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.

 
 
 
 

“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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