The Resilience of Cities
From the ruin porn of Detroit to China's ghost towns, images of failed growth haunt our imaginations. But Darran Anderson, the author of Imaginary Cities, argues that humanity is robust enough to survive its own poor planning.
From the air, the suburbs of Mexico City resemble waves or the ridges of an ash-strewn volcano, with an intricate myriad of white buildings colonising hills and valleys. The grids of the mega-slum Neza-chalco-itza threaten to carry on forever, constrained only by the horizon. Elsewhere, the model-like San Buenaventura complex evokes the unease of a video game when you realise it is somehow, impossibly real.
This is growth and it is a multi-headed beast, by certain measurements success and by others baleful doom. We greet it in terms we used to greet our gods, with a mix of awe, terror and bewilderment. The thousands of wooden buildings piling atop one another in the Buddhist settlement of Larung Gar in Tibet seem almost like a hallucination. So too do the multiplying facades of Hong Kong apartment blocks, as much a real-world glitch as the Gordian Knot of Los Angeles’ Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange. They are beautiful and terrible simultaneously because they lie just outside our comfortable spatial parameters. We cannot quite make sense of their enormity. To the alienated urbanite, one room is a tragedy, a million a statistic. When confronted with a hyper-sprawling metropolis and its circuitry of networks, the mind reels. It is like trying to orientate ourselves when dreaming, trying to bring reason into chaos. Except, of course, that reason did this. In an effort to restore a sense of scale, we reach for imperfect comparisons. Tiny figures look like ants. Streets appear like patterns on tree bark, blood vessels or fingerprints.
As population increases, so too logically does urban growth. Yet we resent it and project our unease onto others. "Hell is other people," as Sartre wrote in No Exit. The problem is always other people: the immigrant or the gentrifier or the single mother with her kids bawling in the flat downstairs. It’s easier than recognising that we, the self-appointed authentic natives, are playing our part.
Cities grow for a multitude of reasons. Origin myths are written later to cover up bluntly utilitarian reasons: access to food, water and building materials, a defensive position from the elements and enemies, access to trade routes via rivers or passes. Every city that really takes off, however, needs a selling point. We are creatures of dreams and objects, and cities promise them, regardless of whether they deliver. Though in reality they offer a multitude of things, it very often this comes down to a single commodity or image (city branding has been going on centuries before the PR industry). For Lagos, it was oil. For Johannesburg, it was gold. Nanking had satin, São Paulo coffee. The Bronx produced over 100,000 pianos at its height across dozens of factories, while Manshiyat Naser exists recycling the discarded waste of Cairo.
The dominant allure of a city need not even be a tangible object. Access to information is magnetic from the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and the Library of Alexandria through university towns to information technology centres like Seoul, Silicon Valley and Bangalore. The old adage is that knowledge is power is further reflected in the growth of cities as political centres, whether they come about as imperial manoeuvrings (Constantinople and Moscow), bureaucratic planning (Brasília and Canberra) or religion (Mashhad and Salt Lake City). Sometimes the great selling point is safety. Populations of siege forts would soar when invading armies laid waste to neighbouring countryside. This was not just some medieval phenomenon: the population of Phnom Penh exploded to almost three million people with the onslaught of the US bombing campaign and the advance of the Khmer Rouge. It would be almost entirely emptied by Pol Pot's forces when it fell.
Regardless of the bait, the city is offering one thing: prospects – escape, fortune, jobs, money – and the urban migrant is a prospector. But actual fortunes are very often made by those selling shovels rather than discovering gold, as the saying goes. Other reasons for a city to exist need to be found before the primary draw diminishes. The booming gulf state megalopolises must diversify if they are to outlive oil, but the lesson is equally apt for our bubble-inflating cities closer to home. The cities that survive are those that can evolve and adapt. Those that can’t decay into ruins fit at best for vultures, tomb-robbers and, if the corpse is exquisite enough, coach parties of tourists.
A city that offers multiple purposes and opportunities will exhibit a gravity quite different from the transient boomtown. In many respects, it will become a self-sustaining chain reaction, or rather it sustains itself on immigrants and the population of surrounding rural areas. This is both the engine of growth and its downfall. If authorities deem the workers who keep the city alive worthy enough to pay them well and build infrastructure to support them, there will still inevitably be challenges. If they fail to do these basic things, problems are guaranteed.
All cities are planned, just not necessarily officially. Slums occur when government planning is negligent or completely absent, and when the occupants are forced to plan individually to fill the vacuum. These places are not so much out of control as out of consideration, and the long term cost of ignoring them and their occupants far outweighs short-term blinkered expediency. Each area and each occupant is different but it’s important to see a common civic myopia across a diverse range of habitations from shantytowns to favelas to reconstructed existing housing such as the Cortiço dwellings of Brazil and hastily erected structures. An estimated half of Istanbul lives in informal gecekondu housing, the word meaning 'landed at night'. It is convenient to regard such settlements and their inhabitants as temporary. Around Lima, they are referred to as pueblos jóvenes, ‘young towns’, even though many have been there for decades. The Argentine equivalent villa miseria have a pessimistic title, but they may be closer to the mark. Here every householder is forced to be an architect, plumber and electrician. The Orangi community in Karachi even installed their own sewage system. They are often pushed out to the periphery, but these areas have as much a claim to embody their respective cities as the business, administrative and tourist areas.
This is by no means a problem restricted to the developing world. You can drive from the Prado in Madrid to the shantytown Cañada Real, housing 30,000 people, in just over twenty minutes. It is a trend set to increase in an age of immigration crises, public austerity, wilful housing shortages and chasmic wealth disparities. Paris is seeing increasing examples of parasitic architecture being built on rooftops in a spirit of defiant self-sufficiency. In Western cities, the critical and commercial rehabilitation of Brutalism in recent years has suspiciously coincided with these once-loathed sites for social housing becoming privately rented, often by young professionals as opposed to working class families. The problem all along, it seems, wasn’t with the structures as long claimed. They were simply housing the wrong kind of occupants.
This class and often ethnic prejudice was most explicitly demonstrated when riots broke out in the more deprived banlieues on the edge of Paris, after sustained police heavy-handedness and a number of civilian deaths. Railing against the "racaille" (scum), the future French president Nicolas Sarkozy called for the estates to be cleaned out with a fire-hose. Self-aggrandising chauvinism ignores the immense contributions migrants make to cities and how much that the culture of that city in particular relies on the legacy of such émigrés: Camus, Picasso, Curie, Modigliani, Zidane, Stein, Gainsbourg and so on. Even in countries which regard themselves as especially advanced, sudden population growth, especially through migration, is exploited by those with ulterior motives. In the 19th Century, Irish immigrants to the East Coast of the US were attacked in the likes of the Philadelphia Prayer Riots and agitated against by an entire political organisation, the Know-Nothing Party. The Great Migration of African-Americans from the south states, towards employment in Chicago and other industrial centres, was answered in the sadism of the Red Summer of 1919.
There is something within us that resists the utopian, even when we are benefiting from it. We tend to harbour an attraction to impulse and accident, even a flirtation with chaos and ruin, albeit from a safe distance. To the casual observer, growth aids this imaginative city because it continually breaks the bounds of planning. Six of the original eight fortress wall gates of Seoul remain from 1398 as the vast metropolis burst out and engulfed them. The creative areas of Paris were less the sublimely-ordered boulevards of Baron Haussmann than the corners that resisted and remained from other eras: the hill village of Montmartre, the beehive La Ruche in Montparnasse, and the warren of the Latin Quarter. Humans may be lost between the cracks but they can also, with a bit of talent, luck and support, thrive there. When the poor are priced out altogether, culture becomes a playground for the rich and it fossilises.
Given we show little sign of slowing down our reproductive prowess as a species, growth seems inevitable. This presents huge challenges in terms of population density. Do we build up, out or even downwards like RÉSO or La Ville Souterraine in Montreal? The effect on the environment and the silent atrocity of air pollution might even lead us to question whether entire societies and economies geared to a cult of growth should or can be readjusted. Lessons we can learn from Malthusian fears of over-population in Victorian times are firstly that such pessimism is often intimately wed to fears and prejudices towards other peoples and an engrained cycle of superiority and insecurity. Secondly, that human beings are resilient creatures through their technological ingenuity, increasing crop yields, for example, and redesigning cities largely away from the squalid hell-holes of the time.
The future will be no different. Change is coming and the water is rising, but the apocalypse will be, as it has always been, continually postponed. We are haunted and fixated by often-outdated images of failed growth: the labyrinth of Kowloon Walled City, the ruin porn of Detroit, the empty skyscrapers of Chinese ghost cities, but we survive to pore over the pictures. Even in the likes of Angkor Wat, Tikal, Nan Madol and the temple of Borobudur, the inhabitants went elsewhere rather than complete oblivion. It is highly likely that, regardless of technological developments or carbon reduction, there will be inundated areas of coastal cities serving as sacrifice zones. Yet even here, if slums are anything to go by, life will struggle on.
Accepting that cities will survive is very different from suggesting that they will be bearable. Large-scale development will be necessary. The great blight of the present is simply leaving housing out of plans, and creating floating populations, of which there are over 200 million in China alone. Preservation and expansion need not be in opposition however. Indeed, it is vital they co-exist and the latter learns from the former. Growth can be instructive in this regard. Walking around a city like London, there is a distinct sense of areas having once been villages that were swallowed up by the expanding conurbation. In many, if not all cases, boroughs were allowed to retain something of their unique character and retain a hub around which life could locally orbit without getting lost in limbo. These retentions were hard fought. Modern buildings and developments have certainly come into existence, but a constellation effect remains on ground level despite some prominent grotesques on the skyline.
Preservation can be a radical as well as a conservative act. Without a profound knowledge of, connection to and defence of place, developers ride roughshod across swathes of cities, resulting in cityscapes in which no personal resonances or narratives could be created or histories extracted. Without architects and planners who care about such maintaining such connections and creating new ones, any sense of depth or meaning to urban life will diminish. Much has already been or is being lost in the name of unchecked growth; the disappearing hutongs of Beijing, the horrors of Brusselisation and the cynical yet highly symbolic trend for facadism in London.
All doom-sayers secretly want cataclysms, but these rarely happen. If major cities refuse to face the consequences of growth, most will not fail. Certain areas within them will still prosper, indeed they may even profit from the decline of other areas. Sections of the populace will suffer however, especially those at the bottom, on the periphery and who’ve been excluded from the plans. Slums will continue to grow along with the sprawl, and so too will gated communities and citadels. Cities that wish to prosper as cities, rather than glorified siege forts, will continue as they’ve always done: adapting to change, encouraging meritocracy, exploring new ideas, protecting old sites and buildings and using them as heterarchical hubs around which to build modern interconnecting villages within the city. Cities are not just outer physical shells, but people-focused networks and processes. For all the perils and dazzling promise of innovations, it isn’t utopia or dystopia cities need to prepare for but the challenge of continuing to continue on. Everything is growing but the time to do something about it is shrinking.
Photos by Imaginechina/REX/Shutterstock. Thousands of tiny wooden houses form one of the world's largest Buddhist institutes in the Larung Gar Valley.
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