Here’s how we can embrace urban living without triggering the apocalypse

The future of cities? Image: Paul Jones/Northumbria/author provided.

Cities – we are repeatedly told – are the future. Governments and global corporations seek to increase productivity by accelerating urban growth, while more and more citizens migrate to cities, in search of a better life. Indeed, the Chinese government recently unveiled plans to construct a city three times the size of New York, calling it a “strategy crucial for a millennium to come”. The Conversation

Yet as it stands, visions of our urban future are bleak.

By 2050, it is predicted that up to 6bn inhabitants will live in urban areas – more than two thirds of the world’s population. There could be as many as 30 cities with populations exceeding 10m, and massive urban areas may merge to form megacities, resulting in urban populations exceeding 50m.

According to Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, approaching 2bn of the world’s inhabitants will live in slums, scratching out an existence without access to the basic services necessary for life. Another 4bn will live severely compromised lives within urban sprawl, left to fight for resources as city governments fail to cope with the rapid influx of people.

A dim prospect. Image: Tokyoform/Flickr/creative commons.

Social services and health facilities will break down. Human catastrophes such as starvation and the spread of disease will result from unsanitary conditions and high population density. The megacities of the future will have weak and unsustainable local economies, that will negatively affect citizens’ lives in myriad ways.

Wealth will not provide immunity from these issues. Pollution will rise exponentially, with toxic smog regularly enveloping entire cities. This will inevitably lead to a rise in respiratory diseases, which are already emerging as one of the three major health risks to the modern population. Bad air quality will be made worse by the urban heat island effect, as parks and rural hinterlands are built over to house the influx of people.

Nature will struggle to gain a foothold in the future city, with rural land predicted to shrink by 30 per cent to accommodate urban expansion. The lack of countryside and green space will ultimately contribute to the sixth recorded mass extinction of animal and plant species.

A brighter future

But there is a way to avert this apocalyptic vision. Efforts to control the rapid and chaotic expansion of cities must go hand in hand with tackling the global environmental crisis, brought about by climate change. Governments, however, have proved unwilling or unable to reconcile the interests of global corporations with those of everyday people and the environment; this can be seen through their support of projects such as mining the Alberta Sands and oil operations in the Niger Delta.

Mining Alberta’s tar sands. Image: Kris Krug/Flickr/creative commons.

As such, any alternative to this bleak urban future will require a radical shift in governance and economic philosophy. Scholars argue that society’s economic aim should be the sustainable production and fair distribution of wealth – rather than the maximisation of profit. Devolving wealth and power will help to build robust local economies and strong communities, which can mitigate the pressures of global urbanisation.

These changes should also be manifest in the physical structure and form of urban communities, with compact, densely populated, sustainable and self-governing community developments, as opposed to laissez-faire urban sprawl. In alternative future cities, urban blocks will support all the immediate needs of their inhabitants; from healthcare to housing, education, food production, clean water and sanitation.

Welcome to the Organicity

A cut-through view of the Organicity. Image: Paul Jones/Northumbria/author provided.

To better understand what such a place might actually be like, David Dobereiner, Chris Brown and I created Organicity: an illustrated prototype for localised, autonomous, sustainable, urban community infrastructure. The Organicity is densely occupied, with residential, urban agriculture, retail, industry, commerce, education and health facilities stacked above each other, accommodating approximately 5,000 people per unit.

Automated industries and waste processing are located beneath the living zone, where there is no need for natural light. Each unit has a primary industry which trades with other neighbouring communities to generate income to support the infrastructure. Resources should be managed at a local level, with a higher level of responsibility than is currently shown by global corporations.

Nature and knowledge, side by side. Image: Paul Jones/Northumbria/author provided.

Protecting the environment and supporting a diverse range of wildlife would be a natural function of these new communities. Biodiversity could be promoted by green corridors, situated near education, health and office spaces so that children and workers can benefit from the proximity of a rich natural environment.

People power

Investing in local people through the provision of skills and education will add to the commercial viability of the community, as well as building cohesion, purpose and mutual respect. As the sociologist Jane Jacobs argued back in the 1970s, for cities to remain viable they should become the producers of resources, rather than insatiable consumers.

In the Organicity, each development will have the necessary expertise for the community to flourish, including doctors, architects, solicitors, dentists, as well as skilled and unskilled labour. This new urban model transforms city blocks into productive environments. For example, the development of urban farming would boost food production and prevent starvation, which would be an inevitable consequence of unimpeded urban growth.

Community greenhouses. Image: Paul Jones/Northumbria/author provided.

The developments will vary in scale, with the bigger ones housing hospitals and other community facilities that require specialist facilities. The prototype reinvents the concept of “terraced housing”: land is stepped backwards up a slope, forming true terraces, where rows of houses are arrayed to embrace the public plaza and allotment gardens.

Within these communities, it is essential that people work close to where they live, to reduce the impacts of transport: not only will this tackle pollution, it will also afford people more quality time with their families and local community.

Sharing communal resources – including machinery and cars – is an important principle of urban sustainability. Communal ownership of assets, including real estate and green space, is essential for this model to work. Renewable technologies could also be community-owned, which would help to break people’s dependency on fossil fuel.

By shifting from globalisation to localisation, and creating smaller, self-sufficient communities within sustainable developments, cities could regain their equilibrium. From where we stand today, the Organicity may sound like a Utopian dream. But if we’re to avoid an urban apocalypse, we’re going to need strong alternative visions, to change the way we imagine and plan for the cities of the future.

Paul Jones is professor of architecture at Northumbria University, Newcastle.

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

 
 
 
 

Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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