Jan Pronk

Cities or countries?

Speech 50th Anniversary Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS), Rotterdam, 8 October 2008

Cities are more important than countries. This is the theme chosen for the 50th anniversary of your institute. I have been asked to kick off the discussions with a keynote address. In my view the best way to do so is by falsifying the statement. I will argue: Cities are not more important than countries.

That cities are more important than countries is the position taken by three categories of people. First, many of those who are present today: city planners and spatial planners in general. It is their interest to say so, their job, and their income.
Secondly, it is the position taken by business. Business, commerce and trade grow in cities more than in the countryside. There are more people living in cities. Most of them have a higher income. The market is urban.
The third category is the political and administrative elite. Their power rests in the urban population. Those are the voters, the electorate or, anyway, the mass that has to be satisfied and pleased with low priced food and broad opportunities for leisure.
A fourth category is that of the young: the young professionals, the vocal young, and the educated young. They see chances for a better life, a higher income, and another job in cities rather than in villages or in rural areas. Cities are vibrant; they offer communication and renewal. Cities live; the countryside is dull, if not dead.
Preparing this speech I asked around, wondering what young people might think about the statement. Young professionals responded: “yes, indeed, cities are more important than countries, because they promise economic growth, technological progress and intellectual vibrancy. In short: they represent modernity. Right in the centre of Rome, overseen by centuries old statues and monuments, a group of young professionals told me: 'the future is here, it is happening right here'.”
Rephrasing the statement.
All that may be true, but in my view it is a little short sighted. If you allow me: the central statement of the series of meetings commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of this institute is lacking balance. I would like to raise three objections to the statement.
First: cities stand for much more than modernity. They are inherently dualistic. For many people they offer not much more than life in a wilderness.
Second: we know more or less what a city is. But what is a country?
Third: even if cities are very important (and they are, no doubt), even if they are alive and kicking, what makes them live: their internal communication - economically, politically, socially, intellectually, culturally - or the relations with the real world outside. And with the latter I do not mean other cities, nearby or far away, as nodes in a global network, but the real world: the world consisting of land and water, the seas, the rivers, the forests, the water, the biodiversity, the farmers, the agriculture, the food, the minerals, the atmosphere. Young people, professionals, business managers, politicians, opinion leaders, the middle class: they know what makes cities tick. But the question is: what makes cities breath? And: what makes them sick?
Let me elaborate these three arguments. First: why do we juxtapose cities and countries? A country is a geographical category, conceptually rather meaningless. A city is a geographical unit, as well as a socio-economic entity and a political institution. A comparison between a city and a nation, the traditional embodiment of social and economic life, would make more sense than a comparison between cities and countries. So would a comparison between cities and states, the acclaimed political and legal institutions, which have dealt with each other throughout history and still today, despite globalisation.
Are cities more important than nations? Are they more important than states? Those are the more relevant questions. Those who argue that globalisation has turned world relations upside down would say that this is indeed the case. They argue that the new world economic order is based on cities rather than nations, that the new information and communication technology enables cities to relate directly with each other in networks, irrespective of national boundaries and that the world's political power is based in metropolitan centres with direct access to the most modern technologies necessary to exercise control over markets, people, knowledge and media.
A view from the bottom
This is the view of the elite, the middle class, the young, the educated, the managers, the whiz kids in finance and ITC and all others who benefit from the concentration of capital, technology, information and communication, and who call this 'knowledge'.However, farmers, fishermen, herders, nomads, and endogenous people will have a different view. This is only natural, you may argue, because these are the people of the past. Soon they will be history. We will industrialize agriculture and fisheries with the help of biotechnology and genetic modification and turn the rural areas into leisure parks, where city dwellers can rest, enjoy and revive themselves after periods of city stress.
But what about the loss of biodiversity, the threats posed by climate change, the depletion of the forests, sea level rise, the drying of rivers and the melting of glaciers, in short: the consequences of fast increases in mass consumption by the masses in the cities? Would the people in cities, the people of modernity, the people of the future, so superior in comparison with the people of the past, not run the risk that they will consume themselves to death?
Moreover, there is a third category of people, next to the people of the future (the middle class) and also next to the people of the past (the rural population). They are the underclass: people without much education, without a piece of land, without a job, without a decent house and a human habitat, without access to clean water and affordable energy, without access to the market, without a voice in the society that matters.
They too have a different view on life in the city. They live in cities because they can't live in the countryside anymore. Look at the poor masses in India. Many do not have a future in rural areas. Land has become less fertile. They have to split their land between their sons and each of them has too little to survive. They lack the money to buy fertilizer. They are dependent on middlemen for credit and finance as well as for access to markets. They can't repay the loans and the land is taken away. They have no other choice than travelling to the city. Does the city offer a job, an income, and a house? It does not: the migrants join the crowd, a huge mass of unskilled workers, paid less and less. Labour relations are informalized, rather than formalized, as would be expected in modern city societies. Protest against exploitation is not allowed. Resistance is punished by expulsion.
It is pure capitalism, rough and primitive. It is capitalism in the real economy, at the bottom of society. It is harsh and greedy. Compare this with present day financial capitalism in the sophisticated and civilised top layers of society, no less greedy, no less pure, and no less primitive. The financial and the real economy are linked with each other, in particular in cities, if only because the financial sector in the modern Wall Streets of city life has become footloose, while the very poor who are dependent on the real economy live underground, unnoticed, anonymous, unregistered, voice less, deprived of rights. The more the money at the top has become footloose, the less space there is left for capital investment providing solid ground (water, sanitation, houses with a roof, garbage disposal, schools, health centres, electric power, public transport).
The jungle
In his novel A Good Man in Africa William Boyd describes a man sitting on the roof of his office and observing the pattern of growth of a city in which he works. It is a town in tropical West Africa, small but growing rapidly. He identifies the sea of rusty, corrugated roofs as being the product of the paranoid vision of some insane town planner. For him the growth pattern of the city resembles that of a festering and fetid organic culture that is growing uncontrollably in response to ideal biological conditions. “Clear the ground”, he thinks, “Let the jungle creep in”.
In Michael Thelwell's novel The Harder They Come a young migrant from the countryside is on a bus journey to Kingston, Jamaica. His first impression of the city is that of gigantic garbage dump made up of randomly dispersed shacks of cardboard, corrugated iron and wooden planks. The shanties are ugly, dirty and menacing - all jumbled together without order or orientation. They make up a foul, tentacular mass that will pollute even the soil. “Is this the first you seeing it?” asks a fellow passenger. “That's what them call the jungle”, he says without further explanation.
Both authors also talk of the inhabitants of these settlements. Both basically describe people in slums. For Boyd's character those people are a restless mass of organic life, moving through the structure-less urban fabric. Thelwell's hero is more overwhelmed by the numbers involved and their patterns of coordinated movement: “collectively the crowd as an entity seemed tense, nervous and moved by a single and alarmingly unpredictable will”.
Alarmist biological metaphors of the relationship between society and the built environment, in particular in fast growing developing countries, have been around a long time, and they have been revived under current conditions of rapid urbanisation, growing unemployment and homelessness, the rise of survival strategies and escalating levels of violence. Neither are these phenomena exclusively to be found in cities of developing countries. Life around Johannesburg, Beijing, Paris, London and Miami shows a certain similarity to life around Mexico City, Nairobi, Khartoum and Mumbai. All cities have two faces: a bright one and a dark one, glitter and gutter.
“Let the jungle creep in”, the expatriate in Boyd's novel thinks. “It is a jungle already”, is the slum dweller's response. Indeed, that is city life: a chaotic mass of individuals, evil, threatening, unpredictable, but in one-way or another: an organic entity, alive, moving, and fighting for space necessary in order to exist.
The face and the belly of globalisation
Last year, on the occasion of fifty-five years Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, a debate took place between students, staff and other professionals on the basis of two statements.
The first statement was: “Cities will increasingly become the dump site for a surplus of people. Billions of people will be stuck in marginalised, overpopulated slums, without adequate services. They have only one option: fighting for survival”.
The second statement was: “Population pressure in this world is not caused by urbanisation. On the contrary: urbanisation is the only way out. It is the concentration of people in cities that will facilitate creating an adequate infrastructure and establishing a network of essential services and utilities, thereby creating sufficient economic opportunities”.
Before the debate started the participants had to vote in favour of either statement. The majority supported the second, optimistic, position. I chaired the debate and for this reason, in order to be a neutral chair, I did not vote. If I had voted, I would have supported the first position. Admittedly, this was a gloomy picture, and I would hope that developments would prove me wrong. Indeed, population in many cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America is resilient. Indeed, economic growth is originating in particular in the cities and many people find a job in the informal economy. However, in the meantime half of world population is living in cities, not because all of them prefer this, but because the rural areas do not provide sufficient opportunities to survive. Many people do not have a choice. They migrate to a rural town and from there to a big city, and if possible to a metropolis far away, for instance overseas in Europe or the United States. However, in these cities the majority of these people will find a living at the margin of existence only, without education, without health care, without decent housing, forced to pay a high price for their drinking water and for daily transport in order to get a job or to stay on a job. Many do not know how and where to earn or get the money necessary to buy their daily food, day after day. Many, in particular young boys and girls, have no other option than resorting to crime, drugs and prostitution. The result is oppression and violence.
This is a vicious circle. Breaking through this circle is a privilege of only few. The others are resilient indeed, they have learned to adjust, but it is adjustment to circumstances that get worse year after year. In quite a few cities and countries political leaders do not even care. They want to please their own class and refuse to allocate resources necessary to enable the world's underclass to emancipate.
This is not a phenomenon limited to individual cities. If metropolitanization is the face of present day globalisation, the slums form the belly. Urban poverty is a global economic phenomenon. Urban neglect is a global political phenomenon. Globalisation is offering many opportunities to many people, opportunities that were unheard of in history. But the world middle class grasps these opportunities by excluding the poor. Middle class city citizens are greedy, selfish and short sighted.
This means that the slum dwellers are on their own. They can neither rely on the middle class, nor on politicians. Will they be able to make themselves not only visible but also indispensable for the future of the city? Some authors are pointing in this direction. They foresee that slums and slum dwellers will gradually permeate the cities, that they will be capable to get access to city services and that they will be accepted as citizens, illegal perhaps, but tolerated and gradually integrated into an expanding and flourishing city life.
I wish this would be true. I doubt. To continue the organic metaphor used by Thelwell and Boyd: different organic combinations may arise. Sometimes they are the result of the unpredictable will referred to by Thelwell, sometimes the result of force, as desired by Boyd. However, all of them follow the law of the jungle.
I see how in Lima slums gradually have become settlements and new towns, with some services and a certain degree of law and order, due to public policies aiming at spreading of both economic and social investments as well as of political and legal rights.
I also see how slum dwellers invade Asian cities like Jakarta and Delhi. However, I also see how the city centres in many of these cities are being rebuilt in order to compete with other mega cities. The renovation often means total reconstruction after demolition, leaving no space whatsoever for the poor anymore.
I see millions of slum dwellers in Khartoum, forced to live there because city elites did impose a war upon the people in the South and in Darfur. I se how these slum dwellers again and again are being forced by the same s city elite to move further away to the margin f he city, somewhere in the desert, in order to make room for the middle class.
I see, for instance, violence in Kenya integrating slums and countryside, threatening the city.
The jungle may creep in violently. In the end people who feel that they are being excluded from the city, while living in the city, have only thing in common: an identity, be it a religious one, or an ethnic, tribal, racial identity, a common to the security of a job, an income, loosing access to care, loose their sense of belonging, and risk loosing their dignity. They will cling together with others who are in the same situation and feel that they have been thrown back to the same bare and basic identity. If they feel that they have nothing to loose than their basic identity, like for instance this year was the case in cities in India, Kenya and South Africa, violence is looming around each street corner.
You may say: all this is far away. Indeed, it is far away from Rotterdam and this city, as well as other cities in Europe, is much better of. However, these cities too are part of a global system. They are part of rich nations, which have been able to build their wealth by colonising other countries and by protecting their domestic markets. They are part of strong states, which have been able to shield themselves against immigration by the poor from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The slums of the European cities are invisible, because they are overseas, across the Mediterranean and we would like this to remain the case.
Who would still dare to argue that cities are more important than nations and states? The economic future of cities in the present world still greatly depends on the capacity of the nation state. We witness this today, in the midst of a financial crisis that is threatening all cities and the world middle class as a whole. We will have to understand this also tomorrow, reconstructing the global real economy, in the interest of society as a whole, elites, business managers, labourers, consumers, slum dwellers, farmers, and all others, in particular the young people.
For the new generation, including the yet unborn, to live in sustainable cities, we will need some major changes in policy making, in cities as well as in countries and nation states, at all levels, from the local neighbourhood to the globe as a whole.