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)​.

 
 
 
 

“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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