Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program and Co-Director, Great Lakes Economic Initiative, Brookings Institution
Director, City Laboratory of Mexico City
Senior Urban Planner, The World Bank
Robert S. Lynd Professor, Dept. of Sociology and Co-Chair, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University
Executive Editor, New York, Harvard Business Review
Traditionally, urban centers have grown around specific need: sustenance, trade and commerce, manufacturing, governance. Today, cities evolve around centers of critical information. How do you build a city for the 21st century? Should conventional urban specialization continue? Or do we need to start examining the opportunities posed by letting the urban garden run wild?
Read the full transcript below. (Transcript by Realtime Transcriptions.)
Fox: Twenty-five years ago there weren’t really events like this. But if there were, there wouldn’t have been a bunch of presentations on how super linear and scalable and collision-able cities were. If we would be talking about cities at all, we would all be wringing our hands, and a lot of us would be completely disconnected or feel disconnected from cities.
Something’s changed, and that’s one of the cool—that’s why we’re talking about it so much at this event. So our panel here, I’m going to introduce them quickly, and then I’m going to ask you guys a question and then come to the panel. We’ve got Saskia Sassen, a sociology professor at Columbia University and a leading authority on cities and globalization;
Pedro Ortiz, a senior urban planner at The World Bank, and we’ll hear a little bit about his past and how he got to that when we talk to him later;
Gabriella Gomez-Mont, who is the brand-new director of a brand-new city agency in Mexico City called Laboratoria Para La Ciudad or “thee-u-dad” as Pedro would say;
And Jennifer Bradley, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the new book, The Metropolitan Revolution.
Could we put up the lights really quickly? Tucson has a little over 500,000 people and a metro area of just under a million.
How many of you here live in cities within the city limits that have more people than Tucson? So more than 500,000 people.
So that’s a little less than half, it looks like. How many of you live in metropolitan areas bigger than the Tucson metropolitan area?
How many of you live in Charlottesville, Virginia?
I just ask that because we all—this is a subject that all of us are so intimately connected with, in different sorts of ways. I wanted to very quickly just find out—I grew up in the San Francisco bay area—we can put the lights back down—and I now live in Manhattan.
Jennifer, where are you from?
Bradley: I grew up in the suburbs of Austin, and now I live in the central city of Washington, D.C.
Fox: Austin in the pre-South by Southwest era?
Bradley: The very earliest days of South by Southwest overlapped with the very latest days in which I was still an Austinite. I lived in Austin before it was cool to live in Austin.
Gomez-Mont: I’m from Mexico City, born and raised.
Ortiz: Manila, Paris, Madrid, Oxford, Washington, Puerto Rico—I am a mutt.
Fox: And Saskia, you have similar?
Sassen: More or less like that, different places, different sequence. Buenos Aires, Rome, France, et cetera. On and on, not as many.
Fox: And then you showed up for grad school in South Bend, Indiana?
Sassen: Yeah, I was an illegal immigrant. But they had said, You must come and study with us.
I took it literally. Right middle of the term. It was really quite an amazing—when I think back, I was like russo savage. That’s an innocent with sort of a beauty about him or her, right?
Fox: We’re going to continue that conversation after this.
Sassen: This doesn’t really help for the city subject.
Fox: I want to ask you, Saskia, because I think you were talking about this before most of the rest of the world caught on to it. What is it about cities now that we’re more interested in the opportunities than the problems?
Sassen: Well, it’s not just that we’re more interested. It’s that the functions of cities, the place that they occupy in complex systems, has changed. Twenty-five years ago, New York was broke, London was broke, Paris was broke, Tokyo was broke. You name it. Hong Kong was struggling.
So it is a very interesting shift. I see two or three things. I know I only have 30 seconds. The stuff I worked mostly on was started with a question which functions as a provocation: Why do the most digitized, most powerful and wealthiest sector such as finance, which can buy all the technologies they want, why do they need an urban footprint; an urban footprint which was become visible. Wall Street was expanding, the city of London was expanding.
So out of that really comes sort of a, if you want, logical feature of this current system, precisely because they’re globalized and digitized. Means that speed and the enormous diversity of work settings create huge demands, escalate the need for control functions for specialized services. And those need to be made sort of on the moment many different knowledges coming together.
So I think of a certain kind of city like global cities, of which there are over 100, sort of a space where an urban knowledge capital is generated—I repeat: Urban knowledge capital—which is more than the knowledges in the heads of all the brilliant experts and creative classes, or more than the knowledges in the sum of all the specialized firms in the knowledge business; whether that’s specialized accounting, finance, et cetera.
So I think that there really is a change in systemic logic that partly explains some of it. There are other issues—
Fox: Is it replacing the national system to some extent?
Sassen: No, but I’ve written about this. I think what we’re beginning to see is a partial urbanizing of global geopolitics, much more city to city, partly because of deregulation, partly because of privatization, et cetera, et cetera. So it’s not that this replaces the formal interstate system, but it sort of is also there.
I don’t know how far that will go. But the truth of the matter is, when leaders of countries visit each other, they don’t go to “the country.” They don’t come to the United States. They come to Washington, and then they choose either New York or Chicago. So when the Premier of China came to Chicago, New York was very upset.
Fox: Didn’t they go to Pittsburgh a couple years ago?
Sassen: No. We should get them to come to Detroit, what they should not do, abuse, et cetera.
I’ve spoken enough.
Fox: Jennifer, in the U.S., there was this balance between the national and the metropolitan. What is so different about that than, again, a couple decades ago?
Bradley: I think that a couple of things have happened. First, your question, do you live in a central city or do you live in a metropolitan area was a revelatory one. We’ve stopped obsessing about the city versus suburb divide and realized that cities and metropolitan areas make up a single economic unit.
So on a global stage the difference between Austin and Round Rock is not very interesting. The difference between Denver and Aurora, or Washington, D.C. proper and Montgomery County isn’t significant. What matters is the labor, the companies, and the possibilities of the whole metropolitan area.
So I think that has helped people have a broader understanding of all of the resources and what the relevant geography is.
I think also, cities and metropolitan areas are starting to understand themselves as actors and problem solvers. The default mode after the New Deal is that if there’s a really big, scary, important problem, the federal government has to solve it. That hasn’t gone away completely in the aftermath of the recession. It really was the federal government that stepped up with stimulus funds. But the federal government has proven to be kind of an unreliable, inconstant problem solver.
So cities and metropolitan areas are realizing, for better or worse, it’s on them. Saskia made a point about city governments being broke. In places like Detroit, where they’re in bankruptcy, that’s certainly true. Cities and metropolitan areas are also realizing, though, that they’re more than just government. They are networks of civic, corporate, philanthropic, university and other kinds of leaders who are coming together to solve problems.
What my co-author, Bruce Katz, and I tried in our book was to try to foreground what everybody kind of was practicing and knew what was happening and say, This was a real thing. So you, city leaders, are not just kind of the political farm team in the United States; you’re it. You’re on the front lines of problem solving.
And the conversations we need to have is not how can the federal government or state government step in and save cities in metropolitan areas. It’s how can the federal and state governments come in and swing behind and support cities and metropolitan areas as they are the economic engines; as they are solving problems around social integration; as they are, as Saskia said, networking internationally and creating connections from city to city, metro to metro and creating kind of new economic and exchange networks.
I think we’ve got better—we’ve gotten out of our old frameworks and categories that kept us from seeing what was really happening, and now we can recognize and name the great things that these places are doing.
Fox: And you were talking about this idea of cities bringing in private actors, civic groups to bring in new ideas, innovation, which makes me—so Gabriella ended up in city government because she put on a TEDx conference in Mexico City, and you invited the mayor. What happened after that?
Gomez-Mont: Well, basically—so, I will explain a little bit about the TEDx. We have a new mayor, since December of —
Fox: So if anybody says TED conferences don’t accomplish anything —
Gomez-Mont: Exactly. They get you into government.
So my mayor has been around since December last year, and while he was running for mayor we decided to put on an event that was completely unrelated, but we invited him to speak. To our surprise, he said yes.
So I must confess that we actually curated the whole—the other nine speakers were curated around him, and we basically put on stage people that had not necessarily thought of government as an interesting space for the ideas, who were brilliant and who were just as madly in love with Mexico City as I am and a lot of other people are.
So it was 600 people strong, even though we just gave people a week and a half notice. Basically, what I think came out of that space was he suddenly realized that there’s a huge potential in being able to partner with these other people that want to be part of the transformation, that have the best interest of the city in mind, that are actually quite brilliant; but they have been separated from government and have not necessarily seen it as an interesting space to activate their ideas or to partner with.
Fox: So what does The Laboratory do?
Gomez-Mont: So basically The Laboratory is a new area of civic innovation and urban creativity. It depends on the mayor’s office, and what we do is we can implement pilot projects. I talk directly to the ministers, but we’re also creating all sorts of mechanisms to be able to reinvent these platforms where government and citizens come together.
We also would like propose that the creative space should be the city itself. Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world, which is a little known fact. But I think there’s also an urban ingenuity that has not been accounted for. Mexico City is 22 million people strong in the metropolitan area, and our national university is 350,000 people.
So if we start tapping into these already existing structures, what we’re starting to realize is there can be a huge urban muscle just there, if we are able to connect it a lot better. Because what has been happening is that there is a disarticulation between different actors, which does not necessarily let us tap into a network city.
I have a feeling that when one thinks of this network city, when you think about metropolitan areas of 22 million people, you can either think of the paradigm of 22 million mouths to feed, or 22 million minds.
So what happens if you start playing with this articulation? And what happens, as well, if you start attaching people to structures and to the city space in different ways. That’s a little bit what we’re going to be seeing, piloting programs, getting the unusual suspects into the government structures, creating, as well, spaces for conversation.
Because we have this idea that even though we’re a very small multidisciplinary department, if we attach ourselves to one of the main arteries of the government, then even these small conversations, if they can travel the system, can have much larger repercussions and effect than the size of my multidisciplinary team.
Fox: So, Pedro, you’re a former mayor of the central district of Madrid. But you were a planner before then, and you’re a planner again.
How much this idea—you’re sort of a semi– you’re not quite an organic thing. You’re actually part of the city government, Gabriella. But the idea is little ideas coming up from below.
But for a city to work, what is the balance between what is imposed for above, Pedro, and what sort of bubbles along?
Ortiz: Well, I would not say the balance between above and the bottom. I would say the balance between the tangible city and the untangible city. Cities are made of hardware and software. Hardware is the concrete, the steel, the bricks, and the software is the logistics, is us.
So what is valuable in a city is the logistics, is the people; no? That’s what makes a city. You destroy a city, and if the people are still there, the software is there, you will be able to rebuild it again in ten years, like Germany after the second world war. If you don’t have the software, you have an earthquake, and after ten years the city will still be destroyed.
But now the big challenge we are addressing around, because I worked at a complete other side of the line from Jennifer and maybe from Saskia. I work with people that earn $1 a day, and their main concern is what they’re going to eat tomorrow. No? And those cities around the world—obviously not in Europe, not in North America—those cities are growing at incredible pace, no? Like 5 percent, some of them 10 percent every year. If you apply that, the 5 percent, that means that every 14 years they double in size.
Imagine you have to build new city in 14 years. Imagine you have to build New York in 14 years. That would mean something like ten blocks every day with magic stakes on it.
So governments are actually unable to address that, because they don’t have the help of national governments that want to deal with international politics and agriculture and so on. And they don’t realize that their metropolis many times is 50 percent of the GDP of the country, and it’s a national issue. So they don’t give the money necessary to do that.
The result is a world of slums. We are building a world of slums. In some of those cities, 80 percent of what is being built is slums, is uncontrolled slums. And that is a time bomb.
We cannot afford, in a long-term sustainability, a social equity, economic efficiency, environmental sustainability—we cannot afford to have a time bomb. So we must really take in hand, all of us, all together, the development of those, because our future is at stake with that. We cannot live just for the next generation.
I invite you to come to Kibera, Dandora, Nairobi and so on. $1 a day.
Fox: Mexico City is wealthier than that, but it is a city that sort of was the archetype for a long time of super fast, uncontrolled emerging market city. And yet you love it there now.
What—did it change? What’s happening there that’s working?
Gomez-Mont: Well, I think now and then Mexico City has never been for the faint hearted, definitely. It’s built upon a lake. We live in a valley with several active volcanos, especially one of them that a web cam, if you tap into it, you can always see it flaming up and throwing smoke. It’s earthquake territory, as I said, 22 million people strong.
But I also found it very intriguing this shift of not only how we think of the city, but how the world also starts thinking of the city once they get there. Because the narrative of Mexico as a whole has been eaten up by the drug war. But I must say that I’m not the only one. There are many people from abroad that come to the city and absolutely fall in love with the kind of raw energy.
So I think we hang between an interesting pendulum, complicated as well. Mexico City is, between the 15 largest city economies, right now I think it’s the eighth. We have every type of problem that an emerging city has: Urban sprawl, poverty levels, huge social divide as well.
So I have the feeling that, first of all, it’s a sheer survival instinct on behalf of humanity where we now have to make due with the fact that this is the future of our cities and hence the future of the world. And I also think that many policies, funnily enough, has led us to have a sense of ownership that I have not really experienced in my lifetime.
We have been opening up public space, we have a bike sharing system. We’ve done amazing things, like many public, parks, fountains that the kids can play with. I must say that even though these are more on a metaphorical value and there is a lot to be done, I have the feeling that this has also shifted the way that we experience the city, the way that we attach ourselves to the city.
And besides diversity, like the sheer unimaginableness of how the city works or what the city is like. It’s like very diverse components. I also feel has an endless quality that you can fall in love with. So it’s still not for the faint hearted. But, yes, for people who are slightly reckless in their loves, it makes for a very exciting space.
Fox: Saskia, when you hear Pedro talking about this, we can talk about New York and Tokyo, but what about these cities that seemingly are on pace to become larger than all —
Sassen: Well, I agree with what Pedro said. But then immediately, I am always—like I started out when I said, Why do these sectors need cities? Why does high finance need cities?
Here what I like to detect is the extent to which—not that you said that, but anyhow, that they’re not only spaces of misery and despair. They’re spaces for making.
I think of slums as a variable. At this end they’re working slums. At this end, they’re places of illness and misery. When they’re working slums, those people know how to make: Make housing, make an economy, make the social.
I think that we, the middle classes of the world, we are consumers, of everything: Of the social, of our citizenship. So when I ask myself: Who makes? Like who makes the social today? Who are the actors?
Elites? Because an elite is making, but an elite is not the same as a bunch of rich people or whatever, or powerful people. And those people in those slums are in neighborhoods like immigrant neighborhoods where they have to make their economy.
And so that then makes me think that rather than seeing this sort of ballooning of a disaster, we will find interventions, you know, that will. And I mean, I have seen that with the immigrant communities in New York. And Jennifer, you must have seen that, too.
So they arrive in spaces that are destroyed. This goes back now 30 years. They renovate, not because they are necessarily, but no, they want a neat little house. They bring in their forms of knowledge about healthcare, the boticas, you know, they work with plants, et cetera.
So they actually produce a kind of a neighborhood economy and a neighborhood knowledge system, you see? And then so my—I mean, I think—I basically agree with what Pedro said. I don’t want to sound like a romantic here. But I do think that history is full of unexpected terms. And the cities are a complex space that enables all kinds of stuff.
So when I wrote my Outsourcing the Neighborhood, is that what I called it, that little piece? Imagine if we could connect up these neighborhoods through, you know, open access technologies that can move it forward, and the knowledge of, you know, the localities: The grandmother, the homeless person, whatever. So there is knowledge that is also being made in those spaces.
And to connect that to—and a way to unsettle central codified knowledge that comes from those who have power and can make decisions, but who may not know much about the neighborhood.
So if we open up spaces that we now tend to see as spaces of just the poor, just the miseries, et cetera, and we recognize, you know what? Especially the working slum angle, they know how to make. There is a knowledge there. There are knowledge systems there. That’s why I do think that these new technologies could make a lot of difference in our cities. I mean, I really think that.
Fox: I’m going to circle back to the technology in a minute, because this is Techonomy and all.
But Pedro, what did you want to say in there?
Ortiz: Well, my negative knowledge before, and now the positive one.
No, the cities are not the problem. They are the solution, as we all know. Cities are more productive than anywhere else.
For instance, Paris is three times the GDP of Colombia, no? So you add up Chile, Peru, and Colombia, and that’s Paris. So cities are enormous machineries of wealth and capacity of production, economies of scale; no?
So we have to work on that; no? And they are the solution.
We are going to that world of cities because, as mentioned before as well, we are now 50 percent of the population of the world living in cities. But economies and countries become efficient when you have 75 percent or 80 percent of the population, like America, like Europe, and so on and so on.
So we are going to grow by 2 billion people in the next 20 years. That’s 300,000 people going into cities every day. And that is good if we know how to solve that problem. If we know how to give a solution, and what we have is not only to give a solution in terms of social networking, which is extremely important; but, as well, in physical solution. And we need to have models of growth, of those cities metropolis in the right way and not the chaos we are allowing today. No?
I just published a book, The Art of Shaping the Metropolis, just on that, how we do have to apply physical models to make those cities efficient, equitable and sustainable. Cities are the solution; they are not the problem. They are the problem when we don’t know how to deal with it. But they are the solution for the future. And that future is going to come.
Bradley: Have you seen that, as people in the developed nations are better able to appreciate their metropolises, that there’s a better sharing of solutions about the built environment between places that are just now putting in advanced infrastructure?
The model I’m thinking of is the Center for Urban Science and Progress, or CUSP, that NYU has just started. They are a consortium. It’s NYU plus a range of other world universities.
They are trying to develop a discipline called “urban science” whereby they look at how you enable and support large urban systems. So they’re taking data from the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York and trying to figure out how you move people, how you deal with urban noise, how you deal with waste, how you deal with pollution.
So it seems to me that the very aspect of urbanity has become a kind of useful product that can be shaped and developed and exchanged around the world.
Do you think that this will help places like Nairobi kind of leapfrog and be able to take some of the knowledge from the developed world to move people in useful, cost-appropriate ways for them?
Or do you think it will be two separate tracks, and there will be the kind of “wealthy developed world” solutions, and then there will be “the emerging world” solutions?
Ortiz: Yes and no.
Actually, those cities don’t know how to deal with those problems. And the way we have approached our city is completely different. We approach it with a knowledge and a capacity of data dealing with all that, a capacity of government working. Because 99 percent of our activities are formal; no? So when, as a government, you make a policy, you’re able to influence the city.
But in those places only the government can do 5 percent of what really is happening. So it has to be another discipline. And it has to be a discipline not only based on the accumulation of data and then technology and using technology. It was mentioned before in the day, you must know what to use that technology for. Technology is not an end in itself. You have to have the concepts before, and then you can use the technology to that.
Let me make an example. A trip. You decide to have a vacation, and the most important thing is where you decide to go. That’s the purpose of the vacation. And then you decide what technology you’re going to use to go there: A bus, a car, a plane, or a train. But you should not start planning your vacation the other way around; no? I want to go in a—that transport.
So let’s separate things. You must know what you have to do with those cities, and then you can use the technology and the smart cities and all that data accumulation things. But when you have a purpose, no?
Fox: But I guess what I’m hearing though is still different. How much of it is we—you—I don’t know who “you” is, if it’s the city government or just the civic body knowing what to do. And how much is what you’re talking about, Saskia, which is people just inventing things to get through the day?
And on the technology level, we’ve seen all the groovy—in the U.S. all the groovy IBM ads and how they’re rewiring the city, and Cisco, who paid for our drinks last night, is doing lots of things. Is that moving straightforward or—[loud noise]. Whoa!
Sassen: That was Cisco, talking back.
Well, I mean, look. I think cities are very peculiar systems, and they are complex but incomplete.
So plopping down complex apparatuses that can take care of almost everything is a problem. And if you then think that—if a lot of that is centered on technologies with a rate of obsolescence that is growing like that, you have another problem.
And then you look back and you see that cities like London, for instance, there are buildings that are 1500 years old, and they function beautifully. So the city is not something you can solve in a laboratory, or in a text research. We need that, but we need to know how to use it.
So I think that—I have this thing now, you know. I go through little obsessions. One of my little obsessions right now is what would happen if I assumed that the city actually is talking back, but a language that we don’t know anymore.
So the super car that arriving downtown and is crawling like a little worm, well, the city hacked that car, unsettled the technology and the brilliant engineer. And the city is saying: You know what car? You’re beautiful, but you don’t belong here. Go to the highway or go wherever and give me the little electric car.
Now, if part of the training of planners and engineers and technologies—
Ortiz: And politicians—
Sassen: They are a tough one. I don’t know how that would work, but anyhow, we can give it a try.
So I think that it is a complex animal, and it will require complexity to work with it.
What I was saying before about that urban knowledge capital that is more than the sum of the codified knowledges, you know, that is an interaction effect. That is brilliant, right? It comes in from many different people, from many different parts. They don’t even know what they’re making together.
But the city enables scale-ups. And we have often captured those scale-ups, formalized them into a model, then we think if we put a bunch of high-rise buildings create an density, we have the scale-up. No, we don’t. We just have a bunch of high-rise buildings.
So I think that paying a bit more attention—I see the time runneth here. Paying a bit more attention to how the city actually moves and evolves, rather than sort of thinking, Oh density, it’s a city.
No. I think that if you have an endless row of office buildings, if you have high density, you do not have a city. You have an endless row of high-rise apartment buildings. You don’t have a city. So the question if you really are beginning to narrow down and say, Okay. What is city?
And city has a scale-up capacity, not just augmenting the number of the units, but actually something else is made. It is made in so many different ways. So, a neighborhood also has that capacity. Right?
Anyhow, for me it seems that that’s the kind of mixture. Datasets are critical technologies are critical. And then we need something else. What do we call that? But when it works, it works. But when we create that, you know it works. It works. It talks back. It tells you: You know what? This worked.
And that is how I would, if I could.
Fox: Gabriella? And then can we put up the lights, and you start finding people to give mics to?
Gomez-Mont: Sure, I love the idea of being an incomplete city, and I love how incompleteness, many times makes cities survive nations and survive all sorts of other happenings.
And also taking that with Pedro’s comments, in certain times it becomes interesting to think about this two-track thing. If we really do need to think about the emerging cities as well as the other cities more planified cities in different ways.
Because I feel with this whole ruckus in the U.S. and Europe and us questioning a lot of systems, in a certain sense we’re coming back with new labels and new names and new language to things that have existed forever.
If you, talk about Open Source City, Mexico City is 50 percent in formal economy, what is that—is that an open source city?
If you talk about Airbnb and the sharing economy, Jennifer and I were talking about this. If you talk about Uber, Cuba, for—I went there ten years ago. You hail down any car on the street, and they take you wherever you want to go, and you pay the person money. This is not a small group of people. This is a whole city that is functioning in this very contemporary way.
So in a strange sense, I do think that there’s a very interesting space of reverse innovation that they’ve called it where I actually think that the emerging world has a lot to teach the contemporary first world cities about how to function and how to become resilient, because we have never been able to not take into account how problematic we are.
In the U.S. one can say democracy was capital D and freedom was capital F, notwithstanding that 30 percent of the population votes. Or not talk about poverty when poverty levels, especially since 2008 are appalling. In the emerging world you cannot get away with not addressing these subjects.
So in a certain sense I think that they become spaces where we can deal with issues that pertain and belong to us all. And in that sense, I think there is a meshing of solutions and the way we should go forward.
Bradley: They teach us informality, flexibility, non-codification, things that people in the United States are not so good at recognizing. Right? We’ve chosen to be blind to those things.
So what you’re saying is that in the developing world you can’t be blind to it because it’s so pervasive. And if we learn how to look at the developing world, we can come back to the United States and western Europe and say: Oh, I’ve seen that before, and here is a way I can talk about it and not—bring it in from the margins in a constructive way.
Fox: Introduce yourself and ask away.
Sundararajan: Hi. I’m Arun Sundararajan from New York University. I guess I’m sort of building up on where Gabriella left off, which is sort of the assertion that certain cities can learn from, sort of the lessons of other cities, and perhaps sort of re-asking the question that I think Jennifer asked, which was if we think about—I’m affiliated with CUSP, the Center for Urban Science and Progress. You mentioned that. And you have a lab for the city.
So on the one hand, you have this belief that somehow by studying one’s city and creating sort of science by using one city as a lab, you can learn something that will apply to another city, or apply to other cities.
On the other hand, I also hear you saying that somehow it isn’t quite as simple as that; you know, that cities are a collection of sort of social connections; that cities are networks of resources and leaders and people; and that there are sort of these inherent differences.
So where do you sort of land on this? Is there really sort of potential for true urban science? Or is each city going to have to sort of create its own lab and figure it out on its own?
Ortiz: Sorry. Go ahead.
Sassen: I was just going to say that I think an element that we haven’t mentioned that is part of an answer to your question is that in this globalized world, when you look at cities that are global cities—in other words, you know, that’s a certain kind of city—actually what matters are two things.
One of them is the specialized differences. The notion that everything gets homogenized, you know, this very common language, all cities? It’s absolutely incorrect. What gets homogenized in sort of this escalating condition is that more and more, it’s infrastructure.
In other words, necessary but indeterminate. So I think now about things that in the past we would never have thought of as infrastructure, it’s now infrastructure.
Fox: Like what?
Sassen: Like all kinds of things that have to do with housing, buildings, and office districts. You know? It used to be that the office building—think any city, 1960s, office building. It was screaming: I am about office work!
And it was about office work. Today those buildings are not about office work. Office work is done in who knows where, in clerical factories. So when you look at—you know, this whole notion of the globalizing of standards, that’s very important. The standards, the state of the art. This is state of the art. Shopping mall is state of the art, luxury. Condo, et cetera, et cetera.
So what you have is an incredible standardization of standards for the state-of-art building environment. But that is like an infrastructure.
Now, on top of that there is a layer where the specialized differences matter, whether it is in economy, in finance, in culture. And so that is very difficult to capture. So people are sort of stuck in this notion of all cities are becoming the same.
The consumer markets are the same, but that’s part of an infrastructure. So when you look at it that way, the urban science, something that I don’t know that I would necessarily use. I’m not—you were referring to it. But it’s a very attractive notion. It’s certainly a nice catch-all imagery, I think.
Well, insofar as so much is today infrastructure, that gives you a very big domain for urban science.
Fox: But it’s not everything?
Sassen: It’s not enough. Because then what happens is—just think of —
Fox: I just want to squeeze in a couple more questions. Pedro?
Ortiz: I lecture in many of those cities, and one of those lectures is about the organizations, the institutionalization of those cities. The governments, two tiers, one tier collaborative, et cetera and so on, so on. At the end there is always a question: What will be the best solution for us?
I always say, No one else can tell you what is the best solution for you. Because you’re a specific culture, and you have to build up your own institutional framework. No one can tell you what is the best for you.
So to your answer, every city has to find its own solution. The easy part is the infrastructure, because the highway looks like another highway. Even in Milan.
Sassen: Also, the infrastructure is gaining ground. There is more and more.
Ortiz: There is a limit to that. Now in cities like New York or Paris or London, they have so many infrastructures that what they have is to tame the infrastructure. Really, there are many layers of society that do not know how to deal with that and know how to use it; no?
So infrastructure is—a car is a car in Milan and in Manila. Maybe in Milan it would be a Ferrari and in Manila it will be a jitney. But it will have an engine and wheels and so on and so on. But the institution does specifically. So never copy anyone else. Learn how it has evolved for them, and then adapt it for you and reinvent what you need. No?
That is the software of the city, not the hardware. The hardware is the easy part.
Fox: Zero. We will get to that in a minute.
Megginson: Hi. I’m David Megginson. I’m an independent consultant and urban pedestrian, and I’m having trouble identifying with the narrative I’ve heard in the last two talks that cities are a new discovery in North America; that they were much hated two decades ago.
Twenty-five years ago I lived in Toronto. It was an amazing place to live. It was vibrant, it was culturally mixed, it was socioeconomically mixed. Infrastructure worked, the mayor didn’t smoke crack. It was just unbelievably wonderful.
One of the most interesting things about Toronto in 1988 was that Jane Jacobs lived there, having moved up from Greenwich Village.
So what I’d like to ask the panel is, how much have we learned new about great North American cities in the 53 years since Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities?
Bradley: I think that’s a great question.
You know, I moved to DC just when Marion Barry was released from his own crack smoking career. So it doesn’t really set a city back as much as you might think.
I do believe that we are rediscovering a lot of the things that were always there. We’ve just decided to stop defining cities as problems.
One of the examples in our book is—that I like to talk about is what Neighborhood Centers Incorporated is doing in Houston. They work in neighborhoods that statistically look like disasters, high crime, high drop-out rate, high teen pregnancy, low levels of literacy. And they go into these neighborhoods and say, What’s good about what is happening here?
You have come to Houston from all over the place. You chose this neighborhood. What’s good?
And they really help people turn their neighborhoods around by focusing on the strengths. And I think we got tired of the narrative. It got so far from the lived reality of what was happening in cities in metropolitan areas, that we snapped back.
I am sure that within my professional life we will go through another cycle where I will have to justify the work I do, the book I wrote. It’s a bit like the talk that was happening—the founder of Lulu, right? The story is girls are mean and hateful and terrible. Having been a girl, I was mean and hateful and terrible. That’s behind me now.
But, you know, we have these stories that kind of go in and out. I think we just—we ran out the useful life of the death narrative. So now we’re in the upswing. And I think it’s up to us and the lived experience and the used experience of cities to continue the positive narrative, so that we can continue to build on what’s good, while not glossing over the real problems of poverty, income gap, and access.
Fox: But at the same time there is this trend line that everybody has been talking about today that we’re getting more urban, and that this sort of U.S., especially, has this Jeffersonian identity that the urban area is corrupt, and the countryside is good.
Bradley: We are getting more—
Fox: And I imagine Mexico has similar narratives, as well.
Bradley: We’ve loosened the boundaries a little bit of what urban counts as. So the United States is not a central city nation; it’s a metropolitan nation. Once we opened up the category of urban—you know, in most social science, “city” is actually city, region, or metropolitan area.
Once we brought the suburbs into the urban moniker, oh, then we discovered that we are an urban nation. So you can have all of those good trend lines.
I also think that, yeah, we’re just defining stuff better and more accurately.
Fox: And I think I better end it. Simone told me I could have a couple extra minutes. But this has been wonderful. It is break time now. I don’t know if David is going to come and tell everybody—you are. Come on up, David.
Kirkpatrick: Thank you. It was a great panel.