Mary Rowe is currently Director, Urban Resilience and Livability at Municipal Art Society of New York, a century-old advocacy organization working to promote the livability and resilience of New York City through effective urban planning, land use, design and civic engagement. Originally from Toronto, she has a particular interest in self-organization in cities, as the underpinning of urban social, economic, cultural and environmental resilience, and is a contributor to several volumes on urban life. Read more about Mary here.
Mary Rowe on the City Builder Book Club: Arrival City Edition
The Centre for City Ecology (CCE) initiated the City Builder Book Club (CBBC) a few years ago with a re-reading (for most, but others, their first time) of Jane Jacobs’ classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. We were all reminded once again, of the real ingredients of city success, and of the kind of ‘problem’ a city is. Jacobs’ prescient observations continue to ring true, fifty years after she originally tapped them out on her typewriter. Jacobs brought to readers a lens to understand the city as a manifestation of organized complexity, now referred to as a complex adaptive system. As with her works on urban economics and civic morality, Jacobs was way ahead of her time, drawing criticism from all quarters as she questioned much of the received wisdom city planners and economists were stuck into then (and some still, alas, are). Half a century later, her observations of how cities actually work, and how and why people flourish in some, and not-so-well in others, informs contemporary planning practices (or at least provides a patient explanation to city watchers of how grand schemes and efforts to ‘master’, that is, control, aspects of urban life generally do more harm than good). Jacobs so accurately made the case that it is more realistic, and better, to see city planning as an enabler for people to self-organize, and not as a process of proscription and autocratic control.
Transit-oriented development, Colombia-style: self-built housing in Columbia, made accessible by city investments in escalators
Making room for ‘the Other’
What better second book then for the CBBC to tackle than Doug Saunders descriptive manifesto, Arrival City, of the world’s great cities as living systems, as dynamic, vigorous, complex systems that evolve in response to the needs and aspirations of the people that inhabit them. One of the key attributes of self-organization is course correction: a kind of opportunistic adjustment to changing conditions that present both challenges, and opportunities that affect the survival of the ‘self’. The self-organizing city must have the capacity to be always making room for ‘the other’, a point that Saunders’ work repeatedly emphasizes, because it’s inherent to a thriving city.
The Cities of Migration network is such a worthy partner to co-curate this instalment. This is a very tough subject, really tough, because the stakes are increasingly high as we watch millions of people fleeing the poverty -and risk- of rural life, opting to take their chances that the city in which they arrive will deliver on a promise of better livelihoods and quality of life. No doubt it will, because the benefits of adjacency and agglomeration are well known and proven over time, but the transition is often a rough one, as city infrastructure around the world is unable to keep up with increasing demands placed upon it as populations grow deep and fast.
It sounds so miserably condescending to remind anyone wringing their hands about inadequate public sanitation or housing conditions in cities in the Global South, that London and New York City weren’t particularly safe or healthy places earlier in their development either (albeit in the 19th century). And, despite remarkable progress and dramatically improved outcomes, these cities aren’t without abiding challenges, still. I know: I live in one of them, where the percentage of the city’s children living in poverty continues to rise, presently at 25 %, and disproportionately higher for households headed by immigrants or people of colour. Obviously the comparison is severely limited, as there are gross systemic inequities in how capital has been historically distributed, and access to ‘progress’ and ‘development’ has and continues to seriously limit urban development in the global south. But that is changing. Recall how cellular technology leap frogged over analog systems, resulting in a staggering proportion of the global south with access to smart phones. The larger point is that we need national, state and local policies and leadership that throw down any sentimental fantasy that urban migration is a bad thing, and instead ‘get with the program’ and plan and design cities to harness the knowledge and skills newcomers bring to their new urban homes.
Community-based planning at the Hope Summit, Brownsville, Brooklyn
Informal settlements (favelas, slums) that characterize the receiving cities of the global south show the patterns of self-organization that are the hallmarks of living cities: improvisation, inter-dependency, informal and more formalized systems of sharing. As Saunders’ stories make clear, slum and shack dwellers know best the solutions they need to improve the functioning of their communities and their integration with the larger urban economy. As mentioned, new technologies continue to accelerate the economic integration process, much faster than the public health innovations that finally humanized a soot and cholera-riven city of London in the 1860s.
Newcomer neighborhoods have the potential to be the most dynamic places in any growing city, whether located north or south. Social networks make entrepreneurship possible, selling goods and services, informally, to neighbors.
Street fairs, craft markets: over time those businesses and activities can grow, attracting people from outside the area to a new ‘destination’. But urban planning, public policies (at all levels) and financial sector lending practices can either inhibit or enable their growth and development. Similarly, across North America and Europe public housing development patterns have often relegated newcomers to poorly designed and managed high rise developments, isolating them from the keys to economic and social integration including transit, public space, and access to local skills training and investment capital. No doubt contributors to CBBC will augment Saunders’ points that governments, and their city building partners, need to get way more intentional and imaginative in how newcomers are initially housed and what infrastructure supports (both hard and soft) make for sound investments.
Arrival cities and the eloquence of human resilience
Perhaps the most important point of this book, and the exercise of this book club, to remind us to watch carefully what actually happens in the arrival city. People come, as they always have, and now in greater numbers, to cities with an expectation that their lives and those of their families will be more productive, have more meaning and fulfillment. Despite the extraordinary success of the world’s cities an engines of wealth creation, guarantors of civil rights, and generators of stunning creative expression, beauty and excellence of all kinds, there are still naysayers, in both hemispheres and all continents (well, six) who doubt the capacity of cities to successfully absorb people, fearing some sort of urban cataclysm.
Arrival City speaks so eloquently to the resilience of the human race, not only as individuals, but as a collective, and to the resilience of what is arguable our greatest achievement: cities. We are a communal species, thankfully, and our future rests with each other, and our collective capacity to understand what kind of problem a city is, and continue to build better. Because a city is never done. Cities enable people. Cities enable hope. Welcome to the City Builder Book Club Volume 2: Arrival City.