Book review: Richard Sennett’s Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City

Sennett’s reflections on urban design are light on data, but thought-provoking on how we can make cities better places to live in

Meg Kaufman

Project Manager - What Works Centre

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I was very excited to read Richard Sennett’s latest book, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City. For me it comes as a happy reminder of the epiphany I had when I first read Sennett’s The Uses of Disorder in university: finally someone could explain to me why I love living in the city, even though it is noisy, dirty and full of people I don’t understand. The disorder is energising and inspiring as much as it is exhausting and infuriating. And it is good for me.

Sennett’s love affair with cities continues to inspire. Building and Dwelling walks haphazardly through his insights into urban form and its impact on urban life, accumulated over decades of living in, studying, and talking to residents of cities all over the world. He gives us some beautiful vignettes: drinking tea with a grey market entrepreneur in a crowded Delhi market surrounded by tech start-ups; a hand-guided tour of a Medellin slum with two small boys growing up there; and a very poignant moment on a busy street in Berlin, when Sennett – in recovery from a stroke – leans his back against the buildings themselves to regain his bearings.

That said, I also found this book frustrating. It is full of inspiring stories but completely lacking in data or evidence that would allow us to believe in them wholeheartedly. It was brave of the Mayor of Medellin to choose to set a stunning local library in an area considered a slum, and to build a cable car to offer direct access for residents to employment in the city centre. But where did the considerable money for these projects come from? Did the little boys who showed Sennett around the neighbourhood with such charm actually benefit in a tangible way from having a ‘starchitect’s’ masterpiece plonked down on their turf? Are people actually using the cable car to access jobs? As Sennett himself acknowledges, cities are littered with expensive projects that were built with the best of intentions, but failed to deliver real benefits to the people they were meant to help.

In Sennett’s defence, he has been very clear throughout his career that he is not a policymaker, and nor is he advising policymakers. He is a writer, and embraces the disorder he so loves in cities in his writing and arguments as well. In that sense, his work is a useful inspiration and starting point for those working to make real improvements in the way cities function for all of their residents.

Sennett returns time and again to the importance of openness, in spaces and in thought. And this is his most important message. At Centre for Cities our work is based on data and evidence, and rightly so. But Sennett’s approach is a reminder that data on its own is dumb. It will not tell us anything unless we ask the right questions. An open-minded approach is essential when trying to understand messy, complex urban systems, because they will always throw up something you didn’t predict. That is what makes them interesting and exciting.

A sign of a good book is that it sparks reflection and new thinking. For anyone who spends time thinking about or living in cities, this book will do both.

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