What would happen to cities if there were no urbanists?

Abu Dhabi, where traditional clothes meet western architects. Image: Getty.

While Arab men of Dubai continue to wear the thawb, the city they’ve completely transfigured in under 50 years was planned and designed almost entirely by Western planning and architecture profiteers. Its most famous buildings, the Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifi, were designed and constructed by British companies (WS Atkins International and SOM respectively).

Women in India continue to wear sari on the streets of cities planned and designed by the British colonial occupation. New Delhi, India’s post-independence capital, was planned and designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, a man who had previously had only erected snobbish houses and dreadful memorials to war.

Our clothes are not yet westernised. But the streets we walk along, the rooms we wake up in, and the parliaments our laws are made in, have long been so. The very walls and thoroughfares of cities are creating echo chambers that are helping to speed up the process of homogenisation. Cities across the earth are cookie cutters versions of each other where western-educated decision makers purposefully aim to repeat, replicate and mirror western cities.

The fields of architecture, economics, urban studies and planning have long been champions of urbanisation and agents in the standardisation of urban lives. Graduates like to refer to themselves as “urbanists”: a self-given title that provides its recipient with the mobility to work in just about any position across the urban industry, and seemingly anywhere in the world. Over 45,000 people on Linkedin alone list their occupation as “Urbanista”.

But there are few fields as deep in the echo chamber and without scrutiny as urbanism is. These insiders are, with a small handful of exceptions, the one percent of the one percent; aloof, posh, over educated and self-regarding.  Their distance from reality allows urbanists to consider themselves outside and beyond politics.A

As we argued in the introduction to volume 2 of our “Critical Cities” series, this matters a great deal indeed. It is these urbanists who have imagined, designed and constructed the environment the majority of the world now lives in.


A world of difference

Less than two centuries ago, life was not only lived in entirely distinctive ways in the four corners of the world: it was often lived quite differently just over the hill or on the other side of the river. Aside from some in marginal lands, culture was unique to place and people.

Interaction and collaboration were based on one’s dissimilarities, and not on the “sameness” that’s desired and required by western-led globalisation today.

The distinctive beauty of the world, even 100 years ago, is troublingly almost beyond our memory and imagination now. The Urban Industry, which has engineered urbanisation and promoted the idea of a city lifestyle, has played a profound role in the hollowing out of our distinctiveness.

Today, both the ancient and modern cities of Iraq, shattered and brutalised by Western imperialist wars – and sometimes purposefully neglected by the Ba'ath Party – are being metamorphosed using a standardising 3d modelling software called “CityEngine”. The “turnkey” software evolved from the ideas and politics of Harvard-trained American Jack Dangermond.

Meanwhile a family in a bland home office in a non-descript village in northern England are using this software to design the homes and streets of Iraqi cities. Should we be concerned that the Hartley family, of Garsdale Design, are doing much of this work without visiting many the cities in question? It is, in their own words “too dangerous” for them. The west’s designs, however, have long been present in modern Iraq; Abu Ghraib prison, for example, was designed by American Edmund Whiting and built by British contractors in the late 1950s.

The same is true of other nations, too. In 2011, many British planning and architecture firms were discovered to be working directly with Muammar Gaddafi, master-planning and designing cities for the Gaddafi regime. Foster and Partners had been working with the Gadhafi family since at least 2003. Such is the scale and penetration of the American architecture and planning firms designing cities in China, that in 2014 the Chicago Tribune published a three-part series titled “Designed in Chicago, Made in China”. The cities they are working on will between them house populations bigger than the entire United States.

Colonialism, standardisation and the urban lab.

“A class of persons, Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, in intellect.”

Baron Macaulay, Supreme Council of India, 1835

How did we get here? How did cities and citizens across the world become so very similar? How did they come to look and feel western? How did aspiring for something as unsuccessful for human wellbeing as western cities become commonplace?

We need to look closely at three interlocking factors. Firstly, colonialism, a process that took place over 500 years, though with pronounced upsurges of Westernisation in 16th, 19th and 21st centuries. Secondly, the subsequent standardisation of everything (time, law, measurement etc) across the world – forced by war, conquest or via monetary incentives designed and managed by organisations in London, New York or Geneva. Thirdly, the main focus for this column: the Westernisation and elitism of education – particularly in the fields of architecture, planning and surveying, and urban studies.

Examining the reading lists of more than 45 urban studies courses from across the world, we found an echo chamber in which just 15 people produced the vast bulk of academic reading material. Every course we researched included at least five, but usually 10 or more of these people. Of these 15, just three are women: professors Sharon Zukin and Saskia Sassen and published amateur Jane Jacobs. All 15 are European or of European descent. All live in Europe or North America. Students in Singapore, for example, are being taught in English and schooled by a small handful of Western theorists.

Also key to the westernisation process is the schooling of international students who attend universities in the West – often funded by Western charities, institutes or governments.

Often lecturers and heads of government programmes and ministries were schooled in or by the West. For example, Dr Oswar Muezzins Mungkasa, Indonesia’s director of spatial planning and land at the National Development Planning Agency (BAPPENAS), undertook his Master of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Pittsburgh. Jo Santoso, head of Jakarta’s Tarumanagara University urban planning and engineering post-graduate courses, did his doctorate in urban history and urban development at TU Berlin. Prathiwi W. Putri, who works as an urban planner for a Dutch Catholic charity in Jakarta’s “informal settlements” of Marunda, did three degrees in Europe. Putri’s PhD was supervised under Europe specialist professor Frank Moulaert at Belgium’s KatholiekeUniversiteit Leuven.

Indonesia’s Urban Studies”, the influential blog “for those who are concerned about the advancement of urban development in Indonesia”, is written by Dr Deden Rukmana in Savannah, Georgia, in the United States. He is associate professor and coordinator of Urban Studies and Planning at Savannah State University. His master’s and PhD were both undertaken in the U.S.

Take any city in any part of the world and a similar pattern will reveal itself to some extent. From the head of government departments to charity workers on the ground, cities are being understood, built and managed with a western frame.

The next generation of students are being taught in standardised Western university structures by professors and administrators educated in the West’s very loud echo chamber. There is no doubt that Baron Macaulay, the member of the colonial “Supreme Council of India”, who is quoted above, would feel that the ambitions to create an anglicised ruling class for India and elsewhere that he laid out in 1835 has been successful well beyond his wildest expectations.

In just a generation or two the whole world’s perspectives on and insights into cities have dramatically narrowed. And the echo chamber is becoming louder and more forceful. The Westernisation of the world is flattening out our differences and distinctiveness – standardising everyone and everything, everywhere.


Time to step aside?

Unfortunately, as is so clearly demonstrated in the documentary Schooling the World, Western education and schooling structures have long been failing people in the West. We see these failures in particular in the fields related to our urban lives – architecture, housing, urban policy, and so forth.

Even though universities have been crammed with housing policy researchers for decades, it is today not possible to buy even a first home in London unless you have inherited wealth for a deposit and earn over £77k per year. The size of the average home has shrivelled, and there have been no great innovations or developments in housing design or use (unless of course, you include removing a wall between the kitchen and the living room). Urbanists have been, at best, little use.

Despite the existence of countless “Urban Labs”, the extent of public space is plummeting, as it is transferred wholesale from public to corporate ownership. Despite generations of urban and transport planning courses, air pollution is getting worse, with record levels regularly being broken every few years, and even though heavy-polluting industries have been transferred to China and elsewhere, air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe.

Despite innumerable, often life-threatening, urgent issues, the greatest concern for the Western academy interested in cities for the last three decades has been almost exclusively superficial and post-critical. Their books, conferences and classes have focussed on the role of artists in city change, creative cities, preserving memory, urban morphology and urban design; connectivity and placemaking, global cities, city branding and the horrible idea of “strong leadership” in cities. This is the “cities are great but they could be nicer” band, and they dominate everything. Perhaps most ridiculous has been the mind-numbing obsession with “the flaneur”, “the revolutionary act of walking” or what the hipster dictionary lists as “psychogeography”.

But the most problematic has been the heavy promotion of urban densification and “the compact city”. We are all being mocked when the case studies to forge 21st century urban policy are very modestly populated 15th century Italian towns like Pienza. Only last week did LSE’s Professor Anne Powers suggest further densification or sugar coated “Affricative infill” was the solution. All the while the real problems persist – and grow worse.

The relative successes of the post-war periods were achieved when there was a tangible threat of “the elite” losing their heads. Modest accommodations celebrated in mythologising films like The Spirit of 45 were introduced to prevent the system from breaking entirely.

But since the proliferation of urban labs, NGOs and charities, everything has got much, much worse. It might be better, for everyone, if the over-schooled, the paternalistic and the experts just got out of the way.

This is the fifth column in the Critical Cities series. You can find the first four at the links below:

1) Urbanisation is not natural or inevitable. It’s being inflicted upon us by the forces of capitalism.

2) Everything you thought you knew about cities is wrong.

3) Against the tyranny of progress: How did we come to see urbanisation as part of human evolution?

      4) Graveyards of distinctiveness: How cities are making us all the same

“Critical Cities: Ideas, Knowledge and Agitation, Volume 4” is out now from Myrdle Court Press. Follow Naik and Oldfield on Twitter

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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