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The City in the Post-industrial Information Society
Transforming from a place of production to a place of consumption


Peter Weibel

*__Around 1900 the term urbanism was invented to describe a scientific method to control and shape, to analyze and study the growth of cities. This method became necessary because the growth of cities has reached a point where they could not be planned anymore. Cities got out of control. The industrial revolution has generated cities of a size above all prognoses and expectations. Poverty, misery, hygienic deficits, dust and dirt exploded. Urbanists should find a way to give cities a human face again by planning.

The classical conception of a city from where these urbanists started was the city as a place of production. In the wake of the industrial revolution the city was conceived as a sequence of phases conditioned by industrial labor. You start with an assembly line. Around the assembly line you build a factory. Around the factory you build the homes of the workers. Around the homes you build shops, restaurants and other services. Precisely in that sense we can perceive the publication of a large volume entitled »Une Cité Industrielle« by Tony Garnier in 1907.

This project is a significant milestone in modern town planning, as Le Corbusier said: »The first example of urban land defined as public space and organized to accommodate amenities for the common benefit of the inhabitants [...] integrating housing, work and contact between citizens.« Another title for the project was indeed »City of Labor«. So it is very clear, that modern city planning had as source the idea of labor and production, on the basis of the industrial revolution.

Only three main functions have therefore been conceived by Garnier: production, housing and health facilities. The dictatorship of production turned housing and health in the service of production. Workers had to be healthy and therefore housed well to stay stable and reliable in the production process. Therefore we can say, the center of the conception of the modern city is production.

A post-modern critique realized that the city in that sense is not only deteriorating the urban environment but in fact is completely dependant on the environment outside the city. The energy, the food, the water, nearly everything comes from the non urban environment. The industrial city is not self dependent, does not sustain itself. Sustainability becomes therefore the central critical argument against the concept of the modern city as a place of production. Because this production could only be maintained by the energy and the means of production that came from outside the city.

The urban »footstep theory« made us clear that the city leaves many footprints in the environment outside the city. An area from ten to twenty times bigger than the area of the cit. The urban »footstep theory« made us clear that the city leaves many footprints in the environment outside the city.
An area from ten to twenty times bigger than the area of the city itself is needed to support the city, to make the city survive, to make the production in the city going, to keep the operating of the city sustained. So it became evident, that a town focused on industry and production cannot survive. It does not only destroy its non urban environment outside the city, but in consequence also the city itself. Therefore the post-modern city moved the shopping area at the periphery of the city and the production and industrial zone even outside in front and far of the city. The centers of the city became vacant.

The typical American city was the »bagel city«. But naturally the problem of sustainability was only partially solved by the post-modern non-industrial city. Responsibility for the supply of water, gas, electricity, canalization, information cabeling, food, medicine, traffic, sanitary facilities, schools, public services has still to be taken. Strict reduction of factories and other production sites was a first attempt to reduce the footprints in the environments and make the cities sustainable. At the historic moment when material products of labor lost their pivotal role in the accumulation of capital in the post-industrial society, where immaterial labor, the acts of communication and services, investing in stocks and shares etc., could generate more profit than material labor, also the city changed from a center of labor to a center of immaterial labor like services and communication.

Consumption is part of this new kind of urban communication, like shopping is part of consumption. The complete solution of the problems caused by the insustainability of the modern city came by transforming the city from a place of production into a place of consumption. Post-modern contemporary cities are no longer the places of the primary and secondary spheres of economy that is the spheres of production, but have become the places of the tertiary spheres of economy that is the spheres of communication, services, transactions. The post industrial city in the information age has become the knot in a web of universal transmissions and transactions, f. e. of goods, currencies, messages, information [all kinds of material and immaterial commodities, even cultural commodities].

Consumption in the form of shopping has become a main part of the attraction cities have today for visitors. Therefore tourists have become more important for cities than inhabitants. It is only consequent, that the post-modern city learned from Las Vegas, as we know since Las Vegas with 40 million tourists a year is the post-modern city par excellence. Tourists are more cherished than the inhabitants by city planning which is symptomatical for post-modern city planning, which as I said is build on consumption instead of production.

The post-modern city in the arising net society transacts in such a complex vertical structure everyday millions of information, which control the supply of food and news, of the contents of cultural, administrative, productive and consumptive institutions that it can only be sustained with the help of computers. Computer sustainability has become the core of the post-modern city.

This sustainability is centred on the consumption of cultural or economic goods. The exchange of information, of services has become the new value, not anymore the exchange of products. The exchange of products still exists, but it does not have anymore the classical function to maximize profit. Profit maximization can be done today much better in the tertiary sphere of economy. On this thesis is build the triumph of the New Economy over the old economy.

Cities of consumption have a new way to regulate the contact between citizens. The way is not built anymore on labor but on services. If people cannot do services to each other they see no reason for communication. Cities of consumption are the final triumph of urbanism and communication build on principles of economy, money and profit.

Cultural goods are also subjugated to these laws of economy. Cultural institutions are not measured by the quality of their labor, but by the quantity of their visitors and their profiles for tourist attractions. Cultural institutions turn under the power of economy into institutions of consumption. Event culture, branding, target marketing are not only parts of urban planning but also of cultural institutions.
The new cities of the new economy are not only temples of consumption, not only paradises of ecstatic shopping of cultural or material goods, of cultural or commercial enjoyment, f. e. like multiplex cinemas which provide you with food, films and clothing, they are above all new masks of the market, which make invisible the mechanism of the capital. To tear off the urban masks of the capital we cannot rely anymore on culture, because culture has become part of the mask as a privileged way of consumption. We have to go back to the fatal attractors: sin, dirt, hope, chaos. We have to give the cities again the profile of hope.

The masses are attracted to cities in the third world even if they know they will find dirt there and poverty. They are attracted by the chaos of the city, because if nothing can be planned everything is possible. Each individual could be the one out of a million to make a career in the city. Unplanned cities, uncontrolled cities like in the third world and not cities as fortresses like in the west are the future. The cities of consumption in the post-industrial information age are the new masks of the old fortress. ][

[erschienen in: »Energy and Urban Strategies«, Marc Hewitt, Susannah Hagan [Hg.]; Vortrag anläßl. des gleichnamigen Symposiums des Austrian Cultural Institute, London, 1999.]


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