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The Idea of Urbanity

Prof. Dr. Julian Nida-Rümelin

HENN Akademie, April 23, 2009

The concept of urbanity – philosophical comments concerning a contested term.

It is worthwhile questioning the philosophical concept of urbanity in order to avoid the unsatisfactory argument as to which existing towns and planned towns are really “urban” and which are not. Philosophically, we approach urbanity as a “regulative idea”, which entails practical rules. The everyday practice of informing the public should be placed at the beginning of our considerations, so as to arrive from this point, at the “ethics of the built environment”, which does not argue from the “top down”. We are therefore dealing with the issue of what has always been understood as a “good town”. Urbanity means the normativity of the town.

The ethics of the built environment, which is formulated in this way, has four limits:

• Humanistic individualism, i.e. individuals have rights. This even applies if acknowledgement of these rights in total results in disadvantages.

• Co-operation refers to civil society. For it to come about, individuals must not simply have their own well-being in mind. They must be able to put aside differences and agree on  commonly desired practice.

• Collective identities are formed as a result of feelings of belonging. Belonging to different collective identities, which may overlap, characterises one’s own individual identity. A balance must be achieved between personal identity and collective identities.

• Diversity and tolerance borne of respect: it is not a matter of many and pure identities but rather of people, who feel they are acknowledged. Diversity includes the normative underpinning of the same recognition and respect.

For several years, a massive erosion of political creative power has been observed in local communities, associated with the decline in their financial resources.  Given the increased competition of industrial sites for investors, little room remains for visions of municipal development. Added to this is an erosion of citizenship in the sense of citizens wishing to become involved in town planning projects. What is frustrating is planning departments, which only involve the citizens when everything has basically been decided. The aim is to achieve a balance between utopian potential on the one hand and adaptation to interests on the other.

The good life depends to a great extent on public assets, which are accessible to all, irrespective of their current economic capacity. In the case of the town, we can refer to public assets, as well as to public spaces. The purpose of the assets is to make people independent. This includes being able to get out in the evening without fear, that children can get to school on their own and being able to meet in public venues. These public assets have an inclusive function for the citizens. We are talking of inclusion rather than “distribution”. The town would therefore be the machinery for producing public assets. Only by making them accessible is the public created.

Prof. Dr. Julian Nida-Rümelin studied philosophy, physics, mathematics and political science and taught philosophy in Minnesota, Göttingen, Berlin and elsewhere. From 2001-2002 he was minister of culture and since 2004 has held a chair of Philosophy at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich.

Julian Nida-Rümelin
Prof. Dr.