What makes urban life worth living? (Re)evaluating the value of urban life

Whenever we speak of values, we speak under the inspiration—from the perspective—of
life: life itself forces us to establish values; life itself evaluates through us when we posit

What is a quality of life, construed as a value? The answer is simple: a qualitative life
value is something that is lived for its own sake; something that is a value in and of itself,
in the unexchangeable “currency” of experience

Notions of quality, happiness and value concerning urban life are as old as cities are. Many ancient and modern utopias have typically imagined their ideal of a happier, safer, healthier, and better life in an urban form. Regardless of the inequality, precariousness, stress, and violence that often characterise urban existence, cities keep holding this promise, translated in a widening array of imaginaries (smart, safe, healthy, green, beautiful, creative, resilient, etc.), and quantified via various indicators, most notably liveability indexes.iii Popularised by glossy magazines, branding campaigns and programmatic documents, such indexes reductively frame cities vis-à-vis quantitative standards that play a relevant role in orienting the way urban politics are planned, perceived, evaluated, and compared. As a result, global hierarchies of worthy and unworthy urban lives are drawn, whose colonial flavour is unmistakable.

Critiques of liveability indexes usually emphasise their quantitative reductionism and blindness to socio-economic inequalities, proposing more complex and refined sets of criteria to assess urban liveability, including such notions as participation, equality, integration, right to the city, spatial justice and so forth. Such critiques, however, tend to share with those indexes an implicit assumption, ‘that a definitive and unyielding image of urban efficacy and human thriving exists’, an image with respect to which the people living in those ‘less liveable’ places are normatively framed in a condition of lack, as lives that are less worth living.iv The consequence of that assumption is to erase alternative paths, forms of life and experiences of collective production of value.v While these other paths should not be naively romanticised, nor the structural conditions that impinge upon these lives be cloaked under rhetorics of resilience and the likes, different conceptual and methodological ways of attending to them are called for. This means complementing the necessary reflections, critiques, and struggles around urban liveability, with an engagement with an oft-overlooked question: what is urban life, and what does make it ‘worth it’?

As various directions of contemporary thought and experience have shown, urban life does not only belong to individuals, let alone humans, but is better understood as a complex, manifold, emergent configuration – an assemblage, or atmosphere – that is constantly brought into being by the coming together and falling apart of humans and non-humans, organic and non-organic, beings. If we begin to think about urban life in these processual, dynamic and relational terms – that is, if we draw the full consequence of so-called relational, affect, post-human, material etc. ‘turns’ – what does it mean then to speak about its value and quality? Novel epistemological, ethical, and ontological enquiries may open up possibilities to rethink notions of value, quality and urban life away from pre-constituted understandings of what is ‘good’, ‘desirable’, and ‘liveable’, towards ‘attending to recalibrating the purported needs of urban human inhabitants to actions capable of sustaining nurturing intersections of various forms of life and non-life’.vi This may entail understanding the city neither as a space that must be cured from its ills, nor as a space of aesthetic and logistical curation, but as a common that must be maintained, repaired, and cared for.vii Needless to say, this requires a speculative effort, aimed to conceive novel sets of values, obligations, and commitments.viii

What makes urban life worth living? This is the question this workshop poses, challenging participants to rethink, theoretically, methodologically, and politically, the relation between quality, value, and urban life, via a speculative, experimental, and creative approach. We do not simply aim to deconstruct the notion of liveability and their various applications, but more significantly to construct novel, strategic and non- normative ways to conceptualise and produce quality of (urban) life that are alternative to existent notions of urban liveability; as well as resistant to immediate translation to economic and financial value. We welcome proposals from all disciplines – including, but not limited to, urban studies, geography, social theory, philosophy, legal theory, architecture, history, biology, neurology, etc. – willing to address the question from various angles, from the artistic to the legal, from the economic to the cultural, from the activist to the institutional, from the geographical to the biological, from the technological to the financial. We are particularly interested in contributions that, either theoretically, methodologically or experimentally, speak to the concerns of the workshop and seek to address its overarching question. Authors may wish to pursue the workshop topic by taking inspiration from any of the tracks listed below, or from whatever else they feel relevant:

§ urban life: concept, critique, speculation etc.
§ quality of life: value, measure, normativity etc.
§ urban liveability: happiness, well-being, comfort etc.
§ urban life, value and valorisation: ethics, extraction, financialization etc. § smart life: logistics, efficiency, functional stupidity etc.
§ liveable atmospheres: affects, aesthetics, breathing etc.
§ unliveable cities: normativity, power, resistance etc.
§ the time of urban life: quality, value, temporality etc.
§ composing urban life: commons, solidarity, care, etc.
§ regulating urban life: law, value, police etc.
§ commons: more-than-human, collectives, urban natures etc.
§ transvaluation of urban life: creation, experimentation, recuperation etc. § violence: conflict, vulnerability, liveability etc.
§ urbanising lives: planetary urbanisation, anthropocene, extinction etc.

The workshop will take place the 25-26 of May 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal, between the ISCTE [University Institute of Lisbon] and the ICS [Social Science Institute, University of Lisbon]. Its structure will eschew the classic presentation-plus-Q&A model, and rather focus on discussing and problematising key issues in a constructive, creative and strategic way. More details will follow closer to the event.

If interested, please send us a short abstract (350/400 words) about what you intend to present/propose, and how, by the 15 of January 2023, at the following emails: andrea.pavoni@iscte-iul.pt; lavinia.pereira@ics.ulisboa.pt



i Friedrich Nietzsche. Twilight of the Idols, V, 5
ii Brian Massumi. 2018. 99 theses on the revaluation of value: A postcapitalist manifesto. U of Minnesota Press, T28
iii Harm Kaal. 2011 A conceptual history of livability, City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, 15:5, 532- 547, p. 534. See e.g. Andrea Mubi Brighenti., 2018. The social life of measures: conceptualizing measure–value environments. Theory, Culture & Society, 35(1), pp.23-44
iv We are paraphrasing AbdouMaliq Simone. 2016. The uninhabitable? In between collapsed yet still rigid distinctions. Cultural Politics, 12(2): 135-154, pp. 135-6). See also Didier Fassin, 2009. Another politics of life is possible. Theory, culture & society, 26(5), pp.44-60, pp. 50, 52
v An example of such a solution-oriented approach: e.g. https://amps-research.com/conference/livable-cities-new-york/
vi ‘Sustainable urban development requires recognizing these fundamental interdependencies and attending to recalibrating the purported needs of urban human inhabitants to actions capable of sustaining nurturing intersections of various forms of life and non-life.’ AbdouMaliq Simone and Vanesa Castán Broto, ‘Radical unknowability: an essay on solidarities and multiform urban life’, p. 6
vii Needless to say, also notions such as care should be subjected to an adequate reconceptualisation. See e.g. Chatzidakis, A., Hakim, J., Litter, J. and Rottenberg, C., 2020. The care manifesto: The politics of interdependence. Verso Books
viii Maria Puig de La Bellacasa. 2017. Matters of care: Speculative ethics in more than human worlds.