The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


From egalitarianism to urbanism: notes on a moral philosophy of urban commentary

While national governments remain focused on economic indicators, and city governments on the image a city projects to investors, writers who wish to maintain an egalitarian balance in their analysis must discount both of these in favour of their final impact on the basic needs of all people.

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Guangzhou, Guangdong, Delhi, Mumbai, Lagos, Johannesburg

Topics: Integrated planning, Urban economics, Place promotion, The global urban agenda, Global cities

A wax-print fabric market in Lagos. Photo: zouzouwizman (Flickr)
Previous Image Play/Pause Next Image

There is a philosophical transformation that must take place when shifting from the analysis of international relations to that of global urban policy. Writing about cities is not a downshift from the national to the local, but an alternative approach to analysing the world as a whole. In this article I would like to set out some principles on how I construct this approach.

From egalitarianism to populations

All intellectual endeavours are founded on a bedrock of moral philosophy, and mine is egalitarianism. Specifically, that all members of the human species are equal in free will, agency, and democratic legitimacy, whatever their position within political or economic structures. No person's needs are worthy of greater attention than another's, though their desires, ambitions and achievements may diverge widely.

From this perspective, whether an event is newsworthy is measured not by the power of its protagonists but by its impact on human populations. It is not the actions of political and business leaders per se that matter, but how those actions affect a greater sum of human lives. This makes the chronicling of diplomacy and corporate dealings less urgent than the explicit monitoring of human rights and development.

The word 'population' deserves attention. It cannot refer to national populations, urban populations, ethnic populations, etc., since each such conception obscures other populations on their peripheries and presumes a stability of community which does not exist. Populations are simply groupings of people, however they are found to be grouped, and without necessary regard for how they define and imagine themselves.

The self-image of a population is always selective and often divisive. To treat all people within a population equally requires the policy analyst to see through these images where they act to exclude. (Whether the analyst can do this with any objectivity at all is another matter.) In a world where the basic needs of so many are unmet, the fulfilment of these needs must precede the fulfilment of a population's self-image and ambitions.

From nations to cities

National populations are thus one amongst several categories of population. Benedict Anderson famously defined nations as "imagined communities"; we can say that they are a category of population most deeply founded in the collective imagination, a cultural artefact more than demographic reality. As such I am sceptical of them, and wish to find a more concrete footing for policy analysis.

One of the fundamental facts of populations is that people have migrated throughout history. This makes any one identifable population fluid and unstable. People and their connections move between cities, regions, across borders and seas, straddle airline routes, carrying money, goods and jobs along with them. As I wrote in March this year, governing populations requires managing the "three-way mismatch between the political territories of governments, the economic territories of mega-regions, and the social territories of translocal populations."

To interpret all events of worldwide importance through the lens of national groupings is an increasingly inaccurate and short-sighted approach to social analysis. Seen on the ground or from the air, national borders are in most places quite ephemeral compared to the physical presence of cities, towns and the infrastructure connecting them. If we remove the filter of national borders, then nations are really a spatially contiguous network of cities, towns and rural villages, connecting to other 'national networks' at historically contingent cut-off points. But these overlap with the networks woven by ethnic groupings, industrial activities, or economic systems.

The physical artefact of human settlement may be divided into any of these systems (there are 200 or so nations, but how many ethnicities, how many economies, how many industries?), and any such division is a reasonable starting point for policy analysis.

And indeed we have newspapers dedicated to individual countries, to distinct ethnicities, to specific industries. But at the global scale, the only universal foundation is the network of cities, towns and villages along which the entire human population is articulated.

Not for the city, but for its people

How should we review global urban policy in this light? We should acknowledge first that national governments still have enormous impact on their populations. But in the neoliberal era national governments have tended to cede all debates to econocratic arguments, to assume that what is good for the economy must be good for the people. In both rich and poor countries, this merely leads to the persistent neglect of economically marginalised populations, especially migrants, who are often perceived as peripheral to the nation.

However we analyse cities, we commentators must not fall into the same trap, and must always distinguish impacts on the national economy and impacts on the populations within national borders, and assess them independently.

Nor should we allow city governments to make the same errors of judgement. City governments live off property tax revenues and are naturally predisposed to conflate property development with improving the city. One of the most dominant tendencies in urban policy worldwide is an overweening infatuation with the image of a city as a tool for boosting urban economies, to the neglect of urban populations.

In wealthier cities this manifests as a focus on the attractiveness and competitiveness of a city as a site for economic investment. Earlier generations of the working population and workaday buildings are swept away or transformed to recreate the city in a new image of cultural and commercial exuberance.

In poorer cities this becomes a more insidious programme of removing slums and their poor populations that threaten to mar the image of a new global player that governments such as Mumbai and Lagos seek to project to outside investors.

The process is intensified in the management of major sporting events, such as those held in South Africa, Delhi and Guangzhou this year. Developing cities, eager to show that they are world class, bid for the Olympics, the World Cup, the Commonwealth Games. Sporting committees in the developed world, eager to demonstrate their fraternity and extend their franchises into the developing world, award them the rights. In a few short years leaders of the lucky city clear away their urban poor, their street vendors, demolish and rebuild upon their slums, and for three weeks, they look for all appearances to be true world class cities.

This is image-making at its most overt. But these exercises also show the power of image-making. Even as they were being swept away, many of Johannesburg's poor still expressed great pride and enthusiasm that their nation was hosting the World Cup. We cannot deny the power of image-making to transform the confidence of a population, any more than we can deny the power of national governments.

But as writers our final analysis must be how these transformations work through to impact on the delivery of basic needs for all people. That at least is how I hope to approach my task.


blog comments powered by Disqus