The Disappearance of the State from “Livable” Urban Spaces

By Katherine B. Hankins and Emily M. Powers


“With 5,000 homes and any number of options
to choose from in Atlantic Station there is something
for every style, taste and pricerange for people
who want to be a part of the exciting residential life
in this incredible new community.”

“(…) In this paper, we argue two interrelated points. First, urban livability as a discourse that shapes development and planning activities needs to be taken seriously by geographers. Urban livability provides an opening to discuss not just planning and city-building but in fact the fundamental ability of different kinds of people to live in urban areas— the right to the city (Mitchell 2003) for not just the homeless but for the working class, the middle class, and the affluent, for people of color, for immigrants, for women, for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgendered individuals. This opening enables an interrogation of what that ability looks like and for whom. If we examine city spaces that are lauded as highly livable, we can get a sense of who is able to live and how. In our research, we examined a development that is nationally recognized as a model of urban livability (Shelton 2005). We were struck not necessarily by what Atlantic Station’s version of livability includes, such as townhomes, lofts, apartments, and singlefamily homes among manicured lawns, multinational chain stores, a dog park, and open green space, but by what it excludes: a school, a public square, a government building or institution of any kind (with the exception of the Atlanta police precinct office). In effect, there is little evidence of the state in this highly “livable” urban space. This
raises the important question of what the role of the state is in urban livability—both in terms of its role in creating or financing particular city improvement projects and in its very visibility. An extension of this inquiry is a consideration of what the material and immaterial presence of the state means for the state–citizen relationship in the era of neoliberalism.
Second, we recognize that we need not look for explicitly “government” buildings but that we can find the state in spaces of contestation and collective action. That is, we can find the state through the collection and assemblage of a public, through the attempt by groups to challenge or change their conditions. We can see the state vis-à-vis a conscious, political public. Indeed, the idea of a public or the public is quite complex and is defined in part by the participation of individuals in the social imaginary of something called the public (Iveson 2007; Warner 2002). This social imaginary of the public is part of “the abstract counterpart of public authority” that Habermas (2001 [1991]:23) identifies as emerging with the modern state and the creation of the “public sphere of civil society”. While the health or even possibility of the public sphere of civil society is debated (Fraser 1992; Schudson 1992), the social imaginary of a/the public clearly resonates in discourses about urban life (Iveson 2007; Mitchell 2003; Warner 2002). In essence, we are asking what kind of public is possible in contemporary, “livable” urban spaces.
Read full article at Antipode Vol. 41 No. 5 2009

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