WELCOME TO THE URBAN REVOLUTION
How Cities are Changing the World
By Jeb Brugmann, University of Queensland Press, 342pp.
Reviewed: 22 August 2009
Opinion and reportage in the Canberra Times suggest that we live in one of the most self-conscious cities in the world. The ACT’s history as a compromise child of Federation, rather than as an heroic colony of the Empire, divides us from the States. We are the only city-state on this continent of vast expanses. Our local economy reflects a national project, rather than to any spontaneous factor. In defending ourselves and our city, Canberrans can display the angst of uncertain parentage.
Jeb Brugmann’s work on the global challenges of urban development ignores our category of national project capitals (of which there is long and growing list). Brugmann is a Canadian who has worked most of his life on urban development issues in United Nations and NGO development agencies and projects. Ottawa, too, is ignored.
The thesis is that the potentially devastating resource issues confronting increasingly humanity can be addressed most effectively through a community of practice that he calls “urbanism”, expressed through the implementation of deep local consultation and collaboration systems that he calls “urban regimes”.
A wealth of researched and anecdotal examples are recounted to show that, most of the time, top-down government urban planning fails, because it is either fatally compromised by corruption and commercial opportunism, or based on too shallow and too short-term consideration of consequences. Even genuinely democratic governments become hooked on the short-term revenues and positive economic indicators that can be extracted from building projects and schemes whose performance is measured in quick financial returns rather than long-term economic benefit.
Brugmann uses the term “Urban Revolution” loosely to describe the mass global transformation of humanity from rural to urban economies, rather than in any neo-Marxian sense of confrontational regime change. Urbanist principles deprecate the modernist master-planning approach in favour of something much more akin to organic agriculture. Start with the soil, foster the natural ecosystem.
The “urbanist regime” that he advocates involves a great deal of economic empowerment at grass-roots neighbourhood level, minimising disruption of local informal economies, high valuation of public asset and amenity over private gain, and political power exercised for the long term rather than for the budget or electoral cycle.
The range of examples is wide. Detroit capitulated to urban decay and has lost 30% of its urban housing stock; Chicago has a record of effective redevelopment based on urbanist principles; Madurai (India) has implemented a good model to slow rural migration by networking rural and urban industries; Barcelona has done well revitalising inner-city industrial zones without displacing population; Curitabo (Brazil) is a model of imposed urbanism that successfully structures an environment that encourages grass-roots and local enterprise.
Canberrans may compare some features of our local urban planning principles, such as the hierarchy of commercial zones down to neighbourhood shops, and the problems we have inherited with the remoteness of most homes from workplaces.
Brugmann’s favourite example is Dharavi, a vast immigrant squatter settlement in Bombay, that arose unplanned and unauthorised from the mudflats and has developed thriving economic systems that link products of the Indian hinterland (principally animal hides) with the global market for haute couture leather products, plus many ancillary activities. He is appalled by a top-down redevelopment project, involving private developers and the local government, which would relocate long-established squatter families and workshops from Dharavi to remote, smaller high-rise apartments, destroying the networks and proximities that give the ramshackle squatter community its economic vitality.
At the same time, he recounts how one of the local slum-lords recently had a local baker roasted in his own oven, for daring to challenge the criminal hierarchy that run the place.
In other cases, Brugmann’s enthusiasm for the bottom-up economic model allows him to ignore significant externalities. For example, there is no reference to the massive subsidies underpinning Barcelona’s downtown renewal, coming from national Olympic investments, UNESCO funds for building restorations, and the Spanish national government’s political desire to neutralise Catalan separatism. Perhaps that is all veiled by the principle of “long-term vision” on the part of top-down authorities.
Canadians seem specially attached to the notion of “Civil Society”, which in practice means non-government actors having recognition in the power hierarchy without being subject to formal accountability to the electorate. The Torontonian Brugmann’s idealistic “urban regimes” are a prime example of a Civil Society approach, and have much appeal when set up against the apparent capture of constitutional government decisions by the more powerful, or better organised, vested interests.
There is, obviously, much to gain by ensuring that all available positive human resources are mobilised to cope with the stupendous environmental and resource challenges posed by global population growth and mass migration to cities. Jeb Brugmann’s book is stimulating, informative, and a valuably holistic perspective on urban futures extending beyond the physical and infrastructure planning dimension to integrated, local socio-economics.
As to the Urban Revolution: a reader may choose to adopt this as a handbook, but would be advised also to keep handy a copy of Animal Farm, just to cross-check on any Civil Society urban regime that might emerge.
Richard Thwaites has worked extensively in both government and non-government organisations.