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Fear, space and urban planning: toward a political economy of urban fear

by Simone Tulumello on April 3, 2017

Some fifteen years ago, Leonie Sandercock made the case for the need to engage with what she dubbed the “political economies of urban fear”. Arguing that “planning and urban management discourses are, and always have been, saturated with fear”, she proposed to explore the connections between discourses of/around fear and micro-practices of urban planning. In a sense, Sandercock was advocating the creation of bridges between a line of inquiry that had been very fruitful for a decade in the field of planning research. Indeed, that fear can, and does, work as an instrument of accumulation was one ubiquitous, if often implicit, corollary of critical urban studies, such as Neil Smith’s work on gentrification and revanchist cities—which discussed how, in the USA, fear of the urban had been used as a trigger for reinvestment in city centres since the 1980s. Sandercock’s idea of bridging those perspectives with planning research had the potential to go beyond existing critiques of processes of urbanisation and explore how these are actually constructed in the day-to-day practice of urban administration and policy.

This potential remained however largely untapped in the following times, while critical urban studies faced the accelerating pace of transformation in places like New York, London or Los Angeles in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since then, critical accounts tended to focus on grand processes of militarisation, and particularly their versions in cities at the core of global capitalism. If a political economy of fear was to be studied and theorised, then, a cooperation of critical accounts of urbanisation with a pragmatic study of micro-politics of urban planning and policy in “ordinary” urban settings was the necessary further step.

This was the contribution I wished to bring with my PhD research, now published as a monograph entitled Fear, space and urban planning: A critical perspective from Southern Europe. My overall goal was to build a comprehensive, critical, exploratory theory of fear, space, and urban planning, unravelling the paradoxes of their mutual relations. I have thus built an exploratory framework to unravel the connections between three dimensions: (geo)politics and the (re)production of fear through political and media discourse; otherness and the dimensions of fear associated with the encounter in the urban space; and space, that is, the role of urban spatialities in pushing the encounter toward pleasures of fear. Three theoretical arguments stem at the intersection of such dimensions: the spatialisation of fear in urban production; the role of modernist spatialities in pushing the urban encounter toward fear; and the (neoliberal) political economies of urban fear.

The exploratory framework of Fear, Space and Urban Planning

My analytical strategy was to apply the theoretical arguments—inspired mostly by existing critical studies—in a Southern European context, to the two cities of Palermo (Italy) and Lisbon (Portugal). Southern Europe was the perfect context to theorise beyond existing studies. Being in the “South of the West”, so to speak, in a context at the periphery of the core of globalisation, Palermo and Lisbon have been experiencing extremely turbulent, if late, processes of neoliberalisation, polarisation and urbanisation. In Idalina Baptista’s words, they are places at the “borderlands” of urban theory. Moreover, global discourses about crime and terror have had much less impact on the national and local public debates—and this allowed me to explore different patterns in the production of mass anxiety and fear, balancing between global pressures and local relations of power. Particularly, I focused on two media campaigns about crime (and immigration), which had, in 2008, powerful effects over national politics—a shift toward repression of crime prevention policies and, moreover, in Italy, the campaign was among the causes of the fall of a centre-left government.

Together, the theoretical arguments and their empirical testing allowed me to elaborate a double set of conclusions. On one hand, if we focus on the grand processes of urban transformation, the power of fear in shaping planning, hence urban production, is evident also in Southern Europe. With Nan Ellin, “form follows fear”, in that neoliberal governmentalities have made large use of fear to redesign cities; but the opposite is also true, that “fear follows form”, especially when (modernist) urban planning aspires to shape the proper forms of social life. That is to say, fear follows form follows fear, and, in line with studies of urban geopolitics, we can agree that, ultimately, fear is a (potential and extant) instrument of reproduction of socioeconomic relations.

On the other hand, looking into the micro-practices of planning prompts us to be more cautious. Urban fear is more than a product of hegemonic governmentalities, this being more evident in cities less central to capitalist patterns of development. Fear is a complex (re)production made up of multiplex processes at the intersection of global trends and local practices, in between hegemonic pressures and urban resistances. At the same time, fear is capable of putting planning in crisis, in that its implications cannot be escaped—pace many technical approaches to urban planning. This also means that planning is an appropriate, and much needed, arena for coping with urban fear: Planners (and activists, and politicians, and intellectuals, among others) need to put fear at the top of their agenda, particularly at a time in which the attacks to the city as a place of democracy and encounter—which make large use of the rhetoric of fear—are everyday more powerful.

Simone Tulumello
Simone Tulumello is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Lisbon, Institute of Social Sciences. His research interests lie at the border between planning research and critical urban studies: urban security and safety; urban fear and planning; planning theory; urban futures; housing and neoliberal urban policy; the geography of crisis and austerity; cities of Southern Europe and Southern USA. Simone is author of Fear, Space and Urban Planning (Springer, 2017) and articles in journals including Urban Affairs Review, Journal of Planning Education and Research, Urban Geography, International Planning Studies, Space and Culture, Cadernos Metrópole, and Archivio di Studi Urbani e Regionali.

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