Bio-Politics in the Age of Urbanism

Roman Military Camp

Roman Military Camp in modern day Algeria. Drawing by Jean-Claude Golvin [French archaeologist and architect]

"This year I would like to begin studying something that I have called, somewhat vaguely, bio-power.* By this I mean a number of phenomena that seem to me to be quite significant, namely, the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power, or, in other words, how, starting from the eighteenth century, modern western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species. This is roughly what I have called bio-power." — Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population.Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78, Edited by Michel Senellart, General Editors: François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana, English Series Editor: Arnold I. Davidson, Translated by Graham Burchell (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2009) 16.

With the increasing growth of European cities in the 17th and 18th centuries and the search for new urban forms, Michel Foucault argues that a new form of politics also emerged: Bio-politics, a political strategy concerned with the human as a biological species. In this essay I would like to elaborate on Foucault’s argument regarding this relationship between the processes of urbanization and the question of the population. For Foucault, urbanization was the search for a new space, a space of circulation, or as he calls it: the construction of a milieu. Further, I will argue that the emergence of this space of circulation goes hand in hand with the emergence of new forms of scientific knowledge and measurement, and thus informs the politics of what in the 17th and 18th century, especially in Germany, was called Polizeywissenschaft.  To regard urban dwellers as a population, through which we can imagine a new urban space, becomes the instrument for many urban projects pursued under a regime of Bio-politics: from Cerdá’s Plan of Barcelona, to the Garden City, to the superblocks of Red Vienna, the “Siedlungen” of Frankfurt and Nazi Germany, and many more. Today we can even say that the regime of Bio-Politics has become newly encoded into the logic of sustainability.


In “Right of Death and Power of Life”, the last chapter of his first book on “The history of sexuality”, Michel Foucault summarizes what happened to mankind on the threshold to modernity: “For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question.”Michel Foucault, The history of Sexuality – Volume 1: An Introduction, Translated from the French by Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Book, 1978), p.143. With the beginning of modernity, as he states, we as a species became the focus of political strategy.GA-HS p.13 German edition. This turn towards the politics of the species is what Michel Foucault refers to as Bio-politics. We humans were no longer seen as citizens acting politically within cities, but were instead turned into a statistical population and thereby an abstract instrument of Architecture and Urban Design.



In order to better understand this epistemic shift from ‘mankind’ as political subject to ‘the human species’ as an instrument of political strategy, we should briefly consider what Hannah Arendt called vita vitae in her book on “The Human Condition”.Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, A Study of the Central Dilemmas facing modern Man, (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, INC. Garden City) 1959. For Aristotle, as Hannah Arendt describes in her chapter on Vita Activa, man has three ways in which he lives in freedom devoted to the idea of the “beautiful”:

"… the life of enjoying bodily pleasures in which the beautiful, as it is given, is consumed; the life devoted to the matters of the polis, in which excellence produces beautiful deeds; and life to the philosopher devoted to inquiry into, and contemplation of, things eternal, whose everlasting beauty can neither be brought about through the producing interference of man nor can be changed through his consumption of them."Arendt, The Human Condition, 14.  

For Aristotle, the labor which was necessary for keeping oneself alive, meaning to keep one’s biological being alive, was the labor of the slave and not that of the free political subject. The life of the craftsman and the merchant were also excluded from bios politikos.Arendt, The Human Condition, 14.   What we find in the Greek city-states, is that only the life of action and not the life of labor or work, as Hannah Arendt calls it, counted as bios —only life engaged in the political activity of the polis mattered as a way of living.  The Greeks had a clear division of what is meant to be private and what is meant to be public. The space of home (oikia) was the private space of the family. It was the space of our biological life, in which the human animal activities where placed. It was also the place of the economical household, which meant the organization and management of everything which was necessary to stay alive: reproduction, food, health, etc. Beside this private life was then the public life. Only this public life was meant to be the life of the bios politikos. Thus every citizen (not everyone as we know, since slaves, women and foreigners were excluded) had therefore two lives: the private (the biological) and the public (the political).Arendt, The Human Condition, 25.


With the emergence of the nation-state, marked by the end of religious wars in Europe and the Treaty of Westphalia, we can also see a distinct shift of the private realm into the public one. With the nation state, the privacy of the economical household become as subject of a “national economy” or “social economy”. What was meant is that in opposition to the city-states of antiquity, the private household became a kind of general logic of “collective housekeeping.”Arendt, The Human Condition, 25.    Therefore all matters of the private move towards the interest of the nation, into a kind of super-family, as Hannah Arendt calls it. This shift meant that suddenly, the division of the original Greek meaning of private and public are blurred, and what emerges is what we call today “society”. From this moment on, our biological bodies become the focus of political interest and we turn from a political subject into a bio-political being.


How this shift is expressed in architecture, urban design, and urban planning is what I call “Urbanism in the Age of Bio-Politics”, which I will elaborate below. It is concerned with the emergence of society, which becomes the focus of political calculation and it is through this idea that we can observe a shift in the production of cities, where the traditional boundaries that characterized the cities of the Middle Ages are dissolved and a new kind of “urbanism” emerges.


Space of Circulation

In the Middle Ages a gigantic explosion of autonomous cities emerged within the European territory. The over production of agriculture made it possible for people to achieve a degree of autonomy from the landlord or emperor to become a free citizen of the self-organized city. In order to sustain their life they produced goods and traded them. This model of the economy gave the cities of the Middle Ages their name: the mercantile city.


In the 16th and 17th centuries, something started the change between the more or less equally distributed confetti of cites. Emperors like the Austrian Kaiser and the French Kings moved their royal courts to Vienna and Paris and after the Popes moved to Rome, turning mercantile cities into capitol cities. With the beginning of the formation of the modern nation state and its accumulation of its capital towards one center, a new form of administration and the rise of economic concentration had to follow and the fortified cities of the Middle Ages with their walls become questionable. As Foucault observed, “Broadly speaking, what was at issue in the eighteenth century was the question of the spatial, juridical, administrative, and economical opening up of the town.”Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 27.


In the first lecture of his series on Security, Territory and Population, Foucault turns his attention to the new towns built in northern France during the reigns of Ludwig the XIII and XVI, and asks what form these settlements took. What he concludes is that many cities like Richelieu were built on the form of the Roman camp.Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 27.   Foucault’s interest in the form of the military camp is not its strategic territorial manifestation, but rather its internal organization: that the camp was used as a disciplinary instrument for Roman troops.Foucault, (p.33 german version). In plan, this emphasis on the macro logic of the camp can be seen in the subdivision of squares into smaller squares, each time scaling the roads to always smaller and smaller spaces of circulation. In a very detailed description of the subdivision of the squares from large to small, Foucault describes how this scaling of rectangles had a direct relationship to the width of the streets. On one end of the city the spaces are wide and the blocks are big, while at the other end, the block and the streets are narrow. For Foucault, this is an indication that circulation was especially needed where shops, businesses, and craftspeople were located, but in areas where the people lived, more space should be provided. It is interesting to mention here, that the location of the camp was of enormous importance for the Romans. If we read into Vitruvius’s Book 1 in his Ten Books of Architecture, we find the central importance of location to the design of the fortified city. In Vitruvius, location is a guarantee of the wellbeing of future inhabitants:

"First comes the choice of a very healthy site. Such a site will be high, neither misty nor frosty, and in a climate neither hot nor cold, but temperate; further, without marshes in the neighborhood. For when the morning breezes blow toward the town at sunrise, if they bring with them mists from marshes and, mingled with the mist, the poisonous breath of the creatures of the marshes to be wafted into the bodies of the inhabitants, they will make the site unhealthy."p17-18 TBA vitruvius.


He concludes:

"I cannot too strongly insist upon the need of a return to the method of old times. Our ancestors, when about to build a town or an army post, sacrificed some of the cattle that were wont to feed on the site proposed and examined their livers. If the livers of the first victims were dark-colored or abnormal, they sacrificed others, to see whether the fault was due to disease or their food. They never began to build defensive works in a place until after they had made many such trials and satisfied themselves that good water and food had made the liver sound and firm."p17 TBA vitruvius.  


The creation of a space of circulation for goods, people, troops, water and air, had many functions in Foucault’s reading of these cities: it served first hygienic purposes, providing spaces of ventilations for the crowded dwellings of the towns. Secondly, it guaranteed trades for all kind of goods. Thirdly the layout of the camp connected its inner streets to the territorial hinterland and other cities without giving up its customs control. Finally, this layout served as a surveillance regime, since, as Foucault explains, the town was no longer protected at night, and where trade was allowed to continue, crime would also have to be regulated.



This management of flows is the condition for what Foucault calls the constitution of a milieu. In an more abstract definition he defines the milieu as “what is needed to account for action at a distance of one body on another… It is therefore the problem of circulation and causality that is at stake in this notion of milieu."Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 16.  Even when Foucault argues that architects and urban planners might not have used the word “milieu”, he demonstrates through his examples of urban form that these principles were at work already by the 18th century, through the management of the space of circulation within towns and cities.


The milieu becomes the spatial manifestation of a bio-politics. All its necessary administration starts to operate as an apparatus for the security of the population at large. Its aim is to govern the human species as a biological entity, a population within its urban ecology. What is at stake now, is that with the identification of a milieu for human inhabitants, we have the emergence of a new understanding of city planning, what the urban planner Ildefonso Cerdá would later describe as the shift towards a generalized question of population measured through statistics. This shift can be seen by the emergence of a discipline that Foucault defined in the end of his lecture series in lecture 12 where he gives the reader an insight in the understanding of the German word polizeywissenschaften or “police science.”



With this transformation of the urban environment into a field of bio-political governance, we also see the demand for the management of this space of circulation –this milieu. This gives rise to the need for a new kind of institutional caretaker, or as Foucault calls it, a new art of governance for which a new science “the Polizey-Wissenschaften” was named. Books like “Grundsätzte der Polizey-Wissenschaft” (Göttingen: Van den Hoecks, 1756), “Grundriß einer guten Regierung, 1759, and  especially “Grundfeste der Macht und Glückseligkeit der Staaten oder Polizeiwissenschaft”, 1760-1761 by J.H.G von Justi are published.  It should be no surprise that this new science found a particularly strong application in Germany, where the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War had created a gigantic patchwork of states that seemed perpetually in search of equilibrium.


When Foucault argues that polizeywissenschaften becomes a tool of urban governance, he also insists that we look in to the definition of what policing meant at that time, and here we must acknowledge that it had little to do with the narrow task of policing violent crime, but was more accurately understood as a responsibility to officiate “the relationship between the increase of the state's forces and its good order.”Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 317. This “good order” is historically referred to as the state’s “splendor.” What can be said is that splendor refers then to the management of what police pursued for the wellbeing of a population or more specifically, for the inhabitants of a city and its territory. Foucault quotes P.C.W. Hohenthal from 1776: “I accept the definition of those who call police the set of means that derive the splendor of the entire state and the happiness of all its citizens.”Quoted in Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 313-314. Originally: P.C.W. Hohenthal, Liber de politia  § II p.10 (Leipzig: C. J. Hilscherum) 1776. Having established this mandate for polizeywissenschaften Foucault goes on to name five points that defined the responsibilities of the police to ensure this right balance between the population within a territory, its wellbeing, and the best possible development for the state at large.Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 322-323.  


1. Number of people within a territory

The first task of the police was a kind of census: to measure the population in relationship to the territory, its available natural resources, its commercial activities, while at the same time securing the wealth of the citizens within the territory.


2. Necessities of life

The second role of the police was that of inspection: to investigate the needs of food, housing, clothing, and heating. These necessities aimed to ensure that a population could feed itself and have enough support to reproduce itself and sustain life after giving birth. In Short the police controlled the circulation of foodstuffs.


3. Health

The third care-taking role of the police was the public health. The police were responsible for providing adequate circulation of air and light, in order to ventilate the human artifact, namely the city within its particular territory. The prevalence of fevers, infections, and contagions, described generally as “miasma”, necessitated a careful attention to issues such as windows, drains, building and road conditions.


4. Activity

The fourth object of the police, hardly to be imagined today, was the inspection of activities, especially those to do with work and idleness. It was a form of labor management that ensured that standards of labor and trade were observed, and that only the disabled poor (and not the merely indolent) were provided with assistance. The main importance for such regulations was to regulate economic activity and to guarantee the right professions were both practiced and available.


5. Circulation of Goods,

The last objective was to regulate the space of circulation of goods and people. On the one hand it was the care for the condition of the roads, the guidance of traffic on streets and canals, but on the other hand it was also about the regulation of traffic across boundaries, through which all materials flow into and out of the territory.


So Foucault concluded that the aim of the police was to govern all forms of coexistence and their related subjects in a society. The task of the police was to care about the milieu through which the regime of polizeywissenschaften guarantees the wellbeing of a population within a given territory. It is this shift from the city-states of the Middle Ages towards a nation-state that allowed this police science to emerge. This shift, through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy as Foucault calls it, goes hand in hand with the shift from the previously situated private realm towards the public realm. It is the emergence of society, with its aim of “national housekeeping“, that turn the focus towards the biological species as the subject of governance.


Two scales of bio-politics

In order to understand the reading of the various historical examples of how bio-politics has been instrumental to modern urban design, it seems to be necessary to understand how in the 19th and 20th century these regimes of urban politics span different scales of analysis: on the one hand the scale of the individual living unit, and on the other hand, the large scale of urban aggregation. As described above, the shift towards thinking in terms of population and the emergence of polizeywissenschaften, had been mainly focused on the scale of the common, the macro scale, in respect to the construction of a milieu. But it also meant that within the movement from the private realm towards the public one, a new scale emerged beside the scale of the population: the scale of the individual, the scale of intimacy, or perhaps the scale of the nuclear family. In his book Bio-Politics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture, Sven-Olov Wallenstein shows that bio-politics always has two scales of application:  

"On the lower or micro-level it works by individualization, or more precisely by producing individuality as the focal point of all the different techniques for monitoring the body politic, which now fractures into a living multiplicity. In this sense, individuality is produced by those very techniques that at the same time discover it as their proper object. But this process also makes another object visible on the higher or macro-level, namely population, which is how individuals appear when they are treated as statistical phenomena, and when they become endowed with a collective health and collective forms of reproduction of life."Swen-Olov Wallenstein, Bio-Politics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture (New York: FORuM Project, The Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture and New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009) 10.


The scale of the population is clear when we think of some of the major bio-political projects of European and American governance, since this scale is mainly represented, as Wallenstein says, by our legibility as statistical data. But how might we better understand the individual, small scale of bio-politics?


One might argue that Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter have nothing to do with what has been argued here, since their body of work was concerned with an understanding of the formal reading of the city and its awareness of its context, and nothing like biopolitics, as such. But in the beginning of their classic book Collage City, they demonstrate that the utopian projects of modernity required a new definition of the human, an archetype that could be useful in the same way that the population is used at the macro scale. This was for Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter the myth of the noble savage.Colin Rowe & Fred Koetter, Collage City (The MIT Press paperback edition: Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, 1983)..(CR+FK-CCp25 german version).  The myth of the noble savage emerged in the 18th century, at the same time as the idea of population, and was mostly a literary idea of a wild, natural human, governed by human nature alone and not yet “corrupted” by civilization. In Collage City, this abstraction of a human being functioned as a starting principle, a basic model for modern urban projects. It was the search not only for a “Naturmensch”, but the idea of an abstract scientific representation of the common man as the raw material for the bio-political task. Even when Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter emphasize that the noble savage was only an abstraction, it was this very quality of abstraction that has allowed the noble savage to persist in our urban imagination, to remain elastic and re-emerge in various forms within the last 200 years. I would argue especially that this figure is reincarnated as a worker or employee in the 20th century, where he became the focal point of the small scale of bio-politics.


To conclude, it has been argued that the emergence of the biopolitics in within the process of urbanization in the 18th century employed two levels of abstraction, two scales of analysis. On the micro-scale it was the figure of the noble savage and his basic set of biological characteristics and needs, the reduction and atomization of the nuclear family. At the macro-scale, the individual is merely a unit within the idea of population as a statistical entity.

Both scales of biopolitics can be found in the construction of modern urban projects, spanning the scale of the individual housing unit and its agglomeration within the city as an aggregated object. The aim of such aggregation was to form new milieus, or better spaces of circulation and spaces of inhabitation. With the birth of modern urbanism, the city of antiquity, the fortified logic of the circle as a host of a civitas, died.

Eixample development in Barcelona

Plan of the Eixample development in Barcelona (1859), by Ildefons Cerdà. Illustration: Archives of the Kingdom of Aragon, Barcelona/Ministerio de Cultura/Ministerio de Cultura.

Roman Camp

Roman Camp. Gordy, Wilbur F. American Beginnings in Europe (New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912). Copyright © 2004–2018 Florida Center for Instructional Technology.

Garden City Concept

Garden City Concept, 1902, England. A Group of Slumless, Smokeless Cities - Ebenezer Howard. Originally published in "Garden Cities of tomorrow", Sonnenschein publishing, 1902.

Karl Ehn

Karl Ehn, Karl Marx Hof, Vienna, 1930. Wikimedia/ Bwag

Römerstadt Siedlung

Römerstadt Siedlung, 1930s Frankfurt. Aerial View. Ernst-May-gesellschaft

Square of February 12th

Karl-Marx-Hof, Square of February 12th, Vienna. Wikimedia/ Georg Mittenecker

Frankfurt Siedlung Römerstadt Hedderheim

Das neue Frankfurt Siedlung Römerstadt Hedderheim plan. Gaki64

Aerial view of Levittown

Aerial view of Levittown, Pennsylvania.