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)​.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.