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Richard Sennett: It’s all in the telling

Tim Abrahams

At times vague and with uncertain aims, the UN consultant's new book is nonetheless a hugely entertaining read, says Tim Abrahams

An open space today. Nehru Place in Delhi is used by pavement dwellers, hawkers of stolen electronics and sari sellers, its sides lined by start up firms
An open space today. Nehru Place in Delhi is used by pavement dwellers, hawkers of stolen electronics and sari sellers, its sides lined by start up firms

One of the most overused statistics is the one first included in the UN’s World Urbanization Prospects Report in 2007 and repeated ad nauseum since. It states that 50% of the world’s inhabitants now live in cities. Of debatable veracity let alone value, one of its major uses has been for think tanks to coax money out of corporate sponsors and to locate planning expertise within an international network of such city-focused institutions rather than at a national level. Perhaps inadvertently the writer and sociologist Richard Sennett, professor on the London School of Economics Cities course and UN consultant, has become an unlikely ideologue at the heart of one of these extended networks.

Sennett’s latest book is intended to be an overview of his time as a consultant planner, although – he is 75 – it has a certain valedictory quality. It as if one of the best writers on the process of making cities had been asked to write a memoir but once started couldn’t resist returning to the issues that have plagued him over the years. The book begins with a promising opening treatise on the difference between the city as a built entity and as a series of customs, impression and indefinable qualities. Sennett calls these two modes the ville and the cité and gives a typically erudite history of the terms’ evolution, and the ways in which they have interplayed, by way of some of his favourite thinkers: Weber and De Tocqueville in particular. 

Following that things get murkier. Sennett gives us a short list of how to accommodate the cité and the ville in planning a city. This is done by way of some admirable but vague guidance to planners: encourage co-production and ensure that you have devised an exit strategy so ownership is taken over by citizens. Mainly though it is observations. He notes the climate of suspicion that arose between Muslims and Jews following the Hatton Garden robberies in the area near his London home and the importance of simple civilities in how community tensions can be eradicated. Though too much a stoic to talk about himself, Sennett largely attempts to marry a lifetime of reading, writing and thinking to his later consultancy work which takes him to developing cities such as Medellin, Shanghai and Delhi.

For all we know Sennett’s work may have had extraordinary impact in these places but as meat for his writing his experiences are meagre. He is left grasping at fleeting moments such as a snatched chat with a vendor in Delhi who sells him a dud iPhone. In Sennett’s hands the experience is still grist for incisive observation, laconically delivered but not the basis for drawing out universal truths – as say his research in the suburbs of Chicago and Boston were in his 1970 Uses of Disorder. Lacking too is any real idea of how to address current problems. As the geographer Ali Modarres has shown, the suburbs which Sennett still sees as places of stasis and control are, in the USA at least, now more ethnically and economically diverse than the increasingly homogenous city centres he once championed as spaces of exchange.  

Still, partly because Sennett’s prose is so enjoyable to read – it sparkles with literary references and allusion – the suspicion lingers that he is simply a much better writer than planner. If so his diversion back into planning is another crime we can lay at Jane Jacobs’ door. Sennett says he was goaded into practical work by Jacobs, with whom he disagreed but on amicable, boozy terms. In one memorable episode, he describes this advocate of localism in self-imposed exile in Toronto after her political fights in New York had left her ostracised. She turns to him in a bar and says: ‘Well, what would you do?’ Write great books might have been a better reply than flying around the world at the behest of the UN.  

Even if the argument is unconvincing or trivial, Sennett still builds it brilliantly, with humane observations and unusual but informative intellectual authority piled one after another in a process of dialectic reasoning. Jacobs in her exile is not just a story for rich colour but an image to contrast against his one-time teacher Hannah Arendt – a trenchant proponent of the cosmopolitan – who in turn seemed occasionally alienated despite her advocacy of universalism. ‘Certain signs of being absent, perhaps distressed, escaped Arendt. These appeared in the moments when she caught herself up short, withdrawing into silence after lapsing back into German,’ writes Sennett. It is a lovely detail.

As David Goodhart has intimated, this desire to be both somewhere and anywhere is the true dilemma of our age, and to be fair to Sennett, despite the shortcomings of this book, he grasps this better than most. 

Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the city by Richard Sennett is published by Allen Lane, £25.00