By Vincent Schipper, published in the New City Reader for the Istanbul Design Biennale, curated by Unfold.
In the midst of this recession we are bombarded with facts and figures of decreased growth and rapid declines. We are repeatedly reminded that growth is our only salvation. Anything else would mean financial meltdown, literally the end of all things good. But let us consider a possibility where this is not the case.
Still•ness (adjective) — a dynamic and innovative culture that is not based on growth. It can be understood as a sustainable and inclusive society. A still society is a society that has left behind the more negative connotations of the notion growth, and has established post-expansion, post-depletion and post-exploitation values and practices.These values and practices may already be present.
Markets, finances, and economics make up the frame through which most of humankind looks at the world. Within this world of surplus exchange, growth is all that is holy. Even the Papal authority would bemoan a slowing in its flock’s growth. We have come this point of luxuries, dependencies and polarization through the pursuit of constant and ever accelerated growth. And, certainly no one would say that times have not been fat. Yet, can this same growth, this modern paradigm, continue, or even sustain itself? This frame has led to undeniably amoral activities in the past and now humankind has led the world to an uncertain future. So, the quick answer is no. The Club of Rome in 1972 stated, there is a limit to growth, and we seem to be inching ever closer to that limit. Though growth has been and continues to be the dominating paradigm of the modern condition, there needs to be an alternative paradigm. Since ’72, statements have been made, and thoughts visualized that hinted at an imagined world beyond the growth paradigm. None have been able to provide a truly alternative future – one that is no longer pinned to growths or shrinkages. This is why we propose ‘Still’ as an alternative paradigm, and when applied: the Still City.
Any city is an agglomeration of contradictions, dynamics, and imaginations. The modern city has been developing thoroughly inspired and one could even say as a result of the emergence of the growth paradigm. Yet, when the giants of industrial capital began to tumble and rust away, the city itself started showing signs of an emerging alternative. In the case of Detroit, or the plethora of other mono-industrial cities, shrinkage was the term of the late 90’s and early 2000s. Yet, these frames do not cater to the economic and demographic realities we see today or of those predicted by the Club of Rome in 1972. The city has become the home for the majority of humankind, and those cities that continue to swell, or have swelled to immense size are far more complicated than the shrinking cities of coal production, or the auto industry. The Still City, represents in itself the complexity inherent in the mega cities of today and the future. Though the growing population continues to urbanize, there is a limit. Understanding this limit, and what that limit means for social transformations, and the forming of culture, brings us to the complexity inherent in understanding this alternative paradigm.
There are cities all around the world that exhibit tendencies of the Still City, whether it is New York and its signs of an aging economy, or Hong Kong and its physical limits to horizontal urban expansion. However, there is perhaps no better example at present than Tokyo. To a degree, the Still City’s muse, it exhibits the main signifiers of being in Stillness. Its economy has seen little to no growth over the last two decades, its population’s rate of increase is nearly coming to a halt, and its urban development seems to have reached its outer limits – what we call the sprawl size maximum, determined by the basic idea that no one wants to commute to work for more hours than they are able to work.
Imagine a greater metropolitan area of 13,555.56 square kilometers with a population of 35.6 million. Or more succinct, visualize the great grey blimp, as seen from space when looking at the eastern coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu. However, Tokyo is not only a muse for the Still City because it exhibits the basic elements when considering a city in a state of stillness. Rather, Tokyo inspires because it fundamentally complicates the idea of stillness. When one looks at Tokyo there are two images, two faces that vie for attention, the macro-state of stillness exemplified by post-growth and post-development and the micro-state of stillness that shows a unique vibrancy, dynamism and contradiction. What does it mean? Where can it take us?
When one puts this Still City under the microscope, you see exactly what a city is, a bustling network of individuals and environment relating and at time working intimately together. It is far more organic that programmed, more Metabolist than data aggregated. The city is in fact not the spread sheets of statistics but the collection of each individual’s interaction with the other, the infrastructure, the air, and even with the self on a daily basis. So we can say that though Tokyo is huge and at times overwhelmingly so, it is also small, and at times even miniature. The foundation of its economy is the small to medium sized business. Political change erupts with collective social trauma, and individual imaginations dominate the streetscape – even if most houses are picked from catalogues. The Still City is thus not actually still, the stillness of the city is in its relation to growth. Stillness in effect demonstrates the very impotence of growth, which can only be seen playing out on a macro-scale.
It is clear that there is no real need for continued explosive growth so demanded by today’s market and capital system. Considering what a city is, we have been programmed to think that a city is only the physical icons of mass production and technological innovation, the increased consumer luxuries of high-end fashion brands and fast cars, or even acquiring larger living spaces beyond what is needed. This is the city of growth, and its antecedent, and only alternative being the city of desperation best associated with urban scenes from hunger struck or war torn nations. In order to be able to even begin to imagine a viable future city, our first task is to disassociate the city from growth – even if it was begotten by it. Tokyo as an example, the Still City presents such an alternative, now we need to push forward and begin imagining, fantasizing, and creating for this new condition. It is no longer about, bigger, faster and cheaper. We must collectively weave new narratives that look at our Present, so that we may have a more individual, sustained and real future.