Category Archives: urban

Book Review: Simone on Jakarta, between near and far

AbdouMaliq Simone, Jakarta: Drawing the City Near, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2014; 320 pp.: ISBN 9780816693351 (hbk), 9780816693368 (pbk)

In Jakarta: Drawing the city near, AbdouMaliq Simone offers imagean inside-out perspective to understand the unknown realities of conventionally known urbanization process and everyday life of urban common in cities. Based on his meticulous ethnographic field study in three districts in Jakarta, Simone has produced a new spatial language from ‘within’ the city to read the distinctive trajectories of urbanization of the metropolis in the global South.

The book is structured around four inventive concepts: Near South, Urban Majority, Devising Relations and Endurance. Near South is introduced as a provisional devise to indicate how major metropolises of the non-West are moving toward or away from each other. In that sense ‘near South’ is an ‘interstitial space’ that is neither of the North nor of the South. Simone locates most metropolises in the near South to critique the binary opposition between the ‘developed’ North and the ‘underdeveloped’ South. He stretches ‘nearness’ beyond the comparison between cities and highlights that ‘certain residents have the opportunity to build specific ways of life (p. 35).’

Among the proliferation of mega-developments and emerging middle class in contemporary Jakarta, Simone draws attention to the ‘urban majority’, the residents who really bring the ‘nearness’ and shape the city by occupying and changing its spaces in their everyday practices. The urban majority is not a demographic fact or a political identity but refers to the residents who live in between strictly poor and middle class (p. 85-86). Instead of pursuing the aspirations of middle-class status, Simone shows that how the urban majority transforms urban spaces through ‘incremental’ initiatives, the actions of the residents that do not aim definitive results, but to make ‘something’ happen such as expanding a house to rent out rooms or construct a mosque in the neighborhood. Although such efforts seem simple or mostly negligible in mainstream urban theory, they are, Simone convincingly demonstrates as the ‘machines of support’. That generates not only income and opportunities but also multifaceted social, cultural, and economic networks and negotiations among residents in the city (p. 111 -114).

Yet, the close proximity or increasing density of buildings, objects, and bodies in cities do not necessarily guarantee relations. Simone thus brings the concept of ‘devising relations’ to examine the dynamic relations between inhabitants, materials, and particular spaces in Jakarta. Then he introduces metaphors such as ‘the hinge’ and ‘the hodgepodge landscape’ to emphasize how these relations allow the city to follow global urbanization trajectories when the heterogeneity of their urban spaces remain same in terms of their social composition and use.

The concept of ‘endurance,’ denotes the way in which the majority of residents continue their lives while dealing with extreme uncertainties – both dangers and opportunities – in their everyday urban life in Jakarta. Instead of being very conscious on their identities, residents focus on the possible opportunities of their daily routines and employs deception as a method of endurance in everyday urban life.

Ultimately, Simone connects his learning from an inside-out perspective in Jakarta with contemporary urban theory and policy. He necessitates the integration and enrollment of residents’ views, aspirations, and the way in which they shape spaces, in urban policy making to ensure the long run of cities. Instead of relying upon the contemporary urban theory, Simone has theorized Jakarta. His work profoundly validates the residents’ life and their contribution to continue the heterogeneous urban life of the city.

Pradeep Sangapala (Urban and Regional Planning Program, University of Alberta)

Pokémon Go – The Peoples’ Republic

Pokemon Go
Pokemon Go – Photo: Deng Ziru (CC 2016)

With the slicker interface and better users’ experience of Pokémon Go, the game is very popular in China as well. A great deal of students are getting over the wall so that they could have access to play Pokémon Go. Many young people, especially those who watched Pokémon and Digimon when they were young,are becoming addicted to it. They collect Pokémon eggs on their way to school, work, gym and so on. What’s more interesting is, since it’s now summer holiday,  many youth walk up and down at home to catch Pokémon eggs and they can rank top among all their friends on Werun (a step counting ap in Wechat) due to the steps at home.

Some of the Chinese players consider this game as a time killer and a way for recreation, some of them just play for networking, which means they can catch up with peer culture via this game. Some of them are aware of the game is boring but they just cannot stop because once they get into the game, they would be eager to collect all the Pokémon eggs. As a result, from many players’ perspective, Pokémon Go is more like a kind of collection game and social network game than a battle game.

Admittedly, with the fast pace of globalization and the transmission of information, there are lots of fans of Pokémon Go from all over the world and the share price of Nintendo increased dramatically these days. However, many people hold skeptical views of this game. First is the information security. The game needs our GPS location and other private information, which may cause the players’ personal data to leak out. Some traditional Chinese people even hold the opinion that the game as a Japanese martial plot, which may harm national interests. Secondly, what’s the meaning of the game? Some players feel it boring and have unloaded the game already. The trend changes everyday. How long can the popularity of Pokémon Go last?Let’s wait and see.

Ziru Deng (East China Normal University / University of Alberta)

Dictatorship by Cartography

Naypyidaw, capital of Burma. Guardian Cities March 2015

In 2007, writing for Himal Southasian magazine, Siddharth Varadarajan called Naypyidaw, the underpopulated capital of Burma, built by the military regime, “dictatorship by cartography, geometry”:

Vast and empty, Burma’s new capital will not fall to an urban upheaval easily. It has no city centre, no confined public space where even a crowd of several thousand people could make a visual – let alone political – impression.

The building of cities is a massive infrastructural undertaking, a spasm that reflects and requires the concentration of political, economic and affective power.   Are cities where there is no “right to the city” by the people cities at all?  Materially perhaps but not in intangible, virtual terms: While constructed like cities, they lack urbanity, the quality of the urban.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

The Promise of Urban Agriculture

IMG_9125Allmende Kontor at the Templehof airport in Berlin

Once the center of the global automotive industry, Detroit has become the archetype of the modern ruin, attracting artists and writers interested in exploring the poetics of ruins and the dystopian sublime. The ruins of Detroit are, in one sense, a critique of modernity – an allegory for the myth of unending accumulation, prosperity and progress (Benjamin, 2000). But the post-industrial city is also a place of possibility. Tim Edensor (2005) argues that ruins constitute subversive counter-spaces that “contain the promise of the unexpected” (p. 4). In post-2008 Detroit this promise bloomed in abandoned lots throughout the city as residents began producing their own food outside the circuits of the local state.

But how unexpected was this sudden turn to urban food growing? As Laura Lawson (2005) reminds us, urban food production and economic crisis have long gone hand in hand, and this history has deep roots in Detroit. During the depression of 1893, Mayor Hazen Pingree famously implemented the potato patch plan. Faced with economic upheaval and mass unemployment, Pingree encouraged the residents of Detroit to farm vacant lots to feed the city, setting an example that was copied and adapted across the US and Canada.

Continue reading The Promise of Urban Agriculture

Monumental Controversies

Check out Tonya Davidson’s assessment of the Canadian conservative government’s controversial proposal for a monument to the Victims of Communism.  This builds on her extensive research on memory, monuments and identity, including the National War Memorial in Canada and migrants memories of their homelands and villages in Croatia.

Memorial to the Victims of Communism, Ottawa Canada
Memorial to the Victims of Communism, Ottawa Canada (from The Toronto Star)

Spatialization and Revolution

A recent study of urban conflict and politics in Sincan, Turkey shows the importance of the secularisation and sacralisation of places in the city and the importance of rivals spatialisations in instituting political alternatives as practical realities:

https://gasmekan.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/sincan-a-town-on-the-verge-of-civic-breakdown-the-spatialization-of-identity-politics-and-resistance/

-Rob Shields  University of Alberta

David Harvey: The Crisis of Planetary Urbanisms

A essay by David Harvey from the catalogue for Uneven Growth – Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities – MoMA Exhibition 2014

http://post.at.moma.org/content_items/520-the-crisis-of-planetary-urbanization

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In this June 26, 2013 file photo, demonstrators march toward the Mineirão stadium where a Confederations Cup semifinal soccer match will be played between Brazil and Uruguay in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Public approval of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s government has suffered a steep drop since protesters calling for a wide-range of reforms took to the streets all over Brazil in the past two weeks, according to Brazil’s first nationwide poll released since the unrest began. (AP Images/Felipe Dana)

On the night of June 20, 2013, more than a million people in some 388 Brazilian cities took to the streets in a massive protest movement. The largest of these protests, comprising more than 100,000 people, occurred in Rio de Janeiro and was met with significant police violence. For more than a year prior to this, sporadic protests had been occurring in various Brazilian cities. Led by a “Free Pass” movement that had long been agitating for free public transportation for students, the earlier protests were largely ignored. But by early June 2013, fare increases for public transportation sparked more widespread protests. Many other groups, including the black block anarchists, sprang to the defense of the “Free Pass” protestors and others who came under police attack. By June 13 the movement had morphed into a general protest against police repression, the failure of public services to match social needs, and the deteriorating quality of urban life. The huge expenditures of public resources to host mega-events such as the World Cup and the Olympic Games—to the detriment of the public interest but to the great benefit, it was widely understood, of corrupt construction and urban development interests—added to the discontent

The protests in Brazil came less than a month after thousands of people turned out on the streets of Turkey’s major cities, as anger over the redevelopment of the precious green space of Gezi Park in Istanbul as a shopping center, spread into a broader protest against the increasingly autocratic style of the government and the violence of the police response. Long-simmering discontent over the pace and style of urban transformation, including the wholesale eviction of populations from high-value land in inner-city locations added fuel to the protests. Diminished quality of life in Istanbul and other cities for all but the most affluent classes was clearly an important issue.

The broad parallel between Turkey and Brazil led Bill Keller to write an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled “The Revolt of the Rising Class.”1 The uprisings were “not born in desperation,” he wrote. Both Brazil and Turkey had experienced remarkable economic growth in a period of global crisis. They were “the latest in a series of revolts arising from the middle class—the urban, educated haves who are in some ways the principal beneficiaries of the regimes they now reject” and who had something to lose by taking to the streets in protest. “By the time the movements reached critical mass, they were about something bigger and more inchoate, dignity, the perquisites of citizenship, the obligations of power.” The revolts signified “a new alienation, a new yearning” that had to be addressed.

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Architecture for a Change. Mamelodi POD, Pretoria, South Africa. 2013.

To be sure, the protests in Brazil and Turkey differed from the anti-austerity protests and strikes that dominated in the squares of Greece and Spain. They were different also from the eruptions of violence in London, Stockholm, and the Paris suburbs on the part of marginalized and immigrant populations. And all of these looked different from the “Occupy” movements in many Western cities and the pro-democracy uprisings that echoed from Tunis, Egypt, and Syria into Bosnia and Ukraine.

Yet there were also commonalities across the differences. They were, for example, urban centered, to some degree weakly cross-class, and even (initially at least) inter-ethnic (though that broke down as internal forces moved to divide and rule, and external powers exploited the discontents for geopolitical advantage, as in Syria and Ukraine). Urban disaffection and alienation were quite prominent among the triggers as was the universal outrage at rising social inequalities, escalating costs of living, and gratuitously violent police repressions.

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Makeshift barricades in Kiev’s Independence Square, during the demonstrations known as Euromaidan. 2013.

None of this should have been surprising. Urbanization has increasingly constituted a primary site of endless capital accumulation that visits its own forms of barbarism and violence on whole populations in the name of profit. Urbanization has become the center of overwhelming economic activity on a planetary scale never before seen in human history. The Financial Times reports, for example, that “investment in real estate is the most important driver in the Chinese economy,” which in turn has been the main driver of the global economy throughout the world-wide crisis that began in 2007. “The building, sale and outfitting of apartments accounted for 23 percent of Chinese gross domestic product in 2013.” If we add in the expenditures on massive physical infrastructures (road, rail, public works of all kinds) then close to one half of the Chinese economy is taken up with urbanization. China has consumed more than half of the global steel and cement over the last decade. “In just two years, from 2011 to 2012, China produced more cement than the United States did in the entire twentieth century.”2

While extreme, these trends are not confined to China. Concrete is everywhere being poured at an unprecedented rate over the surface of planet earth. We are, in short, in the midst of a huge crisis—ecological, social, and political—of planetary urbanization without, it seems, knowing or even marking it.

None of this new development could have occurred without massive population displacements and dispossessions, wave after wave of creative destruction that has taken not only a physical toll but destroyed social solidarities, exaggerated social inequalities, swept aside any pretences of democratic urban governance, and has increasingly looked to militarized police surveillance and terror as its primary mode of social regulation. The unrest attaching to dispossession in China is unknowable but clearly widespread. Sociologist Cihan Tugal has written, “Real estate bubbles, soaring housing prices, and the overall privatization-alienation of common urban goods constitute the common ground of protests in as diverse places as the United States, Egypt, Spain, Turkey, Brazil, Israel, and Greece.”3 The rising cost of living, particularly for food, transportation, and housing, has made daily life increasingly difficult for urban populations. Food riots in North African cities were frequent and widespread even before the uprisings in Tunisia and Tahrir Square.

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AFFECT-T. Bamboo micro-housing, Hong Kong. 2013.

This urbanization boom has had very little to do with meeting the needs of people. It has been all about absorbing surplus capital, sustaining profit levels, and maximizing the return on exchange values no matter what the use value demands might be. The consequences have often been irrational in the extreme. While there is a chronic shortage of affordable housing in almost every major city, their skylines are littered with empty condominiums for the ultra-rich whose main interest is in speculating in property values rather than constructing a settled life. In New York City, where half of the population has to live on less than $30,000 per year (as contrasted with the top 1 percent, who had an average annual income of $3.57 million per year according to tax records for 2012), there is an affordable housing crisis because nowhere is it possible to find a two-bedroom apartment for the $1,500 per month that a family of four should be spending on housing given an income of $30,000. In almost all the major cities in the U.S. the average expenditure on housing is way over the thirty percent of disposable income that is considered reasonable.4 The same applies to London, where there are whole streets of unoccupied mansions being held for purely speculative purposes. Meanwhile, the British government attempts to increase the supply of affordable housing by putting a bedroom tax on social housing for the most vulnerable sector of the population, resulting in, for example, the eviction of a widow living alone in a two bedroom council house. The empty bedroom tax has plainly been put on the wrong class, but governments these days appear to be singularly dedicated to feathering the nests of the wealthy at the expense of the poor and the disadvantaged. The same irrationality of empty dwellings in the midst of shortages of affordable housing can be found in Brazil, Turkey, Dubai, and Chile as well all the global cities of high finance such as London and New York. Meanwhile, budget austerities and reluctance to tax the wealthy given the overwhelming power of a now triumphant oligarchy means declining public services for the masses and further astonishing accumulation of wealth for the few.

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Anti-government protesters behind barricades and on an excavator clash with riot police as they try to march to the office of Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul early June 3, 2013. Turkish protesters clashed with riot police into the early hours of Monday with some setting fire to offices of the ruling AK Party as the fiercest anti-government demonstrations in years entered their fourth day. Turkey’s streets were calm in the morning after a night of noisy protests and violence in major cities. (REUTERS)

It is in conditions of this sort that the propensity to political revolt begins to fester. Universal alienation from a burdensome daily life in the city is everywhere in evidence.5 But so are the innumerable attempts on the part of individuals, social groups, and political movements to find ways to construct a decent life in a decent living environment. The theme that there must be an alternative takes many forms and produces many quasi-solutions in seemingly infinite guises.

It is in this context that concerned groups of thinkers and practitioners are exploring alternatives, sometimes at small scales but in other instances, in the wake of urban revolts, to encourage the search for better forms of urban living. The do-it-yourself ethos of many social groups cast adrift from the prevailing dynamic of capital accumulation creates possibilities for alliances of urban thinkers and technicians with nascent social movements searching for a good or at least a better life. In Andean nations the ideal of “buen vivir” is implanted in national constitutions even as it conflicts with neoliberalizing practices on the ground.6 With massive populations deemed surplus and disposable in a context of perpetual land grabbing by developers and financiers, aided all too often by a corrupted state apparatus, many situations arise in which political battles take shape well before some fuse is lit to turn the growing propensity for street revolts into an active reality.

There are popular possibilities and potentialities emerging out of the crisis of planetary urbanization and its multiple discontents. This is so even in the face of the seemingly overwhelming force of endless capital accumulation growing at an unsustainable compound rate and in spite of the power across social classes being wielded by an increasingly visible and intransigent global oligarchy.7

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Architecture and Vision. WarkaWater Tower, Ethiopia. 2012.

So what is it that might emerge from the popular revolts? There are confusing signs and signals but also some important clues. In Gezi Park, for example, it was not only the park that mattered. The “rising class” constructed instantaneous social solidarities, an economy of sharing and of collective social provision (food, health care, clothing), of caring for others (particularly the wounded and the frightened). The participants took evident delight in debating their common interests through democratic assemblies, launched into discussions that went on late into the night, and above all found a possible world of collective humor and cultural liberation that had previously seemed foreclosed. They opened alternative spaces, constructed a commons out of public spaces, and released the power of space to an alternative social and environmental purpose. They found each other as well as the park8; They identified a nascent social order in waiting.

This provides a clue as to what an alternative might look like. The spirit of many (though not all) of these protests and the spirit within the pro-democracy and Occupy movements is to go beyond “the new alienation” that Keller senses is so important to construct a less-alienating urban experience. Visceral resistance to the proposal to pour concrete over Gezi Park to build an imitation of an Ottoman barracks that would function as yet another shopping mall is in this sense emblematic of what the crisis of planetary urbanization is all about. Pouring more and more concrete in a mindless quest for endless growth is obviously no answer to current ills.

But the “rising class” is not all there is. In Turkey the mass of the Islamic working classes did not join in the revolt. They already possessed their own cultural (often anti-modernist) solidarities and hardened social relations (particularly regarding gender). They were not drawn into the emancipatory rhetoric of the protest movement because that movement did not address effectively its condition of massive material deprivation. They liked the combination of shopping malls and mosques that the ruling AKP party was building and did not care about the evident corruption surrounding the building boom as long as it was a source of jobs. The protest movement of Gezi was, as the subsequent municipal elections showed, not cross-class enough to last.

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Csutoras & Liando. Kineforum Misbar Monas, temporary open-air theater in Jakarta. 2013.

There is no one answer to our predicaments. The urban experience under capitalism is turning barbaric as well as repressive. If the roots of this alienating experience lie in endless capital accumulation, then those roots must ultimately be severed. Lives and well-being must be rerooted in other modes of producing and consuming, while new forms of sociality must be constructed. The neoliberal ethos of isolated individualism and personal rather than social responsibility has to be overcome. The material needs of the masses must be met and combined with cultural emancipation. Taking back the streets in acts of collective protest can be a beginning. But it is only a beginning and cannot be an end in itself.9 Maximizing buen vivir for all in the city rather than the value of Gross Domestic Product for the benefit of the few is a great idea. It needs to be grounded in urban practices everywhere.

(With acknowledgements to Museum of Modern Art)

Pedro Gadanho’s  curatorial comments: http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2013/11/06/uneven-growth-tactical-urbanisms-for-expanding-megacities