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Urban Dynamics - Historical Values

Key lecture held by Elio Piroddi * on 3 October 2005, in the first session of the 49th IFHP Congress – Rome 2-5 October, 2005

“For those who examine it carefully, it can be seen in all human cases: We can never cancel something inconvenient without another taking its place”
(N. Machiavelli)

“Looking at our planet from a distance we can clearly see that there is a single community of humankind, confined in a tiny area of the cosmic theatre.”
(J. Rifkin)

Towards demographic stabilization
Whoever is involved in planetary urban dynamics knows that, despite the large differences between one region and another, we can find some basic common trends.
In order to do this, we need to look at things from above, looking through the telescope from the wrong end, as it were, even at the expense of simplification.
Basically, Rifkin has been right – we need only look at our planet from a distance to understand that, we, a single community, are tied to a single destiny.
The first thing that becomes obvious is the trend towards a demographic stabilization. We can consider this as typically homeo-static, that is, the system balancing itself out.
Already, compared to a few years ago the forecasts show a decline.
As well, in these diagrams we can see (fig.1) that the rate of annual growth in the world’s population, and also the urban one, is decreasing .

According to the UN , by 2050, the world population, which should reach 6.5 billion by 2005, will approach around 9.1 billion and by 2030, the urban figure should increase from the present 3 billion to 5.
Of course, we are not speaking about coming to a standstill, but the expected increase is still quite impressive. However, as the experts have shown, the demographic stabilization has been actually helped by urbanization, because linked to this, due to education, the different conditions of women and the need for less labour on the land, we find a decrease in fertility.
Therefore, we can assume that by the end of this century the world population will stop growing and, consequently, also, the urban world will begin moving towards a long phase of metabolization. This phase could aid in recovering those historical values that have been drowned or swept away by the wave of growth, which, as we can witness, has already happened today in the older cities – those, that have stopped growing.
How is this growth? Well, the increase, let’s say the “residue” will almost exclusively involve the cities and, in a proportionally inverse measure, the development of the respective countries.
And what type of city? If we look at this diagram (fig. 2), it seems that urban development has balanced out between small and medium cities, on the one hand, and large and mega cities, on the other. The former still account for a little more than 50% of the population while the latter continue to grow . Here, we have at stake the important game of urban politics.
Since the smaller cities represent a network, to defend and protect the territory, being able to resist the trend towards a megalopolis.

The problem is Megalopolis
Throughout history the megalopolis has always been a problem, from Babylon, the Roman Empire, London of the Industrial Revolution up to the mega-cities of today (Tokyo, Mexico City, San Paolo, Lagos, Bombay, Shanghai, Beijing).
If, on the one hand, the innovative and creative role that the big cities have played in our history is undeniable (“the incubators of innovation” – P. Hall ), on the other hand, it is also true that this role has been suffocated by what we could call an unsustainable “entropy” – dissipation, misery, inequality, psycho-physical pathologies, congestion, social fissures, ungovernability, etc.).
However, without going as far as the catastrophic theories of Bauman (and others), that see large cities as “the dumping ground of globalization”, it does seem that the price we must pay for the “incubator” has become too expensive!
While it has not been shown that the potential for innovation of the city is directly proportional to its size – otherwise, how could we explain the excellent examples of Boston, Bologna, Heidelberg or San Francisco - it is undoubtedly true that dis-economy and ungovernability are. That is, simplifying – whereas the innovative and creative city may not be necessarily large, the dissipated and entropic city is the Megalopolis (Mumford ).
Technically, this is due to the fact that, over a certain size, the overall efficiency of a city tends to diminish as the demand for pro-capita services and infra-structures becomes very much more than the capacity to meet expenses. What happens, takes care of itself, inversely proportionally to the degree of development (Camagni , Rampini ).
The administrators of all of the world’s large cities are aware of this, shown by the fact that we see there is an almost unanimous convergence on the different policies against the large urban centres and on their essentially poly-centric strategies.

Common problems, different stages
If then, the theory (Hall, Pfeiffer in Urban Future 21 ) were true that the
evolution of worldwide urban dynamics is basically similar, but divided into three different stages (hyper-growth, dynamism and maturity), this would help the cities that find themselves, as it were, further behind on the evolutionary curve to “see” their future beforehand.
It would especially help them to avoid errors made in the past by the older cities - for example, in the area of road transport, checks on land use, garbage disposal, etc. and in general, for their development model and urban policies. It would help, for example, the candidate countries to be the drivers of development, such as India and China, which covering their much larger surface areas have a population density the same size as the European ones, keeping in mind the spatial distribution which has historically worked better – what we call the Italo-German model (more precisely Northern-Central Italy, Switzerland and Northern-Central Germany). A model, mainly based on a balanced distribution, by rank and by size, of cities in a territory.
And here we arrive at the meeting/clash between urban dynamics and historical values.

Between urban dynamics and historical values there is a hypen
As you can see, in the title of this lecture there is a hyphen between Urban Dynamics and Historical Values.
In logical terms this hyphen could mean a conjunction or an opposition. However, in common thinking there is no doubt that it is seen as a dichotomy, a contrast.
We feel, and we argue using facts, that what we (not all, sometimes the majority, other times the enlightened minority) consider historical values are in jeopardy of the urban dynamics of today – they are at risk. In many cases they have been partially eliminated, rooted out by our cities, by our territories. These, subsequently, have lost or risk losing their identity.
It’s as if we were afraid that the current changes in our cities could force us “to exit” from history. This is completely unnatural because, even as, he, who coined the slogan “the end of history” (Fukuyama ), recognized, history has not ended and is not about to end.
What are the causes of this risk and malaise?
Well, I believe, they lie in factors that are completely new in the history of cities (even for humanity). I think, we need to distinguish them from others that are not so radically new but that history has repeated, presumably in quite different forms.
For example, globalization is not new (Del Bosco , Settis ); the big migrations are not new either (Sassen and others); neither are inequalities, poverty and slavery (as recounted in all the great literature of the 1800’s). The revolution in transport means is also no longer a novelty.
Even the proportions of urban growth are not so different in terms of size as those of the first industrial revolution in ratio to the population of today.
Instead, in my opinion (and for other academics), it seems that there are three real items of world news – each quite different to the other.
The first is the speed of change, making management of the transformations extremely difficult.
The second is the progressive eating away and degradation of natural resources that will hinder achieving our present development model.
The third, completely different to the first two, is the reduction of most of our real estate property into a commodity. In other words, the huge real estate speculation in financial capital circulating around the world searching for investments.
You then ask me – and the informatic revolution? Well, I believe that it underlies all of this, however, it affects the cities less than, for example, the car revolution has done and will continue to do.
I do not plan to talk here about the second item (degradation of our resources, probably an energy ice age, climatic changes, etc). We already talk too much of these and not always seeing reason. Personally, I look to Rifkin, with his ideas on “The Hydrogen Economy” .
However, it’s the first (speed and acceleration) and the third (making a commodity out of the land) that place dynamics into conflict with history.
History understood as the slow stratification and long memory, language underlying the city.
Yet (see Machiavelli’s quote), there is a “right” side and a “reverse” side to the coin. Contemporary dynamics eliminate (quickly), and build (slowly).
It’s up to us to ensure that the new values that the urban dynamics are surely building do not eliminate the values of our past that our civilizations (I stress “our”, in the plural) still feel like sharing.
These values have shaped our identities. This time the plural does not refer only to the differences in identity among the different civilizations, but also to the differences within a city itself.
Amartya Sen points out that all of us have multiple identities in different contexts. As well, he continues, also the worry about losing our past, focussing our attention on our own community could be limiting.
This is the same for cities. Cities are not an homogeneous block. They have never been so, not even in times of maximum (and sometimes apparent) cohesion. They are a mix made up of global and local factors where the different doses make them different not only among themselves but also within themselves.

Historical values and the form of the city
Now let’s refocus our telescope and try to look at what has happened in the cities.
Firstly, let’s say that today, at any latitude, it is difficult to recognize a definite form in cities. The city is a huge mosaic of distinct pieces, sometimes joined, sometimes separate, each with its own form (historical centres, planned suburbs, widespread infrastructures) or without form (nebulae, debris, sprawl).
The fragmented city mirrors the fault line of its territory and society, the power hierarchy and the enormous difference in the allocation of resources.

The “separate bodies” of the city do not acknowledge common goals and often they clash with each other or, even, ignore each other.
Regarding this, it could be interesting to note that in the cities of the 1800’s, where there was to be found widespread degradation as is described in literature (Dickens, Engels, Geddes and Mumford), the richest sector, exposed to the risks of unhygienic conditions and a lack of safety and therefore, put pressure on their local governments, was willing to invest in improvements. Instead, today, this sector provides for the possibility to defend itself without worrying about the others (WDR ).
Here we also have the influences of the forces of globalization and competition acting. Globalization exercises a typically top-down force. It advocates for single models and, driven by international capital, tends to make the more dynamic parts the same, those that get the “the short-term” successful results – making Shanghai like Manhattan and then Bombay as Shanghai and so on; substituting the fast and mushrooming language of images (which Gregotti defines the ‘enlarged design’) with the long lasting language of the city.
Left to itself this force risks causing violent rips in the fabric of society, uprooting the city from its history. If, paradoxically, one day, cities all looked the same, then there would be less reasons for us to go and visit them .
Therefore, the preservation of our historical patrimony plays a part in the competitivity game. In fact it’s a fundamental element for winning.
However, there is more. From a historical prospective, if we continue to push towards the top without looking after who is at the bottom, the rips and lacerations, even physically, will become irremediable. There emerges an unlivable city, automatically out of the running in the competition.
Let’s look at this figure (fig. 3). It seems to me more persuasive than many speeches. These are the terrible percentages of the slums in the world’s cities .
The figure given is quite rough, aggregated and susceptible to many distinctions, but it is, obvious, that there is only a minority of people who, coming into the city, knew how to find work (as the immigrants of the first industrial revolution or those who populated America). Most played “blind”, hoping to improve their lot, but also driven by desperation.
Then, if we move into the “higher” parts of the city we find the gated communities and the vagrant-proof deterrents . These urban social groups not only live separate existences, they live one against the other. They deny the reciprocity of sharing an urban space.

Slums and gated communities are the extremes of the mosaic. In the middle we have all the other fragments – residential, commercial, services – that give rise to each other, multiply, spread, injecting themselves into urban space, organizing it into private hands and controlling the access. Consequently, public space actually risks being reduced to only space for transport networks or simply a no-man’s land.
These are forms more or less caused by controlled intro-injections into urban space that we find everywhere. Near Moscow a completely private city has been built; near Disneyland Paris there is Topolinia (fig. 4).

In Berlin they have “copied and pasted” an actual tropical cut-out into an ex-airship hangar (fig. 5); in Las Vegas we see many parodies of cities repeated; in the Roman countryside we have evoked the Roman walls of Aurelia filling them up with discounted designer label shops (fig. 6).

It is easy to be ironical about these situations or fire at the usual target, the market. However, in fact, the market is everything but stupid. It carefully studies the wishes of the public and tries to satisfy them, enticing them into the world of consumerism.

At the expense of appearing banal I would repeat that we always have the top and reverse sides of the coin. The top-down forces, indirectly, are opposed by the reactions of bottom-up ones which move towards more appropriate processes, towards incremental projects which tend to create a future, incorporating the new through the “places” filter. These are weaker forces but it is clear that the challenge for planners and for local administrators is here. Let’s not let them be overpowered – look at the long-term effects, negotiate with the investors for the levels of urbanity of their projects and what will benefit the city.
On the other hand, everywhere there is a “need for the city”. Most literature regrets or declares the end of the role of “historical” squares, however, there is no architect alive who doesn’t declare the wish to design a square. Even in the projects for large shopping malls the key word is often that of simulating, giving the idea of a pocket of the city. The central space of Berlin’s Sony Center, for example, is actually a covered square. The layouts of the new outlets can almost be mistaken for the plan of old Italian villages.
The transformation processes are not only one way. While the skyline of Beijing sees the rise of American-international style skyscrapers, in some projects the new towns are seen markedly as the idea of what is called the “fabric-form”. In others we see the historical form of the Garden City. The awareness is gaining ground that one of the competitive “advantages” is in the wealth of plugging into the past. For example, the relaunch of protected areas in the old city of Beijing (the Utong suburbs) is evidence of this.
So, the forces at play are not all lined up on one side. It is a game to be played between local planning, the big professional corporations and the investors. To me this seems an absolutely central point – as international competition can also play in many different ways. Not only through preservation (the”historical values”) but also by creating new values (to play their part, in time, in plugging into history). Through innovation, contamination and, why not, imitation.
In fact, for example, I am not at all shocked that the local government of Shanghai has launched a program “nine towns, one city”, asking the designers for projects “in the style” of the respective cities involved.
Competition doesn’t only encourage homologation but also innovation. In some difficult cities they do model projects. Here we can see the beautiful project of a park in Cairo (fig. 7).
Instead, here you see what we could consider a project symbolic of present contradictions. A pool of multi-national car manufacturers sponsored the last big world exposition in Aichi, Japan (fig. 8). A city without cars, flexible and (at least, theoretically) recyclable. It seems to me to be a very interesting idea. In fact, the cities have adapted badly to the changes as they are too “hard”. Maybe cities which are more flexible and more recyclable would be better. Exactly like this one.

We have a lot to learn from the past. As for identity, let’s not forget that a great movement of imitation, or better, assimilation – I’m referring to
Palladianism and after Neo-classicism – renewed Anglo-Saxon urban culture and through a metabolic transplant in the States, has been the basis of modern urban culture in that country.
On the other hand, the innovative processes, the great social-political and town-planning “inventions” have changed the form of the urban Rome of Caesar and Augustus and even more of Sixtus V, of Frederick of Prussia’s Berlin, of Haussmann’s Paris and the grands projets of contemporary Paris. By eclectically incorporating Hellenism, Hadrian built his masterpiece, Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa).
History, and no less important geography, is the depository of our many identities. However, historical values are not only those which we inherit but also those which we build, which we assimilate, transplant and then incorporate. Today, the Chinese, the Indians and the Africans dream of and copy the West. Tomorrow they will be the exporters of their East and their Africa.