On urban form, identity and politics / Seeing like a State, James C. Scott (1998)
The particular chapter cited in the narrative – ‘Cities, People and Language’ provides powerful insight on the linkage between urban form, identity and politics. Using Middle Eastern city Burges as an example, the article compared the spatial impact the settlement has to the locals and outsiders. Burges’s urban layout does not conform to any geometric logic or discernible form. However, to those who call it home, it is ‘perfectly familiar, perfectly legible’, as ‘its very alleys and lanes would have closely approximated the most common daily movements.’ To the foreigner, however, the city ‘lacked a repetitive, abstract logic that would allow a newcomer to orient herself.’
The cityscape of Bruges, therefore, privileges local knowledge over outside knowledge. Such is crucial as similar to a dialect or a tradition; the very space is a physical manifestation of shared heritage, memory and identity. The seemingly illegible layout reinforces solidarity within a clan and at the same time excludes external forces from deciphering, surveying and exerting control over it. Burges’ urban form, therefore, provides political insulation and protection to the people residing within it.
When considering Burges in parallel with Tashkent, the reason why the Russians left the city alone during the city’s first 50 years under Soviet rule becomes more apparent. Tashkent’s urban form has similar illegibility as Burges, which kept the settlement away from Russian intervention for half a century. The urban layout presented itself even more as a deterrent the Russians were heavily influenced by the Western, rational style of urban planning.
Scott, James C.. “Cities, People, and Language”. In Seeing Like a State – How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, trans. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), 53-55