by saskia sassen
Cities are live entities and hence generalisations have their limits.
Here I focus on two extreme conditions, mostly relevant to extreme cities — major cities, both global and not very global ones. The logic is that the extreme conditions make visible what might be emerging in more average cities, but what is also far less visible. One of these extreme conditions is the surge in large corporate investments, both national and foreign, in properties since 2008. Clearly, urban land has become a very attractive investment. The second extreme condition is the underdevelopment of digital tools and applications geared towards poor neighbourhoods; major cities are home to many digital innovator firms and to many poor neighbourhoods, so you would think there would be a lot more development in this area.
Both of these extreme conditions are negatives.
Addressing them becomes critical to secure a reasonable future for our cities and for today’s growing numbers of disadvantaged households and individuals living in them.
The current corporate buying spree has reduced the supply of modestly priced housing and forced even middle class sectors to confront “the housing question.”
If this trend signals an emergent new phase in major cities, it will require urgent action by leaderships and the mobilising of efforts to halt this type of development. Taking just the two most recent years, from mid-2013 to mid-2014, corporate buying of existing properties reached over US$ 600 billion in the top 100 recipient cities, and over a trillion from mid-2014 to mid-2015. This figure includes only major acquisitions (e.g. 5 million dollars minimum in the case of New York City) and it does not include large amounts spent on the buying of urban land for site development, which is also a significant factor in many cities.
This investment trend coexists with increases in foreclosures on low and modest income households, especially in the US, but also in countries as diverse as Hungary and Germany. One result of such foreclosures, which in the case of the US reached over 14 million households, is an abundance of empty urban land. At some point, depending on its location, this empty urban land can be transformed into more corporate types of buildings.
We might ask why this large corporate investment surge should be a source of worry to a city. Are cities not about density and built-up terrain? Yes, in many ways they are. But not all densities are the same: some types of density actually de-urbanises the city by eliminating urban tissue like little streets, squares, and community space. It turns sections of a city basically into large office enclaves and luxury apartment towers surrounded by visible or invisible walls or moats. Such massive buildings privatise urban space. This is a type of density that does not add to the urbanity of a city.
Importantly, cities are the spaces where those without much power get to make a history and a culture, and often, neighbourhood economies. Thereby they make their powerlessness complex. We will lose this type of making that has given our cities their cosmopolitanism if the current large-scale buying continues. Think of any city we consider cosmopolitan that has not had nationals from the countryside, or immigrants bring their cultures. It is the thickness of these cultures that provides many of the elements of what we eventually call cosmopolitanism. These elements take a long trip to the center where they get cleansed from too much specificity and made into universals. These are all features of cities that can get squashed by disabling the life of such thick neighbourhoods.
The current scale of acquisitions is bringing about a systemic transformation in the pattern of land ownership in cities and in the organisation of urban space. One question is to what extent this could eventually alter the historic meaning of the city. Such a transformation could have deep and significant implications for equity, democracy, and rights.
At the other end are low-income neighbourhoods that are mostly losing ground.
There are two things I want to highlight very briefly, noting that every neighbourhood is different.
One is the urgent need to re-localise what can be relocalised, which is not everything – but it is far more than is the case today. One image for this relocalising is “Out with franchises!” Each franchise takes out a bit of the consumption capacity of the neighbourhood and moves into headquarters. Similarly: let’s get back to credit unions and local banks, rather than branches of global banks. It is against this type of loss of the locality that I emphasise the urgency to relocalise what can be relocalised. This is not an easy task nowadays, but we must work at it. With rare, but important exceptions, the current condition in local economies is increasingly marked by a hollowing out due to the arrival of franchises of all sorts.
A specific component of this relocalising is the fact that each neighbourhood has a kind of knowledge about its area of the city that the centre (the government, the central administration planners) probably do not have. This should become one way of valuing even the most modest resident of a modest neighbourhood, and that includes the homeless person of that neighbourhood, who inevitably has a very distinct type of knowledge about the neighbourhood.
The second vector I want to focus on is how digitisation can enhance the work life of low-income workers by addressing the specific needs of these workers at their workspace and in their neighbourhoods. I have focused in detail on this in my project on “Transforming The Neighbourhood Into A Social Back-Up System.”
Basically, low-wage workers can gain from the development of digitised apps and tools that address their needs: the problem is that most such apps and tools address middle class and professional and scientists needs, not those of low-income workers. Very little has been developed to meet the needs for low-income workers, their families, and their neighbourhoods.
A critical point I want to emphasise is that in the case of low-wage workers it becomes critical to develop apps that can help transform the neighbourhood into a social back-up system for low wage workers at the their workplace. Further, these all begin to function as instruments for strengthening social and political building blocks of a neighbourhood: the political is not only out there, but also right here in our neighbourhood. This is a political component in a larger process of relocalising.
Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Prof of Sociology Columbia University & chairs its Committee on Global Thought. She won the 2013 Principe de Asturias Prize in the Social Sciences and is author of Cities in a World Economy and Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy.