The City and The City and The City

Bad pun, I know (great book though)

One does not have to be an expert on Saskia Sassen to know that the city is at the heart of social change in the age of globalization, from global cities to planet of slums, a great deal of research has focused on how cities promote, or adapt to, social change and how cities are hubs of global social dynamics of class, inequalities, gender and ecology.

For instance, take this first item on the rise of “slow cities”:

“La municipalité est la première de France à adhérer à Cittaslow, le réseau international des “villes lentes”. Inspiré du slow food, le mouvement est né en Italie en 1999 et promeut une gestion municipale centrée sur la qualité de vie, l’économie de proximité, le respect des paysages…, en réaction aux zones commerciales et industrielles, à l’étalement pavillonnaire et au tout-voiture devenus l’ordinaire d’un urbanisme débridé.

Cette révolution tranquille compte de plus en plus de partisans. Cent quarante villes de 21 pays ont déjà adhéré à cette charte de 70 obligations. On trouve des villes lentes dans toute l’Europe, mais aussi en Australie, en Corée du Sud, en Turquie, au Canada…”

The slow city movement, with its international network Cittaslow, is inspired by the slow food movement. The idea is to promote local management focused on quality of life, local economies and ecology, as opposed to suburban sprawl and industrial areas that belt large European cities.

The idea is to give small towns and cities common development ideas and some support when faced with the behemoth of suburban and commercial development. And ideas are certainly numerous: public parks, urban renewal, development of farmers’s market, pedestrian-only areas, environmentally-friendly systems of water treatment, etc. This plugs into the de-growth movement.

At the same time at we witness a “slowing down” movement, the opposite exists as well: speeding up (something that has characterized contemporary globalization). For Ekaterina Yudin, this entails the possibility of a social crowdsourced city:

“There’s a new dimension in town. The physical spaces we inhabit are being transformed by cellspace technologies (also referred to as mobile media, wireless media, or location-based media), where data is constantly being delivered to and extracted from mobile physical space dwellers; for us, the result is an overlay of dynamic augmented data made possible by the always-growing and ever-more-connected network (Manovich, 2005).

The time has come for the virtual and physical to come together and the interplay of data is creating multi-dimensional and date-mined spaces; I know where you are, what you’re eating, who you’re hanging out with — and if I should check out your favorite lunch spot and have that sandwich you just melted over.

Yes, this is the power of today’s connected information culture – of being plugged into the social web enabled by our handy and ubiquitous mobile smart phones that are becoming the digital sensors of our physical spaces (why can’t a phone be just a phone?). In the time that we, the united citizens of the world wide web, got used to the idea of sharing previously private information about ourselves and our whereabouts publicly from our desktops and laptops, phone data speeds have expanded, device functionality has improved and access to the internet has transcended former boundaries where you could only connect to the ‘web’ through a computer. Now we’re not only getting online via a phone but we are no longer just connecting to the web when we ‘go online’ – we connect to people and the information they’re sharing, and more of the time we are connecting to social networking applications that dictate these fluid interactions today – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, FourSquare, and the like.”

The difference here is that the slow city project is a collective one, territorially based. The crowdsourced city is individualized and deterritorialized (despite the fake territorialism of geolocation platforms), pretending to be egalitarian and democratic while it is in fact exclusive and unequal. There is a high price of entry to this realm: slum-dwellers need not apply.

And speaking of global migration, behold the arrival city:

“What kind of neighbourhood is Thorncliffe Park? It certainly is one of the poorest in Toronto: Family incomes average $20,000 and the poverty rate is estimated at 44 per cent.

It is also ethnically concentrated, with as much as 51 per cent of its population speaking an Asian language at home and only a small minority of pink-skinned Euro-Canadians in its buildings.

It could be described as an impoverished ethnic ghetto. Yet Thorncliffe Park is not seen that way – not by its residents, by the agencies and businesses within it, by the scholars who have studied it, nor by the city beyond it.

It’s a popular place with vacancy rates close to zero despite unusually high rents; in fact, there are long waiting lists for apartments.

The ex-villagers here have an amazingly consistent record of entering the middle-class, urban mainstream within a generation. They launch small shops and other businesses and send their children into postsecondary education.

The area’s poverty is not a sign of failure: It means that Thorncliffe Park, like many such neighbourhoods, is functioning as a highly successful engine of economic and social integration, churning people out as fast as it takes them in, constantly renewing itself with fresh arrivals.

This is one paradox of such places: The higher their apparent poverty rate, the more successful they are.

For much of the past century, Canada has been built on successful arrival cities – more by luck than by intent. But increasingly few are like Thorncliffe Park: There are too many like the isolated, violence-plagued Flemingdon Park in Toronto, or the destitute high-rise voids of Richmond and Surrey around Vancouver, or Peel Region adjoining Toronto.

In those neglected neighbourhoods, people are poor because they are trapped. In a thriving arrival city like Thorncliffe Park, they are moving onward.

The trick is to look not at the wealth of the residents but at their trajectories.

“Everyone in Thorncliffe, all are beginners, all are struggling,” says Seema Khatri, 42, who recently moved out of the neighbourhood to buy a house in suburban Don Mills.

She came from a village in Haryana in northern India. She spent several years in Thorncliffe, working at rudimentary jobs in a cosmetics factory and struggling to get her Indian educational credentials recognized.

The neighbourhood’s networks of arrivals, she says, helped her make her way.

“In Thorncliffe, when you go out, you meet with people who are also struggling. You talk to your neighbours at the deli. They exchange information.”

This is how it works in the arrival city.”

What makes the arrival city a major tool of social mobility and integration is linkage:

“The arrival city can be distinguished readily from other urban neighbourhoods, not only by its rural-immigrant population, improvised appearance and ever-changing nature, but also by the constant linkages it makes, in two directions, from every street, house and workplace.

It is linked in a lasting, intensive way to its far-off, originating villages, constantly sending people, money and knowledge back and forth. It finances improvements in the village, the care of older generations and the education of younger ones, while also making possible the next wave of migrations.

It is also deeply engaged with the nearby, established city. Its political institutions, business relationships, social networks and transactions are all footholds intended to give new village arrivals a purchase, however fragile, on the larger society.

The arrival city gives them a place to push themselves and their children further into the centre, into acceptability and connectedness.”

Social capital, and especially bridging capital, is what matters here. Read the whole thing.

The slow city, the crowdsourced city and the arrival city all point at different and contradictory effects of globalizing social conditions. They point to the increasing power of the civil society and social movements in pushing for social change not imposed from the top but they all involve different social actors, pointing to the multilayered nature of globalization.

That is, if the disemployed and disenfranchised masses (that would be the middle classes) don’t mess it up:

“The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has warned of growing social unrest because it fears global employment will not now recover until 2015.

This is two years later than its earlier estimate that the labour market would rebound to pre-crisis levels by 2013. About 22 million new jobs are needed – 14 million in rich countries and 8 million in developing nations.

The United Nations work agency today warned of a long “labour market recession” and noted that social unrest related to the crisis had already been reported in at least 25 countries, including some recovering emerging economies.

risis-hit Spain faced its first general strike in eight years this week as unions protested against the government’s austerity measures and labour reforms. The strike on Wednesday coincided with protests in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Slovenia and Lithuania, as well asdemonstrations in Brussels by tens of thousands of workers from across Europe as part of a European day of action against public spending cuts.

“Fairness must be the compass guiding us out of the crisis,” said ILO director general Juan Somavia. “People can understand and accept difficult choices, if they perceive that all share in the burden of pain. Governments should not have to choose between the demands of financial markets and the needs of their citizens. Financial and social stability must come together. Otherwise, not only the global economy but also social cohesion will be at risk.””

Full report here, video here, for a very Durkheimian analysis of how economic recession threatens social cohesion.

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