Essay

(In)visible Policy

by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Klaus

The growth of city networks and the expansion of transnational city collaboration have been among the most dynamic features of global governance over the last decade. According to recent research by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the University of Melbourne, there are now over 300 city networks, approximately half of which facilitate collaboration between cities across borders. [1] While many are small, a number of these networks cover wide swaths of the urban world: 25% of global GDP and 12% of global population (C40 Cities); over 3,000 cities and towns (United Cities and Local Governments). Climate change and governance are the chief policy priorities, but those umbrellas capture almost the entirety of urban dynamics: mobility; food security; environmental justice; public spaces; health; care for the vulnerable. Two telling principles underpin many of these efforts: first, that cities, even those that seem dramatically different from one another, often face similar challenges and thus benefit from policy exchange; second, that cities and urban areas facing similar challenges need a collective voice on the global stage. In practice, these city networks have facilitated thousands of local climate actions, from the implementation of bus rapid transit to pension-fund fossil fuel divestment, while also demonstrating and affirming something universal about the urban.

In theory, however, the question of typologies bedevils urbanists and policymakers alike. Global North, Global South; primate, secondary, tertiary; post-industrial, creative, smart; inclusive, elite: as soon as an inquiry pierces through the generic concept of the capital-C city, the urban space collapses into thousands of distinct, often incomparable pieces. A “general truth about cities,” wrote Lewis Mumford in his mid-century classic The City in History, is “their marked individuality, so strong, so full of ‘character’ from the beginning that they have many of the attributes of human personalities” (1961). This richness and complexity, while rewarding the “thick description” advocated by Davide Ponzini in Starchitecture (2016) and Transnational Architecture and Urbanism (2020), can paralyze efforts to meaningfully balance the universal and the specific. Yet despite that challenge—or perhaps because of it—it is the search for this equilibrium that so often occupies urbanists and policymakers. 

Amid the many ongoing efforts of comparative analysis and mapping exercises, as well as the delicately negotiated diplomatic language of international organizations and the United Nations, we set out to try balancing the local and the universal with an experimental creative methodology rooted in Italo Calvino’s novel Le città invisibili. Selling millions of copies in over thirty languages since its publication in 1972, including William Weaver’s superb 1974 English translation, Invisible Cities, the book is a landmark work of imagination, description, and speculation: a hybrid of travelogue and thought experiment, a masterpiece of fictional psychogeography. Nearly fifty years later, it continues to spark the reveries of everyone from readers, writers, artists, and game designers to architects, urbanists, theorists, and policymakers. It invites all of us to reflect on what cities are and might be, how we inhabit and share and belong to them: or, as Calvino puts it, on “the invisible order that sustains cities, on the rules that [decree] how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons, and then how they sadden and fall in ruins.”

Framed as a series of travelogues related by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan in order to detail the scope and texture of the latter’s empire, Invisible Cities offers the privileged idiosyncrasy of considering multiple cities at once—55, to be precise—as though they are all irreconcilably different and, at the same time, all variations on the same city. “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice,” Polo tells Khan; and yet, in his beguiling way, Calvino leads us to conclude that each city is organized more tangibly, so to speak, around a vaporous combination of “moods, states of grace, elegies!” Thus, in the book’s framing dialogue, as in the individual portraits that support it, we are invited to reckon with the slippery interplay between the universal and the particular. “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me,” Khan complains as Polo describes a bridge in intricate detail. Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”

In 2020, we began assembling writers, artists, publishers, climate scientists, and policy leaders to discuss a fiftieth-anniversary celebration of Invisible Cities that reckons with all that has changed, since 1972, in how we conceive, define, occupy and create within cities. Needless to say, between the sobering pressures of climate adaptation and mitigation and the unprecedented shifts in global demographics, the urban metropolis of the future promises to look quite different in terms of geography, industry, land use and earth systems, inclusivity, and much more. Our challenge, then, is to find a robust and repeatable approach to the work of describing the city, one that is neither too focused on specifics nor too taken with abstractions, while also advocating for sustainable, equitable urban change over the next fifty years. 

Structure

In 1973, the year after Invisible Cities was first published, Calvino joined the Oulipo (ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature), a Parisian collective dedicated to exploring the interplay of mathematical and scientific models with literature and language. Many of his late-career productions—including the story collections Cosmicomics and t zero, which fuse the timeless craft of storytelling with scientific phenomena drawn from astronomy, evolutionary biology, physics, and much more—found ideal company among writers like Georges Perec, whose novel Life A User’s Manual is structured around a graph-theory problem, and Raymond Queneau, whose 1950 epic poem Petite cosmogonie portative is a survey of scientific discovery in the twentieth century in alexandrine verse. 

The initial inspiration for and keystone of our project is a collective rewriting of Invisible Cities by the contemporary members of the Oulipo, one that incorporates an additional layer of scaffolding as follows. The 55 imagined cities in Calvino’s original are divided into 11 categories: 

Cities and memory
Cities and desire
Cities and signs
Thin cities
Trading cities
Cities and eyes
Cities and names
Cities and the dead
Cities and the sky
Continuous cities
Hidden cities

Our first modification was to “update” these categories with counterparts that more acutely reflect the issues facing the contemporary and future city. These were based partly on the needed transformations outlined in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) groundbreaking 2018 publication, Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR1.5), though not only: in December 2020, in collaboration with a diverse panel of scholars, journalists, NGO leaders, climate scientists, community stakeholders, and former city officials and diplomats, we finalized our list of new categories: 

Cities and ghosts
Organic cities
Cities and borders
Sick cities
Cities and movement
Connected cities
Cities and work
Hostile cities
Cities and water
Sanctuary cities
Circular cities

To further refine the project’s thematic orientation, we then added a vertical axis to subdivide the five chapters in each category according to the four categories of global systems transformations identified in SR1.5 as necessary to limit global warming below 1.5° above pre-industrial levels: energy, land use and ecosystems, urban infrastructure, and industry. [2] Based on the December workshop, we adapted these to land use, industry, inclusivity, and earth systems, adding a fifth “wild card” category to allow for further policy input and ensure the project’s adaptability to rapidly changing global and urban dynamics. Table 1 shows the resulting grid.

    Table 1

  Land use Industry Inclusivity Earth systems Wild card
Cities and ghosts Rewilding Desindustrialization Prisoners Geoheritage Historical monuments
Organic cities Adaptive capacity Vertical farming Green spaces Biomimicry Wet markets
Cities and borders Mapping Land conversion (urban sprawl) Melting pots Water basins City networks (twinning)
Sick cities Food deserts Fenceline communities Access to care Infectious disease spread by climate change Waste management
Cities and movement Carless cities Ports (air and sea) Walkability Wather systems and pollution Slow cities
Connected cities Trade routes Remote work Surveillance City networks for climate mitigation Internet of things
Cities and work Extractive industries Company towns Informal economies Green jobs Skilled and unskilled labor
Hostile cities Air pollution Hostile architecture Protests and policing Desertification The unhoused
Cities and water Ground permeability Wastewater management Water insecurity Sea level rise Flash floods
Sanctuary cities Seed banks Undocumented labor Religious institutions Influx of climate refugees Silent spaces
Circular cities Recycling Circular economy Indigenous knowledge Urban heat islands Rise and fall

 

Accordingly, each juxtaposition of row and column yields a specific subject confronting the city of today and tomorrow: {organic cities, industry : vertical farming}; {cities and water, earth systems : sea level rise}; {hostile cities, inclusivity : protests and policing}. Each resulting chapter will thus take into account one of these phenomena in light of the latest science and policy knowledge, drawing a portrait of its consequences for a future city rooted simultaneously in empirical reality and literary imagination.

The rules, such as they are

Invisible Cities is not a constraint-based work in the typical oulipian sense of strict alphabetical or procedural parameters (such as, respectively, Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition, a 300-page whodunit that does not contain the letter E; or Jacques Jouet’s Poèmes de métro, which uses municipal transit infrastructure to govern a poem written over the course of a commute). But its organizational scheme, visible only in the table of contents, lends itself ideally to the formalization and addition of rules. 

Some of our rules here were stated from the outset of the project; others were added as the composition process went on, refined in particular after a February 2021 session in which Oulipo authors presented drafts in progress to subject matter experts from the City of Paris, the University of Western Brittany, Sciences Po, and the International Association of Francophone Mayors. Participants exchanged feedback and participated in a broader discussion about how the global city has changed since Calvino’s time and about the roles of art and creativity in promoting and sharing ownership of municipal initiatives, [3] making for a methodology that was both very structured and also iterative. Box 1 contains a sampling of those rules:

Box 1

  • These cities exist in the future, near or distant, though this will be as vague to the reader as it is in Calvino’s book. Vestiges of our current present, the world of the beginning of the twenty-first century, should be perceptible. Above all, the cities in question and their inhabitants are in no way from a palpably earlier time: they know everything we know in 2021, after which things will have evolved or devolved as you determine.​
  • Each text is set in the present tense, which is to say it paints a portrait of each city by recounting what happens there, how people live, during the time of the narrator’s visit. This does not exclude the possibility of narrative prologues, but any recap of the city’s history should culminate in the present. The city’s history is not closed. 
  • The main priority is to maintain the style and attitude of Calvino’s original book, its timeless lyricism in which modernity sometimes stealthfully appears. Thus wordplay, alphabetical and syntactic constraints, and the like are to be avoided. As in the original book, the chapters will be of variable length but always quite short, roughly three paragraphs or two thousand characters.

 

More importantly, in addition to the assignment of one or more themes from the grid to write on, participating authors received supporting documentation in the form of bibliographical materials assembled in advance:

Box 2

Reference materials, in English and/or French, are available for each theme. Each author is free to draw on it as they please: more or less technically, more or less faithfully with respect to the current state of our knowledge of the subject. The idea is not to overwhelm the reader with science nor to delve into the realm of pure invention, but to make the two work together. 

 

Approximately one-third of these documents were sourced from SR1.5 and the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report; another third came from research by leading NGOs and academics, and the remaining third was sourced from international organizations and policy advisory bodies. The bibliography includes studies on, among many others, mobility, social justice, policing, green building codes, knowledge exchange, trade patterns, and consumption habits. While many are global in focus, some regional studies zero in on North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Arctic Circle, the Himalayas, the North Sea Region, the Midwest United States, and East Africa. National studies included Australia, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the United States, Portugal, India, and Sri Lanka; scaling down, case studies look at Accra, Ahmedabad, Basra, Bangkok, Bogota, Chicago, Dhaka, Durban, Gaza, Hong Kong, Lahore, Lima, Lisbon, Mumbai, Nakuru, Portland, Pune, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, San Antonio, Shenzhen, St. Louis, and Wichita. 

Samples

Below, in boxes 3 and 4, we share working drafts of chapters written by Michèle Audin of the Oulipo, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker. The final collection of texts will include neither policy exegeses nor a formal indication of the subject being treated; the policy background of each urban portrait is meant to be just that, a background: critically important to the meaning of the text and yet not explicit—sometimes  visible, sometimes invisible. Here we provide theme, topic, and immediate (and not necessarily policy-adjacent) bibliographic materials.  

Audin’s portrait of the city of Mandala sits at the intersection of Circular cities and Industry, yielding the notion of the “circular economy.” The primary resources drawn on were reports on this topic published by the French Ministry for Ecological Transition and ADEME (Agence de l’environnement et de la maîtrise de l’énergie); a number of watershed reports and platforms, including the report on “The Circularity Gap” by the Project to Accelerate the Circular Economy, also appear elsewhere in the thematic category of Circular cities, under topics such as “Recycling.” [4] 

Box 3

Circular cities, 2.
 
The city planners who conceived Mandala intended for it to be shaped like a circle. Its streets would be circular, too, all of them converging at a given point. Reification of our economic principles, they said. Hawaiian earrings, said a poet. Tangent circles, said a mathematician.

At the point where the streets are farthest apart, where the fresh, invigorating sea air wafts over Mandala, the vast stone houses are surrounded by green parks, planted with tall trees and strolled by handsome young inhabitants. The buildings are beautifully maintained. Replaced materials are carried a bit farther down the road, to the right as you look out of Mandala, and are used to repair the slightly less luxurious buildings in this part of the city, taking the place of stones, boards, and glass that in turn are used a bit farther down the same road. In the same way, unconsumed food is eaten by the inhabitants on the right, books already read are taken to be read elsewhere, tools, clothes, containers... everything drifts to the right, toward the needier parts of Mandala. Scrap material from one industry becomes raw material for the next, wastewater from one refinery becomes cooling water for the power plant to its right, then becomes steam to heat the adjacent housing for workers.

Thus, in the square where all these streets converge, all that can no longer be moved accumulates, forming a huge tower of plastic, metal, and remnants of household appliances. This is the home of the inhabitants who have also been displaced rightward as they age. For only half of each street is built and used: in truth, Mandala is only a semicircular city.

 

Audin’s treatment calls to mind Paul Hirst, Craig Wilkins, and most obviously Henri Lefebvre, reifying social space as a social product (as Lefebvre proposed in The Production of Space, published in 1974, two years after Invisible Cities): the built environment comes to reflect the economy, politics, and biases of the city system. But the text soon moves on, replacing the conventional optimism around policy exchange with a palpable skepticism toward nation-backed, private sector–endorsed, academic superstar–touted economic jargon. Neither the consultants nor the “creative class” are coming to save anyone. [5] Rather than parroting or even challenging specific policy points, Audin sounds an alarm informed, the reader is left to imagine, by the results of previous such concepts.  

The city of Cassandra, also described by Audin, sits at the intersection of Cities and borders and the wild card category, whose topic is City networks (twinning)—a somewhat antiquated way to evoke city cooperation such as it has been practiced from the early modern Hanseatic League to sister cities during the Cold War, culminating in the aforementioned burgeoning contemporary ecosystem of city networks. The primary resources provided were “Conducting City Diplomacy: A Survey of International Engagement in 47 Cities” by Anna Kosovac, Kris Hartley, Michele Acuto, and Darcy Gunnin; and background material on UNESCO’s networks of cities focused on education and culture. [6] 

Box 4

Cities and borders, 5.
 
The traveler has arrived in the city of Cassandra during the solstice, as have other visitors from markedly different cities. The inhabitants of Cassandra await them to accompany them through the various parts of the city, showing them the tangled streets of the old town, pointing out the canals and bridges, the squares, the houses, the factories, the theaters, the neighborhood stores and schools, offering them fragrant dishes and fruits exotic to the palates of the new arrivals. They then lead them to the esplanade, where they discover the spider’s web of taut strings and pegs that weave a scale model of all of Cassandra’s sister cities. Here each visitor takes pleasure in recognizing and indicating the place of her own city.

And already night has fallen. Everyone gathers and settles in the grand market on kit bags and barrels. Those who come from Cassandra tell how the city joined with the surrounding towns to form the greater Cassandra. The older ones recall that the very first city to join Cassandra, at the very beginning of the spider’s web, was Freyja: how they had to get to know one another in order to avoid another war. Some visitors recount how they were welcomed in shelters or by families in the cities where they sought refuge. Their story is the story of how they were taught their new city, how to speak there, how to work and live there. How to love there, adds one, how to write poems there, says another, how to make chicken yassa, adds a young man, and fragrant rice dumplings, and steamed ravioli, the offerings endless. Tonight, in Cassandra, not everyone speaks the same language, and so we discuss and we translate, laughing because we understand or do not understand.

In the following days, the visitors continue to learn from one another: the gestures that raise a barrier against contagion, the forest that nourishes and protects, even, for the poets, the scent of elephants after the rain. When the nights begin to get shorter, they return home.

At the next solstice, it is a city in the other hemisphere, Artemis, Helena, or another, that will organize in its turn the school of the network, where the inhabitants of Cassandra will go.

 

Here Audin brings her fictional treatment into direct contact with a subtle ongoing revolution in global and urban governance—the logistics of arrival in her urban field trips will ring familiar to many city officials. She also captures the spirit of so-called “city diplomacy”: the neighborliness, congeniality, and increasing familiarity of cities connected across continents, oceans, and borders. Nonetheless, if these cues will be evident to the reader versed in diplomatic discourses, they are not so explicitly referenced as to puncture the dreamlike quality of the travelogue: the text obeys the dictates of fiction first, and shows its grounding in scholarship second. In that sense, the line between creative production and policy advocacy remains clear and disciplinary and professional distinctions of style and language unblurred. [7]

Onward and outward 

In keeping with the group’s only official self-definition—”rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”—the Oulipo has served as the test group for this project, taking the first crack at crossbreeding a science and policy foundation with a literary execution in homage to one of its most illustrious members. (True to experimental form, this has not been without its false starts and course corrections.) But our aim for the broader project is that the thematic grid, the bibliography, and the basic models of the rules used will be available to any and all participants—academic writing programs, artists’ collectives, musicians, photographers, and so on—interested in bringing these ideas to artistic life. 

Our hope is less to find any single specimen that perfectly balances these two modes than to model, over time and through accumulation, how art and science can be in ongoing and productive conversation. We hope each execution can be, in its own way, simultaneously concrete in its attention to reality—a vector that teaches the reader something, even just a detail, about the city’s contemporary stakes and phenomena—and an incitement to dream more expansively about our role therein. To put it another way, policy can be performed subtly—like the cats in Calvino’s Esmeralda creeping acrobatically along the city’s guttering—or loudly, like the bomb that destroys that same guttering, allowing the city to keep reinventing itself such that “each inhabitant can enjoy every day the pleasure of a new itinerary to reach the same places,” always balancing the particular and the universal.

Daniel Levin Becker is the youngest member of the Oulipo and the second American to be elected. He is the author of Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard University Press, 2012) and the forthcoming What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language (City Lights, 2022).

Ian Klaus is senior fellow in global cities  at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was a member of the Stanford Creative Cities Working Group from 2018 to 2020. He is the author of Forging Capitalism; Rogues, Frauds, Swindlers and the Making of Modern Finance (Yale University Press, 2014) and the forthcoming Absent-Minded Urbanists (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Michèle Audin is a mathematician specialized in symplectic geometry and the author of books on the history of mathematics and the Paris Commune, as well as several novels including, most recently, Josée Meunier 19, rue des Juifs (L’Arbalète Gallimard, 2021). Her novel One Hundred Twenty-One Days, translated by Christiana Hills, was published by Deep Vellum in 2016.

ianrklaus@gmail.com

daniel.levinbecker@gmail.com


Notes

[1] https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/sites/default/files/2020-12/ccga_citydiplomacy_2020_0.pdf. Accessed 1 June 2021.
[2] Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2018), SR1.5, Chapter 4, Section 4.3.1; SR1.5, Chapter 4, Section 4.3.2; SR1.5, Chapter 4, Section 4.3.3; SR1.5, Chapter 4, Section 4.3.4.
[3] Collaborators included Mario Alejandro Ariza, Christian Nakarado, Lorenzo Alunni, Raksha Vasudevan, Laura Schewel, Erina Alejo, Luis Renta, Lucas Wittmann, Simon Sylvester Chadhuri, Shilpi Kumar, Peggy Phelan (written), Yann Francoise, Pierre Baillet, Lionel Prigent, Lorenzo Kihlgren Grandi, and Kiran Jain. They were all generous with both their time and their expertise. 
[4] https://www.ecologie.gouv.fr/leconomie-circulaire; https://www.ademe.fr/expertises/economie-circulaire  https://pacecircular.org/sites/default/files/2020-01/Circularity%20Gap%20Report%202020.pdf
[5] Andrew Herscher, The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit (The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 2012), 7.
[6] Anna Kosovac, Kris Hartley, Michele Acuto, and Darcy Gunnin, “Conducting City Diplomacy: A Survey of International Engagement in 47 Cities,” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and University of Melbourne Connected Cities Lab (October, 2020);  https://uil.unesco.org/fr/apprendre-au-long-vie/villes-apprenantes;  https://fr.unesco.org/creative-cities/content/creative-cities
[7] Here again the urbanism practices highlighted by Herscher provide useful juxtaposition, particularly when they intentionally dissolve such distinctions.