PD Smith

Fast-growing fossil fuel construct

"Fast-growing fossil fuel construct", Times Literary Supplement, February 10, 2012, p 24

Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, eds, Living in the Endless City (Phaidon), 430pp., £39.95. ISBN: 978-0-7148-6118-0

Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, eds, The New Blackwell Companion to the City (Wiley-Blackwell), 768pp., £110.00. ISBN: 978-1-4051-8981-1

Review by P. D. Smith

In 1900, just 10% of the world’s population lived in cities. Today more than half of humanity are city dwellers, and with each day that passes this proportion rises inexorably. We are living in a truly urban age. Global cities have become the engines of the modern economy and decisions made in cities touch the lives of every person on the planet. The challenges faced by the world today, from climate change to poverty and inequality, are concentrated in cities and often played out on their streets, in demonstrations and riots. The city has become the theatre of our anxieties as well as our hopes. In a world that is becoming increasingly crowded, successful cities are vital to generate the wealth, jobs and indeed the ideas that will make life on our planet sustainable and fulfilling in the future.

Since 2005, the Urban Age project has been taking the pulse of cities in the twenty-first century. At a series of conferences organised by the London School of Economics and the Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society, mayors, planners and academics have attempted to “find a grammar for the success of cities”. The first tranche of papers, published as The Endless City in 2007, explored six cities: Shanghai, London, New York City, Johannesburg, Berlin and Mexico City. The latest collection of essays focuses on urbanism in India, Latin America and the Mediterranean region, as well as trying to draw conclusions from the project. Like the earlier volume, it is strikingly designed, with dramatic full-page photographs and infographics that communicate powerfully the scale of our urban age. There are three sections: photographs and essays on the cities of Istanbul, Mumbai and São Paulo; a data section drawing together statistics on all nine Urban Age cities; and a series of reflections on general urban themes.

The rate of growth of today’s megacities is startling and indeed unprecedented, as Ricky Burdett and Philipp Rode note in their introductory essay. Lagos, Delhi and Dhaka are growing at a rate of over 300,000 people a year. Kinshasa gains one new inhabitant every 75 seconds. Twelve new residents arrive in Istanbul every hour and in Mumbai forty-four. In the next few decades, Mumbai is predicted to overtake Tokyo and Mexico City, becoming the world’s largest city, with more than 35 million inhabitants. Istanbul’s population has quadrupled since 1980 to nearly 13 million today. Similarly, São Paulo’s endless sprawl continues to spread outwards like an oil slick. In this car-dependent city, a thousand new automobiles appear on the streets each day and four-hour commutes are not unusual.

While some cities in the developed world – such as Berlin, Detroit and Seoul – are shrinking, those in the developing world are expanding rapidly. In these new megacities, there are slums more vast than any created in Victorian cities. A third of all city dwellers now live in slums – a shocking statistic. Some 6 million Mumbaikars live in slums – more than half the city’s population, the highest proportion for any city. Nicknamed Slumbai, 2.5 million people live here on less than $13 a month. Seven out of ten Mumbaikars live in a single room. Yet Mumbai is also the city where a wealthy oil billionaire has just built the world’s most expensive residence, a $1 billion glass and steel, multi-storey palace. Cities are becoming “more spatially fragmented, more socially divisive and more environmentally destructive”, warn Burdett and Rode, highlighting key themes that are explored in detail in both these volumes.

Urban life has become “the most desirable commodity on the planet”, writes Alejandro Zaera-Polo in his essay for Living in the Endless City. From the earliest civilizations, cities have been places of economic opportunity. As Deyan Sudjic puts it in his typically illuminating piece on urban architecture: “The city has been the most effective vehicle ever devised for lifting huge numbers of people out of the countless generations of poverty that have overshadowed many forms of rural life.” The streets of the big city are still paved with gold in the minds of many rural dwellers. The city does, indeed, offer people more jobs, as well as better access to education and health care. But the ceaseless flow of migrants to the city is about far more than this. “Mumbai is a bird of gold”, a man in a Mumbai slum tells Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City. The city holds out the promise of earning a living, yes, but it is not just about money. It is, as Mehta rightly says, about freedom.

In her essay on “The Economies of Cities”, Saskia Sassen points out that cities often outlive the nations in which they are built: “Within a given period of time – centuries or millennia – enterprises, kingdoms and nation-states are born and die in their thousands. With rare exceptions, cities go on. At best, they change names. The materiality of the city itself allows it to survive. Once there, it stays.” She argues compellingly that in the era of globalization, the importance of the deep economic histories of cities has been forgotten. There is much talk nowadays about the role played by the “creative classes” in the knowledge economy of cities. Sassen seeks to reconnect this to the material practices of older economies, such as traditions of urban manufacturing. The knowledge economy will indeed be vital to the success of cities in the twenty-first century. But global success may come through exploiting a city’s unique and enduring economic history, not just its ability to attract the creative classes.

The data section of Living in the Endless City provides fascinating insights into the development of urbanism around the world. Mumbai has the highest population densities of any city. The densest part is the red-light district of Kamathipura with 121,312 people per square kilometre. By contrast, London’s densest area is Notting Hill with a mere 17,324 people per square kilometre. Of the nine cities studied by the Urban Age project, Mumbai is the largest, the poorest and the fastest growing. The data also suggests it is the most sustainable. Mumbai is “the very model of a green city”, says Justin McGuirk in his helpful essay interpreting the raw data. It has the lowest carbon emissions of the Urban Age cities, the lowest energy and water consumption and produces the least waste. The Dharavi slum is probably the most efficient recycling centre in India. Mumbai also has the lowest level of car ownership and the highest levels of walking to work. Surprisingly, despite the congestion charge, London has the highest number of car journeys (36% of all travel) among Urban Age cities.

Mumbai may be “one of the most sustainable big cities on the planet”, but this is largely due to its relative poverty. With affluence comes higher carbon emissions. A person living in New York emits 20 times the amounts of carbon dioxide as does a Mumbaikar. But urban living, whether in a wealthy or a poor city, is still more efficient and sustainable than life in the countryside. Dense cities with good public transport have low per capita emissions. For instance, New Yorkers produce about a third of the carbon dioxide of the typical American.

Nevertheless, there is much more cities can do to reduce their ecological footprint. The increasing use of cars in cities encourages horizontal expansion and brings with it problems of pollution and congestion. Between 1990 and 2000, developed world cities grew in population by just 5%, but their built-up area expanded 30%. In the developing world, urban populations have increased 20%, but cities have spread by 50%. The metropolitan area of Mumbai has increased in the twentieth century by 1,978%, São Paulo by 7,916% and Istanbul by 1,305%. London has grown by just 16%. On average each resident of Los Angeles – the original car city – spends a hundred hours a year waiting in traffic. In August 2010, Beijing experienced a traffic jam that was 100 km long. According to Charles Correa, the domination of the automobile “is a tragedy that prevails in almost every one of our cities”. Efficient, cheap public transport, such as Bogotá’s TransMilenio bus system, and high-density living – the compact city – are the keys to making our cities sustainable.

The Urban Age project has also commissioned opinion polls to discover what people think about their cities. It is striking that only 58% of Londoners have lived in the city for twenty years or more. This compares to 96% of Mumbaikars and 78% in São Paulo. Given the considerable rate of in-migration, this figure will almost certainly increase. Given the city’s rich cultural heritage, it is also surprising that, when asked what they liked most about their city, Londoners placed the capital’s shops top of the list. In Istanbul, jobs and health services topped the rankings, whereas in Mumbai it was schools.

In all cities, crime was high on people’s list of concerns, even in relatively safe places such as Istanbul where the homicide rate is just 3 per 100,000 inhabitants, only slightly more than London. In São Paulo, violent crime has fallen – as it has in many cities – from 60 per 100,000 in the late 1990s to 11.3 in 2009. Yet fear of crime has transformed this city: “walls are now everywhere”, creating an oppressive climate of social tension. São Paulo is, says Teresa Caldeira, “a city at the limits of survival”. An iconic photograph by Tuca Vieira (included in the book; online here) portrays the gulf between rich and poor here. It shows a view across the ramshackle roofs of the Paraisópolis favela, with a wall separating it from a gated development. Here, towering above the shacks, stands a luxury apartment block with a private swimming pool on every balcony. Many favelas in São Paulo do not even have running water.

Unfortunately, the fear of crime and terrorism is prompting many cities to erect walls and barriers rather than demolish them. Writing in the New Blackwell Companion to the City, Stephen Graham surveys the securitization of cities and what he has termed the “new military urbanism”. Security solutions are increasingly sold by the industrial-security complex to city authorities as “silver bullets to complex social problems”. Global expenditure on homeland security is expected to grow from $231 billion in 2006 to $518 billion in 2015. As cities become increasingly “smart”, with everything from traffic lights to CCTV cameras controlled by central computers, the threat of “infrastructural terrorism” looms large: the fear of city-wide blackouts and gridlock. As a result, the basic experiences of urban life are becoming increasingly controlled, limiting the freedoms that are so fundamental to urban life.

In their preface to this new edition of the Blackwell Companion to the City, Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson note that the rate of urbanization and the scale of both the problems and possibilities this creates is “breathtaking”. The first Blackwell Companion was published in 2000 and it’s an indication of the pace of change that a new 700-page volume is thought necessary. Of the 65 contributions only 7 have been carried over from the earlier volume. The essays are generally more theoretical in tone than those in Burdett and Sudjic’s volume, as well as covering an impressively wide range of subjects, from the history of urban policing, infrastructure, diseases, and urban nights, to the homosexuality of cities and Wong Kar-Wai’s post-metropolitan Hong Kong. Readers will also undoubtedly be relieved to learn from Harvey Molotch’s piece about the interaction of people with urban artefacts that “public toilets, albeit only haltingly, are finally gaining some traction in scholarly circles.”

The implications of China’s astonishing rate of urbanization are explored in several essays. Increasingly, city regions such as the Pearl River Delta (home to 60 million people) and the Yangtze Delta-Greater Shanghai region (where more than 80 million live) are becoming the economic and industrial powerhouses of China. Edward Soja focuses on this phenomenon, arguing that it is a new urban form and that “the era of the modern metropolis may be ending”. Suburbia is being urbanized, becoming more dense and less homogeneous. Edge cities and technoburbs are part of this new urban form: “the expansive, polynucleated, densely networked, information-intensive, and increasingly globalized city region”. Soja sees these urban agglomerations as the natural result of globalization and of information and communication technologies. There are currently some 500 city regions of more than one million people in the world, comprising a third of the global population.

The largest city region in the United States is Megalopolis, as Jean Gottmann termed it in 1961. It comprises the four major metro regions of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington-Baltimore. This vast conurbation is responsible for 20% of America’s gross domestic product and is home to 50 million people (1 in 6 of the population). As John Short explains in his fascinating essay, “Megalopolis is the densest urban agglomeration in the United States, one of the largest city regions in the world, and an important element of the national and global economy”. Such “megalopolitan region” are, says Short, “liquid” because they are typically unstable and spreading across political boundaries – the twenty-first century will be the age of the post-border city when urban regions increasingly render national borders irrelevant.

Megalopolis is certainly not a model of sustainable urbanism. The low-density living here means it has “the greatest environmental impact per head in the history of the world”, says Short. In his essay, Peter Droege observes that today’s city is “a fossil fuel construct in search of rapid restructuring”. In an age of climate change, rising sea levels and dwindling fresh water supplies will finally force cities to make major changes to wean themselves from their dependency on oil and coal. Droege proposes several ingenious ways in which cities could help save themselves and the planet, including making all new buildings energy autonomous, solar-powered charging stations for electric cars, converting unused urban wasteland to garden cooperatives, allowing cities to take control of their energy supplies by investing in windfarms and solar thermal plants, and converting parking lots and rooftops to solar power generation. Some cities are indeed adopting such advice – Munich, for instance, is taking steps to make itself energy self-sufficient. However, Droege is concerned that the pace of change is too slow. He thinks a period of deurbanization may lie ahead, although it has to be said that there is little evidence of that.

There is often a vast gulf between our expectations of what city life should be and the reality. In his essay for the Blackwell Companion, Richard Sennett eloquently expresses his frustration at this: “the cities everyone wants to live in would be clean and safe, possess efficient public services, support a dynamic economy, provide cultural stimulation, and help heal society’s divisions of race and ethnicity and class. These are not the cities we live in…Something has gone wrong, radically wrong, in our conception of what a city itself should be.” Sennett argues that to create more liveable, vibrant cities, urban planners need to focus more on revitalising life at the borders between communities: “the planning of the last century was hopeless at creating or promoting borderlands”. Planners need to make “the stimulation of difference” their priority by focusing on the “living edge” of communities and making the city a more open and flexible system.

It is inspiring, however, that even a city with as many problems as Mumbai can offer hope for the future. Despite its poverty and inequality, after the terrible flood of 2005, which claimed many lives in Mumbai, there was no breakdown of civic order as there was in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Instead, Mumbaikars helped each other rather than waiting for the state to come to their aid. As Mehta says, “on a planet of city dwellers, this is how most human beings are going to live and cope in the twenty-first century.”

These weighty tomes both offer fascinating and authoritative views of the challenges facing cities in the twenty-first century as well as glimpses of some of the solutions. Cities are uniquely placed to harness the human and economic forces that will allow us to create sustainable and hopefully more equitable societies on what is an increasingly crowded planet. Both books should be required reading for mayors of cities everywhere.

N.B. This version is significantly longer than the piece published in the TLS.