Translating the City

15906137-city-landscape.jpgWhat is a city? Does this word describe a contemporary reality, a human invention dating back several thousand years, or the eternal pursuit of a fantasy built space, both just and beautiful? And when we say city in Capetown or in Mumbai, cidade in Rio de Janeiro, ciudad in Medellin, città in Naples or ville in Lyon, are we talking about the same reality? This is precisely the question.




Understanding the contemporary city is a work in progress, a daily workshop in which the knowns and unknowns of known and unknown analytical elements are created and recreated in real time; the knowledge that we believe was gained on Monday proves purely archaic by Sunday. Not a week or a day goes by without a new perspective appearing somewhere in the world, joining forces with those of architects and urban planners – both topical and utopian – who, for at least two-and-a-half centuries the world over, have been considering the modern city and its future, giving it strange names or common ones, so as to perhaps concretize some aspect of it (in general, its form).

Planning, Modernism and the Challenge of Enduring Urban Segregation

The unprecedented growth of cities in the developing world is being followed, somewhat belatedly, by a renaissance in thinking about cities beyond the West and the nature of barriers to their equitable development (Chatterjee, 2006; Robinson, 2006; Roy, 2009). In reframing the enquiry into how cities ‘of the South’ function and what drives social and economic exclusion in these visibly divided and unequal urban spaces, there has been increasing emphasis on issues of informality. In an effort to come to grips with a dualist urban system that locks individuals into poverty, debate has centered on how to conceive and respond to urban activities that are (depending on one’s perspective) illegal, unregulated, unrecognised or under-appreciated (see Mc Farlane, 2012; Roy et AlSayyad, 2004; Roy, 2005; Simone, 2004).

Cities where there is a division between the formal and informal, rich and poor, legal and illegal, (ex)colonial and indigenous, can all be thought of as ‘segregated cities’. In North America, Brazil and South Africa, the various forms of economic and political exclusion correspond, in a certain way, to racial divisions. This palpable, racialized visual expression embodies the dominant lines of an urban rift. Hence, there is a tendency to equate the term urban segregation with racial residential segregation. However, cities are segregated in many respects, not only by race. In most cities there is some form of segregation manifest in domains as diverse as access to schooling, healthcare, housing, land, the labour market or the public space. Lines of segregation may be related to race (South Africa), religion (Ireland), caste (India) or language (Canada). In some cases, these divisions are formally codified; in others, they simply function as though they are, or, in certain instances – even more effectively – through unspoken prejudices and practices (see Crankshaw, 2008; Li and Wu, 2008). Whatever the basis or device for spatial and social division, the distribution of urban amenities is never equitable, and some residents are greatly privileged by dualist, unequal allocations and regulations, while others are severely disadvantaged. In order to understand segregation not solely based on overt economic inequalities, we must understand how cities work – including the many technical aspects (i.e. when and in what way services and opportunities were divided historically and how exclusion continues to be perpetuated through similar or new planning interventions) (Beall et al., 2002; Coquery-Vidrovitch, 2005; Freund, 2007; Myers, 2011).

There are a surprisingly large number of cities globally where race, caste, traditional authority control, royalty or even competing political jurisdictions define the rules in such a way that residents cannot move freely across urban systems of housing, land or services (Demissie, 2012). That said, formally or institutionally segregated cities tend to be concentrated in the Global South, where resources are limited, urban inequality is more pronounced and local democracy is less developed. Segregation is so much a part of Africa’s urban development that a brutally segregated division of the city – often attributed to colonial legacies – is sometimes seen as its hallmark (O’Connor, 1983; Simon, 1992).

6620:couv.pngNotwithstanding a half-century of political independence and an overt commitment to ending colonial influences, institutionalised forms of segregated urban development still permeate every aspect of African cities and towns – from macro-financial policy to urban regulation and the lived experiences of citizens (Myers, 2011; Simone, 2004). Similar patterns of structural inequality are increasingly prevalent in the urban form of Chinese and Indian cities, where growing wealth has either compounded or highlighted the underlying inequalities that regulate the lives of illegal or marginal urban dwellers who do not have access to the full range of urban rights (Li and Wu, 2008). The failure to come to terms with the structural basis of urban segregation and why and how it continues in the 21st century lies at the heart of the development impasse, leaving millions of urban inhabitants trapped in poverty while their wealthy counterparts enjoy increasingly comfortable urban lives (UN Habitat, 2001).

Imperatives for uncoupling segregation and modernist planning

Planning is not the sole cause of (or cure for) the spatial division of cities – past, present or future. The impression one gets when reading academic planning literature is that elite interests used colonial/modern planning monolithically to create segregation and entrench inequality, making modern planning today an utterly discredited, irredeemable approach to human settlement management (c.f. Healey, 2007; Porter, 2006). However, we wish to suggest that, in the contemporary period, modern urban planning is a maligned, neglected area that may just as easily compound, entrench or erode patterns of segregation in cities, depending on how the instruments are used. In other words, there is no inevitable outcome to the adoption of modernity as a paradigmatic planning approach to building or managing cities. This is not to overburden the expectation of what a (progressive) modern planning agenda might be able to achieve, not least in overcoming the burdens of entrenched colonial inequalities. Prejudice, political configuration, labour markets, national immigration policies and demographic changes are all variables that act independently, or in concert with, modern urban planning to structure or restructure a segregating or desegregating city. The argument here is that it is possible for states and other planning actors to intervene in urban development through the use of instruments such as land use zoning, taxation, building standards, bylaw enforcement, etc. Thus, the impact of planning is not inevitably the oppression of the poor, and modernist reforms can generate universal benefits that are potentially of great value to the most vulnerable. Mindful of the damning critiques of modernism’s practical impacts in Africa (c.f. Ferguson, 1994; 1999), acknowledging the possibility of a more ambiguous legacy of modernity brings us back to the utopian promises of modern urban planners, if only to assess the impact of modernist planning relative to the regimes of urban control that currently exist in segregated cities.

There are a number of reasons why there is currently renewed interest in the role of (modern) urban planning, including, most obviously, the general call for greater state involvement in regulating societies in general, in the wake of the global fiscal crisis and threats of global environmental change. Climate changes, disaster risk, urban social protection schemes, demands by major investors and disillusionment due to crime, informality and neo-liberalism also underpin a renewed interest in planning (see UN Habitat, 2009). It would, of course, be naive to utterly discount the controlling aspirations of some states, most startlingly China, who are newly embracing urban master plans, enforcement codes and draconian building bylaws and regulations that, de facto, exclude the poorest and advance the interests of the middle classes (Wu, 2010; Friedman, 2005).

For urbanists, the call to revisit the role of the (local) state presents something of a conundrum as, for decades, planners sought to distance themselves from the government and, by association, from technocratic systems of urban regulation (Healey, 2007; Watson, 2009). Master planning, at least anything seen as top-down or state-centric development controls or spatial planning, fell out of academic and policy fashion for much of the late-twentieth century, especially in the West and the ex-colonial South. In Africa, the compromised credibility of the state as the driver of a legitimate urban planning process was fueled by weak, corrupt local governments that, when they were not invoking colonial planning laws to further their own ends (most notoriously in Zimbabwe, with the massive clearances/evictions in Harare in the 1990s (Potts, 2011)), did very little else to promote progressive urban planning of any kind (Myers, 2011). The weakness of universities and the profession in Asia and Africa has meant that, for decades, there was very little critical reflection on how effective planning was in achieving post-independence political objectives, or how it might be done differently (Parnell et al., 2009).

Given the scale of urban problems and the enduring inequalities associated with past regimes, it is not difficult to understand why planning has been discredited, especially in cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is not an overstatement to suggest that, on average, government-led planning processes have either ignored or undermined the poor, or been utterly irrelevant to their lives. Despite this, there are clear, widespread calls for more active involvement by governments in how cities are run (for an overview of the current debate about whether states should engage or eschew a greater role for government and urban planning, see Parnell and Robinson, 2012).

The debate regarding the desirability of increasing the role of government relative to other power bases in cities is not restricted to contemporary development politics. Echoes of the dichotomous positions on government’s contribution to urban development appear in the work of urban historians, with key authors such as Mamdani (1996) and Bissell (2010) suggesting that the imperative of a stronger state should be more central to the discussion of the post-colonial transformation, especially at the city scale. They argue that Africa’s malaise can be explained by the malformation and failure of the (local) government in Africa and its subsequent inability to exert sufficient power to define modern forms of urban citizenship. These views directly contrast those of equally persuasive urban historians such as Holston (1998) and Sandercock (1998), who point to insensitive, elitist, unworkable urban plans that fail to engage the realities of the urban poor. By this account, the negative impact of modernism on urban management in post-colonial contexts is the foundation of structural inequality and dysfunctionality in the contemporary city.

There are clearly well made points on both sides of these polarized debates. In affirming the need to return to a more active dialogue on the role of modern planning relative to other forms of city organization, we would highlight two points drawn from reflection on the African urban debate. First, the relationship between planning and modernism in the (post-) colonial context has been too narrowly drawn. This is not to contest that planning is a child of modernist thinking, for it obviously is, and modern planning may even have some African roots (Freund, 2007; Parnell, 1993; Wright, 1991). The problem is that urban planning is singled out as a special, negative case of modernism, implying an inappropriate conflation of modern urban land use and colonial conquest. It is true that Europeans used private property as an instrument of colonial subjugation at both the national and continental scale. It is also true that modernism introduced to colonial territories a system of urban land management – i.e. formal land registration under a cadastral system with individual tenure and property rights. This was then overlaid by an urban land use management (zoning and enforcement) and taxation system that impacted land values (the most comprehensive account of the export of colonial plan- ning remains Home, 1997). It is, however, far from clear that conquest is the sole reason modernist urban planning was supported in colonial contexts, or that this is all that modernism achieved; there are numerous examples of urban reforms introduced through colonial housing and welfare policies (see Harris, 2003; Parnell and Mabin, 1995) and other aspects of modernity (e.g. modern science and medicine or engineering innovations such as traffic lights and electricity) that were happily embraced, and their adoption in the colonial context has never been the object of critique in the way that planning has been.

Scholars’ tendency to concentrate only on oppressive examples of planning means that modernism is not represented in the same way in historical accounts of cities of the global North and South. In the North, modernism is widely recognized as having both reformist and repressive agendas and outcomes in shaping cities, most famously/notoriously, the unleashing of urban removals from slums while ushering in mass public housing and transportation systems and establishing municipal indigent support. This ambiguity regarding modernity is almost never acknowledged for the cities of the global South, and it may well be the reason that city scale state welfare interventions based on modern assumptions have not been pursued with any vigor (Freund, 2007).

The second reason for revisiting the role of modernism in the unequal and segregationist development of cities in the Global South is that the historical dominance of modernism in the evolution of these cities and their post-independence trajectories may well be overstated. There is a certain irony to identifying statutory planning, development controls and spatial planning as the source of all evil in cities, only to find that the local authority, equipped with its modernist tool bag, is far less powerful than the local chief, than foreign business, than the royal family, than the gangsters, than the church, than organised private business, and so on (Pieterse, 2008). Likewise, it is rarely, if ever, that an urban planner assumes more power within a municipal council than an engineer, finance officer or even medical officer. In sum, it seems that the power of the modern urban planner has been clearly overestimated as the force behind colonial urban inequalities and segregation (Parnell and Mabin, 1995). If this is true, then it is imperative to look beneath the surface and probe what – if not modernism – underpins the persistence of urban segregation and division. Using the case of South Africa, we suggest that the absence of a single, universal system of urban management ensures that segregation cannot be revoked. In other words, it is not modernism per se that is the problem, but the co-existence of modernism and alternative rationalities of urban control that are the vice-grip of enduring urban segregation.

Extract from Translating the City - Interdisciplinarity in Urban Studies
By Stéphanie Vincent-Geslin 
Published by the PPUR

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