Anique Hommels, Unbuilding Cities: Obduracy in Urban Socio-Technical Change. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005.
While sharing a common intellectual genealogy, the contemporary disciplines of science and technology studies (STS) and urban studies have followed divergent paths of development, and flourished in largely separated academic compartments. Anique Hommels’ Unbuilding the City argues for the complementarity of the approaches of STS and urban studies in explaining the phenomenon of urban “obduracy” and strategies for “unbuilding” the city. Linking together the concepts drawn from actor-network theory and constructivist studies of socio-technical change, the book contains three case studies of postwar urban development in the Dutch cities of Utrecht, Maastricht and Amsterdam.
How can we understand urban structures as more than simple technical or physical artifacts? How can we explain the history of cities and their power relations as socio-technical ensembles? Does the urban built environment embed the tacit knowledge of its original planners and builders, such that their norms and values continue to shape the relations of city-dwellers in subsequent generations? In a well-known essay on the question “do artifacts have politics?”, Langdon Winner has cited the example of the low-lying bridges designed by planner Robert Moses in New York, whose passages were too low to permit movement by public buses between the freeways and beaches of Long Island. Moses’ bridges prevented access to these elite white spaces of recreation by inner-city black populations, thus inscribing a permanent spatial discrimination into the design of seemingly apolitical technical artifact.
Urban structures are quite literally path-dependent, in that once they are built, they become a deep structure both underlying and directing the activities of subsequent generations. The built environment of cities both constrains and enables the activities and lives of its inhabitants and users, channeling and directing people into abstract patterns of residence, exchange and transport on the one hand, while the social spaces of the neighbourhood, market and transit hubs provide resources for social organisation and reproduction on the other hand.
However, the urban fabric is itself subject to negotiation and contestation through business-entrepreneurial projects of profit-making and asset-stripping through spatial restructuring, social movements of citizens to protect and expand the rights to collective consumption and social reproduction, and state initiatives aimed at environmental protection and social engineering through the planning and design of public spaces and infrastructure. It is in this context that the urban built environment as socio-technical ensemble exercises its peculiar structuring effects on technological development, politics and everyday life in the city. Artifacts become instruments of power while power relations are materialised in artifacts (Winner; cf. Bijker, 4).