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

 
 
 
 

The ATM is 50. Here’s how a hole in the wall changed the world

The olden days. Image Lloyds Banking Group Archives & Museum.

Next time you withdraw money from a hole in the wall, consider singing a rendition of happy birthday. For today, the Automated Teller Machine (or ATM) celebrates its half century.

Fifty years ago, the first cash machine was put to work at the Enfield branch of Barclays Bank in London. Two days later, a Swedish device known as the Bankomat was in operation in Uppsala. And a couple of weeks after that, another one built by Chubb and Smith Industries was inaugurated in London by Westminster Bank (today part of RBS Group).

These events fired the starting gun for today’s self-service banking culture – long before the widespread acceptance of debit and credit cards. The success of the cash machine enabled people to make impromptu purchases, spend more money on weekend and evening leisure, and demand banking services when and where they wanted them. The infrastructure, systems and knowledge they spawned also enabled bankers to offer their customers point of sale terminals, and telephone and internet banking.

There was substantial media attention when these “robot cashiers” were launched. Banks promised their customers that the cash machine would liberate them from the shackles of business hours and banking at a single branch. But customers had to learn how to use – and remember – a PIN, perform a self-service transaction and trust a machine with their money.

People take these things for granted today, but when cash machines first appeared many had never before been in contact with advanced electronics.

And the system was far from perfect. Despite widespread demand, only bank customers considered to have “better credit” were offered the service. The early machines were also clunky, heavy (and dangerous) to move, insecure, unreliable, and seldom conveniently located.

Indeed, unlike today’s machines, the first ATMs could do only one thing: dispense a fixed amount of cash when activated by a paper token or bespoke plastic card issued to customers at retail branches during business hours. Once used, tokens would be stored by the machine so that branch staff could retrieve them and debit the appropriate accounts. The plastic cards, meanwhile, would have to be sent back to the customer by post. Needless to say, it took banks and technology companies years to agree common standards and finally deliver on their promise of 24/7 access to cash.

The globalisation effect

Estimates by RBR London concur with my research, suggesting that by 1970, there were still fewer than 1,500 of the machines around the world, concentrated in Europe, North America and Japan. But there were 40,000 by 1980 and a million by 2000.

A number of factors made this ATM explosion possible. First, sharing locations created more transaction volume at individual ATMs. This gave incentives for small and medium-sized financial institutions to invest in this technology. At one point, for instance, there were some 200 shared ATM networks in the US and 80 shared networks in Japan.

They also became more popular once banks digitised their records, allowing the machines to perform a host of other tasks, such as bank transfers, balance requests and bill payments. Over the last five decades, a huge number of people have made the shift away from the cash economy and into the banking system. Consequently, ATMs became a key way of avoiding congestion at branches.

ATM design began to accommodate people with visual and mobility disabilities, too. And in recent decades, many countries have allowed non-bank companies, known as Independent ATM Deployers (IAD) to operate machines. The IAD were key to populating non-bank locations such as corner shops, petrol stations and casinos.

Indeed, while a large bank in the UK might own 4,000 devices and one in the US as many as 12,000, Cardtronics, the largest IAD, manages a fleet of 230,000 ATMs in 11 countries.


Bank to the future

The ATM has remained a relevant and convenient self-service channel for the last half century – and its history is one of invention and re-invention, evolution rather than revolution.

Self-service banking and ATMs continue to evolve. Instead of PIN authentication, some ATMS now use “tap and go” contactless payment technology using bank cards and mobile phones. Meanwhile, ATMs in Poland and Japan have used biometric recognition, which can identify a customer’s iris, fingerprint or voice, for some time, while banks in other countries are considering them.

So it’s a good time to consider what the history of cash dispensers can teach us. The ATM was not the result of a eureka moment of a single middle-aged man in a bath or garage, but from active collaboration between various groups of bankers and engineers to solve the significant challenges of a changing world. It took two decades for the ATM to mature and gain widespread, worldwide acceptance, but today there are 3.5m ATMs with another 500,000 expected by 2020.

Research I am currently undertaking suggests that ATMs may have reached saturation point in some Western countries. However, research by the ATM Industry Association suggests there is strong demand for them in China, India and the Middle East. In fact, while in the West people tend to use them for three self-service functions (cash withdrawal, balance enquiries, and purchasing mobile phone airtime), Chinese customers consumers regularly use them for as many as 100 different tasks.

Taken for granted?

Interestingly, people in most urban areas around the world tend to interact with the same five ATMs. But they shouldn’t be taken for granted. In many countries in Africa, Asia and South America, they offer services to millions of people otherwise excluded from the banking sector.

In most developed counties, meanwhile, the retail branch and the ATM are the only two channels over which financial institutions have 100 per cent control. This is important when you need to verify the authenticity of your customer. Banks do not control the make and model of their customers’ smart phones, tablets or personal computers, which are vulnerable to hacking and fraud. While ATMs are targeted by thieves, mass cybernetic attacks on them have yet to materialise.

The ConversationI am often asked whether the advent of a cashless, digital economy heralds the end of the ATM. My response is that while the world might do away with cash and call ATMs something else, the revolution of automated self-service banking that began 50 years ago is here to stay.

Bernardo Batiz-Lazo is professor of business history and bank management at Bangor University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.