What Is harming modern cities?
Updated: Jul 4
Lessons from urban history
"A city is not an accident but the result of coherent visions and aims." - Leon Krier.
Like us humans, past experiences also influence and transform our cities through time. Urban history examines the historical nature of cities and processes of urbanisation. Particular socio-economic forces from the past still impact our cities today. This article investigates and highlights some of these factors from urban history.
1. Urban Influx
Historically, agriculture helped with surplus produce and enabled a generation of multi-scaled economies. A city then boasted strong social organisations and protective environments. Together these factors resulted in a boost in work productivity followed by cities accumulating more people, power, and productivity. This initiated migration of people from rural to urban areas. And hence, urbanisation took off.
Many people migrated to urban areas with expectations of more significant socio-economic opportunities. Thus, the cities have experienced an increase in the urban population. This influx has a range of socio-economic, physical, and environmental effects on cities. A large concentration of population means that the cities would become resource-intensive creatures. They would need the movement of lots of goods, people, and resources. This would result in the gradual exploitation of natural ecosystems.
In the pre-industrial times, the cities reduced transport costs. This brought goods, people, and ideas together in one spot (Lumen Learning). This enabled cities to become political centers and trade routes flourished. The rapidly growing industrial-era towns were soon plagued with health and safety issues. Today, similar problems plague some of the poor populations of our modern society. So, it is not a question of time but of underlying processes that breed such results.
Urbanisation is the product of modernisation and industrialisation. It is common knowledge how people migrated to Mumbai with the hope of greater opportunities. We can trace similar patterns in cities like Chicago and Kolkata. So, the city we experience today echoes some of the design and political decisions of the past.
But it does not stop at that. The worldviews of our shared history influence our cities. So, it is imperative to ask - What other factors have conditioned the growth, order, planning, and composition of city demographics?
2. Mechanistic thinking
Cities today are not categorised by a temporary confusion or an occasional lapse in efficiency but by metropolitan slums and factory districts creating crystallised chaos of social derangement. It is the time for us to question the identity of cities once more: What is a city? What changes came up in the composition of cities due to the Industrial Revolution? Mechanistic thinking attributes to a significant part of this.
Based on the Newtonian view of the environment, a mechanical worldview reinforces part-to-whole thinking rather than whole-to-part. This view describes the natural or social process as if they were a machine made up of variables which upon alteration, should give the intended result. But that is not how dynamic systems work. The last few centuries have caused a stressful organisation of industry and this has fuelled the society with this mechanistic view.
Today, the dominant urban environment is a product of the mechanical order and machinist ideologies. A significant part of the ideologies by Leonardo, Galileo, Newton, and Descartes are already made obsolete by the advancements in science, technology, and sociological inquiry. This view has even influenced our planning theories and reflects city concepts and urban structures. Car-centric city, grid planning, concentric ring structure, CBDs, Industrial parks are to name a few. We can still experience the land-use-driven planning of our cities. The pandemic has shown us how vulnerable cities are.
"The mechanistic, reductionist methodology of science - will continue to be useful to humanity. If we learn to put it in its place and recognize that it offers a simplified metaphor — an approach to making sense of the world — but it is not the only way of seeing the world." (Daniel Christian Wahl)
3. Policy and Governance
Mechanical and technological systems have developed along with social disruption and population explosion. But our capacity for the civic organisation has not kept up with these developments. This has created complex systems that are beyond the understanding of leaders and experts. These tools have overpowered civic engagement as the primal driver of cities. Thus, leading to dissociation amongst city population and neighborhoods.
What processes of federation, cooperation, and unity have existed? And what newer forms of institutions and administration are being suggested by the current technological advancements? We are giving more importance to abstract entities of governance and power. People have started treating realities of personality, association, and design of cities as abstractions. And abstractions of money, economy, politics as realities.
This has led to discrepancies in the governance of urban systems.
We can even observe how industrialists are gaining tremendous structural power in governance. And how the government has been puppeteered in their favor. Imagine this on a global scale. A global merger of capitalistic forms of exploitation and regional forms of discrimination and oppression has resulted in the rise of tyrannous political states.
4. Urban Decay
What is urban decay, and why does it happen? Urban decay is the result of socio-economic and political decisions, which leads to the defunctness and decaying of an urban environment. Urban decay has no single cause. It results from combinations of inter-related social and economic conditions like urban planning decisions, tight rent control, poverty of the local populace, displacement due to construction projects, etc. Cities like Detroit, Chicago, Belfast, and even Mumbai have been victims of industrial decline. This phenomenon results in high unemployment and poverty. Which then results in people leaving their designated places of stay.
The ecosystems are on the verge of collapse, and these machines are running out of their fuel. Cities are lacking elementary facilities of urban living - like sunlight, fresh air, and greenery. Thus cities are no longer able to support their mechanistic view. This is further leading to losses in the production and efficiency of industries.
So, What can we do?
As Krier says, the city is not by accident but is a product of the rationality of our past. What we can do is that we can learn from it and make sure we question our assumptions, our defaults, and our theories.
Cities of today lack the social knowledge of medieval cities. Moreover, they lack the unique aesthetic command that provided them with an identity. This has blurred the lines of regional or national history, personality, and interests into the collective amnesia of the past.
We are in a state of emergency as this is no less than an ongoing crisis. Cities of the future will face the colossal blunders of urban planning and its social disruption, the accumulated physical and social results of climate change, decrepit heritage fabric, disorderly neighborhoods, pandemics, inflation, and inequality. This will infringe the existing civic sense of vulnerable geographies in turn stressing the public institutions and provisions to a tipping point.
Thus, rebuilding our cities is equal to the task of rebuilding our civilisation on a planetary scale with a prenotion of eliminating the parasitic and predatory systems of modernism. Using our knowledge from urban history, we should contemplate the emergence of a new form and order for our civilisation.
Cities can be reimagined by reforming our urban centers.
About the Writer
Ajinkya Jamadar is an architect with an inclination towards Sustainable Development and Urban Ecologies. He has previously worked at Bangalore based architecture firm Biome Environmental Solutions. He is a graduate of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal.
About the Editor
Aishwarya Jadhav is an architect, urban researcher, and software trainer by profession. She is a travel enthusiast, architectural photographer, and literary writer. She is a graduate of the School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University, UK and the Sir J.J. School of Architecture, Mumbai. She has experience working at Urban Liveability Forum, Dharmalaya Institute for Compassionate Living and Abhikalpan Architects and Planners.
About the Illustrator
Ayadi Mishra is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. She is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer. She has experience working with An Architect, Ethos India, WPF Creatives, Nivedha Foundation, SkyManga. She has attended summer school at the Hunnarshala Foundation for Building Technology & Innovations, Bhuj, and has been a finalist in Solar Decathlon India.