Urban Theology 4 Urban Visions Urban Nightmares

David Smith’s fascinating discussion of the idea of the city continues into the 20thCentury.Chapter 4 is on Urban Visions, Urban Nightmares.

David Smith

This is a wide-ranging overview and I am not going to do him justice in a short space ..

The development of the city in the USA

Post WW1 there was a ‘cultural crisis’ as sociologists, planners and architects sought fresh models for urban environments in which people could flourish.

One strand was inspired by the work of Ebenezer Howard and his utopian vision of the garden city published in Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902). This was the city with limits, relating to the natural environment in a sustainable way.  In England, Welwyn Garden City was a result of this vision, and cities surrounded by green belts – Milton Keynes is another.

Another vision, this time post-war, was that of Le Corbusier and his modernist vision of concrete, glass and steel to replace the cramped and overcrowded slums and tight city streets. These were to be cities of space, efficiency, and progress. Brasilia is one of the few actually built – with its own problems of anonymity and soullessness.

New York

And it is Le Corbusier whose vision has shaped the great American cities – think New York and Chicago. The vast interstate highway systems, cutting through old existing neighbourhoods. The future is always better, the old making way for the new. This was a vision deeply enmeshed with American optimism and sense of progress. Now the boundary of city and country is blurred, with huge commuting distances to suburban ‘edge cities’. A vision of development utterly dependent on the automobile. The city is now ‘everywhere and in everything.’

It is also a vision deeply connected to residents as consumers, built around the hypermarket or mall. (And I think that if you are a European, unless you have been to an American mega-mall you can’t really conceive of the scale being talked of here).

Smith suggests fresh expression’s of Durkheim’s ‘anomie’ and the need once again to ask what is the meaning of this new city form? So the development of places like the ‘Mall of America’, opened in 1992 and proudly boasting is five times larger than Red Square, twenty times the size of St Peter’s in Rome ….’

– the loss of community

– the loss of centre

– gendered space – male space of functionality, of efficiency, not child or woman friendly. Studies show the particular stress on women in the city.

– consumer as king – is the purpose of the city really ultimately about profit. Where do the poor and the weak and vulnerable fit into this vision of the city?

The Cities of the Global South

Modernization and its associated urbanisation associated with European imperialism, has marginalised native and indigenous peoples of the south. This was city building to serve European economies. Cities to establish control and serve particular economic and social objectives. Havana, Mexico City, Cuzco, Arequipa, Lagos, Nairobi, Kampala are named by Smith.

These former colonial cities have now expanded to become megacities, sucking in millions and dominating the entire life of a nation. Think Mexico City – three times the size of any other Mexican city.

These mega-cities are homes to the urban poor. In Latin America, 20% of the entire population live in poverty without adequate food or shelter.

And so the clash of visions of the city. Modern cities of glass and steel and concrete do exist – but right beside the favellas – the ‘other cities’ made up of corrugated tin, mud bricks, recycled paper, scrap wood, squalor, pollution, excrement and decay ..

Take Nigeria’s Abjua: built in Le Corbusier’s international style; built for the rich and the government elites, yet the official city is surrounded by slums.

And you could go to many other examples here – think Rio de Janero, Johannesburg, Mumbai, Buenos Aires and Shanghai. Or Mexico City’s Santa Fe district – a high profile ‘success’ of modern life, but increasingly a ‘glass cage’ symptomatic of what Smith calls ‘the most radical social and economic polarization in the whole of human history’. Wealth, glamour and opulence living right beside ‘un-policable’ hidden cities of the urban poor.

Where to from here?

There is too much to cover here, so briefly Smith mentions two future visions being articulated for the city:

An Apocalyptic Vision:

– such as James Kunstler. Future catastrophes, sparked by the end of cheap energy and ecological crisis, bring the development of the city to a juddering halt and a return to earlier, more sustainable models of city life.

Jane Jacobs, a serious American urbanist and her book Dark Age Ahead. Perhaps the end of the cities, the collapse of the Western modernist vision of endless growth and development.

An optimistic post-modernist vision

Leonie Sandercock has a more optimistic vision which embraces ‘concerns for social and environmental justice, for human community, for cultural diversity and for the spirit.’ Here is protest against crushing modernism that kills communities and an alternative feminist vision for cities that can nourish the soul and spirit.

Signs of Hope?

And following Sandercock’s hopes that the city can be reformed and re-envisaged, Smith looks for signs of hope for the urban world in the remainder of the 21st century:

1. A movement in the USA called New Urbanism. Reacting against soulless modernism, and seeking to restore communities and towns within larger metropolitan areas, making space for the pedestrian and developing compact local identities rather than fragmented ones. He mentions Catholic thinker on architecture, Philip Bess who says

New Urbanism is about “the best practices of city making from the past toward the end of making better cities for the future.”

2. Movements in the Global South seeking to reclaim neglected cultural and spiritual values to the task of city-building in the face of the destruction being wrought when market forces are given free reign with little or no regard to social consequences.

He gives the encouraging (and to me totally unknown) examples of Curitiba in Brazil and Bogata in Colombia. Take Bogata, a megacity with 7 million people and with a history of violent civil conflict:

– a vision of urban harmony built on equity

– reclamation of public space through the provision of public pavements, parks and plazas

– provision of a high class public transport system offering affordable fares and managed by a non-profit company

– building schools, libraries and nurseries in the poorest part of the city

– micro-credit schemes to reform urban land use using public-private partnerships

The results?

– air quality has dramatically improved

– road deaths down over 50%

– murder rate and general crime rates reduced

– measureable economic and social benefits (he does not give facts and figures here)

This is a political vision that takes political courage to enact. It shows that values and ethics are fundamental to building better cities

3. The third sign of hope is, Smith well knows, a bit of a surprise – Islam.

Written before the ‘Arab Spring’, Smith’s words here are prescient. He talks about the powder-keg situation of millions living in extreme poverty as Muslim elites failed to live up to the political ethics of Islam itself. For example, 6 million people live in extreme poverty in Cairo and such rampant inequality is replicated across the Muslim world.

The radical Islamist response of Bin Laden et al represented one reaction. But the Arab Spring demonstrates powerful movements for democracy and liberation from those old corrupt elites. And a powerful desire for justice. These movements did not ‘spring’ from nowhere – for decades it has been a local on the ground Islam which has been educating, supporting the poor, offering medical aid, and gathering support from across the community.

Smith’s point here is that the success of a ‘ground-up’ religious movement has offered hope of the possibility of urban transformation. And he quotes urban theorists Lubeck and Britts,

“For, like it or not, Islamism will constitute a powerful social force shaping Muslim-majority cities in the twenty-first century”

Smith’s conclusion. The rich and prosperous city dwellers of the world need to realise thatwe cannot go on as we are.”

There are fundamental ethical challenges which confront humanity (remember I said this is a book about the human story not just cities). And that ethical challenge involves accepting that it is environmentally and economically unattainable for the mass of the world’s poor to be brought up to the living standards of today’s well-off minority. Future sustainability will mean a more equal sharing of the world’s resources and an accompanying more modest conception of what the good life involves.

But this is heresy to the modern Western dream of endless progress and ever-growing consumption.

“Unfortunately, both Western political rhetoric and the ideology of consumerism suppress this truth, employing forms of double-speak in which economic growth is presented as the solution to the ills of the world, when in fact, in the form it currently takes, it is the source of those ills.

 Strong stuff. Comments, as ever, welcome.


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