“The city is being turned inside out”: so what is driving the global city centre renaissance?

Chicago, one of the many cities that's experiencing a surge in downtown population. Image: Getty.

The city is back. Across the globe there is an urban resurgence. In fact, it is of such major and global significance that I have described it as a Third Revolution, after the invention of cities around 5,000 years ago and the second linked to the Industrial Revolution.

In the US, cities that were losing population for decades are now experiencing an influx of people, and inner-city areas, long the black holes of capitalism, are now sites of major investments. Worldwide, cities are being revitalised. In Shanghai, for example, a former industrial site is being transformed into an artist precinct.

A select range of big cities are witnessing new influxes of people, quite literally transforming the urban experience and reversing the great suburban shift that occurred from 1950 to 1990. The population of New York City declined steadily from 1950, bottomed out in 1980 and has now bounced back. London saw a steady population decline from 1951 until 1991. Now growth is beginning to surge past 1951 figures. A similar trend is apparent in Paris and Berlin.

But this revival is uneven and it comes with a cost.

Industrial cities such as Baltimore or Detroit, unable to replace the defunct industrial and manufacturing jobs, continue to lose population and fail to attract investment. And housing affordability in the most desirable cities is a worrisome trend that threatens to exacerbate social inequalities.

Hub for knowledge workers

What is behind this major urban transformation? We can identify a number of factors.

Household size is declining, and there are more single-person and non-child households. In 1970 in the US, 40.3 per cent of households were married couples with children and only 16.2 per cent were single-person households. In 2012, the percentage of married couples had declined to 19.6%, and single person households had risen to a similar number.

For an increasing number of people, the central city is now a more attractive proposition than the suburbs, with more job opportunities, a larger dating pool and more amenities. Almost half of all households in Atlanta and Washington, DC are single person.

Cities are hubs for workers in fields that benefit from close proximity of people, such as engineering and advertising. Image: Intelfreepress/flickr, CC BY-SA.

Because we are now expected to do more in less time, time itself becomes more highly valued, adding to cities' allure. The city is being turned inside out as the poor are displaced to the suburbs to spend more of their time commuting, while the wealthier can devote more of their time to work and leisure such as visiting the gym.

There are also declining crime rates that have made cities palpably safer places to live – a trend felt around the world.

The most dynamic part of the economy, with more job opportunities and higher wage rates, is in the cultural creative economy of finance, advertising and all those sectors that require symbolic analysts – that is, “knowledge workers” with critical thinking skills.

Data and narrative have replaced metal and manufacturing. This cognitive capitalism has a heavy urban bias as it requires the close proximity of talented and creative people. There are strong economies of agglomeration because an increase of knowledge, creativity and innovation is generated by people living and working closely together.

There are also supply-side factors as well; the possibility of urban transformation from low-value to high-value land use provides opportunities for great profit from real estate development. This process, often lubricated, promoted and partnered with governments, attracts capital and investment from around the world. The frenzy of development, most of it speculative, can and does lead to short-term and even longer-term property slumps and housing bubbles. Even in places such as Dubai, awash in oil money, property slumps are a threat.

Priced-out populations

The British sociologist Ruth Glass first coined the term gentrification in 1964. It has now expanded to include not only the replacement of poorer people by the wealthier but the urban transformation of entire neighborhoods.

It is now used so often that it is more a slogan than an analytic construct, but its common usage highlights the pervasive nature of urban change. It occurs, in different forms and manifestations, in cities around the world, from Paris to Seoul to Hanoi.

Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan was just sold to a private equity group, raising concerns that middle-class families will have even fewer options for housing in New York City. Image: scottdavies/flickr, CC BY-NC.

But this urban transformation comes with negative effects. The most obvious is the displacement of the poor from central cities, the suburbanisation of poverty and the creation of cities divided by class and income as the rich take over the central city and the poor and middle-income are displaced to the suburbs.

Indeed, poor and middle-income people – once the mainstay of cities – are being priced out. This lack of affordable housing is causing social frictions. In Berlin, a flood of young adults from across Europe are attracted by the low cost of living in a vibrant city, yet the supply of accommodation is hampered by huge construction costs and lengthy planning process. Median rent has risen by 50 per cent since 2009 and there are protests about soaring apartment rents and an increasing gentrification.

Since 2010, the city has been adding between 40,000 and 50,000 people every year, while new housing units have been increasing only between 5,000 and 7,000 units each year. In Mumbai, India, with expensive real estate market costing as much as US$1,500 a square foot, there is no land available for shelter for the 60,000 people living in the streets.

In other cities, the less powerful are marginalised as house prices and rents climb beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest. In London, for example, the concentration of the very wealthy has pulled up prices throughout the central city region, forcing the middle-income to commute longer distances.

Humane cities

What can be done? Possible public policy responses include rent control, setting aside a certain proportion of new development for social housing and using public land to build more affordable housings.

This is not only an issue of social justice but also one of urban competitiveness. If workers have to commute long distances, then overall productivity is decreased. Vibrant cities with affordable housing are also more likely to be magnets for talented workers.

We should be building cities that are productive, competitive, sustainable, livable and fair. We should commit to building a more humane city. The Conversation

John Rennie Short is a professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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.