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Welcome to the Urban Revolution

By Jeb Brugmann, Evan O'Neil | October 28, 2010

CREDIT: William Cho (CC).

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.

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.


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