©conomiques mondiales Ă  travers la lecture des diffĂ©renciations spatiales produites par les sociĂ©tĂ©s Ă  diffĂ©rentes Ă©chelles.

Le premier chapitre brosse une gĂ©ographie de la richesse et des inĂ©galitĂ©s des pays industriels – c’est-Ă -dire principalement de l’Europe, du Japon, de l’AmĂ©rique du Nord et du bloc socialiste de l’Ă©poque – en deux Ă©tapes. La premiĂšre partie du chapitre dĂ©crit le niveau de richesse absolu des Etats concernĂ©s, en se rĂ©fĂ©rant Ă  leur niveau de vie et de consommation, mais aussi Ă  la structure sociale de la sociĂ©tĂ©, qualifiĂ©e “de classes moyennes”. L’ouvrage a cette qualitĂ© de ramener systĂ©matiquement la distribution des richesses Ă  leur projection dans l’espace. Par exemple:

“En France, l’Ă©cart officiel est de l’ordre de 1 Ă  7 entre le salaire minimum garanti et les Ă©moluments d’un cadre supĂ©rieur. La hiĂ©rarchie des revenus rĂ©els et sa rĂ©partition sont en fait toutes diffĂ©rentes – autant du fait des inexactitudes Ă  la base que des sous-Ă©valuations au sommet – et se projette sur une Ă©chelle beaucoup plus Ă©tirĂ©e et gĂ©nĂ©ralement dĂ©calĂ©e dans l’ensemble vers le haut. En premier lieu, les conditions d’une famille peuvent varier sensiblement suivant qu’il est possible ou non dans un mĂȘme lieu de rĂ©unir plusieurs salaires par mĂ©nages. Les rĂ©gions ou les villes qui n’offrent qu’un type d’activitĂ©, et notamment que des activitĂ©s masculines, sont pĂ©nalisĂ©es par rapport Ă  celles oĂč tous les Ă©lĂ©ments d’Ăąge actif d’une famille peuvent exercer un emploi rĂ©munĂ©rĂ©. C’est notamment le cas des pays miniers ou des rĂ©gions d’activitĂ©s industrielles Ă  forte majoritĂ© d’emplois masculins (sidĂ©rurgie en particulier).” (p.24)

L’auteur opĂšre ensuite une dĂ©clinaison scalaire de ces niveaux de vie au sein des pays industriels. “On doit prendre en compte toute une hiĂ©rarchie de situations qui se projette dans l’espace Ă  des Ă©chelles diffĂ©rentes: inĂ©galitĂ©s entre villes et campagnes qui engendrent l’exode rural, inĂ©galitĂ©s entre petites villes et grandes villes, inĂ©galitĂ©s entre rĂ©gions rurales Ă  forte productivitĂ© (et Ă  population relativement nombreuse) et rĂ©gions rurales Ă  basse productivitĂ©, inĂ©galitĂ©s entre rĂ©gions Ă  intĂ©gration industrielle multiforme assurant diversitĂ© et relĂšve d’emplois et rĂ©gions mono-industrielles exposĂ©es aux crises conjoncturelles et techniques” (p.34-5). La seconde partie du chapitre Ă©voque les dĂ©fis de ces Etats pourtant privilĂ©giĂ©s relativement Ă  l’Ă©chelle mondiale, au travers de l’injonction Ă  la croissance illimitĂ©e et des crises successives. Une mention est faite aux pays socialistes, qui ne sont pas pour autant fondamentalement distinguĂ©s des pays industriels dans cette gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s. “Le principe organique de la sociĂ©tĂ© [socialiste] est une rĂ©partition Ă©galitaire des revenus sectoriels modulĂ©e en fonction de la qualitĂ© de l’activitĂ© exercĂ©e. Dans la pratique, des avantages non comptabilisĂ©s privilĂ©gient la ‘classe politique et administrative’, communĂ©ment appelĂ©e la Nomenklatura, mais ils ne se transposent pas dans le paysage comme les diffĂ©rences sociales des pays d’économie libĂ©rale. Les structures urbaines sont uniformes, et discret l’impact gĂ©ographique des privilĂšges de fonction – dans les zones de ‘datchas’ ou les aires rĂ©servĂ©es aux loisirs des hauts fonctionnaires et des responsables politiques.” (p.43).

Le second chapitre est dĂ©diĂ© Ă  la pauvretĂ©, que P. George aborde par sa mesure, discutant tout d’abord les indicateurs les plus appropriĂ©s, notamment aux Ă©conomies agricoles d’auto-subsistance. L’auteur distingue ainsi les indicateurs (PNB par exemple) des rĂ©vĂ©lateurs (espĂ©rance de vie, Ă©tat de santĂ© et d’Ă©ducation notamment). “Dans la mesure du possible, il est souhaitable de dĂ©passer [la] premiĂšre approximation [du quotient de PNB] en Ă©valuant des revenus rĂ©els Ă  partir d’enquĂȘtes locales. La difficultĂ© majeure est que cette Ă©valuation ne peut se faire en signes monĂ©taires que pour des populations urbaines qui ne reprĂ©sentent que des minoritĂ©s, et dont une partie au moins est dans une situation relativement favorable par rapport Ă  la masse de la population qui est une population rurale. Or, la transposition de quantitĂ©s de produits agricoles en valeurs monĂ©taires, quand il est question de produits qui ne sont pas commercialisĂ©s, n’a guĂšre de sens.” (p.55-6). La seconde partie du chapitre met en relation les succĂšs apparents du dĂ©veloppement avec les preuves du maintien de la pauvretĂ©, notamment dans les pays de forte croissance dĂ©mographique. Cette discussion introduit l’importance de considĂ©rer les inĂ©galitĂ©s intra-nationales, par exemple dans le domaine de l’alimentation: “Ces donnĂ©es d’ordre gĂ©nĂ©ral ne fournissent qu’une image imparfaite des insuffisances alimentaires, en ce sens qu’elles ne font pas apparaĂźtre les privations affectant particuliĂšrement certaines catĂ©gories et certaines classes d’ñge de la population, et confondent dans une mĂȘme moyenne, mĂȘme gravement insuffisante, la succession de pĂ©riodes au cours desquelles elles sont susceptibles de varier dans des proportions importantes. Une grande partie des disponibilitĂ©s alimentaires est absorbĂ©e par les minoritĂ©s privilĂ©giĂ©es rĂ©sidant en ville et consommant les nourritures les plus riches souvent fournies par l’importation. Les moyennes recouvrent de sensibles diffĂ©rences d’un lieu Ă  l’autre.” (p.57-9).

Le troisiĂšme chapitre enfin Ă©voque la situation des Etats intermĂ©diaires. Ces Etats incluent les pays pĂ©troliers (“la fortune sans richesse”) ainsi que ceux que l’on qualifie aujourd’hui d’Ă©mergents (Chine, BrĂ©sil, Mexique par exemple). A propos des sociĂ©tĂ©s des pays pays pĂ©troliers et de leurs disparitĂ©s sociales et spatiales, P. George note que “le contraste est probablement un des plus forts qu’on puisse observer dans le monde” (p.88). A propos des pays Ă©mergents, caractĂ©risĂ©s par la vitesse de leur dĂ©collage tout autant que par leur niveau de vie intermĂ©diaire, l’auteur tente d’identifier les conditions gĂ©ographiques et historiques communes qui les diffĂ©rencient des Etats restĂ©s pauvres ou en dĂ©veloppement. Selon lui, et sans dĂ©terminisme, “les Ă©lĂ©ments principaux peuvent ĂȘtre ramenĂ©s dans une approche prĂ©liminaire au nombre de quatre : la dimension, les facteurs naturels de production, la maĂźtrise de la dynamique dĂ©mographique, les structures de production. […] Les conditions gĂ©ographiques et historiques favorisent, sinon imposent, certains choix. Ceux-ci incombent Ă  la classe politique gĂ©rant les affaires d’Etat et qui se confond, sous des formes variĂ©es dans la structure et l’idĂ©ologie retenues, avec la classe Ă©conomique. Il en rĂ©sulte des clivages dĂ©cisifs Ă  l’intĂ©rieur de la sociĂ©tĂ©, dont il sera fait Ă©tat au titre des inĂ©galitĂ©s dans le dĂ©veloppement.” (p.93-8). Si la situation moyenne des Etats dĂ©crits ici est intermĂ©diaire Ă  l’Ă©chelle mondiale, P. George consacre la fin de ce chapitre Ă  montrer Ă  quel point cette moyenne masque les inĂ©galitĂ©s les plus extrĂȘmes entre classes aisĂ©es et dĂ©munies, entre quartiers riches et quartiers pauvres, entre capitales nationales et villes secondaires notamment. Loin d’ĂȘtre un effet secondaire, ces inĂ©galitĂ©s font partie selon lui du processus mĂȘme de dĂ©veloppement de ces pays. « Les grandes Ă©conomies libĂ©rales en voie de dĂ©veloppement rapide sont les plus inĂ©galitaires du monde. Les inĂ©galitĂ©s se projettent sur deux plans, celui de l’échelle sociale globale et celui de l’espace gĂ©ographique dĂ©multipliĂ© Ă  son tour en unitĂ©s rĂ©gionales et en subdivisions locales. Le fondement de l’inĂ©galitĂ© est l’armature mĂȘme du dĂ©veloppement. » (p.105-6).

Dans la conclusion, P. George retourne Ă  son argument de l’imbrication des Ă©chelles gĂ©ographiques dans la lecture des inĂ©galitĂ©s au travers des diffĂ©renciations spatiales: “les ‘disparitĂ©s rĂ©gionales’, l’inĂ©gal dĂ©veloppement des Ă©conomies urbaines et des Ă©conomies rurales, la hiĂ©rarchie des villes, les sĂ©grĂ©gations intra-urbaines sont les thĂšmes gĂ©ographiques de l’inĂ©galitĂ© Ă  l’échelle des Etats, des rĂ©gions, des agglomĂ©rations. » (p. 122-3). Il met en relation les sociĂ©tĂ©s mondiales analysĂ©es sĂ©parĂ©ment durant l’ouvrage, en notant par exemple que les inĂ©galitĂ©s des pays en dĂ©veloppement au moment de l’Ă©criture sont incomparablement plus Ă©levĂ©es que celles qu’ont connu les pays industrialisĂ©s, sur lesquels sont pourtant fondĂ©s les figures typiques de la sĂ©grĂ©gation en gĂ©ographie (l’opposition ‘beaux quartiers’ / ‘quartiers ouvriers’ dans les villes par exemple). Le rĂŽle des indicateurs statistiques, utilisĂ©s tout au long du livre pour prĂ©senter les ordres de grandeur de la richesse et de la pauvretĂ© des pays, rĂ©gions, villes et quartiers, est relativisĂ© par l’auteur qui  les traite de “moules vides” et recommande de leur adjoindre des Ă©lĂ©ments d’explication issus de l’observation et du dialogue. Enfin, il plaide pour une gĂ©ographie “utile” qui dĂ©crit les inĂ©galitĂ©s pour dĂ©noncer leurs consĂ©quences nĂ©gatives et contribuer Ă  “la prise de conscience de la nĂ©cessitĂ© d’une certaine forme d’action rĂ©paratrice” (p. 123).

 


 

L’analyse critique de cet ouvrage trente huit ans aprĂšs sa publication a la tache impossible de distinguer les incongruitĂ©s dus aux parti-pris de l’auteur de celles rĂ©vĂ©lĂ©es a posteriori par les changements advenus dans le monde en gĂ©nĂ©ral depuis 1981 et dans celui de la gĂ©ographie en particulier. Notons donc simplement quelques faiblesses de l’ouvrage pour le lecteur contemporain, notamment liĂ©es Ă  la prĂ©-Ă©minence de l’Ă©chelle des Etats, malgrĂ© les efforts importants de l’auteur pour offrir une analyse multiscalaire. Ainsi, les Etats Ă©tant l’Ă©chelon premier qui divisent le monde dans cette gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s, il n’est fait usage nulle part (ou trĂšs peu) des ensembles territoriaux plus larges (tels que l’Union EuropĂ©enne, l’URSS ou l’ALENA) qui non seulement permettrait une classification plus homogĂšne des espaces au regard des inĂ©galitĂ©s (au lieu de la dichotomie pays industriels / pays en dĂ©veloppement) mais aussi constituent pour certains des espaces de redistribution de la richesse (le Fond EuropĂ©en pour la Politique RĂ©gionale par exemple, crĂ©Ă© en 1975, qui existait donc dĂ©jĂ  au moment de l’Ă©criture de l’ouvrage). Cette absence de considĂ©ration pour les institutions supra- ou sub-nationales s’accompagne d’une faible attention portĂ©e aux politiques de rĂ©duction des inĂ©galitĂ©s en gĂ©nĂ©ral. Enfin, la description des niveaux de vie par pays et de leurs disparitĂ©s gĂ©ographiques telle qu’elle est mise en oeuvre dans le livre de P. George masque un aspect important des inĂ©galitĂ©s et de leur dynamique, Ă  savoir les interactions entre espaces (par le commerce, la finance ou les investissements, mais aussi les relations politiques et militaires dans un contexte post-colonial).

La prioritĂ© donnĂ©e aux Etats et au processus de dĂ©veloppement face aux relations internationales reflĂšte peut-ĂȘtre l’anachronisme d’une lecture biaisĂ©e par l’idĂ©e actuelle de mondialisation, mais suggĂšre que l’actualisation de ce travail doit dĂ©sormais incorporer cette dimension. Ce petit Que Sais-Je mĂ©rite toutefois d’ĂȘtre lu aujourd’hui, ne serait-ce pour son attention au caractĂšre multi-scalaire des inĂ©galitĂ©s et pour sa projection systĂ©matique des diffĂ©renciations sociales dans l’espace gĂ©ographique.

 

Ici, je partage le type de document sur lequel s’est appuyĂ© mon compte rendu. Il est constituĂ© d’un recueil de passages du livre que j’ai considĂ©rĂ©s comme importants. Chaque citation est accompagnĂ©e d’un ou plusieurs mots clĂ©s (ou tags), prĂ©cĂ©dĂ©s d’un # afin d’effectuer des recherches thĂ©matiques dans le document. Les passages en gras ne le sont pas nĂ©cessairement dans la version originale.