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.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

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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