Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Welcome to the Urban Revolution (Part One) by Evan O’Neil

[ The next two Tuesdays I’m delighted to be running this interview that Evan O’Neil conducted with noted urbanist Jeb Brugmann. Here’s part one – Aaron. ]

We must become “masters of a stable, just, and ecological urbanism” writes Jeb Brugmann in Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the World (Bloomsbury Press, 2009). His book combines detailed street-level research in the style of Jane Jacobs with analysis of the city system on a planetary scale to explain the forces that are shaping our urban future. For Brugmann, urbanism is not some grand theory but rather the process by which a community taps into urban advantage to build a district of mutual benefit. He and I corresponded by email about these issues. –Evan O’Neil

Is globalization driving or displacing bottom-up urbanism? On the one hand we have the organic and productive industrial urbanism of slums like Dharavi, while master-planned projects aim to bring in the bulldozers and build sterile high-rises. Who will win this competition?

Globalization has been quite abstractly understood as processes, networks, technologies, and laws. But materially, globalization is the emergence of a new geography. Look at the Earth from space at night. You can see this extended, lighted urban geography that I’ve called the global City. This City is organized at many scales—from streets to districts to metro regions to urbanized continents.

At each scale, the production of urban space provides the human enterprise with two advantages. The first advantage is what I’ve called the “natural economies” of urban settlement—economies of density, scale, association, and network extension, which make the infrastructures that we associate with globalization, like the Internet and air travel, economically viable.

The reasons I call these economic advantages of cities “natural economies” is that they are accessible to all; they are a classic public good. Even the most repressive police state cannot fully control the poorest person’s access to the economic potential created when so many diverse activities and so many diverse people are concentrated into a space, which is more time-, transport-, and cost-efficient than rural and suburban settlement.

The second advantage of urban space is its entirely plastic nature—its underlying economic potential can be designed, by anyone, in myriad ways to achieve specific industrial, criminal, social, or ecological objectives.

This brings us to the question of whether we build robust urbanisms that serve the strategic purposes of specific user communities, or whether we build generic, standard-issue urban “products” offering a basic utility to general, typically higher-income consumer segments. Both are fair game in the ever-plastic City. My argument is that if we want to achieve strategic purposes like poverty reduction, then we need to customize forms of urbanism that specifically create the economics that serve those purposes.

What we so often dismiss as “slums” are in fact specialized forms of urbanism that allow the world’s poorest people to leverage the natural economies of an urban location to create impressive wealth on a cash-economy basis. I think we need to support the self-building process of those urbanisms, improve them with better materials and technology, and bring greater capital investment into them at their earlier stages of development.

Meanwhile, in response to the enormous demand to build new urban space for another 3 billion people, most of the formal property development industry and government planning agencies are focused on high-volume production of higher-end, single-purpose products—apartment buildings and condominiums, office towers, shopping malls—at basic standards. The self-organized production of urban space by migrant poor communities has conflicted with the scaled, institutional-industrial production of urban space for other segments of society. The result is often all-out conflict, which ends up being mediated by criminal organizations.

But because urban space is fundamentally plastic, we could also develop new forms of urban space production that ameliorate these tensions and serve the different strategic objectives of quantity, standards, and qualitative solutions to poverty.

What are zones of autonomy? Where do they form? Should they be encouraged?

Zones of autonomy develop when one form of urban space production, including its commercial life, is geographically marginalized or isolated from the dominant form and commercial life of the city. At one end of the spectrum we find large, informal, so-called slum districts, which establish their own legal, governance, financing, business, and social arrangements because they are intentionally isolated by conventional law, government investment, services, and police from the “mainstream” life of the city. At the other end of the zones of autonomy spectrum are industrially produced gated communities where the richest population segments pull back from the mainstream life of the city.

Zones of autonomy confound a city-region’s strategic development because they represent user communities whose interests and modus operandi have been separated from the rest of society. This does not mean that they should be razed by bulldozers, because the real challenge is to forge new kinds of urbanism that better align the interests of these separated user communities with those of the mainstream city. If you just clear them and replace them with substantially inferior urban space, as we did in the U.S. era of “urban renewal,” you get a worse outcome. That is why we are dynamiting the high-rise barracks slums of 1960s public housing today. Those developments neither served the strategies of their residents nor the interests of wider cities that hosted them.

Corporations and wealthy countries are experimenting with building cities from scratch, many designed along sustainable principles. What must they do to make these places interesting and not just empty green office parks?

The industrial production of urban space and facilities, with no matter how many bells and whistles, is not the same as the more self-built production of an urbanism by a city-building community. An urbanism, as I define it, is the ways that specific city-building communities design, build, govern, and co-locate activities in customized places to support their specialized forms of production and living. In other words, robust urbanism is user designed and often user built.

Think of our central business districts, port districts, university districts, entertainment districts; or of the bazaar districts of Asia. These are the true centers of commerce, culture, and often political power in our societies. There was no build-it-and-they-will-come aspect to them. They were built with purpose, and strategy, and with a honed sense of what makes them thrive and what undermines them. It is great to be a big company or big government and to have the capital and muscle to launch a big idea about some new kind of urban product on a piece of urban soil, but that does not often engender the formation of an urbanism, or what you might call a living, interesting place.

We’re seeing the emergence of municipal foreign policies. Does this operate at some level other than attracting investment? Can cities advance international cooperation on problems like climate, rights, human trafficking?

Cities have been involved in foreign policy since they first came into existence. The urban economic process that I’ve described as extension—using the robust economics and commerce of a city to pursue worldwide strategic interests—is core to what cities are all about. Cities are vehicles of strategy in human enterprise. Think of the origin of Chicago. The Chicago project was always about, and continues to be about, a commercial-political community creating a hub of global commerce—whether involving the construction of a hub for the Great Lakes shipping system, for the American railroad system, or for global air travel.

What has changed is that city governments and other urban organizations are getting strategic together about their foreign policy ambitions in addition to their commercial ones. This activity, which started in the United States in the 1980s, when the term “municipal foreign policy” was coined, reflects the emergence of the global City as a highly connected self-aware system. “Think Global, Act Local” is another, popular expression of this awareness in highly urbanized societies. Cities are now connecting to achieve strategic political and social purposes.

This reflects our knowledge that the City is the system that needs to be changed. For instance, if you want to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent internationally, you’d better be working in coordinated fashion to change the City system that accounts for 60 to 70 percent of global energy end use. For legacy reasons, city governments are closer to the levers of the required change than the national governments that negotiate international climate policy, so city governments have been taking coordinated action together since 1989, before the UN-sponsored negotiations began, and long before the popular recognition of the problem in this decade.

Note that all this municipal foreign policy—cities creating policy-driven sister city relationships, divesting from Apartheid South Africa, developing local climate action plans—began before the Internet was a functioning system even in the United States. The story is similar in other areas of global strategic concern.

This article originally appeared in Policy Innovations. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivatives license. The original article can be viewed here.

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Topics: Globalization, Urban Culture

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