ARCADE Issue 32.1 Feature Introduction.
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Photography by Virginia Wilcox
Illustration: Thomas Eykemans
“In 2012, all began to become clearer. Before then, the trend was far harder to see. The economic slowdown accelerated the shift towards being more green, to more make-do-and mend, to a more sustainable economy that will in some ways resemble a ‘less developed’ economy where people have less but value what they have more, rather than valuing the next item to be bought the most . . .” —Danny Dorling, Population 10 Billion
My story begins with a trip my father took to China in 1984. We lived in Harare, Zimbabwe, at the time, and my father was an economist in Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Industry and Technology. When he returned from the official visit, he said to me that the two things which struck him most about Beijing, the political capital of the most populous economy on earth, were: one, there were no birds in the sky (he guessed they had all been eaten) and, two, almost everyone went about on bicycles. “Everywhere you look, up and down the street, flows and flows of people on bicycles,” he said. My father, like so many development economists of his time (he was educated at American University in DC), counted bicycles as one way to grade a country’s standing in the world: If there were only a few bikes on the roads, the country was advanced; if there were many bikes, it was backward. The streets of an economically developed society would, according to this weltanschauung (worldview), be filled with cars—and better yet, cars manufactured by the country. Economic modernization was incomplete without the heavy industry of automobile production, and a city was not modern if it lacked an infrastructure for car mobility and storage.
It must not be forgotten that the China my father visited thirty years ago was extremely poor. The Pudong area of Shanghai, which now boasts a skyline that rivals Manhattan’s, was still farmland. And China’s historical shift from a planned economy to a planned market economy was only five years old, its future far from certain. As the former senior vice president for the World Bank, Justin Yifu Lin, pointed out in a lecture, “Demystifying the Chinese Economy” (delivered in 2012 at the London School of Economics), in 1979, China’s per capita income was three times lower than Africa’s (today it is five times higher). And indeed, in 1984, the roads of Harare were dominated by cars, not bikes or pedestrians.
That was then. These days, the deepening global environmental crisis and recent research revealing the limits, and even dangers, of Western-style consumerism has turned the whole narrative of development completely upside down. One example of this is that more and more, politicians and economists in poor cities no longer see the car as a marker of progress and are instead considering allocating, or have already redirected, a sizable portion of their very limited urban resources to the lowly bicycle. Why should a Third World city climb to the First World level of automobile dependence, which requires an infrastructure that’s very heavy on small budgets, when they can invest more successfully and cheaply in what they already have, what people are already doing: walking and riding bikes?
Bogotá, a city with a $140 billion gross domestic product and a population of 10 million, did just that: It made an unusually huge (huge for a city in a developing country) investment in bikeways, the Ciclorutas de Bogotá. “When I proposed to construct bikeways in Bogotá in 1998,” says the former mayor of Bogotá (1997 to 2001) Enrique Peñalosa in Model D, “nobody else in the [Third World] was doing it and everybody thought I was crazy. Now, cities everywhere are doing bikeways.”
But even around the time that Bogotá was investing in bikeways, a number of rich cities in the West were beginning to transition from a traffic system that privileged the congestion problems of automobile transportation to one that seriously considered bike transportation a better and more rational mode of urban mobility. Copenhagen, a wealthy Scandinavian city (it has a GDP of around $100 billion—but one-tenth of Bogotá’s population) was one, and possibly the most recognizable, of these rich cities. Following World War II, Copenhagen, like many post-war Western European cities, equated modernization with an urban planning platform that could only envision the automobile-centric city. However, the city began reverting to bikes after the fuel crisis of 1973. By the '80s, around the time my father was in China, planners were thinking about returning the space given to cars back to pedestrians and bikes.
“A further point and quality to emphasize [about Copenhagen] is the bicycle,” says the avuncular Danish architect, urban theorist and leading proponent of human-scale planning, Jan Gehl, in a DAC | Sustainable Cities interview (Gehl was also featured in Hustwit’s popular Urbanized):
“We have had the bicycle around for a good 100 years now, and in certain countries and cultures, bicycles are a widespread form of transportation. This goes for places like Holland and Denmark. Due to a welcoming infrastructure, the number of cyclists has increased tremendously in Denmark, for example. In Copenhagen, bicycling accounts for 36% of all commuting to and from work. [Emphasis is mine]”
And so a simple technology that was in Copenhagen’s past, and in Bogotá’s present (where 15 percent of people currently use bikes as their main mode of transportation), proves to be more efficient and even more advanced than the newer and complex technology that has been powerfully associated with the future of urbanism, with the progress of a society since Futurama, a 1939 science fiction spectacle manufactured for the New York World’s Fair by the “master builder” Robert Moses and the giant corporation General Motors. The world we have entered should be seen as the “World [after] Tomorrow,” a world where complexity is no longer the mark of modernity, a world where an old invention might be better and more effective than a new one.
What Copenhagen and Bogotá show, what this issue of ARCADE explores, are the possibilities for a post-Futurama urbanism along these lines: Cities in developing and underdeveloped countries stopping where they are on the economic ladder of capitalist modernization and working with what they have, what they have achieved, and cities in developed societies reverting to technologies and practices that were abandoned upon passing an earlier rung. And so we have poor cities maintaining their current levels of density, their pedestrian-friendly infrastructure and low-carbon modes of consumption, while rich cities abandon low-density sprawl, automobile-centered urban planning and a consumption culture with low private costs but heavy social and global ones. What was once seen as underdeveloped is now seen as rational, and what was once seen as developed is now seen as irrational (if not suicidal).
“Smart decline” for rich cities. Horizontal development for poor ones.
SMART DECLINE AND HORIZONTAL DEVELOPMENT
One of the many ways that the de-development of high-income cities has been theorized is “smart decline,” which the civil engineers and planners Deborah and Frank Popper basically describe as a retreat from the mad vision of unlimited growth and a sober commitment to an urbanism that concentrates humans in functioning cores, returning dysfunctional sprawl to farms and wilderness. The situation of poor cities, however, is recognized but not properly theorized. For example, blogger Adam Davies on Walkonomics writes at the opening of “African Cities Are Walking Cities, but Are They Walkable?”:
“If you’ve ever been in an East African city during rush hour, then you’ll know that African cities are walking cities. In the rapidly urbanizing capitals of Africa, walking is by far the most popular form of transport. For instance, over 60% of trips in Addis Ababa are made on foot, while just 9% of trips are made in a car and in Nairobi over 45% of people walk. These are the kind[s] of walking statistics that developed cities can only dream of: London struggles to get 20% of people to walk and in New York it’s between 10–20%.”
He later writes:
“So walking is popular in Africa, but this isn’t because urban African streets are walking-friendly. In fact quite the opposite: 63% of streets in Addis Ababa lack any pavements or sidewalks and crossings are rare. Africans walk despite the un-walkable urban environment, not because of it. Walking isn’t only difficult it’s also very dangerous with 67% of road accidents involving pedestrians in Ethiopia’s capital. Sadly this is the case in many developing countries, where road accidents are a growing epidemic and are expected to be the third biggest killer by 2020.”
What’s missing in this post is a theory I will call horizontal development. In the past, development was about growing vertically, moving up to what was coded as a Western standard of living: home ownership, car ownership, high wages, low unemployment, crass consumerism, meat-rich diets and so on. But now that mode of life is proving to be problematic. For one, it is environmentally unsustainable; according to a 2011 infographic by blogger and journalist Tim De Chant, if all humans lived like Indians, we would need less than one earth; but if everyone lived like US Americans, we would need over four. And two, it is profoundly unhealthy (read Howard Frumkin, Lawrence Frank and Richard Jackson’s Urban Sprawl and Public Health). The vertical model is no longer realistic or desirable. But what can replace it? Horizontal development, a model that does not climb but enhances, improves what’s already available. Writes the blogger at Walkonomics, stumbling into this idea without seeing it: “The United Nations have recently pumped over $3 million into a project to kickstart sustainable transport in three African capital cities.”
Horizontal development should not only be about simply funding sidewalks but funding world-class sidewalks, and this is indeed what we have learned from Bogotá. The idea is to leave infrastructure for cars at an underdeveloped level and make infrastructure for bikes and pedestrians world-class. This reallocation of resources not only saves lives by protecting bikers and walkers from industrial forms of transportation, but it also provides an excellent social engineering tool.
SOCIAL ENGINEERING HORIZONTAL DEVELOPMENT
Cities in developing countries will stick with the vertical model of development if their governments or policy makers fail to transform their value systems, their concepts of what is and what is not low or high status. As Adam Smith explained in his most important book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the human is the animal that’s always comparing itself to other humans. If cars look good in the eyes of others, then people will do whatever they can to buy cars. So it stands to reason that if the roads in a low-income city are backward and the bikeways are advanced, the inhabitants of that poor city will not so easily see bikes as indicative of low status. Enrique Peñalosa in Model D:
“I decided that [bikeways were one] of the most important things to do to improve equality because [they] protected and raised the social status of the cyclist. Before, it was a stigma to ride a bike. Now, there are some parts of Bogotá where it is much faster to get from one place to another by bike than any other mode of transport. It is the preferred mode.”
But also, social engineering must not only change our status values but our aesthetic ones. The inhabitants of a rich city need to see beauty not in huge megastores with seas of asphalt—such as the Safeway at Seattle’s 3820 Rainier Avenue South—but in humanscale operations like Fou Lee Market on Beacon Hill, which is dense, compact, uses space efficiently and represents a way toward smart decline. In the same way, the inhabitants in poor cities must see walking, and even density, not only as a responsible, virtuous form of civic behavior, but as beautiful. (In Harare, townships or slums were politely coded as high-density and suburbs as low-density— the implication being that one must aspire to the latter, not the former.)
COLLIDING CITIES OF THE WORLD
Establishing horizontal development as a program will not be easy. The rich in poor countries want to be like the rich in rich countries. They don’t care for things like public transportation or parks; they want expressways and gated communities. Peñalosa’s bike and public transportation projects, for example, faced fierce opposition from the rich in his city. They did not want lanes dedicated to buses or bikeways. On the other end, the car owners in rich cities are hostile to politicians or urban planners who turn over any part of the road to cyclists. This situation is captured in a new book, Happy City, by the Vancouver- based journalist and urban theorist Charles Montgomery:
“In New York City, efforts to redistribute street space— including the creation of 255 miles of painted or separated bike lanes—have met with near-hysterical response from some quarters. In 2011, opponents of a new separated bike lane on the edge of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park actually sued the city to have the lanes removed, though the suit was eventually dismissed. City councilors and columnists alike accused Mayor Michael Bloomberg of launching a culture war, favoring a ‘faddist minority’ of bike-riding elitists over car commuters and anyone not rich enough to live in Manhattan. The argument was a complete reversal of the status narrative in Bogotá. . . ."
In New York, the bike lanes were seen as elitist; in Bogotá, as democratic. Expect more of this kind of cultural confusion as the cities of our world collide.
That said, meaning that said in the whole of this introduction, there are certainly aspects of low-income cities that shouldn’t be adopted by high-income ones, such as the absence of a centralized and reliable public power grid. The inhabitants of Lagos, for example, have a wildly unpredictable power grid and so depend on gas-powered generators for electricity. This solution is, of course, terribly inefficient and would have catastrophic results if adopted by the West. As the physicist and urban theorist Geoffrey West has pointed out again and again, scale is important. At the cellular level, a big elephant is actually more efficient than a mouse. Individual generators, like cars, are a bad idea in terms of energy efficiency. It’s much better for all to share a common grid. Though, there is a story out there that four Nigerian schoolgirls recently invented an electric generator that runs on urine—“Their invention ensures that 1 liter of urine gives you 6 hours of electricity,” claimed the newspaper Red Pepper. If this is indeed true, and the technology is commercialized (which sadly is unlikely—as Robert Neuwirth points out in his book Stealth of Nations, Lagosians can’t manufacture anything precisely because the city does not have a reliable source of power), we in the overdeveloped West may have something to learn from one of the poorest cities on earth.
An End Note:
WHY CAPITALISM IS INCOMPATIBLE WITH A SOCIETY THAT CONSUMES LESS, DRIVES LESS, RECYCLES MORE AND SHARES MORE
In 1930, a year after the Stock Market Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, the most influential economist of the twentieth century, John Maynard Keynes (Keynesianism dominated economic thinking in the West between 1945 and 1977), wrote a very short and very curious essay called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” In this essay (which is also a work of science fiction), Keynes speculated that when the world’s scarcity problem is resolved in a hundred years (2030), the new problem for society will be this: What will people do with their free time? Keynes:
“Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.
The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.”
It can be argued that the US achieved this “freedom from pressing economic cares” by the late ’60s or early ’70s, right around the time that the environmental movement was born and many in the West felt the need for a radical rethinking of progress and growth. But thirty years later, and sixteen years before Keynes’ 2030, we live in a society that only recognizes and acts upon one kind of crisis: the economic. But the economic crisis in our society is never one of scarcity (an actual shortage of something real) but a reaction to slow or no growth. We live in the “lap of abundance” yet compound growth (and usually at 2 percent) is the only game in town. If our society is above 2-percent annual growth (and again, this is compound interest), be happy—but if it is below, feel the pain. Read the financial papers—this is presented daily as the one possible order of things.
So we speak of reducing consumption, sharing, cutting dependence on the largest energy corporations in the world, but it’s never explained how such practices and values, which clearly encourage economic contraction, would work in a system that immediately collapses in the absence of robust expansion. The sad truth is that a real green movement needs an alternative to capitalism. This isn’t simply a socialist dreaming about the death of market ideology or preaching the fall of The 1-Percent; it is a socialism that soberly understands that capitalism’s great wonders (or, as they say in China, miracles) owe everything to its monstrous vision of unlimited and unchecked growth.