Utopia? Can we plan future cities for tomorrow’s families?

Over the past twelve weeks, I’ve written about many aspects of the sometimes tense fusion between families, cities and communities in late modern times. I’ve discussed some of the history of cities and suburban families. I’ve pointed out how families are changing in intimacy and structure and how the balance of work and family remains precarious and inequitable. I’ve discussed the need to better plan cities, to stop the unplanned, poorly connected, urban sprawl, and the unsustainable spread of aesthetically poor McMansions. And I’ve discussed the consequences of gentrified cosmopolitanism (and the fight to create and retain the Creative Class), and the struggle to enact any kind of control over the flow of resources within globalised capitalism.

I’d like to finish off this series of blogs with a list of my tips for planning the houses and cities of the future:

  1. Orient cities to changing families – build the housing and transport that changing families need.
  2. Integrate work, care, and family needs – into the design of houses (smaller, more easily adjusted/changed), cities (social, green spaces), and transport (to end the family-hostile commuting nightmare that our cities have become).
  3. Infill – revitalise old areas around existing transport options, particularly along existing transport corridors (light and heavy rail).
  4. Social centres – If building new areas, build a social centre with shops, facilities, and green spaces within walking distance for people to come and gather and socialise.
  5. Effective public transport – connect each social centre by non-road public transport – trains and light rail (not buses), and embrace the idea of high speed rail to connect regional centres and satellite cities, funded with public/private ‘value capture’ strategies.
  6. Mixed use and flexible use – design streets and areas with many functions that balance ‘place’ and ‘movement’ requirements, use spaces for different purposes at different times (parking lots) instead of having dead space, adapt houses to actual needs (apartments and townhouses to suit smaller families, not McMansions)
  7. Housing affordabilitya range of options, part of which should include ending the race to build, buy, and then only partially occupy the biggest and ugliest McMansion (filled with rooms we never use)!
  8. Attract and retain the Creative Class – encourage diversity, mixing, AND affordability, so as not to drive out poorer workers
  9. Globalised Capitalism – Space of Flows, needs to be better steered, managed, and regulated democratically, rather than through under-regulated market mechanisms. This is of even greater concern in the post-GFC era of political populism. Slogans and transparently flimsy promises are not only impractical and insufficient, they risk eroding trust in intelligent interventions that might actually work …

Whilst not intended as a prescription for Utopia – and borrowing heavily from the excellent ideas of Jean-Frances Kelly at the Grattan Institute, and Professor Peter Newman  in general – I hope these ideas together can present a sense of what we need, what might help, how we might get there, and the biggest challenges we face: globalized rather than democratic control over the resources needed to create future, sociable cities for tomorrows families.

Global Cities, Post GFC – Space or Flow?

In the 2015 Catalyst program ‘Future of Australian Cities, Julian Bolleter claims that Australia will need to build a new Sydney every ten years for the next ninety years, to keep up with the expected growth in population. This raises several questions, but perhaps foremost amongst them are: where are all these people coming from, and how will we cope? To immediately rule out several misconceptions, the concern here is not about an explosion in the birth rate or the number of refugees we are taking in, nor is it about dealing with the widespread settlement of people in poorly serviced, remote, non-arable spaces.

It is primarily about big cities taking in large numbers of external (mostly highly skilled) migrants from overseas, as well as young, educated, professional internal migrants from rural and suburban areas, moving to the inner cities in pursuit of jobs and lifestyle. Whether from without or within, people are moving to where the employment and lifestyle opportunities are concentrated, in the biggest and richest global cities around the world. And the concentration of these people, as I mentioned last week in referring to Richard Floridas’ ‘creative class’, attracts money, capital, business, and economic growth. The money follows the people, who follow the money, who follow the people, etc …

Saskia Sassen notes that cities have changed from natural sites of trade (near harbours, plantations, mines, etc) into sites of finance, communications, and specialized services. Foremost amongst these are the Global Cities, the hubs of investment activity that serve as critical, strategic, infrastructure nodes providing specialized, complex skills and resources – legal, technical, and particularly financial – to the global economy. This is similar to what Manuel Castells calls the Space of Flows. His basic premise is that place has become less important relative to the flow of capital, information and people, and that power now diffuses through a global network of people and capital, rather than residing in one institution, such as a corporation, government, or state. He does note though, in keeping with Sassen, that ‘nodal’ centres appear in the global network. These are concentrations of specialised, sub-contracting services in leading cities around the world, which control the flow of activity and workers as needed (flexibly) to suit demand. In either theory, the urban form is shaped by the flow of capital and demands for mobility and profit, not the living requirements of urban residents.

The flow of such capital and human resources into global cities, and away from other cities and spaces, reduces the capacity for citizens in either location to democratically construct cities they way they would like. Global cities attract and distribute finance and services, but are subject to the distortionary pressures of dealing with the great influx of the world’s workers and their consumption practices. Sassen notes that:

the Global City generates a sharp rise in the demand for both high-level talent and masses of low-wage workers. What it needs least are the traditional modest middle classes so central to the era when mass consumption was the dominant logic; larger cities with more routinized economies do continue to need them” (p98).

This transformation of a city into a space for the rich that drives out the middle classes can be glimpsed in the intense escalation in housing prices in places like Sydney. Whilst driven in part by the Australian national hobby of real estate speculation and permissive taxation, the feverish rise in prices is also due in part to the continuing interest of foreign investors (particularly Chinese investors) in buying up new housing stock. Now, as Jason Twill notes, we are not only facing a situation where the older, urban poor are being priced out of gentrified inner city communities, but young, educated people are being priced out as well. In other countries, this has led to a rejuvenation of ‘second-tier’ cities that accept the ‘refugees’ from the Global Cities (e.g. Portland, Philadelphia in the US), but as Twill notes, Australia only has a few cities for such people to move to. Australia’s future ‘Creative Class’ is in danger of fragmenting.

Meanwhile, cities in developing countries away from the metropole are forced into increasing levels of competition over lowering taxes, to attract finance, services, and knowledge workers; and many fail to attract the resources that they need. Trevor Hogan notes that there are now over 25 cities in the world with more than 10 million people each, and that a number of such large cities in the Asian region are experiencing what he calls ‘informal hyper growth’, with large, rapidly-growing youthful populations, high immigration from rural to urban areas, and a poor citizenry working mostly in a non-organised informal economy. He notes that 40-60% of residents live in home-made housing in unplanned, fragmented, sprawling settlements with inadequate infrastructure, social services, transport connections, and poor urban governance. Such environments – well outside the rich nodal centres of the space of flows – present an enormous challenges to urban planners around the world.

How can we attract the resources to the areas that need them – and away from the global cities that become distorted by the overabundance of capital and people – in a post GFC globalised world, where large companies and agglomerations are criticised (rightly) for having more collective power than the world’s governments? As Florida and Sassen note, space is still as important as ever – and largely inescapable for the poor – so what can we do to redirect the flow? In an era of resurgent protectionism, rather than restricting the movement of needed capital and people, perhaps we should pay more attention to its distortionary effects, and think about the kinds of agreements and regulations we might need to better and more equitably direct what is needed to where it actually needs to go?

Suburbia, meh … Give me Inner City! Cosmopolitan, gentrified, creative … and diverse?

In a globalised, digital world, with expensive inner city housing and commuting nightmares, surely we should all just live AND work in the suburbs? Work online, or in little local community working co-ops? Save ourselves all that expense and travel time? And yet we don’t. Something draws us back to the inner city, in ever-greater numbers.

The last few decades have seen a counter-movement away from suburban life, as young educated people and skilled migrants return to live in the inner city. These middle class knowledge-workers, identified as cosmopolitans by Robert Merton and Herbet Gans in the mid-twentieth century – outward-oriented, mobile, highly educated, networked professionals, students, artists, intellectuals and bohemians –now dominate inner urban environments. Richard Florida calls them the ‘creative class’, and notes that congregations of these workers appear in particular areas and particular cities (e.g. New York, San Francisco, Silicon Valley – and in Australia, inner Sydney and Melbourne). They attract both businesses AND other creative workers, because they give the business a competitive advantage in the ‘creative age’, and because the diversity they bring to an area – culturally, technologically, ethnically – is attractive to other creative workers.

They have changed the inner city. Sharon Zukin notes how the cosmopolitans have not only changed the mixture of people in the inner-city streets, but also changed the character – and costs – of the streets themselves. Carefully considered consumption choices have lead to the urban renewal of housing, shopfronts and amenities, with cafes, bars, food and clothing outlets and farmers markets selling organic, free-range, ethical products now a staple of inner city living. As Zukin notes in ‘Consuming Authenticity‘:

“Often the same men and women are shopping for fresh goat cheese, supporting fair trade coffee, and restoring old brownstone houses in these socially ‘marginal’ areas. Just as they take pleasure in choosing alternatives to mass-market products – ‘pure,’ original, ethnic, fresh – so they are willing to take risks in choosing where to live. But in the process of developing alternative consumption practices, they contribute to changes that make these spaces more desirable” (2008, p725)

However, there are problematic elements to this renewal. ‘Desirable’ is synonymous with ‘expensive’. This is not only manifest  in the spiralling prices of houses and rentals in inner city areas, but in the rampant inflation of organic, ethical, and ethnic foods sold to creative types searching for ‘authenticity’ in their consumption choices, which as John Oliver notes in a recent satire of the American Whole Foods chain, sometimes borders on the ridiculous.

At a more serious level, the consumer driven gentrification wave has lead to the displacement of the working-class and migrant workers who have traditionally inhabited the inner city for many decades. In looking at the differences between cities and regions, Florida notes that as business compete to attract the creative class, the cream of the gifted middle class and skilled migrant workers are sucked into the largest ‘creative’ global cities and spaces, leaving many home countries and cities to suffer from ‘brain drain’. In looking at the differences within the city, Zukin points out how existing, long-term working class residents and unskilled migrants are displaced in inner city areas of high migrant, middle-class intake, via increases in the cost of housing and living. And Kathleen Dunn notes how even the production chain and public space of traditional migrant workers working in the humblest of jobs – such as NYC street vendors – is being coopted and displaced by the wave of middle-class hipster food trucks sweeping the inner cities of America (and Australia).

Each of these factors points to widening inequality; between different global cities, between the inner and outer cities, and within the inner city itself, often between older and newer migrant groups. They also raise concerns over the long-term sustainability of such expensive living arrangements, the maintenance of diversity and authenticity if the poor are driven out, and the stability of neighborhood social cohesion.

#S208UOW17 #Tut10

Australia’s East Coast Exopolis – the Post-Sustainable Sprawl?

Sociologists have tackled with the idea of urban alienation for well over a hundred years. Key theorists such as Ferdinand Toennies, Emile Durkheim and Georg Simmel each identified confronting aspects of city life. Simmel in particular, in the “Metropolis and Mental Life said that the city dweller becomes intellectual, blase’ and reserved because of the influence of money and calculation, and also because of the great press of people and sensations. However, modernist architects such as LeCorbusier took a counter position, and proffered a great enthusiasm for the speed and excitement of city life, and for the destruction of the old to make way for the new. Many, contemporary cities would offer both sensations; the intense excitement of the new, combined with social disconnection strong enough to force some people to ‘rent a cuddle’ in order to secure any kind of intimacy in their urban lives.

However, a key part to understanding urban alienation is to understand that not all cities are the same, and that the shape, size and interconnectivity of the city can isolate people. As Benjamin Ross notes, since governments in the USA started sponsoring the expansion of suburbs after both World Wars – as part of the New Deal, and later as part of the Post WWII Housing boom and the subsidising of interstate highways through gas taxes – suburban sprawl and the highway have become the defining features of contemporary cities. This has had many adverse effects, including the demolition and building over of existing urban natural spaces, heritage areas, and cohesive ethnic villages. It was the kind of technocratic, top-down development that Jane Jacobs fought against in the 1960s, oblivious to the existence of street level communities and multi-use urban design.

It also lead to the rise of Los Angeles style ‘post-modern cities, characterised by large expanses of suburban sprawl spanning several, disconnected urban centres or nodes (rather than around one central CBD). Edward Soja describes six qualities that characterise cities of this type in his book “Postmetropolis’, including i) post-Fordist cities shifting to post-industrial modes of production; ii) the cosmopolis characterised by globalised flows of urban capital, labour and culture; the iii) turning of the city inside out as the sprawl creates suburban ‘exopolises, (exurbias) lacking natural social centres within which people can connect and socialise, and sometimes built around the junction of highways as ‘Edge Cities’; iv) the fractal city, characterized by new polarizations, inequalities and stratifications, instead of the old capital-labour and black-white divide (e.g now have the urban working poor); v) the Carceral archipelago, the institution of ‘hard control’ processes, such as fortress cities, surveillance technologies, and the substitution of police for private security guards, and vi) Simcities, ‘soft-control’ hyper real cities and neighbourhoods oriented to ‘lifestyle communities’. Many of these features can be seen in the major Australian cities today (just Google the controversy over Westconnex, or an image of the intersection of the M5 and M7 in Sydney’s west, to see these points).

However, the final piece the suburban sprawl puzzle, particularly in Australia. is the suburban obsession with the automobile. Peter Newman notes that Australian cities were amongst the first in the world (Perth perhaps the very first) to transform from Walkable Cities into Automobile cities. He notes Marchetti’s Constant; the rule that spending more than an hour a day commuting creates dissonance, reduces personal wellbeing, and will push people to seek other work-life arrangements. However, he argues that instead of enabling us to accord with this rule, our car culture has undermined it. He notes that the freeway lanes we have invested in so heavily can move a maximum of 2,500 people an hour, compared to heavy rail which can move up to 50,000 people an hour, so it is no wonder that highways have created gridlock more than freedom. There are now few opportunities to avoid this debilitating commute; after all, the jobs are in the centre of cities like Melbourne and Sydney, where very few people can afford to live (and certainly not live the Australian suburban dream). Newman argues for the need for more infill and urban renewal, public transport, high speed rail, and value capture to fund these activities.

We need to plan carefully to preserve and create social, sustainable communities with integrated public transport and high-speed rail (not highways) connecting (rather than gutting) cities. Otherwise we could be looking at the spread of car-locked McMansions as far as we can see north and south along the coastline, and the rise of Australia’s East Coast Exopolis – a post-sustainable sprawl?

#S208UOW17 #Tut9