Sunday, March 09, 2008

Cities of the Future

"At the same time as demand for food increases, the amount of land we have available to grow food on is reducing. An area twice the size of Scotland's entire agricultural area has been swallowed up by Chinese towns and cities in the last 10 years.'' John Scott, a Scottish Conservative MSP said .

As well as being rural, the profile of the new hungry poor is also urban, which is new . "We are feeding communities of people we didn't expect to feed," United Nations World Food Programme's Greg Barrow explains.

The Observer carries an article on the new cities

We have more big cities now than at any time in our history. In 1900, only 16 had a population of one million; now it's more than 400. In 1950, they were predominantly a Western phenomenon, with the developed world accounting for 60 per cent of the urban population. Now, 70 per cent of city dwellers are from the developing world. In China in 1970, one in five people lived in cities. In 30 years, that number has risen to two in five. The fastest-growing cities are all well outside the comfort zone of the Western world. Lagos, the fastest growing of them all [Lagos has grown from 300,000 people in 1950 to 10 million today] , is adding 58 people every hour; Mumbai is growing by 42 every hour. A score of cities including Los Angeles, Shanghai and Mexico City, which were still tiny in the 19th century, have all passed the once unimaginable 18 million mark. That puts them well ahead of all but eight of the 27 nations of the European Union. This is a dizzying rate of transformation and it's still accelerating. In 1900, 10 per cent of the world's population lived in cities; by 2050, it is going to be 75 per cent. Shanghai had just 121 buildings over eight storeys high in 1980. Twenty years later, it was 3,500, and just five years after that it was a staggering 10,000.

Half of the 12 million people in Mumbai live in illegal shacks, 200,000 of them on the pavement. Every day, at least two people are killed falling off overcrowded suburban trains. In Mexico City, fewer than four workers in 10 have formal jobs, public transport is largely in the form of mafia-controlled minibuses, and taxis. London's murder rate is 2.1 for every 100,000 inhabitants. In Johannesburg, it is nine times that figure and you are eight times as likely to be killed in a car crash there.

In the last 20 years, the percentage of people with manufacturing jobs in New York has fallen from 20 per cent to just 4 per cent. In London's central seven boroughs, more than 70 per cent of births last year were to mothers not born in Britain. In 1992, 38 per cent of newcomers to London were foreign-born. Five years later, it was 40 per cent and in 2001 it was 56 per cent. By the official definition, London has getting on for eight million people, but in practical terms, it's a city of 18 million, straggling most of the way from Ipswich to Bournemouth in an unforgiving tide of business parks and designer outlets, gated housing and logistics depots. There might be fields between them, but they are linked in a single transport system and a single economy. The other big conurbations - from Birmingham to Manchester and Glasgow, names for cities that spread far beyond the bounds of political city limits - can be understood in the same way.

The Choice
Johannesburg, with its horrifying levels of violent crime, has seen the affluent quit the city centre for fortified enclaves on its boundaries. As a result, South Africa is leading the world in developing new security techniques for gated housing, built appropriately enough in the style of Tuscan hill towns. Private security is also a divisive a topic in north London where I live where the clatter of police helicopters has become routine.

William Morris dreamt of a London abandoned by its population in favour of communal country life, leaving behind a dung heap in Parliament Square and empty streets enlivened by fluttering, worthless banknotes.

City builders have always had to be pathological optimists, if not out-and-out fantasists. They belong to a tradition that connects the map-makers who parcel up packages of swamp land to sell to gullible purchasers, and the show-apartment builders who sell off-plan to investors in Shanghai, who are banking on a rising market, making them a paper profit before they have even had to make good on their deposits...The cities that work best are those that keep their options open, that allow the possibility of change. The ones that are stuck, overwhelmed by rigid, state-owned social housing, or by economic systems that offer the poor no way out of the slums are in trouble...A city that has been trapped by too much gentrification, or too many shopping malls, will have trouble generating the spark that is essential to making a city that works...The pattern of the Victorian terraces of London has proved to be remarkably adaptable. A four-storey house 18ft wide can be used for almost anything and it supports a population dense enough for pedestrian life on the pavement that makes cafes and small shops flourish; a system-built tower block marooned in Tarmac is not so adaptable. Similarly, giant out-of-town sheds, the predominant form of so many new cities now, are not designed for flexible use or even for the long term. They are built with a maximum of 20 years of life in mind and then trashed. Successful cities are the ones that allow people to be what they want; unsuccessful ones try to force them to be what others want them to be. A city of freeways like Houston or Los Angeles forces people to be car drivers or else traps them in poverty. A successful city has a public transport system that is easy to use; an unsuccessful city tries to ban cars...

...A successful city has room for more than the obvious ideas about city life, because, in the end, a city is about the unexpected, it's about a life shared with strangers and open to new ideas. An unsuccessful city has closed its mind to the future...


1 comment:

a very public sociologist said...

Well I look about and see so many urban mega projects cropping up seemingly everywhere, I'm reminded of Jack London's The Iron Heel. Here the fascist governments of the world sunk vast quantities of their capital into absolutely lavish cities. Fascist governments maybe be thin on the ground these days but with the global redistribution of wealth from poor to rich we can see the same thing is happening to cities everywhere. While much of China remains impoverished, the Stalinists plan a vast eco city. While Palestinians and Iraqis suffer under the kosh, Dubai is sucking up wealth and transforming itself into a neoliberal architectural paradise. You could go on and on.