In the late 1990s a friend who had just completed her PhD in philosophy told me that her next project would focus on cities. I remember being intrigued but confused. More than a decade later, having been captured by a love of Shanghai, and now steeped in urban thought, the question still seems open. How can one treat the metropolis as an entity for philosophic inquiry? What is it to think the city philosophically?
Ananya Roy, in her presentation for the Forum on the Future of the City argued that our current era of planetary urbanism demands a conceptual revolution. Our theories about the nature of cities require a new geographical orientation, one that is rooted in the growing megacities of the developing world.
Rupali Gupte’s talk on Megacity Mumbai stemmed from precisely this kind of conceptual re-alignment. Our models of the city, Gupte argued, are based on the Western experience, which, for the past few decades, has been dominated by stories of postindustrial decay. The contemporary focus of urbanism, therefore, has been on dying centers in need of rejuvenation and renewal. Yet, during the past 20 years, while many cities in the West have spun into decline, the Asian metropolis has been on a takeoff trajectory that has made them more vital than ever before. In the case of Mumbai at least, the transformation from city to megacity cannot be explained by population growth. In fact, according to Gupte, Mumbai’s population has remained surprisingly stable. What has changed is the nature of work. This mutation, according to Gupte, is less about density than intensity.
Mumbai, like Shanghai, has become a city filled with street level entrepreneurs, many of whom operate in a shadow economy where the line between the formal and the informal is deliberately blurred. It is precisely this blur, Gupte contends, that allows entry into the edges of the city. (As Mario Luis Small noted in his presentation on the American Ghetto, there is a radical diversity in the experience of urban poverty even within America. In Asia — unlike America — most zones where the urban poor cluster are not filled with those left behind, but are rather home to those on the periphery of the urban economy that are making their way in.)*
The micro-entrepreneurs of the shadow economy tend towards complex and innovative occupancy patterns that are extremely difficult to track (Gupte illustrated this point with an example of a store housed within a store). In Shanghai it is common to see a single space used for a variety of purposes depending on the time of the day. Urban planners have few tools to map or analyze these hybrid, multiple and highly productive arrangements. What is crucial about these critical urban spaces, as Gupte rightly stressed, is that they enable an extremely high level of transactions per unit. The most important vector in mapping the Asian megacity, therefore, is not the density of population but, rather, the intensity of economic transactions.
Planners – who rarely factor in the economic dynamism of the shadow economy, often favor projects that harden urban boundaries, reducing the blurred zones necessary for the markets of the economic underground to thrive. Rather than maximizing transaction capabilities, they are drawn to large-scale resource intensive developments in which transaction capabilities are low.
Architect Du Juan‘s talk on Shenzhen ‘Demystifying the Instant Megacity’ echoed this same point. Her historical analysis of the city showed how the bottom up entrepreneurialism, so characteristic of the Asian megacity, is actually behind the success of even those places that are assumed to be highly and rigorously planned.
Shenzhen is often held up as an illustration of China’s top down urban growth. The truth, however, is that the megacity grew fairly organically out of a linear cluster of urban villages that developed along Shenzhen’s main road. The gap between the plans and the reality is evident in the numbers. Shenzhen, Du noted, had a planned population of 1 million, but by 2000 more than 10 million people had settled in the dynamic metropolis. The role of urban villages is evident even today. Though they take up only 10% of Shenzhen’s land, urban villages, which are hidden behind the golf clubs and glossy new developments, house half of Shenzhen 20 million inhabitants.
Our current models of urban futurism, Gupte concluded, suffer from a paucity of imagination. Visions are too often caught between extremes, in which the future proceeds along a single linear line. Between the high gloss mega-towers of a rigid corporate utopianism, however, and the sprawling hopelessness of the planet of slums, lies a real metropolis, with its hybrid spaces, fantastical mixtures and multiple temporalities that is emerging in unpredictable ways.
* For more on the see Doug Saunders’ book Arrival Cities