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

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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