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Moving crowds and the abstraction of XXI century citizenship

follaIn the original aim the study of crowd encroached such different areas as individuality, proximity and the communication process.

Urban planners practices and their views on city have been affected for a long time by the negative view: crowd is stigmatised as dangerous, dirty, and disorganised. Odd enough, late developers practice is far more open, restoring crowds as the basic requirements in designing commercial centre. But it is apparent a general shift towards a benevolent appreciation of at least some distinctive feature of crowds. Crowd is back in town, we can conclude, after more than a century of mutual hate and enforced decentralisation. However, both have changed. It is not the same crowd, nor the same city.

Movement is again the first attribute of cities, as it was when Park tried to develop its own frame of research, and moving crowds are the real citizens of urban landscapes, that creates a problem of democratic representation as well a functional one.

Undoing crowds: the abstraction of XXI century citizenship

“city is crowd ”

L. Chevalier


The crowd is a somewhat cumbersome concept, a conceptual dinosaur belonging to the archaeology of social sciences. Its genealogy and use are fascinating subjects for scholars interested in the paradigmatic shift occurred in social science at the end of the XIX century; however, as for empirical research, crowd is an exhausted subject.

Research on crowds has been dilapidated by some dubious herald, such as Le Bon, and by the historical turmoil of the Thirties when the masses were easy prey for political manoeuvrer. However, it stands as an outstanding attempt of integrating psychological, historical and political factors in a holistic view of collective behaviour (van Ginneken 1989).

The point of view adopted in this paper is rather different. The concept of crowd has to be freed from embarrassing stains and scales, yet without losing the core idea. Mainstream sociology, for instance, analysed crowd as a form of collective behaviour influent on social change, steady excavating structural social variables. And no doubt that, from a political point of view, the place of crowds has been taken firstly by the bourgeois public opinion, and recently by an even more virtual net of media.

In the original aim, however, the study of crowd encroached such different areas as individuality, proximity and the communication process. From the French thinker Tarde we retrieve the suggestion that gathering in a crowded public place does affect the public sphere; crowds (at plural) are the natural “nest” where individuals overwhelmed by uncertainty can be reassured (§1).

Urban planners practices and their views on city have been affected for a long time by the negative view: crowd is stigmatised as dangerous, dirty, and disorganised (§2). Odd enough, developers practice is far more open, restoring crowds as the basic requirements in designing commercial centre. “Some” crowd has apparently become less dangerous.

But it is apparent a general shift towards a benevolent appreciation of at least some distinctive feature of crowds. Economic analysis stresses, for instance, the influence of the proximity factor in localising activities; while city strategies in Europe renew the XIX century examples of the Great Exhibitions and the Universal Fairs (§3).

Crowd is back in town, we can conclude, after more than a century of mutual hate and enforced decentralisation. However, both have changed. It is not the same crowd, nor the same city. People and their homes are no more twin magnetic poles of an urban field (§4). Movement is again the first attribute of cities, as it was when Park tried to develop its own frame of research (Joseph 1984), and moving crowds are the real citizens of urban landscapes, that creates a problem of democratic representation as well a functional one.

1. People and publics

Citizenship was slowly extended during the XIX century to a larger number of people. While the sheer idea of population was coined only during the Age of Enlightenment (Mattelart 1994) revolutionary ideology or insurgent nationalism coined the idea of a nation – Michelet’s “le peuple” – as an idealised historical subject. Consecutive images -crowd, masses, multitude and public- have then mirrored the progressive settling of people from the urban scenes during the last century. But all these terms share the same degree of indeterminacy.

A research programme was established at the turn of the century. Psychologists searched nature and human physiology in order to explain collective behaviour; political scientists legitimated masses control (initially masses of rioters, later of voters) through the notion of elite.

Even if the research is not easy to summarise, we can pinpoint a few basic ideas: a) a de-individualization process takes place in (large) gatherings; b) triggered and amplified by an imitative impulse; c) either leading to a dis-inhibited or even to a criminal behaviour; d) which can be manipulated by a leader able to control the masses feelings. No surprise than if its manifold legacy is disputed by different branches of psychology, sociology and political science, yet in refined and specialised frames. Besides, the impulse of that period fertilised urban research through the founding father of urban sociology, and a great deal of American research on social groups and collective behaviour (Mucchi Faina 1983).

However, we can take a few tips and summarise a shared definition: crowd means a gathering of people usually qualified as: large; without order and organisation; involved in some specific action or collective behaviour.

Usually crowd is busy doing something, whether intentionally or in a disorganised way is not important. In a sense, the coincidence of different actions in the same place is similar to the coincidence in time of actions resulting in the equilibrium game of the invisible hand: it is the effect of hidden causes.

Crowd typical activities, as a dictionary exemplifies, are “to watch or listen to something interesting, or to protest about something” (Collins Dictionary 1995). Sociologists’ crowd is characterised by number, physical proximity and by actions which are recursively and mutually reinforcing.

The adjective resulting from the past tense -crowded- implies a far more passive definition. The subject is now a place, whose distinctive feature is to be full. However, the idea of fullness primarily fits to any generic physical space, with scarce distinction. Almost everything can be crowded, with no regard to scale and importance. Crowd is then a malfunction, a negative attribute of a place which is maintained to be better when empty; while the idea of the crowd as a collective body or behaviour has migrated to the immaterial idea of a public.

The public instead is a step ahead. The genesis of a modern public sphere has been seen essential to the modernisation process. The subject of the public sphere is the ‘public’ that actually mirrors in the political process the underground social forces. Basically, crowd is different from the public because the first is a material gathering, while the latter is a sheer spiritual entity.

Whilst public sphere occupies the opposite side of crowds on the wide spectrum of social groups, yet the public and the crowd are closer than it is supposed: they share a the middle ground, as Tarde made clear. Public and crowds are interlinked: public is a “virtual crowd”, as he put it (even if he did not explored the tightness of this linkage):

“On peut même dire que chaque public se peint par la nature de la foule qui naît de lui. Le public pieux se peint par les pèlerinages de Lourdes… le public révolutionnaire par ses émeutes et ses barricades…”:

(Every public portrays itself by the crowd which grows out of it. The pious public by pilgrimages… the revolutionary public by riots and barricades”).

Tarde, 1901p. 27, footnote

Three main concepts are here implied:

  1. the public is a plural dimension of social life, actually there is not one single public, not even one public opinion, but every individual can belong to several public networks;

  2. while once the public was distilled from a crowd, crowd is now meant as the output of the public;

  3. the public mirror themselves into actual crowds, in a circular relation which contribute to its enforcement, i.e. Once established, the public is maintained in force of the flow of information that keep every member sympathetic and up to date.

An useful indicator of the process of creating the public, according to Tarde, is the passion for topical news, which grows with the progress of sociality. News consumption is a measure of the degrees of sociality.

To put in more analytical words, a public grows out a process of synchronising expectations, cultural models, cognitive structures.

The common ground between the public and crowd is than the following: both are nourished by the simultaneity of emotions, the first through face-to-face communication, the latter through a symbolic communicative process.

Simultaneity is a fragile output, all but fortuitous. It is the secondary result of a process of mutual acknowledgement.

City is a place where people get accustomed to share beliefs and feelings. In a sense, living in a city is like being in a crowd: the social life is deeper and thicker. The city –as Tarde pointed out and was later acknowledged by sociologists like Lofland- educates to proximity, and this education eventually enables the gathering of a public.

Even better, “urbanity” is the requirement for the individual training to communicate in public; and the first step of the learning process that enables the community of views with a dispersed audience. Without learning process no civil life can take place; and without a dense social life- as in physical gatherings- there is no learning process. In other words, only a sophisticated urban dweller is able to develop a common feeling not only in the presence of other people, but even in a symbolic process, as it in public opinion.

So far, it is correct to maintain that the public sphere or the public opinion are social settings more sophisticated than a trivial meeting in public. But the latter is “quintessential” to social life (Lofland 1989), even if preceding the other either logically or by experience. Not by chance a common root denotes the twin meaning of urban and urbane, synthesised by the term of urbanity in Latin languages.

  1. Beyond social space

Meetings in public spaces, which possibly generate a crowd, are primary qualities of the urban life; from this point of view, it is right to say that crowd and city are synonymous. The concept of social space –which occupies a central space in the French urban sociology- implies the identification between a group and a space. A correspondence that seemed both true and necessary for historical analysis of the first Age of industrialisation, such as Chevalier’s, when dangerous (yet hard-working) classes were concentrated in the popular neighbourhood surrounding the best-off enclaves.

Urbanism dealt with the original process of social polarisation in many different ways. For instance, the first large urban avenues scratched social division, digging passages across class boundaries; thus, people belonging to different social conditions were exposed for the first time to mutual sights (Berman 1982).

Was it forgotten the end of dichotomies, the real nature of crowd would not have been understandable: but city and country are no more the ideal types of human settlements, and community and society do not explain the full range of social links.

Late urban development has first emptied the city centre and subsequently has also emptied the periphery. A new urban complex is growing up from the process of globalisation, on one hand, and the hybridisation of city and low-density settlements on the other.

And Modernity muddled up the identification between city and crowd: neither public gatherings– nor Habermas public sphere- coincide with the city. Social space appears then a deterministic concept (Cremaschi 1994); whilst social relations melt in the “sponge-like” nature of the urban public space (Joseph 1984).

The two poles have changed. Either crowd or city are no more the same, since the process of globalisation changed the rationale of spatial ordering. Changes are even testified by subsequent changes in grammatical use, as well as in meaning (for another example see Donzelot 1984): first the substantives were changed in adjective, the urban space, the public space; later, both were re-substantivized in two new words, the public and the urban, with a different meaning. However, the process of de-spatializing and de-materializing social interactions is deeper and affect other crucial social links (Meyrowitz 1985), for instance, public opinion.

Four examples illustrate this hypothesis: the resurgence of the proximity factor at least in the localisation of advanced services in the global city; the use of a great event in establishing new strategies for city development; the recognition of different urban “populations”; the concentration of consumers as a tool for regenerating inner cities.

First, western cities rest on the top of the most astonishing amount of infrastructures, public goods, and central places since the beginning of history; yet the process of decentralisation started in the first half of the century has been spacing people further apart. Industrial activities, middle class families, and finally company headquarters flown away from central cities. However, this process do not disavow the traditional argument in favour of concentration, even if:

“the-face-to face explanation needs to be refined in several ways…(Advanced services) are not dependent on proximity to the consumers served. Rather, such specialised firms benefit from and need to localise close to other firms who produce key inputs or whose proximity makes possible joint production of certain service offerings” (Sassen 1991).

Second, more and more cities put the preparation of great events at the core of their strategies. At least six main cities in Europe have been working for the last ten years to arrange epoch-making events: the World Fair in Lisbon, the Olimpic Games in Athens, the Soccer Cup in Paris, the Millenium in London, the International Exhibition in Hannover and, last but not least, the Catholic Jubilee in Rome (Cremaschi, Piccinato 1998). For decision makers and businessmen events appear as a natural complement of the ordinary management of the city, primarily from a financial point of view. Basically, events are expected to generate a great movement of people and goods, which supposedly benefit the whole city. Moreover, a global event often requires new buildings and infrastructures, which are presented as the legacy to the to city. And finally, the state often contribute to the city in order to manage the financial side of the event, thus granting further resources compared to slim ordinary budgets. The postmodern city seems not only to require such events for utilitarian reasons, but even to become an event itself, a kind of “a door that everybody can cross to reach the world of media and visibility ” (Amendola 1997). However, great event planning is a specialist endeavour: it has contributed so far to segregate and divide different groups of the public more than to merge people in a global urban audience.

Third, great events amplify the consequence of a general change: traditional inhabitants have become just a slice of the “population” pie, commuters, visitors, business-men and “city-users” being a growing share of urban population. The same urban space, facilities, services are in fact “consumed” by people coming from outside, who do not vote and pay taxes for local council. Citizenship has then become a manifold concept, depending not only upon the abode, but even upon the place where one works, the place of consumption, etc. And in fact citizens are separated by sociologists in many “populations”, such as -for instance- old urbanites, commuters, visitors and city users, living in overlapping but non coinciding “habitat” (Martinotti 1993). In other words, a growing number of people –sometimes from the region, sometimes from abroad- use museums, the underground, parks of a few central cities, a movement exagerated by great events.

Finally, postmodern urban developers turn back to crowds yet in an ambiguous mood. Crowd is positively addressed by postmodern developments which testifies a turning point in the city process of production. Every single urban development –either residential compounds or shopping malls- is commodified according to the marketing principles: instead of being universal, every single part of a city needs a selected public, with the usual correlation of market analysis and police control; people from the “outer world” are required as far as they contribute to the market success of cities. Regeneration of inner-cities, for instance, is often levered by planning devices intended to attract people, to create a “vibrant” urban space (Friedlen and Sagalyn 1989). For instance, developers tried to create an artificial urban space inside commercial centres, in a “fearful simmetry” with the historical process which excavated the medieval city out of the market space. Basically, all Modern Movement claims are reversed. Streets for instance are restored to the previous dignity of place of meeting and social life, and not only functional channels, and consequently cars, buses and people are allowed to occupy the same space. A reasonable urban density, neither a scattered settlement nor a high-rise one, appeals to even American planners (as in Portland). Public space design is intended to create “a pleasant sense of bustle” (as in the development programme for State Street in Chicago, 1996).

Such urban strategies apparently lie upon a simple hypothesis: consumers desire a pleasant place to go to, but not a deserted one. To put it in another way, people go where people can be found. But this is not a trivial assumption. Basically, it assumes that individual identity is not a thing, but a multidimensional network, which social events can either endorse or jeopardise. And a selective and suitable “crowd” can actually reassure and confirm individual identity.

3. Designer images

At least three generations of planning practices have been concerned with the idea of the crowd, with rather different attitude.

Initially, crowd was seen at the end of the XIX century as an historical subject, the animal living in the urban habitat. The resulting urban theory consolidated the negative view of human density. However, urbanisation was seen as a natural process, and people moving to towns were “naturally” expected to change in urban dwellers. Citizenship was conveyed by city. But hygienist caution and political fears laid down a negative stigma on the emergent crowd. The education to urbanity appeared then at risk, and country life was invoked as a remedy. The view of a “dangerous” crowd has eventually directed the debate on “evil” cities towards a anti-urban stance.

Later, Modernism and rational planning were clearly indebted to the statistical practice of standardisation and to the idea of the accountability of individuals, which elaborates on the idea of masses (Mattelart 1994). Rational city privatises social life and stresses the function of dwelling. The city conceived by the Modern Movement architects is a twofold device: a beehive for tired individuals; and a machine for rotating masses. In both cases, the experience of crowd has been removed, basically through the destruction of the street. In low-density settlements, the movement in the street does not reach the threshold to became a magnet for social life: in high-rise units, movement is severed among specialised vector (high-way, pathway, elevators…). Besides, different functions are segregated and urban areas are strictly zoned. Crowd disappears as a social phenomenon, and it is only mentioned as a malfunction of the urban machinery. Congestion is the functional equivalent of a crowd. As a consequence, planners’ concern has mainly to do with regulating access, while urban landscape is more and more fragmented and specialised.

A further step is the final dissolution of the idea of a crowd. Actually, since modernity accelerated the pace of everyday life, almost everything is crowded: a city or a street are crowded, as well as my agenda, my mind, etc. Crowding has become a sentiment, where material details have vanished in a subtle feeling of dispossession, where “escape attempts” are more and more difficult. Somehow, crowd has assumed a temporal instead of a spatial dimension.

For this reason –by the way- the built environment is often referred to by the cinematic term of landscape, sometimes dreadful or threatening, a “landscape of fear”.

Planners completed the picture denying the role of face-to-face relation in constituting the social life: “community without propinquity” was the recipe indicating that social links were transferred entirely into the symbolic dimension, mediated by media and technology. As a result, crowd stands bewildered in front of an uncomfortable urban space, occasionally demanding an easier and more controlled environment. Security problem, for instance, is addressed in several ways, the latest a fully artificial town (such as Disney World) or a fully artificial citizenship (such as in the corporate cities in the Usa).

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, notwithstanding planners’ distrust, the experience of “crowd” has not been dissolved. Ortega y Gasset was surprised that cities were crowded by people, hotels by guests, cafés by consumers, theatres by audience, beaches by swimmers, and streets by walkers: in his own words, the life intensity is on the increase and the “ubiquity of the world” unfolds in the “fullness” of cities.

But people do not escape from the sense of “fullness”; it is the opposite, people look for places that suit the kind of “fullness” they desire. Crowd is not everywhere in the city, but different crowds meet in distinctive places.

Which is then the first obvious interface between crowd and city? The street network and the circulation system, i.e. the web of “channels” that allows movement. Movement and communication are the crucial subjects of Park’s foundations of urban sociology (Joseph 1984).

Strolling on Sunday in the Main Street (that is called the Corso, the course, in southern cities) requires “a pleasant sense of bustle”, it would not make sense without people. Even better, it requires a people fitted to strolling, as well in commercial centre or in market streets one expects to find a public fitted to buying, and so on with a public fitted for theatres, stadiums, exhibitions, etc.

Even journeys and summer holidays are often intended not to escape the “crazy crowd”, but to find a suitable one.

Drawing upon a consistent, even if usually neglected, amount of research, we can affirm that such diversified situations share two ideas: a) proximity is ruled by the social organisation of space, as in Goffman’s research; b) public space carries out an educational as well as emancipating function. With special regards to streets, that has been stated in sociological terms:

“Streets maintain a particular way of life or structure of relationships by providing barriers and linkages that help regulate the amount of interaction among groups”. And later: “The value of diversity of settings and of unprogrammed settings in general seems to lie in the ability of such settings to give people experience in a variety of roles and to provide many more opportunities for self-redefinition” (Levitas 1991).

Movement is unequally distributed, and its concentration is heavily affected by the configuration of streets pattern (Hillier 1996). We can suggest at least a broad distinction in two classes, resulting from the various coupling of settlement lay-out and street patterns: thick areas are the great urban axes where circulation concentrates and people are conveyed; soft areas are segregate, mainly residential, areas.

Urban planning historically arranged the wedding between movement and city, governing as well the complex rituals implied by social (as well as infrastructural) inventions like Paris avenue and boulevard, or the Sisto V’s axes in Rome (Sennet 1990). Such infrastructures were probably able to create a space and an etiquette for the distinctive public of flaneurs and pilgrims, a task that modern highways have neglected.

From this point of view, the invention of new public space appears as a main challenge for urban planning.

Reference List

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Cremaschi M., 1994, Esperienza comune e progetto urbano, Angeli, Milano

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