The fallacy of the ‘urban age’

The fallacy of the ‘urban age’

In the first version of my PhD proposal I dutiful began by echoing the commonplace that over half of people now live in cities. It was an easy way to give my project the requisite sense of urgency. I took the claim directly from the The Endless City (2007), a book arising from the London School of Economics’ Urban Age Conferences. Plastered on the cover, in gigantic type, is the sequence:

10% lived in cities in 1900

50% is living in cities in 2007

75% will be living in cities in 2050

The argument is that there is a fundamental shift towards cities taking place, and that we’re now in an “urban age”. The statistics derive from the United Nations, with two UN reports in 2007 claiming that this “invisible but momentous milestone” had been reached. Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid argue that this ‘urban age’ thesis, despite becoming “doxic common sense” is dubious and unhelpful.

In particular, they claim that “it is empirically untenable (a statistical artifact) and theoretically incoherent (a chaotic conception).”

It’s empirically untenable because while it pretends to be an untheoretical statement of fact, it’s actually founded on dividing the work in advance into two kinds of territory—urban and non-urban. This division is made by means of an ‘urban population threshold’—a density level above which the area in question counts as ‘urban’. These thresholds however, are completely different from country to country: in Uganda a conglomeration of 100 people counts as urban, in Iceland 200 people, in Benin and Italy, 10 000. Nor do Brenner and Schmid accept that it’s simply a matter of more rigorous data-gathering; at the root of these statistics is the dubious idea that urban and non-urban can be distinguished relatively unproblematically. In fact:

The urbanization of the world is a kind of exteriorisation of the inside as well as interiorization of the outside: the urban unfolds into the countryside just as the countryside folds back into the city… Absorbed and obliterated by vaster units, rural places have become an integral part of post-industrial production and financial speculation (Merrifield, 2011)

The urban age thesis is also a “chaotic conception” because it “divides the indivisible and/or lumps together the unrelated and the inessential, thereby ‘carving up’ the object of study with little or no regard for its structure and form” (Sayer, 1992). An urban/rural split ignores the ways that even barely-populated or wilderness spaces are implicated in urbanised processes: energy generation, recreation, supply of food and materials, mobility. Brenner and Schmid follow Henri Lefebvre’s proposition that “society has been completely urbanised” in “a net of uneven mesh” (Lefebvre, 2003; see also Brenner, 2014 and a heap more here ). To understand what’s going on in the highly variable and rapidly changing patterns of human settlement and land use, we need something far better than a blunt division between urban and rural. At the same time, this split ends up lumping together a host of very different kinds of environment under the single heading ‘city’. An Icelandic fishing village, Masdar City, and an American university town are more different than they are the same.

What’s the alternative? Brenner and Schmid argue we need an explicitly theoretical account of what ‘urban’ is. By theoretical I take them to mean one that’s actually contestable because it’s explicit about it’s assumptions. The empirical model hides dubious assumptions and methodological biases behind the apparent neutrality of data. To begin this account, they offer some “epistemological guidelines”. The urban can’t be seen as a universal form, but as an historical process, “a relentless ‘churning’ of settlement types and morphologies that encompass entire territories”. Accordingly, urbanisation has to be seen as taking many different forms (deeply different, not just superficially or stylistically different). These forms include both concentration and extension:

the non-urban realm is interpreted simply as an empty field, as an indeterminate outside that serves to demarcate the urban condition from its purportedly exurban or rural ‘other’. However, throughout the history of modern capitalism, this terrain has been neither empty nor disconnected from the process of agglomeration; it has actually evolved dynamically through connections to the heartlands of urban concentrations.

To properly see, understand, talk about, and strategise for urbanisation, we need new ways to describe and map these processes of concentration and extension, and the churning of use and habitation patterns.

Brenner, N. and Schmid C. (2014). The ‘Urban Age’ in QuestionInternational Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38.3, pp. 731-755.

Brenner, N. (2014). Implosions / Explosions. Towards a study of planetary urbanization. Berlin, Germany: Jovis.

Burdett, R. and Sudjic, D. (2007). The Endless City. The Urban Age Project by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society. New York, NY: Phaidon Press.

Lefebvre, H. (2003). The Urban Revolution. Trans. R. Bonnono. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minneapolis.

Merrifield, A. (2011). The Right to the City and BeyondCity, 15.3/4, pp. 468-76.

Sayer, A. (1992). Method in Social Science. Second Edition. New York, NY: Routledge.

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