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.

 
 
 
 

Brexit is an opportunity for cities to take back control

Leeds Town Hall. Image: Getty.

The Labour leader of Leeds City Council on the future of Britain’s cities.

As the negotiations about the shape of the UK’s exit from the EU continue, Britain’s most economically powerful cities outside London are arguing that the UK can be made stronger for Brexit – by allowing cities to “take back control” of service provision though new powers and freedoms

Core Cites UK, the representative voice of the cities at the centre of the ten largest economic areas outside London, has just launched an updated version of our green paper, ‘Invest Reform Trust’. The document calls for radical but deliverable proposals to allow cities to prepare for Brexit by boosting their productivity, and helping to rebalance the economy by supporting inclusive economic growth across the UK.

Despite representing areas responsible for a quarter of the UK’s economy and nearly a third of exports, city leaders have played little part in the development of the government’s approach to Brexit. Cities want a dialogue with the government on their Brexit plans and a new settlement which sees power passing from central government to local communities.

To help us deliver a Brexit that works for the UK’s cities, we are opening a dialogue with the EU Commission’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier to share our views of the Brexit process and what our cities want to achieve.

Most of the changes the Core Cities want to see can already be delivered by the UK. To address the fact that the productivity of UK cities lags behind competitors, we need to think differently and begin to address the structural problems in our economy before Brexit.

International evidence shows that cities which have the most control over taxes raised in their area tend to be the most productive.  The UK is significantly out of step with international competitors in the power given to cities and we are one of the most centralised countries in the world.  


Boosting the productivity of the UK’s Core Cities to the UK national average would increase the country’s national income by £70-£90bn a year. This would be a critical boost to the UK’s post-Brexit economic success.

Our green paper is clear that one-size fits all policy solutions simply can’t deal with the complexities of 21st century Britain. We need a place-based approach that looks at challenges and solutions in a different way, focused on the particular needs of local communities and local economies.

For example, our Core Cities face levels of unemployment higher than the national average, but also face shortages of skilled workers.  We need a more localised approach to skills, education and employment support with greater involvement from local democratic and business leaderships to deliver the skills to support growth in each area.

The UK will only make a success of Brexit if we are able to increase our international trade. Evidence shows city to city networks play an important role in boosting international trade.  The green paper calls for a new partnership with the Department of International trade to develop an Urban Trade programme across the UK’s cities and give cities more of a role in international trade missions.

To deliver economic growth that includes all areas of the UK, we also need to invest in our infrastructure. Not just our physical infrastructure of roads, rail telecommunications and so forth, but also our health, education and care infrastructure, ensuring that we are able to unlock the potential of our core assets, our people.

Whether you think that Brexit is a positive or a negative thing for the UK, it is clear that the process will be a challenging one.  Cities have a key role to play in delivering a good Brexit: one that sees local communities empowered and economic prosperity across all areas of the UK.

Cllr Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council.