Everything you thought you knew about cities is wrong

A new light railway line under construction in Addis Ababa. The new transport system in the Ethiopian capital is funded by Chinese investors. Image: AFP/Getty.

Alarmingly, everything everyone one thinks they know about urbanization and cities is mistaken, absolutely and entirely.  Contrary to the heavily promoted narrative, people are not cheerfully and enthusiastically moving to cities. Most of the world’s population have been forced to, or left with no other alternative but to attempt to make a life in a city.

 Much of Britain’s urbanisation was a result of the parliamentary acts of the 18th and 19th centuries that enclosed (that is, privatised) common lands, leaving much of the population destitute and desperate. In the United States, from 1952, hundreds of thousands of people from different first nations were forced and bribed into cities under the federal government’s Urban Indian Relocation Programme.

In Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the US used carpet and napalm bombing campaigns to force the population out of rural areas and in to cities. This military strategy, intended to weaken the support base for the Viet Cong, was called “Forced Draft Urbanisation”.

Readers will be well aware of the Chinese Communist Party’s plan to urbanise a further 250m people via enticements or forced relocation. Readers may be less familiar with the Israeli government’s policy of urbanising tens of thousands of customarily nomadic Bedouin peoples via its Prawer-Begin Plan laws in Palestine.

The Urban Expansion Programme is the Ethiopian government’s plan to urbanise the majority of its population. This, according to government ministers including the ex-agriculture minister Wondirad Mandefro, is to industrialise the nation through the urbanisation of its population, and to provide significant incentives for foreign investment in large–scale agriculture in the rest of the country. Urbanisation will “free up” the majority of the land for natural resource exploitation, as well as generate foreign exchange through foreign–lead corporate farming operations. Prisons in Ethiopia are overflowing with people fighting their forced urbanisation and landlessness. So why do urbanists suggest people are willingly and energetically moving to cities?


Despite the assurances of the Urban Industry, westernised cities are not “good for you”. And doses of wealth, health and wisdom will not trickle down to their inhabitants.

London, despite being a favored upbeat case study for urbanists, is the most unequal western city in the world. The wealth gap between the rich and poor is over 280 times, and it continues increase as middle wages decrease and costs rise. Shelter, the housing charity, has reported there are just 43 “affordable” homes available to buy in London. In the borough we live in, Tower Hamlets, where one in two children wake up in poverty every day, there is just one affordable property available.

That upbeat cheerleading for London looks even sillier given that Londoners are leaving the capital in droves. Contrary to the popular narratives, westernised cities unfortunately incubate and solidify poverty and inequalities – the already rich get much richer, and the poor get poorer.

 While those in the urban industry relentlessly promote the benefits of urban life, they do so with their fingers crossed behind their backs. Urbanists have long known the health dangers of urban living, often stating they “need to take a break from the city” living part-time or having a second home; they certainly holiday well beyond urban environments, often in idyllic rural or ocean environments.

Unfortunately this is a luxury far out of reach of the vast majority of the urbanised billions, and the results should be a concern for all. According to Dr Mazda Ali, a German psychiatrist and researcher, people in cities are significantly more susceptible to stress than those who live elsewhere. Those who grow up in cities are twice as likely to become schizophrenics and are at a much higher risk of developing depression and anxiety. Dr Ali’s research has shown that people living in cities have a 40 per cent higher risk of developing mood disorders, and a 20 higher risk of developing anxiety disorders.   

Furthermore cities are making us susceptible to metabolic diseases. Over two thirds of the 382m people with diabetes live in cities, a figure that is expected to rise significantly. Most became diabetics after moving to cities as a result of changes in diet, activity and social environments.

So serious is the condition its been called Urban Diabetes, and special task forces revel in names such as Cities Changing Diabetes. Only this month a research paper has revealed over 9,500 people have died in the last year just from breathing London’s air. Still, urbanists and the Urban Industry continue to tell us that “cities are good for you”.

A better way of life? Tajik women reaping grass in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China. Image: Getty.

Cities cannot resolve the global warming they are major contributors to, either. And billions more of us living on top of each other in increasingly small battery cages is not cool, sensible or sustainable.

Not even Ikea, the world’s most successful seller of standardised DIY utopian domestic dreams argues cities will be great places to live. In fact, it paints a dystopian future we all should take note of. According to their own Future Scenario team, in just 10 years time, “Water and energy will again feel precious”, “Food will be more expensive”, “Our homes will become physically smaller”, “Manufacturing and developments in food processing will be the key”, “computers will be everywhere” and we will be living “atomised lives”.

Still, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Urban Industry repeats “trust us, cities will evidently, we promise, set you free”. 

Anticipating the response to this argument – no, a small handful of short railways built at tremendous cost of local peoples’ lives in order to extract commodities did not “civilise” a long flourishing and extraordinarily beautiful world. And yes, it is absolutely possible to be extremely concerned by the brutalising processes and outcomes of urbanisation, and highly critical of the funfair surrounding the so-called Urban Age and to live in a city ourselves. Both of our families were urbanised via quite different practices a number of generations ago.  

We, like just about everyone that writes on cities, have absolutely no personal knowledge or experience of non- contemporary urban existences. (We certainly don’t have any personal experience of what it means to live in the tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea or in the great city of Tenochtitlan.) What seems to unsettle and rile urbanists about us is that, even though we live in cities, we don’t feel it’s our business to back policies that’ll ensure people on the other side of the world will be forced to do the same.

We are ultimately arguing that there are other ways of living that are as or – more often than not – more suitable than our westernised urban condition. This does not make us romantics, wanting to go back to European feudalism and the Dark Ages – a period that increased poverty and destitution to such an extent that colonialism was a desperate last ditch attempt for survival for Europeans. That desperation and the willingness to use coercion and violence (including biological weapons such as small pox) enriched Europeans whilst parasitically impoverishing the survivors of their occupations in the rest of the world. It also forged more than 500 years of western military domination and cultural infiltration.

For the overwhelming majority of the worlds peoples’ modern westernised cities represent nothing more than a “last chance saloon” for families, which survive but can’t thrive, in landscapes which have been betrayed, broken, brutalised and bloodied by past and current parasitic colonial capitalism.

The prolonged almost uninterrupted military domination has resulted in the perversion, degeneration and absurd arrogance of western culture, to the point where it considers itself as the measuring stick of absolutely everything it can standardise in its favour. Western cities are now sufficiently enriched from their plunder, peaceful (on their own soil) and “refined” to such an extent, that they can’t be matched on their own yardsticks of “livability”.  

This false sense of superiority allows the west to continue to its custom of making prejudiced and illegitimate comparisons with rest of the world. Western cities have a particularly unfair advantage, as their very existence depends on globalization: the cities and their people are abstracted from the requirements of human existence to such an extent that they can be ideologically re-shaped. “Smart cities” and “Livable Cities” rankings are just the latest example of moving the goal posts to maintain superiority.

Here lays the real moneymaking machine and gimmick of the Urban Industry. This supremacy, perceived or real, illicit or not, means ideas, products, models, “expertise” and “hope” can and are being sold to the very same people who’ve been brutalised and undermined by five centuries of western military, cultural and resource domination. 

By theft, invasion or selling expertise, western cities such as London, Paris, New York, Johannesburg and Sydney continue to just get richer. It is time to question what we think we know about cities – and to challenge the hyperbolic “cities are good for you” and “triumph of the city” narrative.

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 4” is out now from Myrdle Court Press.

 
 
 
 

Budget 2017: Philip Hammond just showed that rejecting metro mayors was a terrible, terrible error

Sorry, Leeds, nothing here for you: Philip Hammond and his big red box. Image: Getty.

There were some in England’s cities, one sensed, who breathed a sigh of relief when George Osborne left the Treasury. Not only was he the architect of austerity, a policy which had seen council budgets slashed as never before: he’d also refused to countenance any serious devolution to city regions that refused to have a mayor, an innovation that several remained dead-set against.

So his political demise after the Brexit referendum was seen, in some quarters, as A Good Thing for devolution. The new regime, it was hoped, would be amenable to a variety of governance structures more sensitive to particular local needs.

Well, that theory just went out of the window. In his Budget statement today, in between producing some of the worst growth forecasts that anyone can remember and failing to solve the housing crisis, chancellor Philip Hammond outlined some of the things he was planning for Britain’s cities.

And, intentionally or otherwise, he made it very clear that it was those areas which had accepted Osborne’s terms which were going to win out. 

The big new announcement was a £1.7bn “Transforming Cities Fund”, which will

“target projects which drive productivity by improving connectivity, reducing congestion and utilising new mobility services and technology”.

To translate this into English, this is cash for better public transport.

And half of this money will go straight to the six city regions which last May elected their first metro mayor elections. The money is being allocated on a per capita basis which, in descending order of generosity, means:

  • £250m to West Midlands
  • £243 to Greater Manchester
  • £134 to Liverpool City Region
  • £80m to West of England
  • £74m to Cambridgeshire &d Peterborough
  • £59m to Tees Valley

That’s £840m accounted for. The rest will be available to other cities – but the difference is, they’ll have to bid for it.

So the Tees Valley, which accepted Osborne’s terms, will automatically get a chunk of cash to improve their transport system. Leeds, which didn’t, still has to go begging.

One city which doesn’t have to go begging is Newcastle. Hammond promised to replace the 40 year old trains on the Tyne & Wear metro at a cost of £337m. In what may or may not be a coincidence, he also confirmed a new devolution deal with the “North of Tyne” region (Newcastle, North Tyne, Northumberland). This is a faintly ridiculous geography for such a deal, since it excludes Sunderland and, worse, Gateshead, which is, to most intents and purposes, simply the southern bit of Newcastle. But it’s a start, and will bring £600m more investment to the region. A new mayor will be elected in 2018.

Hammond’s speech contained other goodies for cites too, of course. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • £123m for the regeneration of the Redcar Steelworks site: that looks like a sop to Ben Houchen, the Tory who unexpectedly won the Tees Valley mayoral election last May;
  • A second devolution deal for the West Midlands: tat includes more money for skills and housing (though the sums are dwarfed by the aforementioned transport money);
  • A new local industrial strategy for Greater Manchester, as well as exploring “options for the future beyond the Fund, including land value capture”;
  • £300m for rail improvements tied into HS2, which “will enable faster services between Liverpool and Manchester, Sheffeld, Leeds and York, as well as to Leicester and other places in the East Midlands and London”.

Hammond also made a few promises to cities beyond England: opening negotiations for a Belfast City Deal, and pointing to progress on city deals in Dundee and Stirling.


A city that doesn’t get any big promises out of this budget is – atypically – London. Hammond promised to “continue to work with TfL on the funding and financing of Crossrail 2”, but that’s a long way from promising to pay for it. He did mention plans to pilot 100 per cent business rate retention in the capital next year, however – which, given the value of property in London, is potentially quite a big deal.

So at least that’s something. And London, as has often been noted, has done very well for itself in most budgets down the year.

Many of the other big regional cities haven’t. Yet Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby were all notable for their absence, both from Hammond’s speech and from the Treasury documents accompanying it.

And not one of them has a devolution deal or a metro mayor.

(If you came here looking for my thoughts on the housing element of the budget speech, then you can find them over at the New Statesman. Short version: oh, god.)

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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