The endless ordeals of urban experiments

Guest post:

AbdouMaliq Simone is an urbanist with particular interest in emerging forms of collective life across cities of the so-called Global South.  Simone is presently Research Professor at the University of South Australia, Visiting Professor of Sociology, Goldsmiths College, University of London and Visiting Professor of Urban Studies at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. and blog: villes-noires

AbdouMaliq - JakartaMuch has been expressed about both the necessities and failures of planning. Both necessities and failures come up as responses to experiments undertaken by all kinds of urban residents—i.e. was something well planned or not; or did it rely too heavily on the constrictions of particular formats or procedures. Whatever takes place in cities, there is seemingly no escape from such questions.

For, experimentation is an ordeal.  It is not frivolous.  It not only entails an expenditure of time and resources but usually has unanticipated implications for the experimenter. So things seldom go according to plan, but judgments about whether these experiments were “worth it or not” can’t be made according to how much they adhered to “the plan.”   Cities are of course full of judgments; this is an inevitable aspect of residents deciding what to pay attention to in an environment full of things to pay attention to and what, in a multitude of performances, is important to imitate, complement, or set oneself off from.  Judgments in this instance are not about the moral validity of particular actions or persons but rather a sorting device, a way of prioritizing ways of doing things that help residents orient themselves to the complexity of urban life.

Of course, judgments can turn into harsh, sometimes debilitating constraints.  They can turn into punitive actions against others whereby stringent conditions are established for the continuity of relationships.  They are used to expel, abolish, and destroy. So the willingness of residents to suspend and avoid judgment has been a critical aspect of the capacity of residents to experiment, to piece together the various materials and forces circulating around and through them in different ways.  Importantly, such suspension also provides a space for failure.  For it was likely that many initiatives and trials would go nowhere, produce little.  For lives where the sheer pleasure of curiosity often had to be tempered with the demands of efficacy, of making and sustaining viable livelihoods, the productivity of failure could be limited, prompting exasperation and plenty of incentives to simply adhere to the prevailing standards of propriety, to go along with whatever plan made sense at the time. But in actuality, because so many residents failed so often, failure did not necessarily rule out continuous attempts to try even more outlandish initiatives.

This sense of trying often knows no particular objective or end point.  But this doesn’t mean that “planning” is not taking place.  In the following example I offer, the residents will always say that things are going according to plan.  Tanah Sereal is an intensely mixed district of all kinds of people and activities in the central core of Jakarta.  In one section of the district, residents living along two parallel roads, and the winding pathways that crisscross in the spaces behind them, have been putting up a building for the past several years.  Almost the length of a football field and now five stories high, it is a rudimentary construction, slowly being assembled by mostly voluntary labor as the contributions come in.

Some contribution are financial, but mostly are in-kind, i.e. materials, labor, and political connections to keep the project going.  It is a project that inevitably violates some codes, still residents are serious about it being viably occupied.  The building has walls, interior floors, and the surface encasement is almost finished.  But it remains to be seen what it will be used for.  Individual residents have no shortage of ideas for possible uses, and everyone agrees that it should not be a rooming house to accommodate workers, as residents already have turned part of their homes into this function.  Everyone agrees that the building should not be divided into individual apartments assigned to each of the residents that have participated in the project.

The headaches entailed in assessing the relative monetary value of different kinds of contributions, assigning volumes of space according to the quantity of assistance contributed, or simply dividing up the space equally for all contributing residents are viewed as enormous.  In addition, there are no clear ideas about what would constitute the end of the project, at what point the construction will be over.  There have been discussions about different scales and temporalities of completion, about assigning specific uses now and getting them ready to be actualized and leaving other parts of the building more open-ended, whose use would be worked out later.  There is also recognition that, at some point soon, construction will have to come to end given the structural vulnerabilities that come when buildings are not used. The conundrum brings out various displays of local power figures, who all want to declare the “defining moment”, but each instance tends to reveal an impoverishment of imagination which seems to act as an incentive for residents to keep on building.

As the construction process usually proceeds at a snail’s pace anyway, the act of continuance does not hurry any irreversible horizon.  Discussions remain open, as the building operates more as an occasion for an insistent exploration of options and next moves most of which never materialize but find a way to the table.  In this way the building is a technical operation that connects residents to a series of ongoing potentialities.  Its actualization may mean that residents have to narrow their range of options, but actualization does appear immanent, and will then raise another set of conundrum and possibilities. And instigate yet still another plan.