Urbanization plays a growing role in politics and democratic processes, disrupting the dynamics of traditional governance. This can, however, be a force for good, says South African urban policy expert Edgar Pieterse.
DW: Around the world, there are more people living in cities than in rural areas. There are many opportunities in urbanization, but there also are many risks. Are there any limits to this growth trend?
Pieterse: Yes, there are limits to growth, but these are mainly environmental. If a city is in a water catchment prone to drought, combined with high levels of pre-existing inequality that drives inequitable access, then further population growth will be a problem. Furthermore, some cities can become so large that they produce what economic geographers call “diseconomies of scale” that manifest in extreme traffic gridlocks and very poor air quality.
However, most of the time the problems associated with increasing population and density can be resolved with intelligent urban strategies that combine environmental goals with inclusive economic policies as well as generous public spaces.
Societies around the globe are increasingly drifting apart ideologically. This rural-urban divide was evident for instance in the last US elections. How do we best deal with such divisions? And what is the role of media outlets in this context — especially those that are publicly funded?
Rural and urban areas are actually much more inter-connected than what is normally assumed, especially in many cities of the Global South. Many urban dwellers retain strong familial, religious and economic connections with rural areas that they have links with, and they also find ways to adapt important cultural practices of rural areas into their urban contexts, creating unique hybrid cultures.
One of the most expressive and intimate connections between rural and urban areas is food. By analyzing the value chains and cultural meanings of regional food systems one can capture and dramatize the intimate spiritual, economic, social, cultural, and ecological connections between rural and urban areas. These rich stories are awaiting insightful journalism.
Your latest book "New Urban Worlds: Inhabiting Dissonant Times" talks about profound social and cultural changes that will accompany the global trend of increasing urbanization. What are the most significant changes that we can expect?
I anticipate a profound political and cultural shift, especially in Africa, where a very youthful labor force will increase threefold in just thirty years. These are youth that are mainly born in cities, deeply immersed in digital cultures, politically unapologetic, and hungry for entrepreneurial opportunities at the intersection of urgent environmental pressures, the creation of liveable neighbourhoods, combined with the projection of novel identities onto social media-based forms of communication.
Since four in ten global citizens will be African by 2100, this cohort is the vanguard for a global revolution of representation. Given how marginal Africa is today in economic and trading terms — less than 3% share of global trade — it is impossible to overstate the profundity of this cultural shift.
Are there positive examples of urban development — for example in the fight against climate change or against social inequality?
Durban in South Africa is a fascinating example of effective public policy experiments designed to combine the inter-linked challenges of climate change and economic inequality. Increasing storms and flooding are one of the impacts of climate change in the region, manifesting in a context of extreme inequality and large-scale unemployment. The city government has embarked upon a creative approach to use nature-based methods to improve the ecological efficiency of the water basin, including natural flooding sponges, combined with public employment opportunities for cooperatives to ensure that the river systems remain cleared of waste to avoid blockages of storm-water runoff.
Furthermore, the waste is being fed into upcycling enterprises that seek to apply the principles of the circular economy. A broader eco-tourism strategy envelops this approach to water catchment management to further optimize job creation.
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What is the role of culture and of artificial intelligence (AI) in the cities of the future?
AI will become increasingly central to the planning and managerial strategies of cities — but at different speeds depending on the relative wealth and strategic positioning of a given city in global value chains. However, AI will simply reproduce sterile top-down managerialism and paranoid control if the system designers do not engage with community activists, artists, cultural workers, architects, and ecologists.
The unique charisma of cities come to the fore when there is a commitment to deep democratic engagement to address the painful nerve endings of urban exclusion. When algorithmic design is deployed to activate contextual strategies to counteract exclusion and environmental risk, then AI can become a force to enhance the Commons instead of domination.
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Cities are seen as important catalysts for economic development. But do large cities also make use of the enormous potential for social, participatory and citizen-oriented innovations?
The global picture is mixed. Certain cities, for example Los Angeles, are investing heavily in creating a supportive infrastructures for civic innovation to complement the formal initiatives of the city government.
Other cities go in the opposite direction whereby they impose policies and solutions without creating enough opportunities for grassroots innovation to flourish and enhance public policy. Yet, other cities like my hometown, Cape Town, talk a lot about participatory and citizen-oriented innovation but act in ways that undermine civic-led innovation.
However, we can anticipate much greater civic-led innovations because these movements are learning to network with each other and participate in globalized learning networks that will accelerate contextual innovation.
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What approaches to more equitable, open, and experimental cities in the Global South can the rest of the world learn from?
To name a few, the now 30-year old movement of participatory budgeting remains important and especially its combination of participatory techniques developed in India called social audits.
Social audits are citizen-driven, scientific observations to monitor the quality and impact of service delivery to strengthen accountability and responsiveness. The Latin American approaches to social urbanism (e.g. Medellin in Colombia) that seek to prioritize quality architecture to enhance public space, green infrastructure and educational facilities in the poorest neighbourhoods should also be translated into other contexts.
The arts-based strategies of civic education and animation in Port Harcourt (Nigeria) by C-Map is another success story that others should learn from. Also, the models of pro-poor housing anchored in the organisations of the poor in evidence across Thailand can be highly instructive for many countries struggling with fulfilling housing rights.
This interview was contributed by Martina Bertram.