The power relations in the Spitalfields market regeneration: An assessment through urban regime theory

By Rodrigo Caimanque


Images Source: and, modified by the author


The present essay attempts to address the power relations among different actors involved in the regeneration of the historic Spitalfields market in London, towards an approach which allows to understand how different groups exert power and influences the decision-making process. These relations are analyzed through the lens of urban regime theory (Stone, 1989, 1993) as a conceptual basis for the case. The Spitalfields regeneration and its evolution from the former wholesale market of fruits and vegetables to the current vibrant and attractive place of London provides a context in which power relations change over time due to different scenarios shaped by major economics constraints. These changes gave ground for a complete reinterpretation of the place transformation. More inclusive process of decision-making, triggered by new community movements in the 1990s. However, under the urban regime theory, the idea of stable and long-term arrangements among dominant stakeholders, shows that the economic growth agenda continued being the key driver of the place regeneration.

The structure of the essay is divided on 4 parts, starting with a brief explanation of the urban regimes and its main features. Following that, it will be explain the historical process of the Spitalfields Market regeneration, to continue then with the discussion around power relations in the process of decision-making. Finally, it is drafted general conclusions.

Urban regimes

The complexity of the urban process under the post-fordist structuration involves, among other factors, complex and narrow relations of actors beyond the role of the state and its different levels in decision-making, where the private sector and the civil society become influential stakeholders. To understand the relationships among these actors, urban politics provides relevant approaches by establishing theoretical frameworks to understand how are positioned and what are their role within the structure of power. The United States has been the ground for relevant and rich theories, such as the growth machine (Molotch, 1976) and the urban regime (Stone, 1989), trying to provide more specific approaches of power and decision-making in relation to urban development processes (Harding, 1996).

The growth machine theory refers to the elite’s influence that exerts pressures for growth modifying the land use with the objective to obtain profit (Molotch, 1976, 1993). The mains actors in a growth coalition are primarily the elite society and entrepreneurs, who sets the agenda for urban development in a determinate locality. The urban regime for its part, understand the process decision-making through informal arrangements between public institutions and the private sector interests, working together in a collaborative manner “in order to make and carry out governing decision” (p 6). Although both the growth machine and the urban regimes establish the coalition configuration as the key driver of change, the first rely almost exclusively in terms of economic development while urban regime goes beyond that (Harding, 1994, cited in Van Ostaaijen, 2013), becoming more appropriate especially in the analysis and applications of cases outside the US.

Urban regimes are based on arrangements from different actors with mutual interest which build coalitions and establish a common agenda (Ward, 1997). These actors must be able to provide the necessary resources (monetary investment, skills, information, etc) to pursue the agenda (Stone, 1993, 2005). When Stone (1989) depicts the actors involved to the governing coalition in the public-private frame, the private interest are not exclusively limited to business. Other groups may be organizations, foundations or communitarian leaders, providing a useful approach to understand power relationships among diverse and heterogeneous actors (Lipietz, 2008).

Through the urban regime focus and under specific socioeconomic arenas, public policies are defined by the following factors “(1) the composition of a community’s governing coalition, (2) the nature of the relationships among members of the governing coalition, and (3) the resources that the members bring to the governing coalition” (Stone, 1993, p 2).

Urban regimes, according to Harding (1996) establish links with pluralism, as a position to understand and establish who are the actors involved in the governing process. Although Stone (1993) recognized that both pluralism and urban regime are based on coalition-building, and states the importance of politics, there are several differences that help to shape the purpose and scope of urban regime. While pluralism gives special importance to the electoral process and democratic control through votes, urban regime transcend the barriers of a particular government cycles, being the regime’s stability in larger periods of time a key factor to its success. From pluralism, decision process “takes shape in the same plane” (Stone, 2005, p. 311) in a system that is open and penetrable. Urban regimes recognizes the multiple levels of political decisions and question the idea of penetrability, especially considering the existence of class and its stratifications that triggers social and economic inequalities (Stone, 2005).

There is a permanent debate on the applicability of the theory in the United Kingdom (and Europe in general), with various attempts to adapt it to this context (Mossenberg & Stoke, 2001). There are also approaches which establish that is not possible to use those theories for being too related to the U.S. reality (Wood, 2004), where the local level decision-making has more autonomous features, in contrast with the UK system with a strong concentration of power in the central government (While et al, 2004). However, the recognition of differences should not deny the existence of “signs of convergence between the two countries” (Harding, 1995, p 47). Indeed, empirical research such as Dowding et al. (1999), applied the urban regime theory at London Boroughs level, which helps to support the analysis of the Spitalfields regeneration.

Moreover, considering urban regimes analysis has been a concept intensely discussed by several authors over time, with different approaches and application to understand it (Van Ostaaijen, 2013), it is clear there is more ground towards new interpretations for particular cases. In fact,  Stone (2005) establishes, in a more recent review of urban regime, an approach which seems more flexible in terms of, for instance, how coalitions work. Within a coalition,  there are no fixed actors, who are basically determined according to the agenda that wants to be addressed, in a problem-solving perspective[1]. Therefore, from a still open debate, the aim of this essay is suggest the existence of some of the elements that might establish a regime coalition in the Spitalfields experience rather than set the process as a literal expression of the theory.

The Spitalfields regeneration

The ward of Spitalfields is located in the fringe of the City of London, specifically in the east boundary of the city, in the Borough of Tower Hamlets. The area has been appointed as one of the most deprived and poorest in London (Fainstein, 1994) but also has been the settlement of successive waves of immigrants for over 300 years (Jacobs, 1999). Currently is a zone characterized for the presence of Bengali people, especially located around the area of Brick Lane street. Within the ward is located the Spitalfields market, the former wholesale place of fruits and vegetables of the East London. It was one of the oldest market in the city becoming a key area for redevelopment since 1986, starting a long process which finished on 2002, though with important effects for both the place and the city at present.

The changes in the Spitalfields market have echoes in the radical transformation of the Greater London in the last 40 years, changing from an economy based in industrialization to a new one related to services (Hammet, 2003).  Forman (1989) argues that despite the proximity of Spitalfields with the city centre of London, there had always been a social barrier between these areas which begun to change with the rise of the speculative model of cities’ development, changing Spitalfields from a non desirable to a profitable area from both public and private interest. In this context, the political alternation of power at national level increased the speed of changes under the conservative period in the 1980s, wherein the market role began to influences the policy-making, affecting the planning system as well (Fainstein 2001, Hammet, 2003).

First stage of regeneration: A physical development approach

The market-led decisions of this period and the high demand for services provoked a sharp increase in needs for new office buildings. Considering the relaxation of the regulatory role of planning, adding the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986, the central government had enough power to set a pro-growth agenda over local government decisions (Forman, 1989). The interest to redevelop the Spitalfields market lay in needs for growth beyond the city ‘business district’ boundaries. Both the pressure of elite groups and the pro-growth context settled the scenario in which The Corporation of the City of London, owner of the land, issued a tender document to redevelop the market in 1987 (Fainstein, 2001, p 141). Finally the proposal of the Spitalfields development Group (SDG), a consortium of developers, was selected.

The proposal consisted in the removal of the market and the building of a large-scale offices and retail complex. However, during the process of planning permission, pressures for conservationist groups (Spitalfields Historic Building Trust), expressed their concern about the project impact, though still expecting the improvement of the area, surrounded by the Georgian architecture heritage, through the relocation of the market (Jacobs, 1999). The Bengali community and Labour politicians strongly opposed to the proposal considering the consequences associated to the impact of the local economy and gentrification caused by the new use of the area (Fainstein, 1994). As a response of those pressures the project was redesigned, basically calming down the middle- and upper-class concerns about the place ‘aesthetics’. The SDG plans began, and in 1991, the market was finally relocated (the economist, 2001).

The regeneration of the Spitalfields market came into a dynamic of negotiations in which the local government finally agreed with the SDG proposal, in a deal where SDG besides paying the removal of the market, they added the transfers of 127 properties within the site to housing associations, besides resources spending from contributions for charity and job training compromises (Fainstein, 1994).

At that moment, the decision-making process was mainly driven by private interests associated on one hand by middle-class and upper-class groups who made the initial pressure for relocate the market and the redesign of the proposal. On the other hand, the property developers and the land owners which aims were basically to take advantage of the city centre growth phenomenon, becoming the Spitalfields Market in an attractive land to these purposes. In addition, the context provided by the state policies, supporting market interest leaving the local authorities with fewer chances to influence, except for the planning permissions, increased the interest on the land. The civil society had been less relevant despite their opposition to the redevelopment, where the outcomes did not vary in a wide sense from the planned, apart from some social benefits negotiated.

Second stage of regeneration: a social approach? the role of community engagement

The economic downturn in the early 1990s froze the attempts to allocate office and retail projects in the old market site, even when the planning permission were approved in 1992 by the borough Council. Under that context, two main situations occurred (Fainstein, 2001): firstly, the SDG attempted to sell part of the land and with lack of success, hence it was the City of London Corporation which obtained the land, involving significant monetary losses for the consortium. Secondly, the SDG decided to develop part of the remained land within the market with new ‘interim uses’. After that, the original development plan was modified, triggering different configurations of power relations among the involves actors.

According to Fainstein (2001) the absent of any major development gave way to new small scale enterprises which together with regeneration initiatives as City Challenge, and its continuation, the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) through the program Cityside, start to produce changes in the place, beyond the initial physical approach. This kind of investment, based on the Thatcher’s entrepreneurial model (Shaw et al. 2004) provided flexible funding for specific areas through competition for bids. Those initiatives encouraged negotiations among local government, the private sector and communities in local decision-making, working in physical improvements, diversification and skilled development for labor programmes, fostering small business for local communities and promoting attractive places for visitors.

Once the economy gained momentum again, part of the wholesale market had already changed its use, with the allocations stalls for craftsmanship, sports, and ethnic food, filling the land and consolidating the place as “one of the most thriving indoor spaces in London” (The economist, 2001). With this new scenario, the SDG was forced to rethink its development strategy. Considering the popularity of the new use which provided 1000 local jobs, mainly local residents (Fainstein, 2001), the civil society gains enough power even to reach the courts and provoke in 2000 the SDG decision to withdraw the original planning permission for a renewed submission (The Guardian, 2001a).

Finally, after 14 years the SDG new proposal designed by the architect Norman Foster obtained in 2002 the definitive planning permission (BBC, 2003). However, the outcome was totally different from the original design, and the proposal was related towards more discreet offices, and concerns about public spaces with narrow connections to the current market (The Guardian, 2001b). In the new context with the creation of the Greater London Authority (GLA) which also supported the proposal consistent with its aims to set London in a world context (Evening Standard, 2002), Spitalfields and its relation with Brick Lane were consolidated as one of the most thriving leisure hubs of the city.

This second stage of the power relationships changed to the extent that the civil society organized through local coalitions such as Spitalfields Market Under Threat (The independent, 2002) was able to exert pressure over a process mostly dominated by private interest. It seems clear that the broad economic context and the ‘unexpected’ decisions of the landowner triggered the transformation and consolidation in the use of the market. However the community’s capacity to understand the scenario and take the opportunity to become major players was essential to influence in the decision-making process.


As it was explained the Spitalfields market regeneration lay in two stages, split by the economic downturn. In the early period, the power relations identified between elite groups might be identified as a coalition in terms of its composition and agenda setting, which aims were basically growth development. The actors within the governing coalition brought in the resources needed for the agenda fulfillment. The private sector represented in the SDG provides de investment on the land, whilst the local power was represented by the City of London Corporation as owner of the land and the Tower Hamlets Council which despite its poor influence in the process, contributed with resources associated to planning regulation. Other actor that emerged was indirectly the conservationist groups that exerted pressure for develop the land in a ‘more aesthetic way’ to enjoy its potential profitability.

However, unlike the case of the U.S., the strong influence of the national government which sets the rules for a new market-led scenario, is a key factor in the complexity of the decision-making process in Spitalfields, especially in that period where local governments were ‘by-passed’, in order to deliver fast private-led development in UK. This is an important factor to analyze the case through the lens of urban regime, rather than for instance, the growth machine. The growth machine is strongly linked to elite’s pressures at the local level, meanwhile in the Spitalfields case the central government influence must be included to understand the informal arrangements related to the regeneration of the area. Harding (1996) argues that the urban regime it is more flexible and adaptable than growth machine theory to different cross-national contexts, hence the power relationships of Spitalfields under a regime coalition could be fixed in a more accurate manner.

Stone (1993) defines four typologies of regimes: (1) Maintenance Regimes, (2) Development Regimes. (3), Middle class progressive regimes and (4) Regimes devoted to lower class opportunity expansion. Among them,  it could be argue that ‘Development regimes’ has mayor similarities with the case in the first period. This typology is understood as a voluntary process of coalition-building “concerned primarily with changing land use in order to promote growth or counter decline” (p 19), mainly driven by elites isolated from popular control, fostering the change of social and economic patterns within the place.

The second stage, after the economic downturn included a new influential actor, the civil society who despite being fighting to protect the market place in the entire process, the effective influence started to appear in this period. With the renovated market use, sustained in parallel with processes of regeneration based in both physical and social outcomes through state promoted partnerships (City Challenge and the Single Regeneration Budget), the area reached unpredicted strength forcing the private interest to consider seriously the communities’ claims. At this stage,  the coalition tended to change its actors configurations, where positions of empowered organized residents and the consolidation of local commercial stalls alongside with the process of ethnic regeneration in Brick Lane provided a new resource for the coalition: the diversity through the local development of the area.

Aligned with, Ward (1997) provides a pertinent analysis of the link between the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) and the presence of a regime. It is argued the existence of factors that conform a coalition area framed by institutional selective incentives (resources through competition), encouraging actors to be related among them to engage in the decision-making process. The case of Spitalfields reflects how the coalition established a new and ‘feasible’ agenda, another regime feature, under the rules of the state financing programmes. Thus, it seems that the agenda setting through SRB “is feeding into existing arrangement” (Ward, 1997, p 1503) predetermined by the long-term economic growth focus.

From the typologies of regimes, it seems that the ‘development regime continued at that stage, though might be possible to identify partially some features of a ‘middle class progressive regime’, in terms of major involvement of the community (some groups), and also major level of accountability, adding the development regime “the organizational capacity to inform, mobilize, and involve the citizenry” (Stone, 1993, p 20). Nevertheless, from the case of Spitalfields, remain questions about the degree of effective involvement of communities in the coalition, are they effectively included in the governing coalition? Or rather are temporal actors which emerge to face actions against them, for instance from the risk of displacement?


The power relations around the Spitalfields market regeneration provides proximities with the idea of coalition building of urban regimes, through its public-private formal and informal arrangements for growth. The case of Spitalfields showed that although some relevant changes in the configuration of the coalitions, mainly produced by circumstantial economic constraints, the main agenda remained stable across different alternations of power in the government, both local and national level. However, coalitions are developed essentially at the local level, and once the agenda is defined, are flexible in relation with the interested parts as well as the nature of their relations. Hence it might be possible, despite strong national framework influences as in the case of UK, move towards more democratic and participatory arrangements locally.

Urban regimes comes from the base of political economy (Stone, 2005) and according to Fainstein (2001) regime theory is situated as a synthesis of the structuralist and liberal pluralistic understanding of power. Hence, being recognized the control of capital as the key expression of power, it also recognized “the logic (of capitalism) is itself fabricated through human activity, including resistance by other groups to capitalist aims” (Fainstein, 2001, p16)

Resources are relevant to exert power and to have effective representativeness in the coalition, but also reflects an expression of the inequalities in the society. The second stage of the Spitalfields regeneration showed how the part of the community could obtain tools and gain levels of power throughout the process, being at least from a position of resistance, part of the decision-making. This experience provided some evidence about the relevance of community engagement as a manner to move towards more just developments. However, profound political changes and new institutional arrangements, including those related to planning are still needed for build effectively representative coalitions and democratic spaces of decisions.

[1] Problem-solving does not means that urban regime agendas are focused only in short-terms goals. Stone (2005) clarifies from his book in Atlanta’s regime, that what he calls as selective material incentives in the city redevelopment, responds and depends on long-terms objective and agenda setting.


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Let’s admit it: Britain is now a developing country

by Aditya Chakrabortty via The Guardian

Elite economic debate boils down to this: a man in a tie stands at a dispatch box and reads out some numbers for the years ahead, along with a few micro-measures he’ll take to improve those projections. His opposite number scoffs at the forecasts and promises his tweaks would be far superior. For a few hours, perhaps even a couple of days, afterwards, commentators discuss What It All Means. Last Thursday’s autumn statement from George Osborne  was merely the latest enactment of this twice-yearly ritual, and I bet you’ve already forgotten it. Compare his forecasts and fossicking with our fundamental problems. Start with last week’s Pisa educational yardsticks , which show British teenagers trailing their Vietnamese counterparts at science, and behind the Macanese at maths.

Or look at this year’s World Economic Forum  (WEF) competitiveness survey of 148 countries, which ranks British roads below Chile’s, and our ground-transport system worse than that of Barbados. Whether Blair or Brown or Cameron, successive prime ministers and their chancellors pretend that progress is largely a matter of trims and tweaks – of capping business rates and funding the A14 to Felixstowe. Yet those Treasury supplementary tables and fan charts are no match for the mass of inconvenient facts provided by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development , the WEF or simply by going for a wander. Sift through the evidence and a different picture emerges: Britain’s economy is no longer zooming along unchallenged in the fast lane, but an increasingly clapped-out motor regularly overtaken by Asian Tigers such as South Korea and Taiwan. Gender equality? The WEF ranks us behind Nicaragua and Lesotho.

Investment by business? The Economist thinks we are struggling to keep up with Mali. Let me put it more broadly, Britain is a rich country accruing many of the stereotypical bad habits of a developing country. I began thinking about this last week, while reporting on graphene , the wonder material discovered by Manchester scientists and held up by cabinet ministers as part of our new high-tech future. Graphene is also the point at which Treasury dreaminess is harshly interrupted by the reality of our national de-development. Briefly, the story goes like this: Osborne funnelled a few tens of millions into research on the substance. It’s the kind of public-sector kickstart that might work in a manufacturing economy such as Germany – but which in Britain, with its hollowed-out industry and busted supply chains, has proved the equivalent of pouring money down a hole. One university physicist described how this was part of a familiar pattern of generating innovations for the rest of the world to capitalise on, then sighed: “One day, we’ll stop thinking of ourselves as a major economic power, and realise we’re more like South Korea in the early 60s.” South Korea, by way of comparison, has already put in over 20 times as many graphene patents as the country that discovered it. How can any nation that came up with the BBC and the NHS be considered in the same breath as India or China? Let me refer you to one of the first lines of The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor , in which a wise old man warns International Monetary Fund  officials and foreign dignatories: “India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.” Stop thinking of development as a process that only goes in one direction, or which affects a nation’s people equally, and it becomes much easier to see how Britain is going backwards.

Even banana republics have cash: it just ends up in the hands of a very few people – ask the bank managers of Switzerland or the hotel concierges of Paris. In Britain, we have become used to having our resources skimmed off by a small cadre of the international elite, who often don’t feel obliged to leave much behind for our tax officials. An Africa specialist could look at the City and recognise in it a 21st-century version of a resource curse: something generating oodles of money for a tiny group of people, often foreign, yet whose demands distort the rest of the economy. Sure, Britain has iPads and broadband – but it also has oversubscribed foodbanks.

And the concept of the working poor that has dominated political debate since the crash is also something straight out of development textbooks.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen defined development as “the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency”. Yet when it comes to social mobility, Britain now has the worst record of all advanced countries – and will soon be overtaken by the newly rich countries of east Asia. And it’s when wealth is concentrated in too few hands that the forces of law and order get used as a militia for the elite – and peaceful dissent gets stamped upon. That’s why police are now a presence on our business-friendly university campuses; it also explains why Theresa May had the front to try to deport Trenton Oldfield for disrupting a student rowing competition (sorry, the Boat Race). This isn’t a sub-Rhodesian moan about Britain going to the dogs. But as my colleague Larry Elliott said in his most recent book, Going South, the sooner we puncture our own complacency at having created a rich economy for the few, and think of ourselves as in dire need of a proper economic development plan, the better. Otherwise, we’re well set to corner the world market in pig semen . The United Kingdom of spoink.

Democracy is the enemy

By Slavoj Zizek 


The protests on Wall Street and at St Paul’s Cathedral are similar, Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post, ‘in their lack of focus, in their inchoate nature, and above all in their refusal to engage with existing democratic institutions’.

‘Unlike the Egyptians in Tahrir Square,’ she went on, ‘to whom the London and New York protesters openly (and ridiculously) compare themselves, we have democratic institutions.’

Once you have reduced the Tahrir Square protests to a call for Western-style democracy, as Applebaum does, of course it becomes ridiculous to compare the Wall Street protests with the events in Egypt: how can protesters in the West demand what they already have? What she blocks from view is the possibility of a general discontent with the global capitalist system which takes on different forms here or there.

‘Yet in one sense,’ she conceded, ‘the international Occupy movement’s failure to produce sound legislative proposals is understandable: both the sources of the global economic crisis and the solutions to it lie, by definition, outside the competence of local and national politicians.’ She is forced to the conclusion that ‘globalisation has clearly begun to undermine the legitimacy of Western democracies.’ This is precisely what the protesters are drawing attention to: that global capitalism undermines democracy.The logical further conclusion is that we should start thinking about how to expand democracy beyond its current form, based on multi-party nation-states, which has proved incapable of managing the destructive consequences of economic life. Instead of making this step, however, Applebaum shifts the blame onto the protesters themselves for raising these issues: ‘Global’ activists, if they are not careful, will accelerate that decline. Protesters in London shout: ‘We need to have a process!’ Well, they already have a process: it’s called the British political system. And if they don’t figure out how to use it, they’ll simply weaken it further.

So, Applebaum’s argument appears to be that since the global economy is outside the scope of democratic politics, any attempt to expand democracy to manage it will accelerate the decline of democracy. What, then, are we supposed to do? Continue engaging, it seems, in a political system which, according to her own account, cannot do the job.

There is no shortage of anti-capitalist critique at the moment: we are awash with stories about the companies ruthlessly polluting our environment, the bankers raking in fat bonuses while their banks are saved by public money, the sweatshops where children work overtime making cheap clothes for high-street outlets. There is a catch, however. The assumption is that the fight against these excesses should take place in the familiar liberal-democratic frame.The (explicit or implied) goal is to democratise capitalism, to extend democratic control over the global economy, through the pressure of media exposure, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, police investigations etc. What goes unquestioned is the institutional framework of the bourgeois democratic state. This remains sacrosanct even in the most radical forms of ‘ethical anti-capitalism’ – the Porto Allegre forum, the Seattle movement and so on.

Here, Marx’s key insight remains as pertinent today as it ever was: the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere – i.e. in such things as free elections, an independent judiciary, a free press, respect for human rights. Real freedom resides in the ‘apolitical’ network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed in order to make improvements is not political reform, but a change in the social relations of production. We do not vote concerning who owns what, or about the relations between workers in a factory. Such things are left to processes outside the sphere of the political, and it is an illusion that one can change them by ‘extending’ democracy: say, by setting up ‘democratic’ banks under the people’s control. Radical changes in this domain should be made outside the sphere of such democratic devices as legal rights etc. They have a positive role to play, of course, but it must be borne in mind that democratic mechanisms are part of a bourgeois-state apparatus that is designed to ensure the undisturbed functioning of capitalist reproduction. Badiou was right to say that the name of the ultimate enemy today is not capitalism, empire, exploitation or anything of the kind, but democracy: it is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as the only legitimate means of change, which prevents a genuine transformation in capitalist relations.

The Wall Street protests are just a beginning, but one has to begin this way, with a formal gesture of rejection which is more important than its positive content, for only such a gesture can open up the space for new content. So we should not be distracted by the question: ‘But what do you want?’ This is the question addressed by male authority to the hysterical woman: ‘All your whining and complaining – do you have any idea what you really want?’ In psychoanalytic terms, the protests are a hysterical outburst that provokes the master, undermining his authority, and the master’s question – ‘But what do you want?’ – disguises its subtext: ‘Answer me in my own terms or shut up!’ So far, the protesters have done well to avoid exposing themselves to the criticism that Lacan levelled at the students of 1968: ‘As revolutionaries, you are hysterics who demand a new master. You will get one.’ 

The [R]evolutionary City

by Nathan Mahaffey

ABSTRACT: Understanding the city requires understanding its processes of development. This essay stirs a dialectical exploration between social processes of ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’.  The objective is to question through which types of processes can the city be shaped by its inhabitants. 



This essay will explore ‘what makes a good city’ and seek to understand the role that informality has to play in the ‘evolution’ rather than ‘revolution’ of the city. Daniel Quinn’s book Beyond Civilization will provide the conceptual framework to analyse relevant literature. This radical, yet simple book takes a broad view of the past failures of civilization, why we are still stuck in the same cycles, and proposes an alternative vision for the future. The use of this book will serve two purposes: first, to connect and compare other critical texts, but also to test the validity of the book itself. The essay is structured based on the outline of the book, beginning with an examination of the past problems and processes that have brought us to the current state of ‘civilization’. The following sections will explore the value of a shift from revolution (against hierarchy) to evolution (of informal processes). Finally the essay will question through which type of processes people can create ‘a good city’. Rather than answer what a good city is, we will focus more on how a good city is made. Although the essay will seek to find contradictions between Beyond Civilization and the cited material it is the intention to endorse the view that the creation of ‘the good city’ would only be possible after a departure from the current hierarchical model of ‘development’.

Closing in on the Problem


A fable to start with: Once upon a time life evolved on a certain planet, bringing forth many different social organizations… One species whose members were unusually intelligent developed a unique social organization called a tribe [which] worked well for them for millions of years, but there came a time when they decided to experiment with a new social organization (called civilization) that was hierarchal rather than tribal. Before long, those at the top of the hierarchy were living in great luxury…But the masses living at the bottom of the hierarchy didn’t like it at all (Quinn 1999, p. 3).

 This hierarchal social organization that Quinn generally describes as ‘civilization’ has changed over time, but has not arrived at an equitable solution to Quinn’s problem. Here, we need to look more closely at the current forces that act upon contemporary cities. David Harvey (2005) describes the current neoliberal forces as a hierarchical or institutional framework of deregulation and privatization, preserved by the state, which is to blame for much “creative destruction (…) of prior institutional frameworks and powers” (ibid., p.3). This view relates to Quinn’s appraisal of the fact that previously successful methods of civilization have been thrown out in favor of a system that promotes inequality.

Despite efforts to fix or improve this hierarchical system it remains one that benefits a small percentage of the population at the expense of the majority. Richard Peet and Elaine Hartwick (2009) claim that “the currently reigning neoliberal model of development does not fit all circumstances” further elaborating that “capitalist modernization leaves 200 million people in poverty at the very heart of modernity, in the so-called advanced countries! This statistic shows the social implausibility and ethical irresponsibility of being satisfied with the existing model” (Peet & Hartwick 2009, p. 278). Where Peet and Hartwick (2009) propose that this resultant inequality is intentional, Gilbert Rist believes it to be the consequence of a long process of ‘development’ and “therefore pointless to imagine a kind of universal ‘counter-plan’ that would lead to ‘good development’” (Rist 2006, p. 93). According to this logic, rather than thinking of a ‘counter-plan’ we should be thinking of an ‘alternative’.


Old minds think:

If it didn’t work last year,

let’s do MORE of it this year.


New minds think:

If it didn’t work last year,

let’s do something ELSE this year

(Quinn 1999, p. 9)


Closing in on the Process

Programs are sticks planted in the mud of a river to impede its flow. The sticks do impede the flow. A little. But they never stop the flow, and they never turn the river aside…Programs never stop the things they’re launched to stop. No program has ever stopped poverty, drug abuse, or crime, and no program ever will stop them (Quinn 1999, p. 7).

The problem with programs (or ‘planning’) as Quinn (1999) defines them, is that when they fail, they are continuously redesigned without ever solving the problem for which they were created. “When these new programs fail (as they invariably do), this is blamed on poor design, lack of funds and staff, bad management, and inadequate training” (Quinn 1999, p. 9). Rist (2006) similarly discredits this paradigm for ‘development’ as trying to fix planning failures with more planning. Despite the seemingly obvious need for change we still see that the “dominance of the prevailing neoliberal optimism that crises in the global economy [leads] only to purified, slightly more ‘liberal,’ versions of the same modernization approach” (Peet & Hartwick 2009, p. 278).

Historically, planning has aligned itself with technocratic interventions and solutions to problems. Leonie Sandercock (2003) describes old models of planning that emphasize an engineering mindset of rational decision-making that create ‘blueprints for the future’ and states, “While means-ends rationality may still be a useful concept for tasks like building bridges and dams, we also need a different, substantial rationality that focuses on debating values and goals. Rather than being technically based, this is a more communicative and value-driven rationality with a greater and more explicit reliance on practical wisdom” (Sandercock 2003, p. 209). The common failures of planning suggest that, rather than re-thinking and re-calibrating the same processes of development, an entirely different paradigm is needed.


Walking Away from the Pyramid

Our history is full of underclass insurrections, revolts, rebellions, riots, and revolutions, but not a single one has ever ended with people just walking away” (Quinn 1999, p. 45).

Quinn (1999) describes that our history (agricultural revolution to present) is full of ‘pyramid builders’, whether those of the Pharaohs of Egypt or the present day builders of capitalist corporations. “Karl Marx recognized that workers without a choice are workers in chains. But his idea of breaking chains was for us to depose the pharaohs and then build the pyramids for ourselves, as if building pyramids is something we just can’t stop doing” (Quinn 1999, p. 52).

In The Urban Revolution Henri Lefebvre began “with the following hypothesis: Society has been completely urbanized. This hypothesis implies a definition: An urban society is a society that results from a process of complete urbanization” (Lefebvre 2003, p. 1). Here when we refer to the notion of ‘the city’ we will “look beyond the ‘city,’ to encompass an entire way of being, thinking and acting. Urban society is not just in the ‘city,’ it is in and of all of society. The urban is a ‘totality,’ (Ruppert 2003, p. 1). To identify the city as a ‘totality’ is appropriate to relate to Daniel Quinn’s (1999) notion of ‘civilization’.

Here we begin to experiment with the idea of a people-centred movement of shaping the city. However, rather than seeking revolution (against hierarchy), we seek evolution (of Lefebvre’s urban social). This distinction helps avoid Quinn’s notion of ‘pyramid builders’, or revolting against hierarchy only to rebuild in our own image. In Lefebvre’s (2003) example of revolutions in Russian society, he notes that the outcome was a rebuilding of new structural systems. The problem was that the “superstructures produced by revolutionary genius collapsed on top of a base (peasant, backward) that had been badly or inadequately modified (…) Architectural and urbanist thought cannot arise from thought or theory alone (urbanistic, sociological, economic)” (Lefebvre 2003, p. 184). This stands as an example of the cyclical nature of revolution to destroy and re-create the same pyramids or hierarchy ad infinitum. It also highlights the need for evolution of the urban social, to support newly created social structures.

Lefebvre (2003) questioned why there has not been a more active role by the people in shaping the city, the people who have to live with the outcome of projects, strategies and policies. He believed that their involvement could have a significant impact on these outcomes. He acknowledged that there have been reoccurring attempts, “but there has been no trace of any political movement—that is, the politicization of the problems and objectives of ‘construction’” (Lefebvre 2003, pp. 181-182). An ideology of participation can be problematic. “We have a long history of delegating our interests to our representatives. Political representatives have not always played their part, and sometimes their part has been eliminated” (ibid., p. 187-188). The hierarchical and economic forces that control the shaping of our cities have not been receptive to outside input, blocked by political forces that should be acting on our behalf.

 There exists another barrier between the input of the people and the forces that shape the city, the planners themselves. In further examination of the role of the people in the process, Lefebvre poses the additional question, “To whom should we delegate power and the representation of practical and social life?” (Lefebvre 2003, pp. 187-188). He argues that architects and urbanists, designing in a top-down fashion, “are convinced they have captured [the lived experience] even though they carry out their plans and projects within a second-order abstraction. They’ve shifted from lived experience to the abstract, project this abstraction back into lived experience” (ibid., pp. 182-183). Relinquishing power to representational decision makers, architects and planners systematically prevents the opportunity for the people to directly engage in this type of process.

 As Rem Koolhaas suggests, “Dissatisfaction with the contemporary city has not led to the development of a credible alternative; it has, on the contrary, inspired only more refined ways of articulating dissatisfaction” (Koolhaas 1995, p. 28). Rather than editing and perpetuating our current model of development, with the hope that one-day it will become what we want it to be, we should begin to create what we want now.


 Toward the New Tribalism

 The tribal life isn’t about spears and caves or about hunting and gathering. Hunting and gathering is a lifestyle, an occupation, a way of making a living. A tribe isn’t a particular occupation; it’s a social organization that facilitates making a living (Quinn 1999, p. 63).

Gilbert Rist claims that we must move beyond our current model of development and “the deep-rooted belief that economic growth can deliver social justice, the rational use of the environment, or human well-being” (Rist 2007, p. 485). As an alternative to conventional thinking about ‘development’, Post-structural theory claims that the notion of “development has become the source of many of the world’s problems rather than their solution. The idea of postdevelopmentalism instead is to obliterate developmentalism to create room for social movements to find their own models of change” (Peet & Hartwick 2009, p. 279). Koolhaas describes this a different way, that “it will not be about the civilized, but about underdevelopment” (Koolhaas 1995, p. 29).

Quinn (1999) believes that an overthrow or revolt isn’t actually necessary and can be counterproductive since hierarchy has integrated defences against this. Furthermore he suggests that we aren’t ready to abandon its services to basic infrastructure. Ananya Roy poses a similar question about this relationship between uprising and institutionalization, “Will rebellious citizenship ensure the right to the production of space for the urban poor or will it leave them without access to the infrastructure of populist mediation and its regulated entitlements?” (Roy 2009, p. 176). It is important to note that sudden, disruptive rebellion can potentially be self-destructive. Quinn (1999) suggests that incremental evolution that is ‘focused on achieving a goal’ is better than revolution against ‘the thing that you do not want’.

 The New Tribal Revolution

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete (Buckminster Fuller).

Lefebvre (1996) believed that people have the inherent ability to shape the cities in which they live, “Urban dwellers carry the urban with them, even if they do not bring planning with them!” clarifying that his phrase The Right to the City is not merely the right to access or visit the city, but rather must “be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life” (Lefebvre 1996, p. 158). Expanding on this idea, David Harvey adds “it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right, since reinventing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the process of urbanization” (Harvey 2012, p. 4). Both Lefebvre and Harvey are speaking to the notion of people asserting their right to shape their environment; the question here is through which type of process can people shape ‘a good city’?

Harvey (2012) notes that different forms of organization are debated, such as ‘horizontality’ and ‘non-hierarchy’ or radical democracy. However, he believes these forms can only work at the small scale, rather than large scale of the city or larger metropolitan area. Quinn (1999) agrees that such a notion could not be a general solution at such a large geographical scale, but he frames his vision differently by offering that “Civilization isn’t a geographical territory, it’s a social and economic territory where pharaohs reign and pyramids are built by the masses. Similarly, beyond civilization isn’t a geographical territory, it’s a social and economic territory where people in open tribes pursue goals that may or may not be recognizably ‘civilized’” (Quinn 1999, p. 117). What are the possibilities, if we remove the limitation of thinking of the city in terms of its geographical scale, in favour of a social and economic territory as Quinn describes?

In this less conventional view of social and economic territory, one could begin to describe ‘tribal’ networks the way Deleuze and Guattari (2004) describe the ‘rhizome’. Rather than conceptualising the city as the ‘arborescent model’, centralised and systemic hierarchy, it could be rhizomatic to embrace multiplicity and diverse form.

The principal characteristics of a rhizome: unlike trees or their [systemic] roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature (…) A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree imposes the verb ‘to be,’ but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, ‘and…and…and…’” (Deleuze & Guattari 2004, pp. 23,27).

This open-process logic of connectivity allows for informality as a mode of organisation, rather than a negative by-product of a more systemic hierarchy. Relating this logic to Quinn’s idea of self-determined open tribes and their potential impact, this type of process could be more conducive to horizontal, participatory evolution of the city. The limits of hierarchy create a boundary, which leads to the creation of formal and informal—those inside the system and those outside the system. It creates unity or cohesion for those who fit inside the parameters, which inherently discourages diversity. This residual diversity automatically becomes ‘the informal’. The problem is that the informal people, who fall outside the system, are not contributing to the collective. As Harvey (2012) emphasised, changing the city requires a collective power. 


This essay has begun to examine the conflict between the desire to create a good city and the systems that seem to resist that possibility. The forces that shape development, and the planners who channel them, seem to be caught in a redundant loop of introverted self-correction rather than considering alternatives to development. We examined the potential of a slow evolution to empower people through Lefebvre’s (2003) notion of the ‘urban social’ and ‘the right to the city’ rather than abrupt revolution against hierarchy. Relating ‘the right to the city’ with Quinn’s vision of moving beyond our conventional models of development, we find that they both recognize people’s innate ability to shape their environment but are unable to effectively do so.

I would argue, given the multiplicity of forces competing to shape the city and it’s constant state of fluctuation, that the concept of ‘the good city’ should not be based on any fixed state. Rather, it should be founded on the degree to which informal or non-hierarchical processes allow the urban to be shaped by its inhabitants. In whatever form it may take, the process of creating a good city is not one that requires a periodic revolution against hierarchy, but one that allows for rhizomatic evolution without boundaries.



Deleuze, G & Guattari, F 2004, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Continuum, London.

Harvey, D 2005, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Harvey, D 2012, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, Verso Books, London.

Koolhaas, R 1995, ‘Whatever Happened to Urbanism?’, Design Quarterly, vol 164, no. Spring, pp. 28-31.

Lefebvre, H 1996, Writings on Cities, Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge.

Lefebvre, H 2003, The Urban Revolution, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Peet, R & Hartwick, ER 2009, ‘Part III Chapter 8: Critical Modernism and Democratic Development’, in Theories of development : contentions, arguments, alternatives, Guilford Press, New York; London.

Quinn, D 1999, Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure, Three Rivers Press, New York.

Rist, G 2006, ‘Before thinking about What Next: prerequisites for alternatives’, Development Dialogue, vol 1, no. 47, pp. 65-96.

Rist, G 2007, ‘Development as a Buzzword’, Development in Practice, vol Vol. 17, no. No. 4&5, pp. 485-491.

Roy, A 2009, ‘Civic governmentality: the politics of inclusion in Beirut and Mumbai’, Antipode, vol 41, no. 1, pp. 159-179.

Ruppert, ES 2003, Book Review: Henri Lefebvre. The Urban Revolution, viewed 6 November 2012, <>.

Sandercock, L 2003, Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities of the 21st Century, Continuum, London.


Greenwashing in Vauban

By Roxana Slavcheva



I would like to first of all thank the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning at UCL for awarding me the Sir Herbert Henry Bartlett travel award, which allowed me to visit Freiburg for the purpose of this investigation. Secondly, I thank Ani Gollas from the bottom of my heart for sparking my interest and providing me with foremost insight into this report’s topic, for welcoming me into her home, facilitating the logistics of my sojourn in Vauban and suggesting interviewee contacts whenever possible. I am grateful for the wonderful people I met while in Vauban and Freiburg and especially to my interviewees for their cooperativeness and professionalism. Lastly, I am very much indebted to my professors and colleagues at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit and my MSc program in Urban Economic Development. It is thanks to our studies, formal and informal discussions that I became deeply interested in the topic of this report and chose to pursue this interest further.



I set out to visit Vauban, the eco-district of Freiburg im Breisgau in southwestern Germany, with the intention to interview local residents. I was interested in why they settled in this green-minded, newly-built district and what sacrifices they may have to make to live there rather than in a non-eco residence. Vauban is cited in the literature and media as a model eco-neighborhood within the eco-city of Freiburg. I was curious to explore, however, the underlying cause for the eco-district to be planned, designed and inhabited in its current shape and form. Was Vauban’s attractiveness a result of employment opportunities located there, a heightened sense of safety, or was the primary pull factor the eco lifestyle imbedded in every aspect of daily routine? How often do Vauban residents go into town (Freiburg or other cities) and for what purpose – shopping, amenities? How often do they use a car and for what purpose – commuting to and back from work, commercial activities? Most importantly, I wanted to find out what they missed the most in Vauban and what they wished the district had more of. Did they feel like they were making any sacrifices living there? These questions were engraved in my mind since I had read Andrew Purvis’s critique published in The Guardian in 2008, questioning the viability of this often-cited example of environmental sustainability.

Nevertheless, Vauban residents in general did not feel comfortable speaking about their decision to live in the neighborhood. The impression was that they had already received requests for interviews by previous researchers and did not see the point in continuing to participate in others. They refused to be treated as subjects in a great experiment but wished to be left in peace to enjoy their consciously chosen lifestyle. Perhaps too many scholars have spent time studying, researching and critiquing a grassroots movement such as the Vauban bottom-up, participatory planning process without realizing that not every example can be replicated with the same result. Neither are its problems necessarily a result of the organizational structure but that outside factors matter too.

Green City Hotel Vauban

As a result of Vauban’s fame, its inhabitants have developed wariness towards researchers and journalists. Yet, in the process of conducting field research, I found a topic that touched the hearts of most residents in this small, tight-knit community. The following report discusses a recent building project, completed and opened in June 2013 in Vauban. With construction finished, Green City Hotel Vauban has been the center of controversy publicized by the local and national media, but without receiving international recognition. I set out to explore if accusations hold ground on whether the hotel deceives the public that it is indeed “green” by capitalizing on Freiburg’s reputation as a green city. This is a popular marketing tactic known as greenwashing, which Investopedia defines as the use of the term “green” to manipulate public opinion to support ecological initiatives or images but in reality operating “in a way that is damaging to the environment or in an opposite manner to the goal of the announced initiatives […] through misleading advertising and unsubstantiated claims”. Through interviews, the investigation led me to uncover the true causes for controversy in building this hotel in the Vauban eco-district.

Vauban has several housing co-operatives that look something like this one: Selbstorganisierte unabhängige Siedlungsinitiative (SUSI), July 2013



The co-operatives, and one in particular called SUSI, were central to Vauban’s design and development. Although several inhabitants and members of the SUSI office did not wish to be interviewed under the pretext that all information could be found on the organization’s website, one dweller (who preferred to remain anonymous) agreed to respond to inquiries via e-mail correspondence. The interviewee is an architect who lives at the housing co-operative SUSI for the duration of a six-month long internship. She admitted that she is not particularly involved in any activism but regularly attends social events organized by SUSI such as the SUSI jubilee and live music concerts in the co-operative’s café lobby. She dubbed SUSI “the heart of Vauban” and described it as “extremely important for the spirit and authenticity of the district”. The interviewee elaborated: “It is where the development of the district started from and where ideas about sustainability, community and self-organization were able to grow in the first place. Nevertheless, SUSI is not entirely connected with Vauban, but is still an independent unit, an island within the district.”

She was not aware if and how the public was notified of the project for the building of Green City Hotel Vauban or whether it was first proposed with the support of the city administration. She underlined, however, that SUSI was not supportive of this project. As far as she knew, SUSI inhabitants enjoyed the open space previously provided in lieu of the current hotel building and would have preferred that either an appropriate alternative space was proposed for having what in German is called a “Wagenplatz”, an open trailer space in English, and/or that social housing buildings were built on the site currently occupied by the hotel. She admitted to never having heard of the hotel management having asked for public opinion or participation during the design and construction process. Previously, on the land where the hotel is currently located, there were community people illegally occupying the land and living in caravans, who were removed by the police. The interviewee referred to these as the “Rhino inhabitants”, who according to her and the local media resisted but were completely peaceful in their resistance. Yet, people from outside, who sympathized with the dislocated people, started riots by burning barricades and throwing paint bombs at the hotel’s façade, which according to the interviewee “was not at all in the sense of Rhino”. However, they did feel disappointed that the media only emphasized the violent part of the resistance in its reporting. After all, such news is much more sensational than civil disobedience or peaceful protests. She was not aware neither where the Rhino inhabitants went, nor whether they had been compensated. Neither was she aware of the usual process of dealing with such issues but commented that there was an impressive number of police officers removing the inhabitants of Rhino.

SUSI is located in immediate proximity – less than 50m – to a controversial, newly-built, three-star hotel, the Green City Hotel Vauban:


Green City Hotel Vauban’s lobby, July 2013


Green City Hotel Vauban’s façade with remnant paint bomb markings, July 2013


In their turn, staff members at the Green City Hotel Vauban were responsive and willing to partake in an improvised, short-notice interview. They seemed to take their PR aspect of the job seriously. They confirmed that plans for the project began three years ago, in 2011, with the name of the hotel Green City Hotel Vauban admittedly stemming from the character for which the area is famous. The interviewed Assistant to the Manager, Ms. Nadine Regel, stressed the uniqueness of the hotel in its dual emphasis on inclusion and ecology. By inclusion was meant the employment of handicapped or disabled staff. The ratio of disabled staff working at the hotel was 11 out of 19. All of the jobs were taken on by local people from Freiburg. However, only 3 out of the 49 rooms were wheelchair accessible. Since the hotel employed handicapped people, it has almost twice as many employees than a hotel this size normally does (around 10-11 employees according to Ms. Regel). Therefore, the hotel bore an additional cost to provide more salaries. The ecology aspect consisted of planting flowers and plants in pots placed on windows, expecting them to grow and provide insulation – warmth in the winter and coolness and shade in the summer. Moreover, the energy-saving aspect consisted mainly of having installed solar panels on the roof and water-cooling walls to avoid using air conditioning in the summer. Ms. Regel confirmed the hotel’s practice to encourage guests not to request to have their towels or sheets washed and changed every day. However, she clarified that if the guest preferred it, they would adhere to the “customer is always right” rule and change them every day. Car parking was also discouraged since there was limited possibility (12-14 spaces) in the area reserved next to the hotel which included a per diem parking tariff of 5€.

When questioned about the history of the hotel from its inception, design, construction, completion and everything in between, Ms. Regel was evasive, maintaining that she was a recent hire (since beginning of June 2013) and did not possess this knowledge. When pressed to name some hurdles the project may have faced, she mentioned that the architect hired for this hotel had no experience in building hotels before. The Assistant to the Manager did not know why the architect was hired in the first place then. Moreover, when questioned about the land’s use before the hotel plan, she stated that there had previously been people living there, though not on developed residential land, but in caravans and RVs without legal property rights to the land. Ms. Regel acknowledged that there were some “problems” with the previous albeit-illegal occupants of the land. She confirmed that there were protests but that overall the hotel would benefit local businesses by providing accommodation during big, popular events such as the famous Freiburg summer jazz festival.

When asked to comment on whether SUSI feels that the hotel is exploiting Vauban’s reputation of a green district and Freiburg’s of a green city, the first interviewee living at SUSI could not confirm the co-operative community’s previous accusations that that the hotel is involved in greenwashing. According to her, the main issue is that “housing is required in Freiburg and a hotel does not help solve this problem, that both the hotel and the housing units which have been built are expensive and large, so that only rich people will be able to afford them, while more and smaller units could have provided room to live for a broader range of and more people”. Moreover, she stressed that there has been criticism that the handicapped and disabled people employed at the hotel do not earn as much as non-handicapped employees. This does not support Ms. Regel’s aforementioned argument that the hotel incurs higher costs in salaries for hiring more people. Finally, she added, however, that she thought it was “good that the building has been done in an ecological manner”.

The question remains whether Green City Hotel Vauban strives to achieve a lower carbon output, reduced energy use and waste as it advertises vis-à-vis its name. Some hotels have encouraged eco-friendly behavior from their guests (e.g. not changing the sheets or towels every day in order to save on washing them up and wasting resources such as water and electricity) but as a whole do not have a reduced carbon impact or cancel this behavior by wasting in other ways. Those in favor of green marketing and greenwashing practices acknowledge this trend as a step in the right direction, better than not even attempting to care for the environment. Generally, at least the hotel is promoting an environmentally friendly way of life. This is in the interest not only of green activists but the entire human population. Furthermore, according to some defenders of the greenwashing trend, such superficial championing of eco causes and practices may actually cause a genuine reduction in damaging behaviors towards the environment. However, as a consumer or customer, one surely feels at least a bit cheated and offended by the greenwasher’s assumption that society is ill-informed, easily-manipulated and/or superficial, in the sense that they do not care enough for reducing their carbon footprint and leading a green lifestyle, but want to merely appear that way, mimicking the greenwasher’s behavior.

In Vauban’s case, the source of the problem – the reason why the heart of Vauban’s community is angered – is multifold. Firstly, the hotel’s construction encroached on land that was not vacant, although the displaced people did not own or claim any legal right to it. They were squatting, highly mobile and living in caravans so technically they could move onto another site. Yet, the community stepped in by organizing and standing up for these people who did not have rights and therefore their voice did not matter in legal terms. Secondly, the decision for the hotel’s construction came from the top, approved by urban planners and administration, but without participation from the civil society. This is a community priding itself in the participatory process of urban planning, coming together as a forum and designing its living space from the bottom up. Since people felt so strongly that the land should not be developed, because in their mind it was already occupied by their community members (albeit illegally), then the disappointment with the administration’s lack of support for the displaced is not surprising. Thirdly, as foreshadowed by the interviewed SUSI occupant, Vauban has more immediate and important issues at present that require creating affordable housing for those in need rather than erecting a building to house short-term eco-tourists. The question remains whether the city of Freiburg needs more hotels. There are plenty inside the city and even more around the popular hiking destination of the Black Forest to choose from.

Finally, the fourth reason is the hotel’s greenwashing practice of exploiting the city and the community’s reputation for private gains. This accusation is made apparent through the white banner hung on the SUSI building, mocking Vauban’s claim to fame and welcoming the visitor to “Greenwash-City”. The public seems to agree that using the “green’ adjective to describe the hotel is misleading and utilized only to advance the hotel’s monetizing aims. This is echoed especially in the local media, which stipulates that the hotel makes no mention of the fact that it has not been constructed to “Passivhaus” (passive house) standard of high energy efficiency and much less energy consumption. Although commercial buildings in the district are not required to be built to this standard according to the administration, this is not the case for new residential buildings in the eco-district (Forum Vauban). By omitting to state this fact, Green City Hotel Vauban overstates its commitment to the ecological aspect of its design and operation and thus misleads the public for private gains.

The banner hung on the SUSI building’s fence, July 2013



Nevertheless, its claim is that private gains are also social gains. By being an inclusive hotel, it empowers community members who normally may not have the opportunity to participate as full members of society. Moreover, people are encouraged to stay at the hotel in order to help the hotel help the handicapped. The model of hiring handicapped persons to empower them through job opportunities is not new but has been replicated in hotels all over Germany. One cannot help but ask then, if the hotel’s main attracting attribute is social inclusion, why not name it “Inclusive Hotel Vauban”? Is the “Green City” in the name just a way to acknowledge Vauban’s reputation but not to directly profit from it? The line is blurred especially since other commercial franchises in the district have avoided using the word “green” in their title perhaps precisely so that they do not fall into a greenwashing trap. 


Forum Vauban. Last accessed September 18, 2013. Available at

Investopedia. Greenwashing Definition. Last accessed September 18, 2013. Available at

Purvis, A. (2008). Is this the greenest city in the world? The Observer, Sunday 23 March, 2008. Last accessed September 18, 2013. Available at

Chile & the Socialist Internet – talks in London and Manchester

Progressive Geographies

Details of events in Manchester and London – as part of the Spring project.

The Socialist President Salvadore Allende was elected to power in Chile in 1970, and embarked upon a series of radical reforms to Chilean society and the economy. As an alternative to a Soviet style ‘centrally planned’ economy, Allende’s government instead looked for another route through which to replace the market.

At the heart of this strategy was Project Cybersyn, a prototype internet system designed to link together the needs of the economy via ‘central nervous system’. A radical experiment in grass-roots networking, Cybersyn aimed to directly involve workers at all levels of production and distribution in the organic management of the economy.

Speaking at this event will be Nathan Coombs (Research Fellow at Edinburgh University) who will be speaking on the technological potentials of economic planning. Alongside him will be former Director of Project Cybersyn Raul…

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