The changes COVID-19 brought to our daily lives and long term plans have been sudden, prolonged, and if not entirely unforeseen, so far entertained as obscure scenarios for which no plans needed making. And there we were, out of our cities and into our homes, struggling to readjust into our confined reality, having to relearn how to connect with each other and engage with the world around us in the hope that we would soon go back to normal. Yet more than stoking up a longing for a safely predictable recent past, Covid-19 sharply revealed the very ills that a near future should address: commuting to and from work that is detrimental to our and the planet’s health, good quality housing becoming increasingly out of reach, the territoritorially uneven provision of services fundamental to our wellbeing, from broadband to fresh food markets, the spatial dilution of our social networks so important to cross-community dialogue, understanding, and support.
Reflecting on the sudden planetary shock of the early days of the pandemic, Arundhati Roy notes: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it”1. What is the future we fight for?
For perhaps the first time since the Second World War, this future is hanging in the balance. In some ways it has become all too present, too immediate and suffocating. It is impossible to breathe in the burning wilderness of the North American West Coast, or in the polluted megalopolises of the Indian subcontinent. In 2021, global concrete consumption is expected to reach 4.42 billion tonnes. The industry, which is powering the exponential growth in urbanization around the globe, produced an estimated 2.8bn tonnes of CO2 in 2019, or 8% of the global total, and suffered only slight setbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, despite the temporary reduction in global CO2 emissions during the height of the lockdowns, these improvements have revealed themselves to be largely symbolic. In reality, the coronavirus recovery will accelerate fossil fuel consumption, making 2022 the most environmentally devastating year in the history of our planet. Even as we suffocate in the present, we still refuse to act, disavowing our impending fate. In the words of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, our tragic mantra has become: je sais bien, mais quand même…
We already have to fight for every breath, for a future that has receded into the present and dominates us, by turns pushing us into action and paralysing us before our fate. On a planet still reeling from the effects of COVID-19, we are becoming acutely aware that we must choose our breaths carefully as the air itself starts to betray us. If the present pandemic has taught us one thing, learning to breathe in a world that’s suffocating us will be our main concern for the future.
For much of the history of urbanism, building cities has always been related to a social vision for the future. For architects and planners, from E. Howard, to Gropius and Le Corbusier, to the Smithsons, the art of planning and building was always implicitly a social issue. As Le Corbusier famously declared that architecture, rather than political revolution, was the solution to social crises, the top-down utopian absolutism of modernism gradually gave way to the ideology of the market. The social failures, the ‘failed places’, which modernism was blamed for, despite having little agency over the course of social change, legitimised an a-political, vision-less architectural and planning practice that should not try to create a future. Meanwhile, several decades later the neoliberal technocrats convinced much of the world that the end of history could be achieved through the effective management of the present. Armed with infinite technological mastery, the future had arrived and with it everything must submit to the logic of the invisible hand. There would be no more wars, no more crises, the era of boom-and-bust economics had been overcome, and with it the possibility of imagining a better world in the future.
Yet the experiments of the West’s ‘past futures’ are reproduced, devoid of any pretense of utopia, far too often in the Global South. In Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, land is being reclaimed from the Indian Ocean day and night to make way for a new city built by Chinese investment as part of China’s trans-global Belt and Road initiative. The Port City of Colombo, built on 2.6 sq. km of reclaimed land is in effect a city outside the city, but spatial disconnect is the least alarming of its features. Intended to be a mini version of Singapore that will almost double the size of Colombo right now, with its own financial district, business friendly tax-regime and regulations, the Port City will house about 80,000 people while three times as many are expected to commute in every day. However, as the former director of Sri Lanka’s Urban Development Authority remarks: “the Port City will be a separate entity where only a certain class of people will live”2. Developers, effectively freed from local context, regulatory, social, physical, do not even desire meaningful connections between the existing and the new city; it is a foreign state’s economic and trade policy that guides the Port City, not the vision of the citizens of Colombo a significant part of which live in underserved settlements. The Port City is not a future they’ve had any chance to shape, nor will it respond to their needs. But this is still very much a future prepared for many of us without us: cities unable to plan for much else than for interests outside themselves; cities without citizens.
City-making is a process of social transformation guided, explicitly or implicitly, by a future vision of society. The passage of modernism to post-modernism is in a way the replacement of such an explicit vision – a vision towards cities that can satisfy their citizens’ universal needs, notably housing- by a vision that is implicit in a socially disengaged spatial production mode where the ‘free-market’ regulates what each citizen may or may not have access to. An a-political urban development process, a neutral best practice, does not exist. The multitude of actors and actions along the journey of creating a place are, willingly or not, creating a future that will always be different to the present and will impact some more than others and not in equal measure. What matters then is not whether urban development is political, whether it is or isn’t about transforming societies; it always is. What matters is who has a stake in creating this guiding vision. Should we really let a vision dreamt up on our behalf guide us to the future?
In the editorial of our previous issue on regenerative cities we called for two things: agency for cities to self-determine themselves and lead the response to our global challenges, and a replacement of economic growth as the main indicator of success. They remain prerequisites for determining a meaningful future in a planet we can still breathe in. We can even find them in the past. Roughly four decades before Colombo’s Port City, Sri Lanka was creating a new future for its cities with an urban development programme of great ambition that while being implemented across the country was guided by local communities and their needs. The Million Houses Programme had community development practices at its very core, focusing on the needs of the urban poor, recognising local vernacular building traditions, informal land rights, the value of social infrastructure, and the agency of people to dream and build their own places. It brought to the fore viable alternatives to dominant models that have influenced urban development practice worldwide3. Profit-oriented and speculation-driven development is not the inevitability of planning; it is time to revisit those past futures that worked for communities and for the planet before and beyond the late experiences of the Global North.
Acknowledging planning as the mediator between the challenges of the present and the aspirations for the future, as well as the interface between national policies and local communities, the time is now to empower those participatory people-led people-focused planning pathways and maximise their leverage over urban development processes. Shifting the present so that we don’t suffocate in the future won’t involve an atavistic resurrection of previous utopian pretensions; it will require regaining a social and environmental consciousness in our practice and our politics. Only a planning that reassumes its political purpose beyond and above market interests, broadening and deepening genuinely meaningful citizen engagement, can enable the multiple stakeholders of urban development, from landowners and developers to communities and architects, to play their rightful part in creating a thriving future and avert social and environmental collapse.
1. Arundhati Roy, 2020, “The pandemic is a portal”, Financial Times, 3 April 2020. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca
2. Michael Safi, 2018, “Sri Lanka’s ‘new Dubai’: will Chinese-built city suck the life out of Colombo?”, The Guardian, 2 August 2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/aug/02/sri-lanka-new-dubai-chinese-city-colombo
3. UN-HABITAT, 1994, The Community Construction Contract System in Sri Lanka, UN-HABITAT, Nairobi. Available at: http://www.nzdl.org/cgi-bin/library?e=d-00000-00—off-0cdl–00-0—-0-10-0—0—0direct-10—4——-0-1l–11-en-50—20-about—00-0-1-00-0-0-11-1-0utfZz-8-00&a=d&c=cdl&cl=CL1.200&d=HASH01d19389e3a925e43c2e90b8
Cover image photo: Wakanda, a fictional country, located in sub-Saharan Africa and home to the superhero Black Panther appearing in comic books published by Marvel Comics, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Source: Black Panther (2018), produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
Published as an editorial in the Futures issue of The Urban Transcripts Journal, Volume 4, no. 2 Summer 2021.