Global Challenges, Urban Futures

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The talking notes below was the basis of the contribution Mark Swilling make to the seminar on Global Challenges, Urban Futures that took place at the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam on Thursday 19 June 2014

Point 1: second urbanization wave and the African urban revolution
Point 2: why the present focus on cities
Point 3: why we remain hopeful about cities, in particular at this historical moment
Point 4: what exactly is the African urban challenge

Point 1: second urbanization wave and the African urban revolution
To understand the challenges faced by African cities one needs to recognise that we are halfway through the 2nd urbanization wave. The first lasted 200 years starting in 1750 and resulted in the urbanization of 400m people mainly in what is now the developed world. The second started in the 1950s and is expected to result in the urbanization of nearly 4 billion people in just 80 years.
48% of urban fabric: By 2010 only 48% of the urban fabric that is expected to exist in 2050 had been assembled. This means, if we want to believe UN population projections, that we can expect the doubling of the number of city dwellers over the 4 decades to 2050.

This will have massive resource implications which no-one has yet calculated – Maarten and I have initiated a project to do just this. What we do know is that we have brought the planet to the brink of an ecological crisis through a combination of industrialization, urbanization and population growth. Do we really think we can replicate this at sonic speed on a finite planet using modes of governance invented in the c.19th?

Of the 1 billion who live in Africa, 400 million currently live in cities. This means there are more people living in cities in Africa than the number of people who live in cities in Europe, or North America for that matter. UN population data estimates that Africa’s urban population will be 1.2 billion by 2050 – another 800 m in 4 decases!

And yet Africa has an installed electrical generation capacity equal to France, and the regional economy is growing at an average of 5-7% pa. Africa has to undertake a massive energisation drive, probably more dramatic than what happened in China. If it invests in a fossil fuel-based infrastructure to deliver conventional 220 volt AC current, then there is no chance global climate targets will ever be reached. The world has an interest in Africans finding radical alternatives, and soon.

Point 2: why the present focus on cities?

What strikes me is how many major private sector reports have been published over the last few years that advocate massive up-scaling of investments in urban infrastructure, including Siemens who recently published a report called Is your city investor ready?  As Maarten has argued, the futuristic claims about city-wide transformations made by the GTCs are comparable to the sanitation movement in the late c.19th and the highway movement after WWII. Like their predecessors, the smart city agenda is about constructing futures that could possibly then become self-fulfilling prophesies.
How do we explain this? The global financial crisis is actually a sovereign debt crisis – corporate profits have not been this high since the 1960s. And yet short-termism remains the name of the game while increased restrictions on banks limits their capacity for long-term lending. The result is a massive expansion of the shadow banking system as key facilitators of long-term investments in real economy activities. Even ship builders are turning to shadow banking institutions for long-term funding for the first time. Unsurprisingly, infrastructures in regions where there is still significant economic growth provide investors with secure long-term returns on capital that cannot be found in the traditional Western economies.
This raises a key challenge: during the neoliberal era the state helped the market to escape the hard-won societal constraints that had been established during the era of Keynesian welfarism (1930s-1970s). This brought an end to the inclusionary citizenship of the post-WWII consensus – commodification and cost recovery became the new watchwords. Furthermore, the rampant unaccountable pillaging of the world’s natural resources was also accelerated from the 1980s onwards (reinforced by declining resource prices), mainly to build the cities of the Asian Tigers and then later the rising BRICSs countries, and even more importantly to meet the rapidly expanding needs of the debt-financed consumption and construction boom in the developed world.
Point 3: why we remain hopeful about cities
In a majority urban world, it is unsurprising that we look to cities for creativity and potential: (a) we look for the potential of new social coalitions that could re-socialize – re-embed – the market, and (b) we expect to find in cities the innovation networks that could generate more sustainable ways of building and operating cities in response to the environmental crisis.

Undoubtedly, the focus on cities and on redirecting investment into real economies needs to be welcomed, but what kind of city is envisaged? Who are the actors that could forge alternative agendas? What will the terms of engagement be between the new wave of investments and the target cities in the developed and developing world? Are there modes of investment that are compatible with urbanity, public space, flourishing of human potential and sustainability? Or must the market be allowed to continue to trump all once again as suggested in the phrase Is your city investor ready? Why not: is your city people ready?
This is a moment of extra-ordinary opportunity. If all remains equal, this opportunity will be lost. We must find ways to embed – to re-socialize – the dynamics of financial markets within accountable institutions that prioritize the needs of the city. This implies a new social contract between public and private goods. We must ensure that investments allow the 1000s of sustainability-oriented niche innovations to break out into the mainstream. This will require a new social contract between cities and nature. The one social contract should not happen without the other – indeed, like post-war reconstruction, greening these investments – what some call repairing the future – might just provide the narratives needed to negotiate the re-socialization of the markets. Of course, these are all profoundly political processes.
Point 4: the African urban challenge
Urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa accelerated dramatically over the past 3 decades. It is in many ways a unique urbanization pattern because it has been a process of rapid urbanization without industrialisation as its driver, and this during the neoliberal era when inclusion was a non-issue.

The result is a winner-take-all culture: for Latin Americans, cities are works of art; in China, the new cities are a barracks; in Europe, cities are (living) museums; and in Africa, cities are casinos – and no-body loves a casino, but it can lead to an accumulation of private goods, without any significant investment in public space and goods.

Unlike European cities, most African cities were constructions of colonial military control and administration. Those in power were regarded as legally entitled to extract and pillage natural resources to the benefit of elites. Amsterdam may have been where the first stock exchange was established, but this was part of a grand city-building project – markets were embedded in a long tradition of European urbanism and governance. Not so in Africa – markets to this day are not tempered by urbanism; formal markets are perceived to be instruments of control, extraction and elite accumulation.
The dominant view within African governments, aid agencies and almost every academic analysis is that Africa’s cities are in crisis because they have not been able to implement what is presumed to be how you govern a city: fully planned, centrally managed networks that everyone is connected to. In practice these kinds of systems meet the needs of 40% of urban dwellers, ranging from 75% of all urban dwellers in South Africa to 20% in Ethiopia.
Of course, this does not mean everyone else does without urban services – these are delivered in all sorts of ways to both the urban poor and middle class, from illegal informal providers, to formalised private commercial operators. But these are regarded as temporary, to be replaced when the formal grids arrive – formal grids that will be speced and operated in a BAU way, usually by foreign consultants who are part of the  package of foreign loans. Only one system is legitimised: the formal networks mandated by the state, and that is where the money goes. Left uncontested, massive urban infrastructures will simply reinforce the casino culture and markets will never get embedded within the colourful vibes of African urbanity.
And yet the diversity of delivery systems reflects the complex mix of heterogenous urbanisms that make African cities such unique and dynamic places.
Given the enormous needs, rapid growth and fiscal constraints it is unlikely that this diversity is going to give way anytime soon. So maybe it is time that we accept this, and integrate this notion of a diversity of delivery systems into an over-arching conception of urban governance that is appropriate for the African context. This, in turn, will open up the way to innovations rooted in context rather than the tendency to assume that solutions from elsewhere are better. The result will be what could be called radical incrementalism – this approach could help replace the contrived monstrosities of enclave urbanism with the exquisitely beautiful fractal patterns that seem to have unique historical roots in African design and settlement formations.
Examples are starting to emerge: the introduction of BRTs in certain cities; strengthening of local food economies threatened by supermarketization; decentralized sanitation systems that recycle nutrients, methane and water; community-based social enterprises to manage waste streams; homes built from local materials, etc. But most importantly of all, decentralised DC systems powered by renewable energy could, with international support, become the basis for home grown solutions that simultaneously make it possible for the world to meet global climate targets.
Building new modes of city-level governance based on a commitment to inclusive incrementalism across a diversity of delivery systems will, in my view, help to address the challenge we Africans face. If we get it wrong, we could make life very miserable not just for ourselves, but for everyone and the planet.