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Agoradynamics

By Bob Perry

During the suburbanisation of our cities the social complexion of the city has drifted further away from sharedpublic identity towards private, privatised and independent identities. We live in an era where the ‘self’ has assumed an almost cult status and individualism and privacy are valued more highly, and more widely, than ever before. 

If this is true, and leaves us vulnerable to dangers such as oil dependency, then we need to debate the form of our cities from fundamental perspectives that include our cultural beliefs and customs. Sociologist, Richard Sennett has written widely on this subject and has described important distinctions between the ‘private’ and the ‘public’ mindset, and how this has dramatically changed, in the west, since the 18th Century. 

Sennett describes 18th Century life, as an era when having a ‘public’ persona was an essential survival skill. Those who didn’t speak up in the marketplace and didn’t keep up with the marketplace were exploited. Dress was highly codified to assist in dealing with strangers. Coffeehouses acted as a public agora where ideas were exchanged, expertise was sold and expert services were promoted through printed leaflets prior to the advent of newspapers and later mass communication. Lloyds of London began as a coffeehouse. 

In 1852, Aristide Boucicault opened a retail store in Paris called Bon Marché. Horsedrawn streetcars along newly constructed boulevards enabled patronage from formerly insular arrondissements. With the rise of the department store the public realm as an active interchange began to give way to an experience of publicness more intense and less sociable. Sennett writes, “The store was based on three novel ideas. The markup on each item would be small, but the volume of goods sold large. The price of goods would be fixed, and plainly marked. Anyone could enter his shop and browse around, without feeling an obligation to buy.” So began, with fixed prices, shopping as a personal and passive activity. Sennett goes on to describe how this situation grew into one whereby the new passive role of the consumer enabled buyers to invest objects with personal meaning above and beyond their utility, as a boost to consumerism. Here is an interesting relationship between new urban transport systems and the beginnings of mass shopping and brand marketing. Further technologies and inventions took many decades to come before we adopted the supermarket and category killer formats of today. Clarence Saunders registered a patent for the ‘self-service store’ and, in 1916 opened his Piggly Wiggly store in Memphis Tennesee – the world’s first supermarket. It wasn’t until 1937 that the first supermarket trolley appeared and customers had to be trained to break old habits to use it.

Our current shopping habits, and with them our extremely privatized experience of the public domain, have a history stretching back a hundred and fifty years of technological innovation and manipulation. From carport to carpark and back to carport, we can now shop for all our essential needs without speaking to anyone.

During the same period we have taken most of the amenities that were once public, into our own private possession at home, including these days swimming pools, cinemas, espresso machines and commercial style kitchens.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that our carbon footprint is so large, with the entire historical amenity of a village built into each house. Is our ‘standard of living’ the baroque of consumption, curiously coupled with a peak in social insularity?

Most urban geographers, demographers and social commentators evaluate alternative urban forms in quantitative terms, such as density, and emphasise statistical data. Such analysis tends to isolate the housing.