April 14, 2013

NCR-09 [Economy]: The Still Alternative

From the pages of the 9th issue of the New City Raeder comes a text by Vincent Schipper, one of the founders of (Monnik)

In the midst of this recession, we are bombarded with facts and figures of decreased growth and rapid declines. We are repeatedly reminded that growth is our only salvation. Anything else would mean financial meltdown, literally the end of all things good. But let us consider a possibility where this is not the case.
Still•ness (adjective) — a dynamic and innovative culture that is not based on growth. It can be understood as a sustainable and inclusive society. A still society is a society that has left behind the more negative connotations of the notion of growth, and has established post-expansion, post-depletion and post-exploitation values and practices. These values and practices may already be present.

Markets, finance, and economics make up the frame through which most of humankind looks at the world. Within this world of surplus exchange, growth is all that is holy. Even the Papal authority would bemoan a slowing in its flock’s growth. We have come to this point of luxury, dependency, and polarisation through the pursuit of constant and ever accelerated growth. Certainly, no one would say that times have not been flush. Yet can this same growth, this modern paradigm, continue or even sustain itself? This frame has led to undeniably amoral activities in the past, and now humankind has led the world into an uncertain future. So the quick answer is, “No.” In 1972, the Club of Rome stated that there is a limit to growth, and we seem to be creeping ever closer to that limit. Though growth has been and continues to be the dominating paradigm of the modern condition, there must be an alternative paradigm. Since 1972, statements have been made, and thoughts visualised, hinting at an imagined world beyond the growth paradigm. None have been able to provide a truly alternative future—one that is no longer pinned to growths or shrinkages. This is why we propose “Still” as an alternative paradigm, and when applied, the Still City.

Every city is an agglomeration of contradictions, dynamics, and imagination. The development of the modern city has been thoroughly inspired and (one could even say) created by the emergence of the growth paradigm. When the giants of industrial capital began to tumble and rust away, however, the city itself started showing signs of a nascent alternative. In the case of Detroit, amongst a plethora of other mono-industrial cities, shrinkage was the term of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Yet these frames cater neither to the economic and demographic realities we see today, nor to those predicted by the Club of Rome in 1972. The city has become the home for the majority of humankind, and the cities that continue to swell to immense size are far more complicated than the shrinking cities of coal production or the auto industry. The Still City, in itself, represents the complexity inherent in the megalopolis of today and tomorrow. Though the growing population continues to urbanise, there will inevitably come a limit. Understanding this limit, and what that limit means for social transformation and cultural formation, reveals the intricacy of this alternative paradigm.

There are cities all around the world that exhibit tendencies of the Still City, from New York with its aging economy to Hong Kong with its physical limits to horizontal urban expansion. However, no city presents a better example at the moment than Tokyo. In some ways the Still City’s muse, it exhibits the main signifiers of being in Stillness: its economy has seen little to no growth over the last two decades, its rate of population increase has come nearly to a halt, and its urban development seems to have reached its outer limits—what we call the maximum sprawl size, determined by the basic idea that no one wants to commute to work for more hours than they are able to work.

Imagine a greater metropolitan area of 13,555.56 square kilometres with a population of 35.6 million. Or, more succinctly, visualise the great grey blimp, as seen from space when looking at the eastern coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu. However, Tokyo is not only a muse for the Still City because it exhibits the basic elements of a state of stillness. Rather, Tokyo inspires because it fundamentally complicates the idea of stillness. When one looks at Tokyo there are two images, two faces that vie for attention—the macro-state of stillness exemplified by post-growth and post-development and the micro-state of stillness that shows a unique vibrancy, dynamism and contradiction. What does it mean? Where can it take us?

When you put this Still City under the microscope, you see exactly what a city is—a bustling network of individuals and environment relating and sometimes working intimately together. It is far more organic than programmed, more Metabolist than data-aggregated. In fact, the city consists not of statistical spreadsheets but of the collection of each individual’s interaction with another, with infrastructure, with the air, and even with the self on a daily basis. Thus we may say that, though Tokyo is huge, at times overwhelmingly so, it is also small, at times even miniature. The foundation of its economy is comprised of small- to medium-sized business. Political change erupts with collective social trauma, and individual imaginations dominate the streetscape—even if most houses are picked from catalogues. The Still City is thus not actually “still”; the stillness of the city is in its relation to growth. Stillness, in effect, demonstrates the very impotence of growth, which can only be seen playing out on a macro-scale.

It is clear that there is no real need for the continuous explosive growth demanded by today’s market and capital system. Considering what a city is, we have been programmed to think that a city is only the physical icon of mass production and technological innovation, the increased consumer luxuries of high-end fashion brands and fast cars, or even the acquisition of larger living spaces beyond what is necessary. This is the city of growth; its antecedent and only alternative is the city of desperation, best associated with urban scenes from nations ravaged by hunger or war. In order to even begin to imagine a viable future city, our first task is to disassociate the city from growth, even if it was begotten by it. With Tokyo as an example, the Still City presents such an alternative; now we must push forth and begin imagining, fantasising, and creating this new condition. It is no longer about, bigger, faster and cheaper. We must collectively weave new narratives that look at our present so that we may have a more individual, sustained and real future.

Monnik is a cultural research collective made up of the independent practices of Edwin Gardner, Christiaan Fruneaux and Vincent Schipper, who have just launched the Still City Project with an international workshop in Tokyo looking for signs of what the Still City could mean


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