The bumper sticker version is: great places. Making the places we live and work more resilient, intelligent, productive, and pleasant. Making places that encourage good physical and mental health. Making places with a sense of common purpose, identity, and pride. Making great places….
Today, America is making a few people rich and leaving a great many others anxious, uncertain, unhealthy, or unemployed, all while doing irreversible damage to the planet. A whole nest of challenges lies ahead: We need to radically reduce our energy use, natural resource consumption, and CO2 emissions; ramp up our innovation in clean energy and efficiency technologies; rebuild our crumbling infrastructure; restore the health of the middle class; shrink the metastasizing income gap; reform our oligarchic political institutions; reverse trends toward diabetes, obesity, and heart disease; and reconnect to each other, to mitigate the spread of depression, stress, and alienation.
That’s a handful. What ties these challenges together is the need to reorient our policies (and our myths and narratives) away from financial capital and toward social capital, so that we’re measuring success in terms of physical and mental well-being rather than GDP. It means orienting public life around happiness rather than (just) material accumulation. (Happiness isn’t the best term here, but it’s handy. More accurate would be “eudaimonia” or, as researcher Martin Seligman now prefers, “flourishing.”)
I like this. It’s not wedded to the idea that great places exist solely to increase productivity or channel some specific outcome – something where great places is just another luxury good or another engine of industry – but encourage something more deeply tied to what Roberts describes as “eudaimonia” and “flourishing.”
It can also be a driver of democracy and a check on oppression. I’ve been meaning to link to the issue of the under-coverage of public space in the Egyptian uprising and the Arab Spring more generally. As Farha Ghannam wrote:
In front of our own eyes, Midan al-Tahrir has transformed from a site for the protesters to gather and express their demands into a central part of the protesters’ broader struggle for legitimacy, visibility, and political rights. Midan al-Tahrir is living up to its name as the Liberation Square…
the past two weeks have shown once again the importance of space in the operation of power, the challenging of political systems, and the constitution and legitimization of specific publics. We have witnessed young men and women pour into city streets and squares and onto bridges to protest unemployment, poverty, corruption, police brutality, election fraud, and political stagnation. They come from different classes and neighborhoods to inhabit the same spaces and to express a collective discontent with the political and economic conditions of their country….
Since February 2, a strong association has been established between staying in the square and victory, on one hand, and leaving it and defeat, on the other. As one protester put it, “If we leave, they’ll hunt us one by one. We know that…. It is safe inside the square because people are willing to sacrifice their lives at the frontlines.”
Which is to say making great spaces can also help with the struggle against domination. But the focus on ‘cleaning up’ areas can also give you random frisking policies in gentrifying neighborhoods. Which is why I’m also interested in another goal as well, which is a focus on Corey Robin’s idea of progressive freedom, which is complimented by Ned Resnikoff’s focus on the Republicanism of freedom from domination as a goal for progressive politics.
Because there’s a whole other set of problems out there that aren’t being addressed, and barely being vocalized, when it comes to progressive freedom. Whether or not we’ve completed the welfare state, we have a situation of mass unemployment which leaves workers powerless in their jobs, an out of control prison industry, millions of undocumented workers living in the shadows of society and the surveillance state and an unaccountable military. These all undermine freedom in their own ways.