Predicting the future of order and violence in cities: A personal view

14 September 2015

In this second blog in the Cities, Violence and Order series, Roger Williamson offers his personal reflections on predicting the future of order and violence in cities. 

Violence and the city – nothing new?

The ancient Romans thought 'the plebs' could be bought off with 'bread and circuses'. Authorities in Britain have feared 'The Mob' (that’s crowds, not the Mafia) since the 18th century at the latest (see Shoemaker’s work)  – although in rural areas 'Captain Swing' held sway protesting in the 1830s against changes in agricultural production as the industrial revolution took hold (cf. Hobsbawn and Rude).

Paris was the seat of revolutions until Haussman built broad boulevards, partly to allow easier military access to the poorer area where trouble broke out. Even so, Paris was the spark which lit the 1968 uprisings.

Historically, there does seem to be something specific about the urban social construction of violence. Is it just that a lot of people living close together provides a volatile setting, with grievances always just below the surface? Or maybe violence is a form of communication that things have to change? In a statement which has renewed resonance in the context of the 'Black Lives Matter' campaign, Martin Luther King maintained that 'A Riot is the Language of the Unheard'.

Thinking about the future of cities

A group of over 20 of us gathered at IDS recently (27 August 2015) to look at the issue. This is a personal view. To get your head around what’s happening in the world’s cities seems an impossible task – but our horizons were widened and our senses were sharpened by personal inputs from a number of the experts present – five points in five minutes was the format. This gave an impressionistic kaleidoscope of views and perspectives. The video inputs – slum policing in India from Sheela Patel, and an overview from Brazil from Robert Muggah – broadened our horizons still further.

Much of the day was taken up in a Foresight exercise conducted in intensive work in four groups.

Three levels of issues

For me this raised both fundamental and particular methodological issues. Can a group use these methods to look into the future - or, if not, then what is going on, what is being attempted?

  1. What does it mean to think about the future? For me as a young graduate student, it was reading the book The Eye of the Needle by Rick Turner (Googlers beware this is NOT the sensational novel by Ken Follett!). In his critique of apartheid Turner argued that since human society is humanly constructed, it is possible to exercise choice over what kind of society should be built for the future. Considering different possible trajectories increases the chances of getting there.
  2. The centrality of place. My second level of reflections was occasioned by a protest during the meeting. We were busy listing factors according to the STEEP schema – Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Political – when there was a protest that this omitted the critical 'city' characteristics of locality. The protest seemed to be strongest from the geographers, anthropologists and planners. In my view they are right. Not to start from the particularities of place is to miss the key point of cities. They also stressed that, whereas individual buildings or blocks of buildings are often torn down and replaced, streets and other communication and trade routes have a remarkable degree of persistence through time.
  3. The future is already here – our inhibited imaginations: Thirdly, much of the day was spent on developing a city scenario. The group I was in had a stimulating discussion about a struggling Chinese industrial city which no longer benefited from the mass production and easy export of goods. In our scenario, we threw in the complicating factors of sea level rise and flooding as a result of global warming.

We set these post-industrial challenges in the future (2040), but reading an article in the Sunday Times, it seems that for cities such as Dongguan, the future is already here – with empty factories and stalled exports.

'Dongguan was once a boom town. Part of China’s Pearl River Delta powerhouse, the 6m population claimed to make 20% of the world’s electronic gadgets. It also cranked out almost a third of its toys, a fifth of its sports shirts and 10% of its trainers.

A single company, Taiwan –owned Yue Yuen, employed 40,000 people directly in four factories and supported more than 100,000 jobs producing footwear for the likes of Nike, Adidas and Reebok.

No longer. Dongguan is suffering. Most of those Yue Yuen jobs have gone to other places in southeast Asia. The company’s four factories are now reckoned to employ fewer than 8,000 workers. Dongguan is grimy and depressed.

Less than 100 yards from the gates of one of the footwear plants stands a huge shopping mall. It has 2,000 retail units. Just two are open.'

Michael Sheridan and Ben Laurence, 'How Sick is China?' Sunday Times (Business), 30.08.15: 4-5.  

It is also worth noting that it is hard to predict what political power in China will look like in 25 years’ time. Big infrastructure decisions tie a country in, for example, to a certain trajectory in power generation (e.g. opting for nuclear power stations rather than renewables). But what assumptions can we make about China’s power elite – their style of government, whether the current system will still be there? (See also the interesting article by Walker, R. and Buck, D, (2007) 'The Chinese Road: Cities in the Transition to Capitalism', New Left Review 46: 39-6).

Ideals and dystopias

In the preliminary briefing for the day, we were actively discouraged from 'dooms day scenarios' and 'utopian projections'. The day certainly helped to make us aware of the huge range of inter-acting imponderables. I cannot resist sharing two last thoughts from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Cities for people: The alternative economist and former Chilean Presidential candidate, Manfred Max-Neef wrote (over thirty years ago) in From the Outside Looking In about the 'four minimal conditions that a city is supposed to fulfil: sociability, well-being, security and culture'. He suggests that if these are fulfilled in a large city, there is also likely to be the experience of 'smallness inside its bigness'. He illustrates (not without nostalgia for a past era) from personal experience:

One of the happiest periods of my life was the years that I lived in Montevideo, Uruguay. It is a large city, housing half the country’s population, yet I felt that the four exigencies I have enumerated were fully satisfied. This was fifteen years ago, an important point, as in recent years my visits have turned out to be quite disappointing. When I lived there, sociability was to be found on every block and in every corner bar or café. Well-being was to be felt in the relatively modest material ambitions characteristic of most Uruguayans when compared to other nationalities. Security was guaranteed by an almost over-extensive welfare system and by a relatively low rate of criminality compared to other Latin American capital cities. Poverty existed, but not intolerable misery. Culture was accessible in all its manifestations and in great quantity … There was a public library which never closed, where people were to be seen at all times of the day and night. It was a city where walking was a pleasure. It was full of mysteries, yet invited discovery. It was a city in which one felt in a ‘state of space-time coherence. (Max-Neef 1982: 143-4).

Now – this is a subjective experience. It is an intellectual’s experience. It was a long time ago (50 years). It was just one city, the capital of a country which succumbed to military dictatorship soon after – but to me it remains a beguiling example with lessons to learn.

A simpler and more contemporary version is 'the popsicle test'. Can a child go out on her or his own, and come back safely with an ice lolly or ice cream before it melts? In short - is the city safe and child-friendly? It is not a bad test.

Or - A global network of cities for capital

If the future is a linked set of maybe 60-100 high finance, high tech, highly connected cities (many on the coast) around the globe, what will the rest of humanity do? Are they just needed to provide food for the urban elite and some cheap labour (e.g. office cleaning)? In that scenario slums are an answer – not a problem. Already, if you want your offices cleaned in Nairobi during the night, it is helpful to have a labour pool (Kibera) close by who will work for low wages. But city centre slums are also a problem – they are conveniently located real estate which is ripe for development. There is plenty of potential conflict built into such scenarios.

It would be interesting to know what percentage of global GDP and resource use the top 50 and top 100 conurbations constitute (very high) and what percentage of the world’s population are engaged in their productive (making things) and their speculative (making money). The influence of David Harvey on this line of thinking should be obvious.

As the World Development Report 2013 stresses, Jobs are vital. In stressing this, one should not forget that those working in the informal sector are Working Hard, Working Poor as Gary Fields emphasizes.

How are the urban and rural poor going to live better if such concentration of wealth and power continues? What will be the reaction from the have-nots?

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