Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

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

[ Here’s the second installment of Evan O’Neil’s interview with Jeb Brugmann. Part one is here – Aaron. ]

You note that authoritarianism can’t survive the complexity of urban association, that cities are the world’s strategic centers of social innovation. What is it about cities that makes them so revolutionary? What types of innovations should we expect from them?

One of the natural economies of urban settlement is what can be called “economies of association.” At its most basic level, economies of association can be understood in terms of probability. If you have lots of diverse people socially organized in a way that they can interact intensively with one another, especially with high economic and service interdependencies on a day-to-day basis, then there is a high probability that like-minded people, or that people with different but synergistic interests or expertise, will find each other and common cause. The probability of this happening in dense settlement is so high, I’ve argued, that new forms of independent association will arise even under conditions of centralized police control.

This probability is further increased if central planners design urban space and commerce so as to concentrate anti-establishment people together. Think if the township areas of apartheid South Africa or the African-American ghettos of the mid-twentieth–century United States. Now add the factor of economies of extension—that the African National Congress or U.S. civil rights activists used urban infrastructure networks to create extended networks of activist communities, connecting the urban districts of their allies internationally. This makes for a revolutionary movement.

In terms of innovation, we can also understand these very place-based, connected civil rights communities as urban innovations in forms of collaboration, governance, political theory, and cultural expression. These highly recognized movements are just one of thousands of examples of how specific urban communities leverage the natural economies of association and extension, and the plasticity of urban space (including the development of zones of autonomy), to forge social, political, economic, and technical innovation.

The inventors of the Internet leveraged the particular urbanisms of Cambridge, Stanford, and other high-tech defense R&D districts in university towns. The origin and spread of rap music is another example. Another example is the spread of innovations in criminality, which originate in specific zones of autonomy in some cities and extend to receptive urban districts elsewhere, and then merge with criminal enterprise innovations introduced from other zones of autonomy in other parts of the world.

You say that China faces the conundrum of allowing its cities to flourish without toppling its tyranny. What will be the tipping point there?

Sticking with my first principles about natural economies and plasticity, there is every reason why China could innovate and support forms of true urbanism that serve the policy and developmental objectives of the non-pluralistic, centralized state. The fact is that they don’t, because of a seeming belief that progress and development in the urban sphere involves reading from other countries’ hymn books. So rather than forging regional Chinese urbanisms that empower resident-users in ways that are consistent with state policy and interests, they are doing their own forms of “urban renewal” and master-planned development à la modernist Europe and U.S urban renewal.

Of course, a major reason is expediency. First, the importation of foreign city-models is an expedient way to scale-up vast quantities of new urban space to serve the huge urban migrant population. Second, these city-models are also an expedient way for state-industrial elites to collect rents and secure windfalls.

The struggle in Gaza can also be understood in urban strategy terms. Israeli urban strategy towards Palestinian populations has effectively been to manufacture zones of autonomy. This prepared the way for Hamas, whose urban strategy, like that of other Islamic movements in the region, is based on providing services and infrastructure in these zones of autonomy—making them even more politically autonomous.

The alternative could have been to lead the development of robust, functioning urbanisms in Gaza and the West Bank—to create not only goodwill but also a viable functioning homeland that is integrated with Israeli and with the wider regional economic life even as it is politically independent. The City is plastic at all its scales. This is unique to urban geography. It can be designed to serve myriad strategies and strategic interests—including to align seemingly opposed interests.

You write that first generation urban migrants are a self-selected entrepreneurial breed, that migrants have no intention of returning to an unequal position in life, that they tap into and create what you call urban advantage. What is urban advantage and how does it work its magic?

Urban advantage is the strategic leverage that a city-building community creates when it develops customized urbanisms, putting unique form to the natural economies of a location, to achieve its purposes. I write at length about Dharavi in Mumbai as a “migrant city” because Dharavi represents scores of innovations in urban design, services, business models and logistics, and governance that provide urban advantage to its waves of poor migrant settlers from rural areas.

On the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, industries today are increasingly trying to wrap their heads around the development of urban advantage, and what might otherwise be called “locational advantage” and “agglomeration economies.” For instance, in Silicon Valley, a number of the major corporations anchored there are collaborating with each other and with municipal governments and developers to create urban spaces that support greater employee productivity.

One of the key issues is how to overcome the monoculture of employee technical bias and perspective, and to stimulate fresh thinking and collaboration between knowledge professionals with different expertise and perspectives, ultimately also fostering shared strategic (business) interests. By relocating offices from isolated single-company suburban campuses to vibrant, mixed-use, mixed-company “innovation hubs,” there is some expectation that the productivity benefits could offset the labor cost advantages of emerging high-tech regions.

How might a city take advantage of this migrant energy without being overwhelmed? Do cities that grant migrants sanctuary accrue any strategic advantage?

Cities that create development pathways for their migrants achieve strategic advantage. We know this all too well in the United States, as one of the first true migrant nations. Most of those people passing through Ellis Island were not coming to board Conestoga wagons and to homestead out west. Most were coming to secure some urban advantage in an ethnic district in a manufacturing city. The rest is history.

It was a tough history in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, and Chicago with plenty of conflict between ethnic neighborhoods over urban “turf”—streets, parks, jobs, intersections, etc.—but government enabled, invested in (and often politically exploited) a unique form of industrial city urbanism in which specialized manufacture, worker residences, and commercial/retail services were conveniently and efficiently co-located. In other words, a pathway was created for poor people to get off the boat, join an ethnic “slum,” organize their commerce and socio-political institutions within that district, and then to become metropolitan specialists in certain trades and industries, secure political representation, and ultimately secure public investment in services and infrastructure for their district.

The question is, Can we reverse-engineer this often trial-and-error process and accelerate capital investment alongside the customized development of migrant districts across the world? I don’t think it is rocket science, but it takes a very different approach to the production of urban space than the dominant, standardized, outside-in approach today.

You write that we need to become “masters of a stable, just, and ecological urbanism.” Describe your ideal ecological city. What makes it just?

There is no truly ecological city in the traditional sense of the word city. This is because a city is largely an extractive system that by its concentrated, intensive nature demands more materials, resources, energy, and nutrients than can be produced internally within the urbanized area. The first step towards ecological urbanism is increasing the energy and nutrient productivity within the city, but the only way to move sufficiently from extractive mode to a sustainable productive mode is to think, design, and develop at the scale of the City. This is the topic of my next book.

In my mind the problem of justice is at least technically more straightforward. Justice, as I’ve indicated above, can become a self-organizing process when disadvantaged city-building communities are given support to develop customized urbanisms from which they can leverage improvements in their social and economic status. In the so-called slums around the world, particularly where they are allowed to mature and to grow into urban districts, migrant communities have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate the empowering way that the urbanism facilitates freer association and greater justice in the world.

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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