Intervention – “Reclaiming the ‘Liveable City’ as Normative Reference Point: Against Totalising Aspirational Political Discourses”

By Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford, United Kingdom (Auckland Harbour View 09) [CC BY 2.0 (httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Steffen WetzsteinSteffen Wetzstein (Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, Universität Erfurt)

This short commentary takes issue with the rise of totalising aspirational political discourses in urban politics and policy making in an increasingly unequal and polarising world. Framed by recent academic debates on what makes a city liveable and for whom, and by using fresh empirical evidence from Auckland, New Zealand, it is shown how the “liveable city” idea is distorted and discredited by its use in contemporary political and policy contexts. By illuminating the contradiction between the proclaimed superior liveability for New Zealand’s leading metropolitan centre on the one hand, and the socially highly unsustainable housing affordability outcomes on the other hand, the currently fashionable unapologetic use of universalising aspirational rhetoric by actors of the contemporary elite is illustrated, its implications for social and political exclusion are shown, and its possible motives investigated. This intervention concludes with a call for intellectual and civic leadership in order to reclaim important progressive and not capital-centric urban visions as meaningful and socially mobilising normative reference points.

The “liveable city” is neither a novel academic concept nor a new claim in urban politics. Rather, it has for several decades now been used to express desirable (and even utopian) ideals and aspirations concerning decent urban living such as safety and security, adequate infrastructure and high level of service provisions, people- and environment-friendly neighbourhoods, and economic viability (Kaal 2011). As a vision, notion and claim it has given rise to both progressive and regressive urban politics. While the Electors’ Action Movement (TEAM) in Vancouver used this term in the 1980s to advocate for more socially and environmentally sustainable urban redevelopment practices (Ley 1980), more recent critical accounts point to liveability as a discursive frame that enables and legitimates entrepreneurial urban policy by the societal elite and the withdrawal of the state from basic public service provision (Hankins and Powers 2009). The crucial question of liveability for whom? has been explicitly posed in the context of evaluating high-tech and creativity focused post-industrial urban policies. Those measures–if successful–may lead to boomtown conditions such as rising wage inequality, housing affordability gaps and hyper-gentrification that price ordinary people out of cities (McCann 2008).

Those issues of urban inequality, exclusion and alienation have recently been re-politicised by the “right to the city” movement in the wake of the global financial crisis. Inspired by Lefebvre’s (1996) legacy of a critical Marxist approach to urban social life, radical social thinkers of both the last and present generations have (re)engaged with pressing questions of who can demand and aspire to a more just and equal city, and by which means. Peter Marcuse (2009), for example, identifies two types of groups that in particular are adversely affected by existing urban political and policy arrangements: the materially deprived (e.g. un- and under-employed, impoverished, disabled) and the discontented (…those that are treated unequally for an number of personal, cultural and economic reasons). Following Foucault, Roger Keil (2009: 231) argues that, after three decades of neoliberal reform in Western countries, we have reached a new phase of societal and urban change–“roll-with-it neoliberalisation”–that can be understood as a truly generalised neoliberal governmentality that “does not have to be established aggressively and explicitly” anymore. In other words, we are all so deeply embedded in an all-prevailing personal gain/pro-market/competition logic that thinking and acting outside this seems almost impossible.

In his start-of-the-year message the Mayor of Auckland, Len Brown, presented all the achievements under his leadership, from healthy GDP-growth and rising tourism numbers, the electrified rail network and a new five-star hotel, to an award-winning library and a new music and arts centre (Brown 2015). To this “success list” he added his conviction that “Auckland is well on the way of becoming the world’s most liveable city”. His optimism appears not fully unwarranted, given that recent international benchmarking statistics rank New Zealand’s metropolitan centre as the currently third (Mercer 2016) and ninth (Economist Intelligence Unit 2015) most liveable city on the planet. As an experienced politician, Mayor Brown would–of course–avoid defining what this aspirational label of a “liveable city” exactly means. By revisiting his above mentioned hit list, however, it becomes obvious that affordable and adequate housing for Auckland’s residents was in this case certainly not a relevant category for assessing urban liveability. It turns out that staying quiet about housing was a smart choice for Auckland’s most senior city representative. This is because New Zealand’s leading metropolis has just also been rated a staggering fourth in the global “competition” for the most unaffordable housing market in the world (Demographia 2016), and a leading economist predicts house prices in New Zealand to climb a further 15 per cent on average throughout 2016 (Alexander 2015). If one understands liveability broadly as the sum of the factors that add up to a community’s quality of life, then certainly housing and its cost, quality, location and style of neighbourhood integration must be a central part of it. So I ask myself: how can a city that compares miserably in terms of providing enough affordable and decent homes to its residents be at the same time on path to becoming the most “liveable” city on earth? And how can today’s political leaders, thinks tanks and consultancies reconcile a socially highly unsustainable outcome with an aspirational label that claims exactly the opposite? In other words, I would like to problematise the nature and meaning of aspirational political discourses in the contemporary urban context.

At the present moment, many cities all over the world seriously struggle to provide affordable and adequate housing for a rising number of their residents (McKinsey Global Institute 2014). In the Western world, this global housing affordability crisis in particular affects attractive and internationally well-connected cities such as Hong Kong, Vancouver, San Francisco, Sydney, Melbourne, London and Auckland (Wetzstein 2015). In response to this worrying dilemma, urban leaders, experts, advisers, advocates and commentators are currently hotly discussing underlying reasons and possible remedies. Many (including the authors behind the Demographia report) blame ill-functioning planning systems and misguided land-use policies for decreasing urban housing affordability. Others consider unfettered foreign investment in domestic real estate assets the prime problem. Others again see the wrong tax incentives at the heart of the issue. And a growing number of people link metropolitan housing supply-side problems to the longstanding withdrawal of the state from social housing provision. But my intervention here shall not be concerned with the widely differing problem/solution framings of the current global urban housing affordability challenges. Rather, my concern lies with the above highlighted contradiction between the aspirational political discursive constructs of the “affordable” and “liveable” city, and what this reveals about the fabrication of guiding narratives by contemporary political-economic elites. In this context, I wonder, for example, whether those stories just follow an awkwardly skewed argumentative logic or, perhaps more disturbingly, constitute a deliberate strategy of cold-blooded political calculation.

Admittedly, intellectual-emotional visions such as the “creative city” or the “liveable city” have for a while now become the often-used rhetorical building blocks in political menus, policy programs and urban strategies. In fact, buzzwords such as “vibrancy”, “creativity”, “knowledge economy”, “sustainability” and, yes, “liveability” in all its associations, have become the new currency of policy initiatives. It is terms like these that bind policy makers together in various alliances of faith to a particular and selective worldview (Wetzstein 2010). At different points in time, and in different locations, they seem to rise to temporary prominence and dominate political rhetoric and ambition. Auckland’s “liveable city” ideology represents such an aspirational political discourse. Yet, and as indicated above, much of the practical meaning and operational logic behind this narrative stem not from policy makers but from the polished benchmarking work of dedicated international consultancy firms. Human resource consultant Mercer evaluates local living conditions in 420 cities worldwide in categories such as the political, social, economic and cultural environment, public services and housing, while the Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability survey quantifies the challenges that might be presented to an individual’s lifestyle in 140 cities worldwide in the five broad categories of stability, health care, culture/environment, education and infrastructure. Put provocatively: if these private firms have no problem with proclaiming a severely unaffordable city (in Demographia terms) as superiorly liveable, why should an elected official like Mayor Brown think twice about this obvious paradox?

So we end up with the perverse situation that some of the cities that are proclaimed most liveable on our planet are in fact those places ordinary residents increasingly can’t afford to live in any more. Those people have the option to compromise their living standards, of course, and either seek housing of lesser size, lesser standard, shared with others, further away from amenities, etc. or to leave these cities altogether. Or, alternatively, contest these dire outcomes politically. But my point of critique is the unapologetic use of totalising aspirational political discourse by our elites in times of stark societal polarisation and rising income/wealth inequalities (OECD 2015)–a dramatic situation that makes people’s every day experience of city life grow ever more apart. In the current moment, those strategic narratives are unashamedly universalising the experiences and privileges of a select group of urban residents as if everybody would experience them. Most alarming, the fate of the societal losers is getting completely swept under the table by such singular rhetoric. This discursive governmental practice, consequently, transforms a potentially mobilising “liveable city” tag to an “empty signifier”. Following political theorist Ernesto Laclau, Trent Brown (2015) interprets this term as meaning “all things to all people”, being subject to radically diverse interpretations and, as such, preventing anything concrete from being done. I would argue that in largely self-referential policy worlds, these signifiers without real substance and meaning tend to form “smokescreen” discourses. And it appears that contemporary leaders can hide quite well behind them. The key question we need to ask then, urgently, is a “liveable city” for whom? And obviously in 2016, a number of cities with–publicly declared–very high quality of life are places unaffordable to a growing number of urban dwellers such as the homeless, poor, unemployed, refugees, single parents, one-income families, families dealing with disabled members, key workers, young people, students and increasingly even households on moderate incomes. For all of them, arguably, these places are no (longer) “liveable cities” at all.

Based on recent evidence from New Zealand, in this short commentary I expressed my deep concern about how actors of the contemporary elite use and work with an aspirational label like the “liveable city” while for a significant and growing proportion of the local population it is now virtually impossible to find a decent and affordable roof over their head. I pointed to discursive “hollowing-out” strategies that blur the vision relating to the difference between what ought to be and what could be, and what actually is. I suggest in line with Keil (2009) that this kind of deliberately selective worldview is now one of the advanced neoliberal techniques of governing that we have sadly (almost) grown accustomed to. As a result of such political tactics, potentially progressive and inclusive urban visions such as the “liveable city” and the “affordable city”, the “just city” and the “sustainable city”, are currently all but disappearing as any meaningful and socially mobilising normative reference points. Unlike other more capital-centric urban concepts like the “vibrant city” (about urban redevelopment and renewal, downtown precincts, modern infrastructure, etc.), the “creative city” (individual talent, entrepreneurship, innovation, etc.), the “smart city” (intelligent connectivity, technology and efficiency, etc.) as well as the “world class/global city” (international visibility, ambitious investment, branding and image, global events. iconic architecture, etc.), the former reference points are chiefly about the redistribution of wealth and life options and the reconciliation of economic with non-economic objectives. They are, therefore, not easily compatible with the interests of the current economic and political elites, if at all. But these alternative visions are critically important in order to achieve the goal of an urban world of prosperity, equity, freedom, dignity and peace (United Nations 2013). So to me dreams like the “liveable city” need to be resurrected from their current political deathbed and rescued from intellectual impoverishment simply because it is through such common visions that we build alliances of commitment in order to change livelihoods, cities and societies. It is through them that we envision desirable futures together. To me, this challenging task requires intellectual and civic leadership around four interconnected goals.

First, we need a willingness to constantly expose totalising political talk through methods such as falsifying claims, providing counter evidence and always simply asking the obvious critical questions. Second, a concern with potential urban futures asks for dedicated champions in critical academic knowledge production that is tied more openly to particular political goals. Third, the active co-creation of new working definitions, new explanatory and imaginative vocabularies as well as new metrics of alternative urban visions may generate a much-needed language for imagining alternative urban futures. Fourth and last, it is paramount to deliberately mobilise and put to work those alternative visions in (urban) political arenas. In our world of many struggles, it is high time to challenge head-on totalising and thus empty political aspirational rhetoric.


This work was supported by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung für Wissenschaftsfoerderung (grant number


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