Renewing our mission: maintaining a critical perspective on cities
As The Global Urbanist effects its first succession of leadership since its launch in 2009, founder and outgoing editor-in-chief Kerwin Datu reflects on our purpose in a changing media world.
Anyone paying attention to these pages will have noticed a protracted slowdown over the past 12 to 24 months. I alone take the blame for this, and I apologise fully to everyone whose loyalty and patience has been tested over this time. I suspect many readers (as well as many prospective writers) are not aware that The Global Urbanist is strictly a voluntary project for us and our contributors rather than a commercial or funding-driven project like many other sites that share this space. At times our activities have had to take a backseat to other dimensions of our lives. And in my case, that life has in the past two years been increasingly coloured by a long-term health problem, incurred during a period of field research two years ago, and which I must now more fully attend to.
We have decided with some sense of relief to allow the next cohort of leaders to take over the running of the site. Naïk Lashermes, who joined as a senior editor at the beginning of 2012 and has been my deputy editor since 2013, now succeeds as managing editor. Her first decision in this role has been to open up the editorial board of the site into a more collegiate structure with a wider number of senior and contributing editors, so if you have ever thought of getting involved with us in our content production and curation, now is the time, and Lashermes is the person to speak to.
Lashermes and the team she assembles will decide what shape that content now takes. While she shares my concern for the human rights dimensions of cities, she also has a keener sense for questions of identity — the distinct yet shifting cultures, ethnicities and religious affiliations that express themselves and collide within cities — and how these interact with the shaping of cities.
The world of urban media has also shifted since we first conceived of this website on a sleepless night in Bloomsbury in September 2009. At that time, upon the completion of our MSc in Urbanisation and Development at LSE, the realisation was that the issues we had learned about in the programme were not represented anywhere in mainstream media, save for very occasional (though high-quality) longform articles in the International Herald Tribune, now the International New York Times. We thought it valuable to have a site where news consumers could go simply to read something about what was happening in the world's cities from a global perspective.
That part of our mission is no longer relevant. Dozens of blogs and news desks have emerged in these years, epitomised by the Atlantic's CityLab and the Guardian's cities section, the latter being one of a handful funded by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of its bid to muscle in on a topic somewhat abandoned by other major philanthropists such as the Gates Foundation.
What continues to both amuse and alarm us about many of these new media, up to and including these two, is the silliness and sophomorism with which they continue to treat their subject matter. While the same mastheads throw the full force of the fourth estate at topics such as climate change, global health, and food and water security, holding governments and international bodies to account over their handling of these issues and the communities affected by them, they expect nothing near the same standards of hard-hitting journalism from their cities desks. There they are content with clickbait, listicles and other accretia of the blogosphere, giving the impression that the most urgent problems facing most cities around the world are that their economies are not yet hipster enough.
This despite the staggering numbers of human rights violations and policy failures that cities are witness to every week, and which demand just as intense media scrutiny as any other international development crisis. At the risk of repeating ourselves, may we remind our colleagues that there are still around one in seven of the world's population whose wellbeing is severely harmed by the mismanagement of our cities, not so much by their inability to cycle to work or find space for their startups but by the failure of urban economies and city leaders to enable adequate housing, food, water, basic sanitation, freedom from infectious diseases, and/or access to formal employment, coupled with their frequent desire to punish the urban poor for their victimhood in these areas.
So it is that the second half of the mission we gave ourselves in 2009 remains: to maintain a critical perspective over the way cities are managed around the world, to suggest to voices louder than our own how to hold these processes to account, to identify the most significant problems cities face, and attempt to define a prioritised agenda for addressing them. This is what Lashermes and her team will continue to do, and what I hope I can rejoin them in doing soon enough.