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.

 
 
 
 

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.

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