Monday, November 3rd, 2008

The Global City of the Future

I attended a panel discussion called “The Global City of the Future” at the Chicago Humanities Festival over the weekend. The panelists were Ricky Burdett, Philip Enquist, Richard Senett, and Saskia Sassen. They gave their perspectives on cities around the world. This was, however, mostly summarizations of their published work without significant original content, stump speeches if you will.

Burdett is the co-editor of “The Endless City“, which is a great book. Rather than summarize his thinking, I’ll include some quotations at the bottom of this post. As this dictionary sized tome is rather pricey, I’m willing to loan out my copy to trustworthy interested parties in Indianapolis or Chicago. One particular comment he did make is that because most of the building stock of cities already exists, solving the sustainability challenge requires a focus on retrofiting the old more so than LEED certification for the new.

Sassen is one of the leading theorists on global cities. The Cliff Notes version of her model goes something like this. As businesses became more globalized and more virtualized, this created demand for new types of financial products and producer services – notably in the law, accounting, consultancy, and marketing areas – to help businesses service and control these far flung networks. These financial and producer services are subject to clustering economics, and end up concentrated in a relatively small number of cities around the world. These global cities serve as control nodes for various global networks and key production sites for these services. In effect, more distributed economic activities requires increasing centralization of select functions. In this discussion she reiterated this model, and highlighted on of her key findings which is that global cities are not in competition to the extent that the popular press might suggest. Rather, there is a division of functions among global cities along specialized networks.

Sennett (Sassen’s husband incidentally), was the highlight in my opinion. His argument is that the transition away from the “buy and hold” model to real estate to one where people expect quick profits means that buildings are frequently traded. And thus there is marketplace pressure to created standardized product so that when one buys “square footage”, he knows actually what he’s getting. This has led to the homogenization of office environments around the world.

He sees this as a bad thing, because unlike older buildings, modern office towers are “overdetermined” in that their form dictates their function. It is much more difficult to retrofit modern structures for new uses in the future than it is for our historic structures. The challenge is how to create buildings that can evolve over time. He also wants to see a more locally distinct environment. His interests definitely run towards the human scale of things rather than overarching grand visions. One quote: “I’m more interested in street furniture than starchitecture”. He believes it is better to scale up from the small (“a really good corner”) rather than scaling down from the large.

Enquist is a principal at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. He gave a presentation on SOM’s plans for a built from scratch city in China near Beijing, where they are trying to do things right in a country where so much design has gone wrong, including lots of green space, bike lanes on every street, orienting the city along the river, high speed rail to the capital, smaller block sizes, etc. Interesting – and we’ll see how it turns out in reality. I can’t remember the same of the city I’m sorry.

During the Q&A there was one intriguing question about whether building linkages to Chicago to regional cities via high speed rail would be a good thing. It was put, of course, in how this could benefit Chicago, as allowing it to access 40 million people instead of 9 million. Sennett asked why 40 is better than 9, a question that remained unanswered. Sassen says that she’s observing this emerging pattern of peripheral cities interconnected with major global cities. The SOM project in China was one example. And she believed their might be some mutual benefits for the cities in question.

If anyone ever gets a chance to see these people speak in person, I’d certainly recommend it. Their ideas are interesting and they present them well.

Here are some selected quotes from “The Endless City”.

“We do not belong to a generation with the shared faith enjoyed by the pioneer architectural modernists, when they chartered a liner to cruise the Mediterranean in agreeable comfort and drew up their vision of what the modern city ought to be in the charter of Athens. They divided their ideal city into functional zones, shaped by sunlight angles. Theirs was a generation free from the luxury of self-doubt. Ours is not, and that is why we struggle now in trying to find a renewed sense of purpose about what cities should be. We are full of doubt – or at least we should be. We are the witnesses to the many soured urban utopias invented by the architects on that liner and propagated by a political system that measured success by the number of new buildings it could deliver each month.” – pp. 41-42

“Politicians love cranes. They need solutions within the timeframes of elections – but there is only a limited number of problems susceptible to that kind of timescale. The result is that a constant cycle of demolition and reconstruction has come to substitute careful consideration about how to address the deeper issues of the city….Visions for cities tend to be the creations of the boosters rather than the theorists or the policymakers. City builders have always had to be pathological optimists, if not out and out fantasists. They belong to a tradition that connection the mapmakers who parcel up areas of swampland to sell to gullible purchases with show-apartment builders, selling plans to investors in Shanghai who are banking on a rising market, making them a paper profit before they have even made good on their deposits.” – p. 42

“Change is a fundamental part of the human condition, and what seems to be a key issue about our interaction with the urban world is to avoid the creation of conditions that serve to freeze the city and cancel out the possibility of future change. The real trouble with gentrification, just as with huge swaths of social housing, is that it prohibits further social or physical change.” – p. 49

“Nation states look for homogeneity – that is, after all, what they are all about. Yet the most successful cities are usually the most heterogeneous, and the most cosmopolitan…The converse of this phenomenon is the suspicion with which certain cities are regarded by their hinterlands. New York is held in varying degrees of contempt or fear by the rest of the United States. There are no presidential votes to be had on bailing out America’s big cities.” – p. 50

“The hard truth of the matter is that for every smart decision made locally, another miscalculated bet is made on a convention centre or a sports stadium, when we know that these facilities rarely meet their inflated expectations. The sad truth is that city after city is expending enormous energy in chasing the tantalizing prize of biotech, when we know that only 10 or so metropolitan areas really have a shot at agglomeration economies that will make a tangible difference in the creation of jobs and in fiscal vitality.” – p. 100

“The fact is that too many cities spend too much time mimicking ‘magic-bullet’ projects and solutions, and too little time fixing the basics – good schools, safe streets, competitive taxes, efficient services – so that markets can flourish, families can succeed, and cities once again can become home to the middle classes.” – p. 101

“Perhaps one of the great ironies of our global digital age is that it has produced not only massive dispersal but also extreme concentrations of top-level resources in a limited number of places. Indeed, the organizational side of today’s global economy is located, and continuously reinvented, in what has become a network of about 40 major and lesser global cities. These need to be distinguished from the hundreds of cities located on often just a few global circuits: while these cities are articulated with the global economy they lack the mix of resources that enables them to manage and service the global operation of firms and markets.” – p. 281 (quote from Sassen)

“Because financial, legal, and accounting experts in Chicago had to address the needs of the agro-industrial complex, the city today has a specialized advantage in producing certain types of financial, legal, and accounting instruments…For this specialized advantage to occur, however, the past knowledge must be repositioned in a different set of economic circuits. The expertise must be disembedded from an agro-industrial economy and re-embedded in a knowledge economy. Having a past as a major agro-industrial complex makes that switch more difficult than a past as a trading and financial center. This partly explains Chicago’s ‘lateness’ in bringing about that switch. That change is not simply a matter of overcoming the past, however. It requires a new organizing logic that can revalue the capabilities developed in an earlier era. It took work to make the switch” – p. 284 (quote from Sassen)

“A discussion of walls and borders leads to a second systematic characteristic of the open city: incomplete form. Incompleteness may seem the enemy of structure, but this is not the case. The designer needs to create physical forms of a particular sort, ‘incomplete’ in a special way. When we design a street, for instance, so that buildings are set back from a street wall, the space left open in front is not truly public space. Instead, the building has been withdrawn from the street with people walking by tending to avoid these recessed spaces. It is better planning if the building is brought forward, into the context of other buildings. Although the building will become part of the urban fabric, some volumetric elements will be incompletely disclosed. There is incompleteness in the perception of what the object is.” – p. 294 (quote from Sennett)

“It is clear that as cities have developed, we have been rushed to implement short-term infrastructure solutions – investment decisions are still taken for immediate savings rather than long term gain. Instead of applying light-rail solutions, we build more roads; instead of constructing tunnels, we raise flyovers; instead of turning to renewable energy sources, we invest in fire power stations. Chicago is a good example of this. The famous ‘El’ is a popular tourist attraction but also a noisy, polluting and dust-generating urban travel solution. This transit system was implemented as a quick-fix 100 years ago, in an attempt to bring the city’s transport standards a step closer to those of New York. It was, however, a bad solution, which has led to long lasting difficulties.” – p. 389

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Topics: Globalization
Cities: Chicago

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