Greater urbanism, the focus of the latest issue of MONU magazine, is a term aiming to describe urban phenomena and strategies associated with cities expanding their territories (“greater” as bigger and more complex); and/or increasing their economic or symbolic power (“Greater” as grander). Revisiting the magazine’s rich content, profiled in Screen/Print #6, this review, by Petros Phokaides, Loukas Triantis and Iris Polyzos, aims to offer critical insights on some of the challenges faced by urbanism today, and a quick reflection on current dynamics/discussions on the future of cities.
Greater as speculative, neoliberal urbanism
The need to keep pace with global dynamics has pushed cities in the last decades, even more, towards structural changes and the adoption of urban strategies driven by neoliberal doctrines. After all, the 21st century has seen the collapse of real estate bubbles related to housing in cities of Southern Europe, the US and China, while real estate and the acquisition of land in general has become a crucial sector of the world economy. As Christopher Marcinkoski underlined in his article for MONU, echoing a critique pronounced by David Harvey and other radical geographers: “urbanization itself has become a, if not the, preferred instrument of economic production." The formation of speculative neoliberal urbanism has given rise to processes of privatization; commercialization of public urban space and social restructuring are becoming common in many cities. In Athens, as our article stresses, crisis has expedited the application of neoliberal policies, including austerity measures, privatization and deregulation, by the local government under the guidance of European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Extreme austerity measures have not contained, but have perhaps even accelerated the urban and social decline of the city center.
The intensification of the speculative nature of urbanism becomes more obvious when one traces the genealogy of greater urban strategies throughout the 20th century. Reflecting on cities' past, in such cases as Athens, Lille, Helsinki, Moscow, Skopje, Warsaw, authors mention how modernist, progressive, socialist-driven visions and plans spoke of social equality, solidarity and cooperation, while focusing on public spaces and the quality of the built environment. Through this confrontation, the current absence of coherent visions and the shift in the ideological content are more than evident: cities call for competitiveness as they are struggling to position themselves in wider networks; become ‘global hubs’; attract population and capital investments; improve mobility and infrastructural development; brand themselves; and score well at various city rankings.
By comparing current and past visions, articles also uncover the even more complex role the past plays in current formulations of “greater” futures. For instance, Malgorzata Kuciewicz and Simone De Iacobis’s re-discovery of the 1930s CIAM plan of “Functional Warsaw” aims to “re-establish urban governance in a city [...] otherwise driven by speculative private interests.”
Whereas in the context of the Greater Moscow competition of 2012, discussed critically by Anton Ivanov, the Betonka Ring Road, a historic military infrastructure that was abandoned in the 1980s, was “rediscovered” not only for releasing the development potentials of the center and the periphery, but also as a way to legitimize the new visions.
As Ognen Marina shows, in the case of Skopje’s post-socialist urban restructuring the call to return to real or imaginary pasts promoted hollow notions of a “reinvention of identity”; resulting in the aesthetization of the city and the normalization of political agendas. In other cases, as Fabrizia Berlingieri and Manuela Triggianese illustrate in their article on Euralille, a disconnection with the past is taking place in absolute physical terms, through the development of a new dislocated center that repositions the city of Lille within the EU mobility networks. By contrast, the often-cited plan of Grand Paris by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners brings “green” principles together with a low-energy transport network, polycentric development and economic competitiveness, alongside “universal” values that claim to overpass ideological dichotomies of the past -- promoting instead new symbolisms or urban representations. Neoliberalism has ultimately pushed towards a planning approach that often subordinates the political to the economic. The most striking example cited by MONU, is the case of Singapore, which, as Calvin Chua explains, has become an exemplary city-state urban model, expressing economic pragmatism rather than political emancipation.
Greater as post-political urbanism
Urban strategies and large scale planning often rely on the use of “buzzwords” such as sustainability or resilience, and promote claims of political neutrality in order to target wider social consensus. Loaded with a post-political optimism, these strategies ignore or consciously mask the conflicted and contested nature behind shaping the urban environment, and the economic forces promoting and profiting from urban projects. This condition becomes even more complex as processes of decentralization and the quest for new modes of governance move cities toward multi-scale and multi-actor collaborations. In this context, as many contributors highlighted, the subsequent hollowing out of the central state may lead either to trends of (new) authoritarianism (such as Ognen Marina found in Moscow), and/or to non-state actors taking prominent positions in shaping urban agendas (like the involvement of the Church in Moscow, and the private beneficiary organizations in metropolitan projects in Athens).
At the same time, indications of new modes of political action are also evident. Athens’ small-scale groups are projecting their environmental or social claims on public space, proposing collective, alternative visions of urbanity, as Panos Dragonas underlines in his MONU contribution. Whereas in bankrupt Detroit, McLain Clutter presents how a network of megachurches on the city’s periphery shape nodes of centrality and collectivity. From a similar perspective, Hannah Hunt Moeller, analyses the formation of the Bolivian peri-urban space as a reflection of alternative practices of Greater Urbanism -- more “qualitative” and community based, while less regulated and formal.
Even in these cases, the participation of social groups in the formation of urban visions is still marginal, as “greater” visions are still largely based on top-down planning agendas, shaped by experts/planners, bureaucrats and the private sector.
If greater urbanism leaves no room for other than top-down approaches, how does one guarantee the representation of all social groups in the formulations of urban agendas? If we have already moved far away from the coherent state-driven visions of the past, who are going to take the responsibility for metropolitan scale plans that decisively shape cities? And how do these ambivalences play out in times of socio-economic crises and the bankruptcies of urban economies, when social inequalities intensify?
In return, should these challenges erode our confidence on large-scale planning and its capacity to address the complexity of cities, as multi-dimensional realities? Or should we just share Rikhard Manninen’s call for effective anti-sprawl strategies and Antoine Grumbach’s optimism to search new conceptualizations, strategies and “the tools to avoid catastrophic situations”? Should we then succumb to the neoliberal urbanism that is shaping current visions world-wide and “recalibrate” urban design disciplines “in order to subvert, inflect and influence formats of the city-building” as Christopher Marcinkoski proposes? Or, on the contrary, should we resist this post-political dream of “eventual enjoyment -‘Believe us and our designs will guarantee your enjoyment’” and instead practice a radical urbanism that “think(s) of the city as a process of collective codesign and coproduction”?
 Christopher Marcinkoski’s article is featured as part of Screen/Print #6. For David Harvey’s critique see: David Harvey, “The urbanization of capital,” in The Urban Experience. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, 17-58; and among others see Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore eds., Spaces of Neoliberalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003.
 Rikhard Manninen is the head of the Strategic Planning Division in the City Planning Department of Helsinki interviewed by Bernd Upmeyer. Antoine Grumbach a French architect and urban designer involved in the Grand Paris project and also winner of prizes in the Greater Moscow competition, that was also interviewd for Monu magazine by Bernd Upmeyer and Beatriz Ramo.
 Swyngedouw, Erik. Designing the post-political city and the insurgent polis. Bedford, 2011.
Petros Phokaides is an architect and a doctoral candidate at the School of Architecture, National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) in Greece. His historical and theoretical investigations on modern and contemporary architecture have been published in Docomomo Journal, Journal of Architecture ...