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

They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. Image: Getty.

This is the first in a series of columns entitled “Critical Cities”, which will explore the rise of the “Urban Industry” – and question whether urbanisation is a good thing for the species or the planet.

The much-publicized Urban Age is, ostensibly, upon us. The inaugural and immoderate celebrations for this new phase in human evolution arrived in late 2006, with LSE professor Ricky Burdett’s Venice Biennale exhibition. Celebrations for the world’s urbanisation continue unabashed to this day – even though they have been ever so slightly tempered by capitalism’s latest crisis.

The handsomely sponsored celebrations that ushered in the Urban Age have more recently leapfrogged out from the businesses of architecture, academia and contemporary art. Today the revelries take place in just about every institution and company, everywhere.  Despite the corporate hospitality, popular effervescence and gaiety for all things urban, this might just end up being “the best worst party” – ever. It might just end up being the sort of party you wished you’d skipped, rather than one you helped organise.

In fact, for reasons we will reveal in this column, the land clearances of the world’s population and our centralisation into cities has been systematically championed and actively advocated for. The result of the campaigns means the majority of the world’s population now lives on just 3-4 per cent of Earth’s land surface. We will chart the currently opaque historic and contemporary relationships between NGOs, academia, business, high culture and governments, that make this unprecedented and humanity-changing enterprise possible. These interlinked and interdependent relationships we call “The Urban Industry”.

Those working in The Urban Industry are, knowingly or unknowingly,  marshaling the world off open, verdant and resource rich lands and in to barren, highly controlled, unequal and densely populated urban areas. It is important to be clear the herding and centralisation of the world’s population in to urban areas is by no means natural or inevitable, and it most certainly isn’t an “evolutionary step”. Are those in the Urban Industry on the wrong side of history?

Throughout these articles, we will present evidence that shows that contemporary cities are in fact creators, incubators and perpetuators of poverty and inequality. The urbanisation of the world should not be celebrated.

These facts are in direct contrast to and conflict with the lavishly sponsored meta-narrative of The Urban Industry that repeats over and over that cities are centers of innovation, creativity, happiness, good health and, even astonishingly the cause and the solution for global warming.

Each of the columns will focus on a different aspect or player in The Urban Industry. Academia for example, we reveal, had every opportunity to be the site to challenge the unjust processes causing forced urbanisation. Unfortunately, due to extreme class privilege and institutional racism – particularly prevalent in architecture, urban studies, planning and development studies universities – these academics are instead some of the most easily star struck, post-critical and inadequate people to examine the real causes and effects of the centralisation of the world’s population.

NGOs – like apparent social-minded academics such as Richard Sennett – spend the vast majority of their time ruminating on the challenges of the management, “strong” leadership and protocol needed for big cities to function. Moreover, we will highlight how NGOs such as UN Habitat are sponsored by some of the most dubious and corrupt corporations that favour commercial profits over human rights.

Capitalism’s interest in centralising the world’s population is threefold. Firstly, land clearances transplant the populations in to cities providing unhindered access to mineral resources and the opportunity for large-scale corporate farming. This type of urbanisation also creates a highly vulnerable and mobile workforce, that can easily be exploited on the industrial farms or once in the city they end up in.

Secondly, land clearances and the urbanisation of “traditional cultures” rapidly speeds up the homogenisation, mainstreaming and assimilation of many millions of people into the dominant westernised metropolitan culture – which often then leads to ‘the village’ being seen as backwards, redundant. The fracturing and alienation also significantly reduces the chances of any resistance to the corporate land grabs.

Thirdly, the creation and management of high population, high density, and compact cities is the ideal business environment. “Citizens” are both captured and highly dependent on goods and services and the scale of the market, and the limited geography make cities the ideal business context.

We will also highlight the role of culture being enacted through events like the London Festival of Architecture to advocate for urbanisation and support the false promises underpinning this so called “Urban Age”. Critical Cities is a column that seeks to place the processes that cause urbanisation at the forefront of discussions about cities. The column aims to undress and expose the great myths that lead some of the brightest to be entirely wrong when they suggest “cities are good for us” – and reveal who really wins and loses from the Urban Age.

Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield  are the founders of This Is Not A Gateway, and the editors of Critical Cities series of books.

Critical Cities: Ideas, Knowledge and Agitation Volume 4Myrdle Court Press (London, 2015)​.

 
 
 
 

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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