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 Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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