Cities and Security: Matters of Everyday Relations

Cities throughout the world regardless of location have become fast-lane conduits of money being put into buildings and other infrastructure. Levels of such investments may be inadequate and vastly inappropriate in some cities. They overreach available consumption and markets in others, but generally make cities more proficient in coordinating the sheltering, transporting, powering, marketing, producing, networking and information that make them enhancers of value. This proficiency does not lessen the prolonged and even growing misery of large segments of urban populations. It does not mitigate the dangers of carbon footprints and resource depletion driven by the dependence on fossil fuels and the exorbitant sunk and recurring costs incurred by sprawl and segregation. It does not make employment more secure or improve working conditions. Despite all of this, contemporary urban infrastructure continues to convey a promise of a better and more secure life.

Still, this proficiency has been at the expense of disentangling intricate arrangements of residence, economy, place and materials of all kinds in dense environments where many things take place in close proximity of each other, exerting effects and pressures that could not always be anticipated, planned or rectified. As a result of such arrangements, available infrastructure in many cities may be overburdened, illicit activities may proliferate, and the intensive mixtures of different logics for making and trading things may be difficult to manage or hold accountable.

However, these mixtures have enabled people of different walks of life to find multiple venues and devices to feel connected to one another and affirm workable solidarities. These entanglements can implode because too much is expected of them in face of the attrition of public responsibility. Governments can actively undermine them when threatened by the particular identities of the people involved. Entanglements are also weakened by long histories of exploitation and marginalization. When this happens, the seemingly chaotic relations of the street and the markets become incubators of crime and insecurity. Certainly, in many parts of the world, urban residents must navigate the most minimal tasks with great fear regarding their personal safety.

The proficiencies of the city—its enhancements of infrastructure, communication, consumption and transportation—can also act to choke off a sense of ordinary publicity, a sense of city spaces being available to experiments of all kinds. These experiments were mainly centred on how relationships between people could be used as a basis to make things happen, to improve the livelihoods and opportunities for all involved. Today, the urban world is increasingly becoming one where individuals are encouraged to live in all-in-one complexes, from where they need never leave except to go to work or to the airport since shopping malls, entertainment, schools, health and social services are all wrapped into one package.

It is a world where economies are increasingly hedged to biosynthetic manufacturing, nanotechnologies, ubiquitous computing and mapping, and where individual desires are continuously tracked and serviced by seemingly endless recommendations. Through constant “consultations” with potential consumers on various social media sites, individuals are made to feel that they have a direct hand in creating the objects and services they pay for. Individuals are expected to demonstrate constant flexibility where every moment becomes an opportunity for self-renewal, where their performances are continuously assessed and predicted, and where social relationships are limited to an abstract sense of identification with those like them or a constantly expanding network of social media friends.

Urban managers are increasingly reliant upon software programs and data collection instruments that enable analysis of the ways in which water flows, urban finance, power systems, transportation use, spatial layouts or labour productivity all impact upon each other. However, by opening up notions of what constitutes “normal functioning” in any one sphere of urban activity to its relationships to an increasing number of others, it becomes more difficult for those responsible for managing one particular sector of activity to get a handle of exactly what they should be doing. Solutions become reflections of complex computation, modelling and the management of big data, rather than outcomes forged in the nitty-gritty details of how people use the city, how they try to deal with it on a day-to-day basis. In the interests of trying to make urban life more predictable and its residents more resilient, the instruments used to enhance security may in the end contribute to making cities more insecure. This insecurity derives from the active deskilling of residents in how to forge and manage real, everyday relationships with others mutually engaged in trying to manage the density of various economic and social activities taking place side by side, and from a continuous process of repairing both material and social worlds when things went wrong.

In many cities where residents had to take the responsibility for creating their own living environments—cities such as Jakarta, Karachi, Lagos, São Paulo, and even in many neighbourhoods of cities like New York, Rome, Paris or Los Angeles—great value was placed on the notion of the incremental. In other words, it was important to do things a little bit at a time, and each thing had its own time. Even if an individual or household could build all at once, or buy someone out completely, such moves were tempered by the sense that “time had its own time”. Whatever residents had available or were able to do at the moment, it was good enough, for now—not in general, but for now. What was important was the sense of cities as projects that were incomplete. As incomplete, then, nothing was foreclosed, wrapped or summed up. No one had all the answers. So there was room for the ideas and efforts of many. They did not always have to pay attention to each other, like each other, or compromise, but there were always lots of ideas and ways of doing things in circulation from which residents could draw from for their own livelihood projects.

Here, there were many different things and ways of life to witness. Here, the dense proximities of different statuses, backgrounds, orientations, and capacities do not get rid of the persistence of the distinctions within such categories. Ethnic groups are likely to dominate specific microterritories, such as neighbourhoods or blocks. Poor areas are often clearly distinguishable from the middle or working- class areas next door. Different histories of settlement are often registered by distinct economic activities, transient mobility or concrete involvement in local affairs. Densities among co-residents enforce an intimacy that often cannot be managed outside of the mediation of shared identity.

At the same time, the insufficiencies of salaries, the frequent interruptions in work careers and the uncertainties of labour markets required residents to generate income from continuous renovations in the ways in which materials, networks, spaces, and actors were put together. New entrepreneurial initiatives require access to cheap yet reliable labour. The acquisition of assets oftentimes requires pooled resources that are not subject to competing loyalties or obligations from kin or neighbours, short-term work opportunities have to be accumulated in rapid succession, and different social positions can often complement each other in terms of their respective knowledge of the city and access to particular resources. All of these facets are continuously replenished through different urban actors operating or living in close proximity to each other.

Much of the interaction among residents never went any where, often never accomplished anything, but instead of acting as a deterrent, this apparent failure tended to keep the game going. The difficulties of everyday life in places like São Paulo, Jakarta, or Karachi feed an intense hunger for justice and equity. There is also a wariness of pinning things down too much, of instituting policies where capacities and conditions are calculated and compared. There is often a preference for keeping things incomplete. Everyday life may be full of antagonisms, misconstrued behaviours, evasions, tricks, and manipulations. However, these are also the conditions that give inhabitants something to work with, something to try and put right, something that brings people together who otherwise would keep their distance, and thus a platform for rehearsing different ways to “work things out”. This of course, can be a lot of work and a strain for residents already overwhelmed with trying to make ends meet, but it is in these rehearsals where residents often feel that new vistas are opened up, where at least they are exposed to worlds otherwise inaccessible, even though there are no guarantees that they can take advantage of them.

In many cities, crowdedness was not just a function of the miniscule size of most residences with their stale or suffocating air, but it was also a function of the creation of a different kind of mobility. We are familiar with the ways in which cooking, chatting, grooming, cleaning, repairing, gossipping and gaming all take places as part of domestic and convivial neighbourhood life. What was more important was that residents primarily used crowdedness to experience another kind of mobility. They had a sense of enlarging their reach and access into events and territories beyond where they could practically reach and were allowed to go.

In the neighbourhoods of Jakarta where I work, residents mostly talk about what is going on elsewhere, or what others are up to, who are not visibly present. Sometimes this interest in the larger city is concretized through specific projects—travels to markets or distant worksites, collective investment in a trading place outside the district, taking over a food selling operation near the parking lot of a new shopping mall, appropriating abandoned space for storage, or inserting small trades in the fringes along busy thoroughfares, or running protection services. Whatever form this interest takes, it becomes a possibility for residents of a district to be in relationship to the larger city together in ways that do not assume a past solidity of affiliations, a specific destination nor an ultimate collective formation to come. As such, what many Jakarta residents misconstrue as poor neighbourhoods generate an economic dynamism that enables those with comfortable middle-class lifestyles, who might be nervous about remaining in the central city, to stay put. By virtue of a middle class staying put, the onslaught of mega-development is then slowed down. Residents of different class backgrounds and ways of life provide a kind of security for one another. Poorer residents fuel economies that provide things for the middle class to consume at cheaper prices. The continued presence of a middle class provides at least a temporary insulation from the incursion of big developers. Districts of relative wealth and impoverishment, located side by side, offer each other specific affordances. Each covers, hedges, protects and sustains the other in ways that are not clearly just or without manipulation. The proximity allows a sense of ongoing familiarity, and keeps excessive fear and anxiety at bay.

The majority of central city residents in Jakarta attained a sense of durability through their ability to intersect various initiatives aimed at improving livelihood and the environment. In cities without judicious and reliable forms of governance, service provision and social security, durability rests in the capacities of residents from different walks of life to concretize multiple opportunities for complementary economic activity and flexible collaboration. Residents respond to a locally honed urgency to make urban living viable. Since most know that their initiatives would operate in a crowded field of others, they adapt, adjust, negotiate, and come up with projects that incorporated the ideas, income and labour of others. These collaborations are usually temporary, as projects and people come and go, and so residents do not rely upon one way of doing things or a particular form of efficacy, but know that they have to “spread out” and equip themselves at working different versions of themselves and their values.

In making cities more secure, like in Jakarta, what is perhaps most important is that most residents are finding ways to rebuild something, to create some new condition for themselves, however modest or limited it might be. In cities subject to increasingly sweeping imaginaries of remaking, where the built environment becomes increasingly an instrument of financial manipulation and where the city itself borders on becoming an anachronism, it is important to keep open the highly diverse processes of small changes already under way, changes that in their invisible constellation provide important counterpoints to the dominant impressions of contemporary urban life under siege.