20 June, 2016

Are “Cities” really “The Future”?

“Materially, practically and conceptually, the figure of a
neatly bounded city space has long proven illusory.”
Rickards et al. 2016, p. 1539

Publishing is the 'Do or Die' issue in academia and research, and we all know that the more one publishes in high ranking outlets of one's discipline, the better it will be for one's career path. In urban geography, these publishing venues are, for example,  Progress, Proceedings or Transactions, but actual best venues will also, of course, vary with discipline. The highest possible achievement is probably a publication in Nature and Science, something that only a few may ever achieve, and if it ever occurs, it will be good for an extra press release published by the author's university communications office. And, of course, it will also help to secure further funding, as Nature and Science  are among the most prestigious outlets of science and research: Google-scholar has ranked them first and third of all scientific journals; Science Watch lists them first to third in a variety of fields.

These journals focus primarily on the hard sciences, only rarely dealing with the social sciences or humanities. However, from time to time, both Nature and Science will dabble in these fields, and this includes urban studies. A few years ago, Nature addressed urban issues, commenting that recent trends in urbanisation were, literally (!), an outcome of an “urban equation” (Anonymus 2010). Both the tone and content of this phrase embody the law-bound view of how humans aggregate in certain places – a perspective that reminds us of both new and old ‘space-cadets’ (thank you, Rob) in geography and planning. It is an essentialist conception of place, space, and territory that is rather  out of date. 

Science followed earlier this spring, publishing a theme issue that pontificated popular claims about the “Urban Planet” or “Cities are the Future” (Wigginton et al. 2016), before coming to terms with issues such as demographics, attitudes and lifestyles, health and the environment and so on. As these headers suggested, the overarching idea or leitmotif  was the idea that the planet is becoming fully urbanized – a narrative that was not only conceptualized, and published, in urban studies already over 45 years ago (Lefebvre 1970), but has also received critical scrutiny since over the course of on-going debates and controversies around what is called planetary urbanization (see Angelo & Wachsmuth 2015; Brenner 2014; Brenner & Schmid 2014; Brenner & Schmid 2016; Catterall 2014; Rickards/Gleeson/Boyle/O’Callaghan 2016; Walker 2016). As mentioned in these and other sources, the causes and consequences of urbanization tend to get confused in these sort of triumphant city or urban discourses, where the city is no longer considered a product of society (cf. David Harvey), but in turn, society tends to evolve and change in an urban context as such.

None of these debates were taken into account or even mentioned (!) by any of the contributions in the themed issue of Science. OK, in fairness, folks in the natural sciences may never have heard of colleagues like Henri Lefebvre, or come across debates and developments in urban studies. And, they may prefer instead to stick to their own of field of studies, pondering what hard (real) sciences think about these issues. However, given that these journals rank third, second or first of all scientific journals, and given that their reach is so wide, wouldn’t it be fair to expect that these articles pay minimal justice to the enormous body of research that has already been published on the subject matter? Don’t we tell our students that whatever we do, nothing starts right at zero – but always and unavoidably builds upon the work that others have been doing before?

It is not necessarily the missing reference to particular classical pieces of literature (like Lefebvre’s “Urban Revolution”) that is the focus here, but more the fact that a lively debate in the urban studies community is entirely absent, if not outright ignored. And, this is only one among several blunders that might surprise its readership, given that we are writing, here, about a top-notch scientific journal. It is worth noting, too, that we are not the first to notice the discrepancies: In a recent posting at undark.org, Humphries (2016) criticized the equating of “cities” with “urban”, and that the special issue of Science did not take into account the current realities that characterize urbanity today. In what follows, we would like to identify some more shortcomings.

One problem was the glaring absence of basic research. The introduction to the theme issue was titled, “The Rise of the City,” and the main point of this two-pager was to inform the reader that the world is half urban. However, there were no sources provided (at all), which was a rather bold move given the controversial character of this statement. The authors provided neither an indication about where their numbers came from, nor did they name or reference their „forecasters“. Much of their data circulated somehow randomly around the dates of 1950, 1990, 2014, and 2015, with no explanation, claims that could easily be debunked by cursory research (which they apparently forgot to do). In fact, it wasn't clear if the the writers were even aware that the United Nations predicted a half-urban planet by the year 2000, and that the half-urban planet was already (supposedly) reached in 2006 – a claim that has been repeatedly critiqued in urban studies (see Satterthwaite 2005, 2016). A particular purchase of Satterthwaite’s research, btw, was that he also brought back the myth of the city-debate to its origins in the developmental context, and he did this so much earlier than the recent discussion of planetary urbanism.

Another problem with the themed issue, that an urban scholar would notice, was the absence of politics. According to Science, manifestations of human behaviour (the city) were void of sociopolitical or economic arrangements, a tenor that was clear when the special issue attempted to take the reader on a journey about where urbanity came from. Apparently, it can be explained by evolution – a natural phenomenon.  Indeed, one can trace back the origins of human (or anthropo-) geography, and find that there were indeed geo-determinist assumptions around for some time that were still hegemonic in the first half of the 20th century. The same applies to bio-determinist thinking that gained, and partly still has, prominence in other scientific disciplines. The odd thing here is that the Science theme-issue section on the “urban mind” and chose to interview an anthropologist who isn’t even recognized in his own field (page 909), and this scientist explains urbanity through the size of the neocortex (page 909).

The lack of socio-political explanation, or even relevance, is seen again in the issue when urban development in China and Vancouver are explored. Good cities are washed, well-dressed, and walkable. Apparently, these best and desirable practices can be implemented everywhere (should we extrapolate, too, that this could be anywhere where people have large neo-cortexes?). The rules, regulations, norms, structures, value-chains, social and political practices that mediate these developments are evidently not relevant. Equally irrelevant were sociopolitical externalities. Instead of perceiving how cities constitute each other or how they relate to one another, the message was simply that cities that are dirty, crowded, loud, chaotic and sprawling simply have to catch-up – a notion that, again, has been repeatedly deconstructed in postcolonial urban studies (McFarlane, 2006; Roy 2005, 2009; Robinson 2003a, 2003b, 2005). Of course, the notion that the key to the future is simply to build, densify, innovate, modernize, and prioritize technology and infrastructure has also been refuted. In the cases of green development in Vancouver and China, Hall and Stern (2014) and Chang/Leitner/Sheppard (2016), respectively, are good starting points.

A final point that should not go uncommented is the imagery and juxtapositions conveyed throughout the 'zine. Throughout the issue, the good, the white (and green), wealthy, healthy, classy, glassy modern city, is juxtaposed with the poor, barefoot, ill, deprived, slum, and rural. The city is potentially dark and dangerous, we learn, and our urban savior will be bright and right. Here is an experiment that you can try at home: Open up the journal to page 91, „A Plague of Rats“ and ask your children/roommates/friends to quickly name the first two objects they see on the page. I did this with two young teenagers. First, they identified and read the title, which is bold and rather easy to see. Then, a look of disgust was cast across their face because the second object that they identified was… well, let’s just keep the suspense and suffice it to say that it was not the object in the cage. Next, flip through the pages until you find the images of experts, and note the colour of skin. The associations that can be made in these pages, of course, have nothing to with the content. The association remains, however, clear as day, and it is either a result of sloppy layout design (at best), or malicious reporting and editing (at worst).

This is not simply a minor political issue as, sadly, many would deem it. There is no shortage of social science examining social/sociospatial stratification, inequality, and exclusion, for starters. But, the way we see/represent/portray the world also plays role in the scientific method in terms of problem definition, data interpretation, dissemination, and this ultimately becomes institutionalized through further promotion and funding. Porter (2004: 104) confessed such struggles in what she called “unlearning privilege,” recognizing that, “our perceptions are powerfully embedded in [our] research design.” Upon critical reflection of her own work, she realized that her well-intended “quaint lefty ideas about inclusion,” (p. 104), as an example, resulted in asking the wrong questions. There is thus a multi-dimensional scientific and ethical responsibility to examine and self-examine this. If the editors of Science are not convinced, perhaps they could engage with (among others) Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015: 10), who reminds us that social polarization and exclusion is also “a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”

It is difficult to know what to make of this special issue. While academia today functions along the tenants of  Publish or Perish, and unfolds with intense pressure to accrue third party funding, is it really acceptable that one of the most cited scientific journals provides little more than journalism, or mediocre science writing? How is it possible that authors of one of the most cited scientific journals don’t, in fact, have to apply the scientific method or be expert scholars in the field? Professional urban scholars might perceive a shining light as they could be happy that the topic was addressed at all. This could even have real positive consequences now that more funding agencies will understand urban studies as a legitimate field of science. However, in this optimism, we should not forget that in producing this Special Issue (that will reach and impact a vast audience), the editors of Science also set the tone concerning what matters in the field of urban studies -- and this, in turn, affects those actually doing the scholarly work, not to mention those inhabiting those spaces. According to the editors of Science, central in the tune of urban studies are certain sets of priorities: build, densify, innovate, modernize, and prioritize technology and infrastructure over socio-political matters (which are not relevant at all).  Urban geographers will immediately recognise this rather one-sided view, that is hardly state-of-the-art. Given this and the above mentioned problems, it does kind of make one wonder what their intentions were or why they bothered.

****Update!! from August 25th.  Our congratulations go to  Wachsmuth, Cohen and Angelo who successfully brought some of these debates in a later issue of Nature. The article is freely available here, the August 25th Issue, and addresses issues of urban sustainability. Read a background to the piece at David Wachsmuth's website, here.

Constance Carr, Markus Hesse

Angelo, H. & D. Wachsmuth (2015). Urbanizing urban political ecology: A critique of methodological cityism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39(1), 16-27.

Anonymus (2010). The Urban Equation. Nature 467, 899.

Brenner, N. (2014). Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization. Berlin: Jovis

Brenner N. & C. Schmid C. (2014). The ‘urban age’ in question. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38(3) 731-755

Brenner N. & C. Schmid (2016). Combat, Caricature & Critique in the Study of Planetary Urbanization. http://www.soziologie.arch.ethz.ch/_DATA/90/BrennerSchmid2.pdf

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Chang, I.C., Leitner, H. & E. Sheppard (2016). A Green Leap Forward? Eco-State Restructuring and the Tianjin-Binhai Eco-City Model. Regional Studies 50(6), 929-943.

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Wigginton, N.S., Fahrenkamp-Uppenbrink, J., Wible, B. & D. Malakoff (2016). Cities are the Future. Rapid urbanization is overtaxing the planet, but it may not have to. Science 352 Issue 6288, 904-05.

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