American cities are in crisis. So why is Richard Florida exporting their lessons?

A row of abandonded buildings in Detroit, Michigan, 2011.

American cities are in crisis. Those that muddled through the financial crash are now facing fiscal and infrastructural challenges. According to UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, “the criminal justice system [in many American cities] is effectively a system for keeping the poor in poverty.”

So it might come as a surprise that Richard Florida, self-styled guru of the so-called “creative class,” argues that cities in developing countries should follow America’s lead in his new book, The New Urban Crisis: How our Cities are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do about It.

America has historically exported its model of urban development. Take suburbanisation, for example, an urban model that originated in the United States, and which later became a global phenomenon. Thanks to suburbanisation, cities across the world have become sprawling car-centric metropolises.

The largest and fastest growing conurbations are found in low- and middle-income countries. But many of these cities face a series of environmental, economic and political challenges that cannot be addressed by importing American models of urbanization.

First and foremost, the rapid outward growth of cities threatens local ecosystems, and makes them vulnerable to shocks and stresses wrought by climate change.

Second, American cities were centres of industry whose growth fuelled the expansion of the middle class. While mass production remains a driver of economic growth, automation and deindustrialization threaten to inhibit developing countries from pursuing this development model.

Finally, many residents of cities in developing countries live in dense ‘informal’ popular neighbourhoods, often referred to pejoratively as slums. These can offer a vital foundation for support and social life, particularly for people who have recently migrated from rural areas.

City elites tend to favour large-scale real estate projects at the expense of informal settlements, and this has provoked violent backlashes from Istanbul and Rio de Janeiro to Phnom Penh and Johannesburg.

In his new book, Florida describes a brief sojourn to Medellín, Colombia. He was enthralled with what he found beyond his creative comfort zone of pop-up art galleries, Korean taco trucks and cucumber-infused table water. He recounts “thinking and writing nearly non-stop about the issues that had been discussed there” for an entire month.


The result was a eureka moment: “The crisis of global cities and global urbanization, I was starting to see, was a huge dimension of the New Urban Crisis, substantially bigger than the serious urban and suburban challenges in the United States.”

Florida laments that the focus of American urban policy has remained largely domestic. He asserts that “it is time for it to take on a more global dimension,” advocating for a U.S.-led effort to build new cities in “fragile and broken” nation-states.

There is a long history of building new cities. In most cases they have fallen victim to the same problems they were erected to counter. Florida’s enthusiasm in his book for a network of mini-Miamis dotting Africa’s coastline seems to come from a naïve belief that they would incubate his creative class.

Yet rather than dream of new utopian cities for African elites, the U.S. should focus on making its own cities liveable again. The extreme socio-spatial segregation of Detroit; Houston’s unwillingness to implement basic zoning laws; the endless sprawl of Los Angeles; endemic corruption and the recent race to the bottom to attract an Amazon headquarters are not models for replicating elsewhere.

As difficult as it may be for American urbanists like Richard Florida to admit, the seeds of urban transformation are not found in the U.S.

In fact, cities in developing countries are charting new innovations and practices that stretch far beyond the fantasises of American urbanists. American cities could learn a lot about transportation and public housing from Asian cities, or about low-cost off-grid energy systems that are being pioneered in African cities.

Richard Florida’s public persona is a never-ending celebration of creativity, so it is ironic that he fails to recognize the creative ways that people around the world are trying to adapt to climate change, foster equitable economic growth and advance political claims. Were more American planners and urbanists willing to listen, learn and experiment, they could find useful lessons in other parts of the world.

A longer version of this article appeared in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research titled ‘Florida in the Global South: How Eurocentrism Obscures Global Urban Challenges – and What We Can Do about It.’

Seth Schindler is Senior Lecturer in Urban Development & Transformation at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester. He previously coordinated the Global Studies Programme at Humboldt University of Berlin.

Jonathan Silver is Senior Research Fellow at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.