What would happen to cities if there were no urbanists?

Abu Dhabi, where traditional clothes meet western architects. Image: Getty.

While Arab men of Dubai continue to wear the thawb, the city they’ve completely transfigured in under 50 years was planned and designed almost entirely by Western planning and architecture profiteers. Its most famous buildings, the Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifi, were designed and constructed by British companies (WS Atkins International and SOM respectively).

Women in India continue to wear sari on the streets of cities planned and designed by the British colonial occupation. New Delhi, India’s post-independence capital, was planned and designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, a man who had previously had only erected snobbish houses and dreadful memorials to war.

Our clothes are not yet westernised. But the streets we walk along, the rooms we wake up in, and the parliaments our laws are made in, have long been so. The very walls and thoroughfares of cities are creating echo chambers that are helping to speed up the process of homogenisation. Cities across the earth are cookie cutters versions of each other where western-educated decision makers purposefully aim to repeat, replicate and mirror western cities.

The fields of architecture, economics, urban studies and planning have long been champions of urbanisation and agents in the standardisation of urban lives. Graduates like to refer to themselves as “urbanists”: a self-given title that provides its recipient with the mobility to work in just about any position across the urban industry, and seemingly anywhere in the world. Over 45,000 people on Linkedin alone list their occupation as “Urbanista”.

But there are few fields as deep in the echo chamber and without scrutiny as urbanism is. These insiders are, with a small handful of exceptions, the one percent of the one percent; aloof, posh, over educated and self-regarding.  Their distance from reality allows urbanists to consider themselves outside and beyond politics.A

As we argued in the introduction to volume 2 of our “Critical Cities” series, this matters a great deal indeed. It is these urbanists who have imagined, designed and constructed the environment the majority of the world now lives in.


A world of difference

Less than two centuries ago, life was not only lived in entirely distinctive ways in the four corners of the world: it was often lived quite differently just over the hill or on the other side of the river. Aside from some in marginal lands, culture was unique to place and people.

Interaction and collaboration were based on one’s dissimilarities, and not on the “sameness” that’s desired and required by western-led globalisation today.

The distinctive beauty of the world, even 100 years ago, is troublingly almost beyond our memory and imagination now. The Urban Industry, which has engineered urbanisation and promoted the idea of a city lifestyle, has played a profound role in the hollowing out of our distinctiveness.

Today, both the ancient and modern cities of Iraq, shattered and brutalised by Western imperialist wars – and sometimes purposefully neglected by the Ba'ath Party – are being metamorphosed using a standardising 3d modelling software called “CityEngine”. The “turnkey” software evolved from the ideas and politics of Harvard-trained American Jack Dangermond.

Meanwhile a family in a bland home office in a non-descript village in northern England are using this software to design the homes and streets of Iraqi cities. Should we be concerned that the Hartley family, of Garsdale Design, are doing much of this work without visiting many the cities in question? It is, in their own words “too dangerous” for them. The west’s designs, however, have long been present in modern Iraq; Abu Ghraib prison, for example, was designed by American Edmund Whiting and built by British contractors in the late 1950s.

The same is true of other nations, too. In 2011, many British planning and architecture firms were discovered to be working directly with Muammar Gaddafi, master-planning and designing cities for the Gaddafi regime. Foster and Partners had been working with the Gadhafi family since at least 2003. Such is the scale and penetration of the American architecture and planning firms designing cities in China, that in 2014 the Chicago Tribune published a three-part series titled “Designed in Chicago, Made in China”. The cities they are working on will between them house populations bigger than the entire United States.

Colonialism, standardisation and the urban lab.

“A class of persons, Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, in intellect.”

Baron Macaulay, Supreme Council of India, 1835

How did we get here? How did cities and citizens across the world become so very similar? How did they come to look and feel western? How did aspiring for something as unsuccessful for human wellbeing as western cities become commonplace?

We need to look closely at three interlocking factors. Firstly, colonialism, a process that took place over 500 years, though with pronounced upsurges of Westernisation in 16th, 19th and 21st centuries. Secondly, the subsequent standardisation of everything (time, law, measurement etc) across the world – forced by war, conquest or via monetary incentives designed and managed by organisations in London, New York or Geneva. Thirdly, the main focus for this column: the Westernisation and elitism of education – particularly in the fields of architecture, planning and surveying, and urban studies.

Examining the reading lists of more than 45 urban studies courses from across the world, we found an echo chamber in which just 15 people produced the vast bulk of academic reading material. Every course we researched included at least five, but usually 10 or more of these people. Of these 15, just three are women: professors Sharon Zukin and Saskia Sassen and published amateur Jane Jacobs. All 15 are European or of European descent. All live in Europe or North America. Students in Singapore, for example, are being taught in English and schooled by a small handful of Western theorists.

Also key to the westernisation process is the schooling of international students who attend universities in the West – often funded by Western charities, institutes or governments.

Often lecturers and heads of government programmes and ministries were schooled in or by the West. For example, Dr Oswar Muezzins Mungkasa, Indonesia’s director of spatial planning and land at the National Development Planning Agency (BAPPENAS), undertook his Master of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Pittsburgh. Jo Santoso, head of Jakarta’s Tarumanagara University urban planning and engineering post-graduate courses, did his doctorate in urban history and urban development at TU Berlin. Prathiwi W. Putri, who works as an urban planner for a Dutch Catholic charity in Jakarta’s “informal settlements” of Marunda, did three degrees in Europe. Putri’s PhD was supervised under Europe specialist professor Frank Moulaert at Belgium’s KatholiekeUniversiteit Leuven.

Indonesia’s Urban Studies”, the influential blog “for those who are concerned about the advancement of urban development in Indonesia”, is written by Dr Deden Rukmana in Savannah, Georgia, in the United States. He is associate professor and coordinator of Urban Studies and Planning at Savannah State University. His master’s and PhD were both undertaken in the U.S.

Take any city in any part of the world and a similar pattern will reveal itself to some extent. From the head of government departments to charity workers on the ground, cities are being understood, built and managed with a western frame.

The next generation of students are being taught in standardised Western university structures by professors and administrators educated in the West’s very loud echo chamber. There is no doubt that Baron Macaulay, the member of the colonial “Supreme Council of India”, who is quoted above, would feel that the ambitions to create an anglicised ruling class for India and elsewhere that he laid out in 1835 has been successful well beyond his wildest expectations.

In just a generation or two the whole world’s perspectives on and insights into cities have dramatically narrowed. And the echo chamber is becoming louder and more forceful. The Westernisation of the world is flattening out our differences and distinctiveness – standardising everyone and everything, everywhere.


Time to step aside?

Unfortunately, as is so clearly demonstrated in the documentary Schooling the World, Western education and schooling structures have long been failing people in the West. We see these failures in particular in the fields related to our urban lives – architecture, housing, urban policy, and so forth.

Even though universities have been crammed with housing policy researchers for decades, it is today not possible to buy even a first home in London unless you have inherited wealth for a deposit and earn over £77k per year. The size of the average home has shrivelled, and there have been no great innovations or developments in housing design or use (unless of course, you include removing a wall between the kitchen and the living room). Urbanists have been, at best, little use.

Despite the existence of countless “Urban Labs”, the extent of public space is plummeting, as it is transferred wholesale from public to corporate ownership. Despite generations of urban and transport planning courses, air pollution is getting worse, with record levels regularly being broken every few years, and even though heavy-polluting industries have been transferred to China and elsewhere, air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe.

Despite innumerable, often life-threatening, urgent issues, the greatest concern for the Western academy interested in cities for the last three decades has been almost exclusively superficial and post-critical. Their books, conferences and classes have focussed on the role of artists in city change, creative cities, preserving memory, urban morphology and urban design; connectivity and placemaking, global cities, city branding and the horrible idea of “strong leadership” in cities. This is the “cities are great but they could be nicer” band, and they dominate everything. Perhaps most ridiculous has been the mind-numbing obsession with “the flaneur”, “the revolutionary act of walking” or what the hipster dictionary lists as “psychogeography”.

But the most problematic has been the heavy promotion of urban densification and “the compact city”. We are all being mocked when the case studies to forge 21st century urban policy are very modestly populated 15th century Italian towns like Pienza. Only last week did LSE’s Professor Anne Powers suggest further densification or sugar coated “Affricative infill” was the solution. All the while the real problems persist – and grow worse.

The relative successes of the post-war periods were achieved when there was a tangible threat of “the elite” losing their heads. Modest accommodations celebrated in mythologising films like The Spirit of 45 were introduced to prevent the system from breaking entirely.

But since the proliferation of urban labs, NGOs and charities, everything has got much, much worse. It might be better, for everyone, if the over-schooled, the paternalistic and the experts just got out of the way.

This is the fifth column in the Critical Cities series. You can find the first four at the links below:

1) Urbanisation is not natural or inevitable. It’s being inflicted upon us by the forces of capitalism.

2) Everything you thought you knew about cities is wrong.

3) Against the tyranny of progress: How did we come to see urbanisation as part of human evolution?

      4) Graveyards of distinctiveness: How cities are making us all the same

“Critical Cities: Ideas, Knowledge and Agitation, Volume 4” is out now from Myrdle Court Press. Follow Naik and Oldfield on Twitter

 
 
 
 

These charts show quite how few British cities have seen wages rise over the last decade

Mmm, money. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

Why, one may wonder, is everyone in Britain so angry? In 2016, against the advice of experts and the confident expectations of almost everybody, a slim majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union, in a move widely interpreted as a sign of quite how miffed the voters had become.

Ten months later, Theresa May called an election in the hope of capitalising on this anger, apparently forgetting that she was now Prime Minister so people were probably angry with her too, and promptly lost her majority. Despite the apparent return of two party politics after several decades’ absence, there’s an overwhelming sense abroad that most British voters don’t think very much of any of them.

The stream of books and columns purporting to explain this anger has been flowing for some time, and doesn’t soon seem likely to stop. But there are times, when trawling through the Centre for Cities’ economic data, that I’ve wondered if the explanation might actually be rather straightforward.

Below is a chart showing how average real wages – that is, those adjusted for inflation; their actual value, rather than their number – changed in Britain’s biggest cities the decade to 2017. This is a period that covered the financial crash and austerity, so you’d expect the results to not be brilliant.

Nonetheless, it’s still quite staggering to realise quite how tough on the wallet this last decade has been. Of the 63 cities shown, just 15 – less than a quarter – have seen real wages rise in the last 10 years. Just as many have seen wages fall by more than 6 per cent. In three, the fall is over 15. (The national average in this time, incidentally, was a fall of 2.8 per cent.)

Click to expand.

What’s more, the numbers shown on this chart don’t really match the patterns of economic geography I’ve grown to know and love. Those where wages have risen include Belfast, Glasgow and the three north eastern cities of Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough: not places one associates with booms. At the other end of the scale, in several cities I tend to think of as prosperous – Edinburgh, Warrington, London – wages have still not returned to where they stood in 2007.

All this seemed so weird that I wondered whether it might be a function of starting in 2007 – so I looked at the same data from several other starting points. By and large, though, this pattern still holds.

Start the clock earlier, and you’ll find that in slightly more than half of British cities (35 out of 63), wages are still lower than they were in 2004. The national average since then: a fall of 1.9 per cent.

Click to expand.

Or start in 2010, the year the Conservatives returned to power and embarked upon austerity. Since then, real wages have fallen by an average of 1.3 per cent. In 40 out of 63 cities, they were lower in 2017 than they’d been in 2010.

Click to expand.

At risk of undermining my own narrative, things have got better recently. This is the same chart, for the period from 2015 to 2017. Suddenly, things are much sunnier: the national average is a rise of 6.2 per cent, and there are only nine cities where wages haven’t risen.

Click to expand.

So perhaps things are getting better – or at least, perhaps they were. Whether that will continue after Brexit – a move every economist on earth except Patrick Minford believes will hamper the British economy’s growth potential – remains to be seen.


These are only averages, of course: in some cities, they may be influenced by big shifts in specific professions (the fall in pay in London’s financial sector, for example). And a significant minority of the population doesn’t live in any of these cities.

Nonetheless: the reasons why, by 2016, so many voters were so angry with their political leaders suddenly seem rather obvious.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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