From smart to people-first cities
[May 12, 2021] [The Futures Centre]

This is a portion of an article written in collaboration with Damiano Cerrone for The Futures Centre. See the full text for more.

From in to of. Geoff Mulgan recently suggested that we are in the midst of an Imaginary Crisis, a moment defined by a deterioration of our shared social imagination. Taking Mulgan’s lead, we might, for a moment, turn to cities. In April 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning to uproot many of our lives, several professors argued, in The Lancet Psychiatry, that “a major adverse consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be increased social isolation and loneliness.” With many of us resigned to our screens and pedestrian activity blunted, cities, engines of fluidity and sociality, became patchworks of discrete self-isolating homes. Social activities like graffiti, which, according to one Levebrian reading, might be read as a creative, intervening act that transforms increasingly commodified urban spaces into social spaces of belonging, became more peripheral. More than ever, perhaps, people in cities, increasingly isolated and lonely, might be feeling in rather than of; their position as a belonging member of the city, as a partial, transitory, affecting, imagining, graffiti-making participant in an evolving urban future, never more in doubt. The ability for people to speculatively intervene in our cities — to make their of-ness felt, to participate in the social imagination — is at risk, perhaps even, as Mulgan suggests, already in crisis. The onus is, in part, on cities to develop new forms of interaction, systematic methods in which everyone in cities — not just a few — can socially imagine and reimagine urban futures and, in the process, feel of the city, not merely in it.

Cities collapsing into homes. Whipsawed by the pandemic, many commentators were quick to declare The Death of the City. The sense was, in part, driven by a flurry of data and reports, all signalling that urban churn rates were growing. As Reuters reports, a survey from November, run by Arup, suggests that some 59% of Londoners, 41% of Parisians, and 30% of Berliners considered leaving the city at some point during the pandemic. Indeed, to many, the pandemic occasioned a series of visible, lived transformations, transformations to which cities were slow to respond. On one level, this slowness represented a business opportunity, a problem to which surplus capital could be deployed, promoting new ways of urban life and urban personas of interconnectedness. Technology companies, not as inhibited by slowness, filled gaps in urban infrastructure accordingly, allowing people to collapse urban amenity-seeking into their homes and onto their screens. Uber’s recent acquisition of alcohol-delivery service, Drizly, for approximately 1 billion euros is indicative. On another level, slowness only exists if we imagine something as moving towards another thing slowly. The proximity of urban amenities to the home, which is increasingly central to work, play, and consumerism, has emerged as a design imperative, as something that cities should be moving towards — quickly, at that. This imperative is patent, for example, in the growing popularity of Ann Hidalgo’s Ville Du Quart D’Heure model. New visions of localness appear to be taking hold, rendering the home more central,the site where assemblages of urban amenities should collapse digitally and — so long as they are no further than 15 minutes away by foot — around physically.

Competition over intangible assets. Since 2008, New York City’s municipal government has adopted urban governance strategies favourable to the tech sector. Indeed, the response to the financial sector’s fallibility, plain in 2008, was to locate a new engine for urban economic growth, turning powerful, policy-making eyes to tech. As Sharon Zukin suggests, officials assumed dense, urban cultures of innovation to be productive forces, forces whose scalable, digital economic outputs could be captured by the city, creating jobs and fueling growth. This assumption was not unfounded. We see, for example, that density seems to be good at generating atypical ideas. Naturally, this assumption and the tech-enticing, culture-building strategy that it entails became widespread, far beyond NYC, before the pandemic. The pandemic, however, introduced new dynamics, ones that made competition over human capital between cities fiercer. Miami, for example, took advantage of the exodus from tech hubs like NYC, branding itself as the cryptocurrency capital. In March of 2020, just as the pandemic was taking hold across Europe, Hamburg and Cologne joined the SCALE.CITIES network, a partnership that purports itself as helping cities develop local cultures of innovation. To be sure, cities view tech as a boon and developing a culture of innovation — a healthy ecosystem — as a way of locally reaping its economic rewards, rewards that appear especially gainful during a crisis. And in a distributed world where the spatial form of an innovation district is not as vital, the playing field has, in many ways, been levelled, allowing more cities to rebrand, to aim at both developing a culture of innovation and attracting intangible assets. Last May, Savannah, for example, announced that it was willing to pay qualified technology workers USD 2,000 to relocate, taking steps towards rebranding itself as an innovation hub.

The rigidity of land-use planning. Karma Kitchen, transforming industrial spaces into cloud kitchens, raised a EUR 302 million Series A round last July. On its own, that data is perhaps uninteresting, another expensive mark in a brisk history of venture capitalists deploying capital. A closer, contextualizing look, however, proves fruitful. As Business Insider reports, Karma Kitchen’s founders had, prior to the pandemic, only planned on raising EUR 3 million. Indeed, restaurants, shocked by the pandemic, turned to delivery, and Karma Kitchen provided a way, an adapted, private spatial form, for restaurants to access new delivery areas without taking on excessive capital expenditure risk, lessening the friction of distance. In turn, food delivery grew to account for 85% of Karma Kitchen’s business, imploring the company to partner with a private equity firm that deals primarily in industrial real estate, enabling them to raise the round that they did and plan to expand operations into other urban areas. Crises put our cities into motion, and cities in motion require flexibility. The success of Karma Kitchen’s business model of privately fitting-out spaces for temporary uses that were incalculable pre-crisis points, more broadly, to the importance of planning for flexibility, of moving beyond the rigidity of land-use planning.

Divisions in urban citizenship. Previously, we referred to the importance of creating systems for social imagination, facilitating a shift from in-ness to of-ness. However, inequality, a tacit question, was left unmentioned. The pandemic has intensified inequalities in the extent to which people feel of the city. Indeed, cleavages in urban citizenship are becoming more tangible. Globally, we see informal workers and the urban poor, already privy to less social protections, bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s shocks and outgrowths. In India, for example, over 44% of informal workers were jobless in April 2020, suffering more losses than formal workers. In urban slums like San Roque in the NCR, dissatisfaction with government relief precipitated violence and arrests in April 2020. In the Philippines more widely, the militarization of the pandemic response has varied in space and by class. To be sure, the pandemic has made divisions in urban citizenship plain to see — and not exclusively in the Global South. Cities are charged with making sure that they avoid these trappings, that those who may feel insincerely in the city but not sincerely of it, those who may feel helpless and powerless to affect their urban environment, are heard. The stakes are significant: unevenness in the experience of urban citizenship may, for example, create conditions in which accounts of populist sincerity can take root, be corroborated, and become social fact.