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

They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. Image: Getty.

This is the first in a series of columns entitled “Critical Cities”, which will explore the rise of the “Urban Industry” – and question whether urbanisation is a good thing for the species or the planet.

The much-publicized Urban Age is, ostensibly, upon us. The inaugural and immoderate celebrations for this new phase in human evolution arrived in late 2006, with LSE professor Ricky Burdett’s Venice Biennale exhibition. Celebrations for the world’s urbanisation continue unabashed to this day – even though they have been ever so slightly tempered by capitalism’s latest crisis.

The handsomely sponsored celebrations that ushered in the Urban Age have more recently leapfrogged out from the businesses of architecture, academia and contemporary art. Today the revelries take place in just about every institution and company, everywhere.  Despite the corporate hospitality, popular effervescence and gaiety for all things urban, this might just end up being “the best worst party” – ever. It might just end up being the sort of party you wished you’d skipped, rather than one you helped organise.

In fact, for reasons we will reveal in this column, the land clearances of the world’s population and our centralisation into cities has been systematically championed and actively advocated for. The result of the campaigns means the majority of the world’s population now lives on just 3-4 per cent of Earth’s land surface. We will chart the currently opaque historic and contemporary relationships between NGOs, academia, business, high culture and governments, that make this unprecedented and humanity-changing enterprise possible. These interlinked and interdependent relationships we call “The Urban Industry”.

Those working in The Urban Industry are, knowingly or unknowingly,  marshaling the world off open, verdant and resource rich lands and in to barren, highly controlled, unequal and densely populated urban areas. It is important to be clear the herding and centralisation of the world’s population in to urban areas is by no means natural or inevitable, and it most certainly isn’t an “evolutionary step”. Are those in the Urban Industry on the wrong side of history?

Throughout these articles, we will present evidence that shows that contemporary cities are in fact creators, incubators and perpetuators of poverty and inequality. The urbanisation of the world should not be celebrated.

These facts are in direct contrast to and conflict with the lavishly sponsored meta-narrative of The Urban Industry that repeats over and over that cities are centers of innovation, creativity, happiness, good health and, even astonishingly the cause and the solution for global warming.

Each of the columns will focus on a different aspect or player in The Urban Industry. Academia for example, we reveal, had every opportunity to be the site to challenge the unjust processes causing forced urbanisation. Unfortunately, due to extreme class privilege and institutional racism – particularly prevalent in architecture, urban studies, planning and development studies universities – these academics are instead some of the most easily star struck, post-critical and inadequate people to examine the real causes and effects of the centralisation of the world’s population.

NGOs – like apparent social-minded academics such as Richard Sennett – spend the vast majority of their time ruminating on the challenges of the management, “strong” leadership and protocol needed for big cities to function. Moreover, we will highlight how NGOs such as UN Habitat are sponsored by some of the most dubious and corrupt corporations that favour commercial profits over human rights.

Capitalism’s interest in centralising the world’s population is threefold. Firstly, land clearances transplant the populations in to cities providing unhindered access to mineral resources and the opportunity for large-scale corporate farming. This type of urbanisation also creates a highly vulnerable and mobile workforce, that can easily be exploited on the industrial farms or once in the city they end up in.

Secondly, land clearances and the urbanisation of “traditional cultures” rapidly speeds up the homogenisation, mainstreaming and assimilation of many millions of people into the dominant westernised metropolitan culture – which often then leads to ‘the village’ being seen as backwards, redundant. The fracturing and alienation also significantly reduces the chances of any resistance to the corporate land grabs.

Thirdly, the creation and management of high population, high density, and compact cities is the ideal business environment. “Citizens” are both captured and highly dependent on goods and services and the scale of the market, and the limited geography make cities the ideal business context.

We will also highlight the role of culture being enacted through events like the London Festival of Architecture to advocate for urbanisation and support the false promises underpinning this so called “Urban Age”. Critical Cities is a column that seeks to place the processes that cause urbanisation at the forefront of discussions about cities. The column aims to undress and expose the great myths that lead some of the brightest to be entirely wrong when they suggest “cities are good for us” – and reveal who really wins and loses from the Urban Age.

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 4Myrdle Court Press (London, 2015)​.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.