Changing Dynamics of being Urban, Urbane and Globalized

July 1, 2016

Talks & Interviews

Olivier Mongin

Mr. Olivier Mongin, a writer, publisher, co-editor of the journal Tousurbains, and vice president of the French Union for Cultural and Scientific Press was invited by the CPPG as part of the “Open Doors in Pakistan” seminar series in collaboration with the Embassy of France and the Alliance Francaise. He delivered a talk titled Changing Dynamics of being Urban, Urbane and Globalized on October 12, 2015. Mongin gave his presentation in French, which was communicated through a translator.

Mongin began by discussing urban globalization and its consequences in different parts of the world. He stated that in Europe, urbanization had always been linked to urbanity, and it was within this context that he would assess urbanization. The problem of violence was endemic and not limited to just the political or related to war between states. On occasions, cities had been linked with violence. Thus, it was important to assess whether urbanization today was a producer of violence or a promotor of peace.

He stated that urbanization could be seen as a major ingredient of globalization with the informal sector as a major component of urbanization itself. Viewed from Europe, this was the third globalization in history. The first was the coming out of one’s own shell and reaching out to other areas, when Christopher Columbus went in search of the East but instead discovered the Americas. The second globalization came in the wake of the industrial revolution, when technological progress through the invention of the steam engine made large scale rural exodus possible, allowing people to move to cities. The current, third globalization again related to technological advancements but was wide-ranging and not specific to Europe. This was disturbing for Europe, which was in a habit of appropriating previous globalizations.

“…even if countries today opted for protectionism, it would not be an obstacle in the connectivity brought about through the Internet.”

Additionally, globalization differed according to the perspective of each country of the world, raising the question whether we should talk of globalizations in the plural form. Mongin observed that globalization was generally explained in an economic sense. Though figures such as GDP or unemployment rates were important, still restricting oneself to this data limited globalization as being related to technological progress or Internet connectivity. Also, internet connectivity differed drastically in different parts of the world, for example in 2015, it was 16% in Pakistan while France had almost universal access to it. However, the main progress had been connectivity, which had facilitated an easy flow of information to the extent that even if countries today opted for protectionism, it would not be an obstacle in the connectivity brought about through the Internet. The same connectivity also had an impact on geography while the role of the state was changing. The state was becoming increasingly devoted to security, and more disconnected from the market, while the city-state phenomena was becoming more apparent and disassociated from the state. For example in Colombia, the state had no role in the city of Medellin. He thus argued that rather than economy, it was important to focus on connectivity in all respects, and to understand that participation in globalization required one to be connected.

Mongin then delved into the question of territorialization, and suggested that “identity syndrome” was another issue related to urbanization, as the de-territorialized felt the need to re-territorialize themselves in order to find an identity. It was within this context that many European geographers saw globalization as urbanization. Major events such as the 2008 economic crisis that originated in the US and was linked to sub-prime loans for access to housing could be clarified through urbanization. In fact access to housing or to property was a central problem everywhere in the world, as for instance, it was very difficult for a group of teachers to find lodging in central Paris due to high costs. Juxtaposed with the issue of identity, he stated that we also lived in a world where mobility was of utmost importance. Earlier, ports were connected, while now the connection prevailed upon the place itself. Because the flow (financial, people, goods, etc.) had more importance than the location, therefore, now it was critical to ask which territory to place oneself in, in this world of flows.

He classified today’s cities into “unlimited cities” that kept spreading or “special cities” that were closed in themselves. Karachi in Pakistan, Sao Paolo in Brazil or Johannesburg in South Africa fell into the former group as cities without limits while “specials cities” like those in the Gulf were not comparable to these limitless cities. The question of limits was important with regards to traditional cities of Europe and the Ottoman Empire because the limits were placed, not to exclude but to integrate. More importantly, this raised the question whether we were going to lose urbanity with urbanization and if we were condemned to a choice between an unlimited city and a special city? He stressed that though there were concerns over the influx of refugees in Europe, it seemed that Pakistan had the most number of refugees globally with up to five million refugees of war in addition to internally displaced persons. Further, Lahore was going to experience the most rapid urbanization due to rural exodus, and achieve an urbanization in one generation that Latin American cities had in three or four generations. Thus, there was an anticipation attached to this urbanization as it related to violence. Every hour, 21 persons were added to the population of Lagos, 41 to that of Delhi and 60 to that of Manila. Overall, the present rate of urbanization was the fastest throughout history and the 8% urbanized figure in 1900 was now 50% and would reach 75% per cent in 2050 with almost 3.5 billion people living in urban areas.

Discussing the linkages between urbanization and environment, Mongin stated that the impact of urbanization went beyond the urban centers and included— forests and deserts in terms of pollution, carbon emissions etc. For instance, the entire Sub-Saharan Africa was affected by desertification, implying the negative impacts of urbanization on deserts. Similarly, deforestation as a result of urbanization was impacting Amazonia in Brazil, a major source of water for the world. Similarly for Pakistan, the problem went beyond access to water and also included desertification. Additionally, the issue of speed efficiency in the context of connectivity had led maritime to overshadow aircrafts, and along with Internet and mobiles, there was also a trend towards containerization as 90% of global freight was through maritime routes. The development of countries like China and Brazil was occurring along coastlines, with each port linked to an in-land city. Relating these maritime developments to Climate Change was important because 60% of the world population lived less than 100 km off the coast and thus rising sea-levels was a major concern.

“The question was whether universities were thrown outside the cities or whether cities were centred on universities.”

Mongin then discussed the issue of integration of urban populations, stating that 70% of urban development was taking place in the informal sector outside the orbit of the state. In Cairo, for instance, 70% of the population was living in irregular settlements, while China controlled internal migratory flows through a system of internal passports known as huku, which gave access to civic amenities and benefits. Citizens without the huku who had a right to work but not the right to live were expected to return to the slum areas after work hours. Such a system had created a peripheral population, which lived outside the city. Khartoum was another city that controlled the movement of people, in particular the war refugees. The state had set up camps attempting to organize these settlements. This was not an illegal population but one that was unable to find jobs. In contrast, Nairobi had a population of 8 million of which 50% was illegal and there was no state effort to settle this population. But regardless, all people still required housing. The authorities in Lima, Peru gave priority to civic amenities such as access to water, electricity or roads rather than housing to allow population mobility over disadvantages of being disconnected. Thus settlements could be found on mountain slopes where cable cars had been installed to stop people from becoming confined or restricted. The “springboard neighborhoods” in Istanbul were another example of where people migrating from villages would contact older villagers in the city to help them integrate.

While concluding his talk Mongin drew attention towards two critical questions related to urbanization. One, was it possible for us to not be limited between the limitless city and the closed, special city? Second, whether we were going to create cities with or without urbanity? Instead, he suggested the idea of the “metropol”, which lied between the megalopolis and the special city. He stressed the necessity of integrating the population in the city while at the same time creating a city, which was not disconnected from globalization.

The talk was followed by an animated question and answer session. Answering a question regarding ‘ruralization’ of urban centres, he mentioned that a number of European scholars were talking about villages coming to the cities in the context of Africa. These were neither villages nor cities but a form of their own. Similarly in Gulberg, Lahore, one saw large villas in conjunction with less structured accommodations. Ibn Khuldun had talked about how ruralization destroyed cities in the 14th century when considering cycles of urbanization.

“…60% of the world population lived less than 100 km off the coast and thus rising sea-levels was a major concern.”

Answering a question regarding city transportation, Mongin said that cities like Lahore and Islamabad were constructed for cars. It was problematic that there were no lanes for bicycles, and public transport was indeed a major issue, which required action before things got out of control. In Europe on the other hand, cities were created around trade and universities because a city needed education. The question was whether universities were thrown outside the cities or whether cities were centred on universities.

With regards to a question about special cities, he mentioned Singapore which had the largest port connection in the world, a volume greater than all European ports together. While the motto of Singapore was “global, green and connected”, a fourth point that was missing was “democratic”. The problem with special cities was whether they could integrate and this had nothing to do with the dichotomy of vertical or horizontal development.

“…in Lahore planning could not be expected as there was no municipal governance.”

Answering a question regarding urban governance, Mongin stated that town planning in Europe was a result of controlling the working class revolution and violence, while in most of the world there was no urban planning. For instance, in Lahore planning could not be expected as there was no municipal governance. Lastly, he stressed the importance of “urban imagery” which was shaped by geography, history and a narrative, while stating that the inhabitants needed to be taken into account when designing a project.