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Urban Hopes: Will Cities Save the World?

By Alberto Vanolo

We have started to expect a great deal from cities. Today, most of the world’s population live in cities. This has led to the widespread idea that most human challenges – including global warming, security management, economic growth, and social cohesion – may be framed as urban challenges, to be ideally, although not exclusively, dealt with by means of urban policies. But are we in danger of over-stating the power of cities to cure all our contemporary ills?

Urbanocentrism

The centrality of the urban when thinking about societies and their futures is by no means a new phenomenon. Most utopian (and dystopian) thinking has been connected to the urban imagination, suggesting that different visions of the city imply different visions of society. There is, however, a palpable sense of urgency in current discussions about the urban: in a world which seems more and more unstable and liable to fall to pieces, cities are called upon to ‘save the world’ by becoming sustainable, just, resilient, cultural, entrepreneurial, smart, green, creative, competitive, and countless other adjectives and labels. Is this the mark of utopianism in the urban age?

The answer is difficult, particularly if we move away from conventional wisdom: concepts such as ‘city’ and ‘global urbanism’ are much more controversial than they appear at first sight. This is not the place for academic disquisitions about the definition of cities, but the term means different things in different geographical, historical, and cultural settings. At the same time, the ‘rural’ no longer appears (if it ever has) as something ‘distinct’ from the urban. Urban economic activities, patterns of consumption and lifestyles can also be found in every countryside or mountain village, and there seems to be much of the rural present in cities, too (through phenomena such as urban gardening and urban farming). There is no place untouched by capitalism, from the depth of the oceans to the most remote ozone layer in the atmosphere.[1] According to several critical scholars, we are living in an age of ‘planetary urbanism’, which means that it is hard to think of spaces which are genuinely ‘non-urban’, and the urban is definitely pervasive in contemporary thinking about globalisation, society, and our challenges for the future.

Cities will save us, part I: the environmental disaster

In the past, environmental thinking often considered cities highly unsustainable entities which concentrate pollution, waste, energy consumption, and resource depletion. In fact, the ecological footprint of cities surely exceeds their limited physical boundaries, and hence cities have been famously described as environmental parasites. Statistical data also suggest that cities host more than half of the global population, but they contribute proportionally much more to global environmental problems.

However, it is clear that the billions of people currently inhabiting this planet will not turn into eco-citizens spending their lives in rural villages or in ecologically self-sufficient villas surrounded by trees, gardens, and wild animals. It is more reasonable to think of the urban as the key to a sustainable future, which means living in compact and efficient cities. Of course, we are not talking about the kind of cities we know today; the challenge is to transform them in something else. Popular debates label these ‘new’ cities as ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’. The term ‘resilient’ is also widely used: it is a concept taken from engineering and ecology, referring to the buffer capacity or the ability of an element (such as a material or an ecosystem) to absorb perturbations without a radical change in its structure (deformation or collapse). In the case of cities, resilience means the ability to absorb disturbance, for example by recovering from earthquakes, floods, wars, or economic crisis. Of course, resilience is quite important, but sometimes debates seem to suggest that environmental disasters (and other kinds of disasters) are unavoidable, and cities simply have to be able to cope with them. The language of ‘natural disasters’ also goes in that direction, but it has to be stressed that although disasters may be ‘natural’, their consequences are always social and political, as demonstrated by the fact that earthquakes or floods disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, living in the most deprived parts of cities.

Looking at European Union policies, the centrality of the urban is evident in the vast number of city-based initiatives, investments, and research projects it has supported over the years. But which conception of the urban underlies these policies? Are we supporting a radical rethinking of cities, one that challenges mainstream conventions and patterns of consumption, mobility, and collective life? Or are we instead waiting for a miraculous new technology which will produce energy out of nothing, will clean water and air, and will offer us the possibility to keep travelling by car, living (or hoping to live) in huge air-conditioned apartments, and indulging in consumerism without feeling guilty about the environment? It depends. I do not want in any way to deny that technology is a major driver for change and for improving our life on the planet; at the same time, the dangers of solutionism and of superficial techno-utopias are just around the corner. Many ‘smart city’ projects seem to suggest that saving the planet is a matter of developing the right mobile app, the right electric engine, the appropriate energy grid, or the right lightbulb. It is a technical issue. However, technology is clearly political, as it implies choices (of which technology should be developed and employed for the benefit of society, for example), affects society and power relations (determining who is in control of this technology), and produces winners and losers (for example, various forms of work and knowledge will become obsolete). Mainstream visions of the smart city, such as promotional discourses supported by technology corporations and by many policy-makers, tend to present apolitical visions of technology, which leave little space for progressive thinking, or for real existing alternatives which may lead to new ways of living and experiencing urban life. Rather, the smart city dogma demands that we sacrifice our imagination to a technological god, hoping that he will build an ark to save us.

Cities will save us, part II: economic growth

The 2008 global economic crisis has had a strong urban dimension, evidenced by real estate bubbles and subprime speculations. This is not new – many economic crises have had a strong connection with cities. But the opposite is also true: many periods of sustained economic growth have been connected to diffused urbanisation. The relationship between capital circulation and the production of urban space is very tight, as brilliantly analysed by key scholars such as David Harvey. In recent decades we have witnessed a reframing of the urban, which is supposed to offer solutions to the problem of economic stagnation which seems to afflict many societies.

Cities today are called upon to ‘produce’ economic growth, by acting as ‘engines’, ‘locomotives’, and ‘catalysts’ for capital circulation. These are labels commonly found in policy documents or in discourses promoted by think-tanks. Cities are supposed to be competitive, on the basis of the assumption that, in this global era, capital circulates easily from one place to another, and hence cities have to glitter in order to attract investments, mega-events, wealthy tourists, artists, and so on. ‘Being competitive’ is assumed to be a virtue, thus naturalising the idea of living in a hyper-competitive world, where poverty and exclusion are, in a certain way, consequences of a failure to be competitive (which is then applied to people as well). An example may be the proliferation of ranking and benchmarking analysis, which identify and classify the ‘best cities’ for living, for investing in real estate, for a tourist trip, for starting a business, etc.

The language of urban competitiveness, urban rankings, and ‘best practices’ suggests linear and homogeneous visions of urban development and related policies. The capacity to attract money is often considered a goal per se, forgetting that investments are only important to the extent they allow the improvement of cities, societies, and people’s lives.

The physical spaces of cities, and conflicts around the production of space, are key elements in the quest for justice

Terms such as urban regeneration, requalification, or renewal illustrate this. The idea of giving ‘new life’ to deprived neighbourhoods sounds promising, but regeneration means different things for different people, and it often implies real estate speculations, gentrification, and the expulsion of inhabitants who are not ‘appropriate’ for the regenerated area. The requalified area, in fact, will be characterised by higher costs (rent, services, shops) and by services which may be important and attractive for a wealthy middle class, but not for the working class, who will be ‘out of place’ and priced out. This may be the case of the many waterfronts which have been redeveloped by building luxury (and environmentally friendly) apartments, attractive cafes and restaurants, creative workshops and galleries, and so on. There are countless examples in Europe, from Barcelona to Copenhagen, from Berlin to Athens.

In the case of green and smart urban policies there are also consistent socioeconomic issues to be considered: the development of new urban technologies and infrastructures, or the upgrading of existing ones, mobilises large amounts of money. In most cities, investments are a mixture of private capital and collective resources. Today, corporations have entirely new opportunities to make profit by engaging in the challenge of building the cities of the future; this offers important development possibilities, but also raises relevant questions for planning and social justice.

Cities will save us, part III: a more just society

As mentioned, attracting private investments is a sort of mantra among policy-makers. However, unregulated capital produces unjust cities. ‘Smart infrastructures’ are a case in point: if their development is left in the hands of private companies, who of course seek returns on their investments, it is plausible that they will privilege wealthy neighbourhoods, simply because the provision of infrastructure and services is significantly more risky and less profitable in marginalised areas. In this sense, the unregulated provision of infrastructure may accentuate urban divides. This is called ‘splintering urbanism’, and it promotes a limited number of technologically advanced enclaves.[2] Meanwhile, unwanted urban structures, such as infamous waste incinerators, tend to be located in poorer communities, who neighbourhoods are often characterised by low real estate values (which then become even lower). Strong regulation is definitely needed in the management of the urban.

Social justice, social cohesion, and integration are fundamental issues for cities as societies. The idea of ‘sustainability’ is today commonly framed in relation to questions of social justice, as is clear, for example, in the United Nations’ strategy of ‘Sustainable Development Goals’, which connect objectives related to renewable energies, pollution, and climate change to the fight against hunger and poverty. Cities are crucial spaces for achieving these goals, but the actual definition of social goals, social priorities, and strategies for development is highly political and controversial. A possible example concerning the ambiguity of social goals in urban development strategies may be offered by the word ‘culture’ itself. Cities all over the world have been branded, celebrated, and invested in by initiatives in order to promote culture and creativity. Culture is a powerful word, as apparently it is universally appreciated, and resonates positively with progressive ideas of justice and inclusion. But, of course, it means very different things to different people, so the key question is: whose culture? A very specific idea of culture lies at the basis of most cultural development strategies, one that is coherent with the desires and aspiration of an urban elite fostering economic growth, for example, by means of attracting wealthy ‘cultural’ consumers and key actors in ‘cultural’ industries. The development of attractive museums, the celebration of historical heritage in city centres in order to attract tourists, and the building of new skyscrapers and cultural centres designed by international ‘archistars’ are well-established examples of ‘cultural development strategies’, but they have very little to do with cohesion and inclusion.

Unwanted urban structures, such as infamous waste incinerators, tend to be located in poorer communities

It has to be emphasised that the physical spaces of cities, and conflicts around the production of space, are key elements in the quest for justice. Consider, for example, the Gezi Park protests started in Istanbul in May 2013. Originally, activists opposed a redevelopment plan for the area. But soon it became clear that the protest concerned many other political goals, such as freedom and justice. Or, to use a different example, the international Occupy movement raised very general questions and claims concerning social and economic justice, but the movement became visible through the strategy of occupying urban spaces, thereby subverting their use and meaning, for example by transforming a ‘square’ into a ‘camp’. In other words, the city is a strategic element in the search for justice, both in the eyes of policy-makers and activists.

Beyond urban advertising

The aim of these reflections is not to instil pessimism. Cities are powerful spaces for resistance and experimentation, and urban policies may genuinely improve lives, encouraging participation and integration. At the same time, triumphalism, solutionism, and the celebration of cities as ‘magic pills’ which will cure the evils of society have to be challenged. This means, first of all, getting rid of empty slogans which look more like ads selling urban imaginaries and ideologies rather than meaningful concepts, and recognising that there is much politics involved in projects concerning ‘smart’, ‘cultural’, or ‘green’ cities. Of course, innovative and progressive experiences may grow up behind, or in the shadows of, these celebratory slogans. Various experiences and experiments – for example different forms of ‘commoning’ and sharing of urban resources, or alternative economic practices, more respectful of human and non-human lives – mobilise energies which oppose hegemonic cultures of individualism, consumerism, and competition. These experiments may be partial and limited, and they will probably not save the world.

In the city where I live – Turin, in Italy – I can observe a number of dynamic small-scale experiments concerning urban gardening, collective social housing, co-working initiatives, voluntary experiments for the provision of food for poor people, and so on. Most of these initiatives do not deal with the basic logics at the root of inequalities, injustices, and class struggles, as in the Marxian tradition of protest movements. We are therefore in a difficult position. On the one hand, autonomous initiatives seem to open up new spaces of possibilities, ultimately suggesting that alternatives do exist, here and now. On the other hand, these initiatives often run the risk of being co-opted by the logics of speculative capitalism: for example, the ideals of house-sharing have been absorbed by websites such as Airbnb, allowing new strategies for rent speculation by landlords, and similar examples may refer to Uber, Foursquare of Facebook (and many others), which arguably create innovative forms of labour exploitation in cities. In this sense, there is surely the need to politicise discussions about the future of cities, about the relationships between the city and the economy, and most of all about the kind of urban life we dream for the future, because optimistic and superficial visions of the smart, green, and creative city may turn out to be less rosy than expected.

 

[1] Key scholars are N. Brenner and C. Schmid; see for example http://www.urbantheorylab.net/publications/the-urban-age-in-question

[2] See S. Graham and S. Marvin (2001), Splintering Urbanism. Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition, Routledge, London.

 

Urban Hopes: Will Cities Save the World?