by Christopher de Vries
Article for MONU Magazine “Affordable Urbanism”
Urbanization and gentrification have become so synonymous that they seem inescapably paired. Global cities such as New York, Tokyo, Berlin, London, and Paris, while at the center of our collective urban imagination, appear increasingly elitist instead of representing shared societal ideals. While there is much evidence that cities have predominantly been elitist over the course of history (Scott 2017), over the last centuries cities have transformed into beacons of civic pride, national self-image, and stages for an increasingly inclusive democratic society. This legacy is arguably under threat.
The most common approach to mitigate the impact of international real estate dynamics on the affordability of housing is to protect the city’s most vulnerable citizens through social housing and/or other redistributive programs. Regardless of one’s political predilections, both unfettered real-estate markets and the protection of the urban poor are producing cities that are in fact abnormal. Abnormal is used here in a strict statistical sense, implying that city-dwellers increasingly come from the far ends of a country’s normal income distribution. This article, in response to the notion of affordability, investigates the notion of the ‘Normal City’. Using three of our office’s projects to illustrate, we will focus on the spatial distribution of normality, the aesthetics of normality, and normal programs. This essay challenges the connotations of ‘normal’ as being mediocre, unambitious, and defeatist. In contrast, we argue that within the normal hides the heroic democratic project of the middle-class, which over recent decades has been losing ground due the systematic emphasis on competition over collaboration, identity over solidarity, and spectacle over decency.