Why We Should Worry About The Urbanization Essay

Introduction

There has reached a certain tipping point in the awareness of the effects of human habitation on the world, and more than ever the issues of sustainable design and environmental awareness are being called to be acted upon. Yet the rate of urbanization is at its peak and does not look likely to falter anytime soon with the urban population projected to more than double by 2050 (UN 2014). And with increasing growth comes increasing waste.

While understandable, many critics of the current trend of the current trend of unmitigated urbanization focus on tackling the immediate and apparent—namely methods of building new and “green” neighborhoods or methods of reinventing existing urban fabrics (which tends towards an unsustainable gentrification and an almost suburbanization of the urban), or calls to stop growth altogether. Ignored is the waste product left behind by said urbanization: abandoned strip malls, empty condos, seas of barren parking lots, uninhabited foreclosed homes, and more, as documented by Alan Berger (2007). Rather than arguably continuing the cycles of creative destruction and just building more (albeit with more solar panels and thicker insulation and innovative energy efficient systems) or rejecting current realities, perhaps it is worth taking a step back first to re-evaluate. And perhaps instead of trying to solve the problem with the tools which caused it, it might be productive to consider a different perspective and approach.

The recent post-human turn–perhaps also stirred on by the effects and realization of the Anthropocene—highlights such a shift away from a human-centric view (Forlano 2016, 42-43). Like the revelation of Copernicus, the human in this post-human shift no longer occupies the center, but rather becomes smaller part of a larger whole. Rather than distinct entities from the non-human, it can be argued that we are part of larger assemblages with everything else. This post-human turn opens many new possibilities and understandings of the built and un-built landscape; from the philosophic and aesthetic concerns of speculative realism and Graham Harmon’s Object Oriented Ontology (Gannon et al. 2015, 75) all the way to the ecological-urban assemblages as shown in Sarah Gunawan’s Synanthropic Suburbia (2015).

Following this shift in thinking, if it is human occupation that is unsustainable then by questioning the necessity of human occupation new productivities can begin to emerge. By building up the history, mechanisms, and inadequacies of the current urbanization apparatus, as well as by highlighting the increasingly automated infrastructures appearing in the (previously) countryside, this paper hopes to present and argue for future opportunities in the collision of these two phenomena.

Urbanization

To begin, the paper will borrow upon the concepts introduced by Pier Vittorio Aureli in “Toward the Archipelago” (2008), especially that of the “urbs”, to form the historical and theoretical foundations of the phenomena of urbanization which will then be elucidated and built upon.

In this article, Aureli describes the ancient Roman concept of the “urbs” as the “generic aggregation of people…and their necessary circulation systems” (Aureli 2008, 95) that does not require a pre-existing community (as opposed to the walled Greek “polis”). Whereas the Greek “polis” was self-contained by some part due to the geographic restrictions of the islands, the Roman “urbs” was a means of growing and claiming territory (Ibid., 93). He tracks the evolution of the “urbs” as it meets the economic and political shift of capitalism through the examples of the rigorous and scientific Barcelona master plan by Ildefonso Cerda and the totality of Archizoom’s No-Stop City, noting that this mechanism tends towards creating “bad infinities” through “compulsive repetitions of itself” (Ibid., 96).

Aureli attributes the origins of the word “urbanization” to Cerda, invented to describe a new form of urbanity beginning to emerge—a word whose roots lay not in the “urban” but rather in the “urbs” (Ibid.).

“..for Cerda, the center of the new forms of human habitat was not the city center with its monuments and symbolic spaces, but what lay beyond them: the suburbs. Composed of only roads and individual dwellings, the suburbs…offered the best living conditions, thus the task of urbanization was to expand infrastructure as much as possible in order to settle human habitat beyond the symbolic frame of the city. ‘To ruralize the city and to urbanize the countryside’” (Ibid., 97).

The translation of this Aurelian understanding of urbanization to current observations is readily apparent when applied to the North American suburban model. Importantly though, what is interesting to the argument of this paper is the idea of this mechanism of self-propagation (infinite growth) and the two components required for it to continue: the atomic and insular unit of as household, and its supporting infrastructure.

Other models of urbanization were similarly developed around the time of Cerda in order to tackle the newly unlocked space between city and country—one of the more well-known being Howard’s Garden City Movement. While Aureli and Cerda speak of a potentially infinite grid of residential expansion, Howard’s Garden City instead proposed autonomous islands of residences, with integrated productive agricultural and industrial capabilities within (Howard 1965), which formed an infinite graph network. While criticized for inherently being a model for suburban sprawl (Ward 1992, 205) due to the fact that the model suggests infinite growth (though it is perhaps unfair to suggest that growth can be stopped altogether), what is interesting to note is that instead of replicating a uniform fabric as described by Cerda, the Garden City model attempted to create miniature, self-contained copies of the parent city in function and form—which suggests less the repetition of an atom, and more the repetition of a cell. It breaks away from the idea of a singular program and function, namely that of human habitation, and folds in other productivities.

While the materialization of a few Garden Cities was attempted (although likely not a direct result of Howard’s movement, the Randstad region in the Netherlands is an example of urbanization which most closely resembles his ideas), the model was ultimately superseded by the model of “horizontal urbanization” predominantly seen today. This “horizontal urbanization”, to borrow the terminology from Alan Berger’s Drosscape (2008, 26), can be seen as a result of both the technological advancements that increased mobility and widened communication networks, as well as the economic incentives of cheaper land for both habitation and industry (Ibid., 22).

The automobile and the highway system enabled workers to live far, far away from their offices, their grocery stores, and their movie theatres. The importance of the mobility infrastructure is finally emphasized by the private electronically tolled highways “built to bypass central congested areas” (Ibid., 170) and provide direct access to specific communities. Like the Houston highways which Lars Lerup aestheticized in Stim & Dross (1994), these infrastructural roads, experienced from the perspective of the automobile, is the element that renders the disparate “Holey Plane”(Ibid.,88) into a unified whole. It is the “necessary circulation system” (Aureli 2008, 95) of this urbanization.

Likewise, the advancements of communication networks in the form of the telephone and the internet has further severed the need for a physical space of the “polis”. And each atomic household becomes further insular (to the point where it can arguably be said that sphere of the domain of the oikos has shrunk to simply the interface between the user and their phone). It is this trending towards a post-human placeless-ness which proponents such as William Mitchell in “Against Program” (2013) describe and argue for. Space is being created for the sake of space and capital—a sentiment shared by both De Graaf (2015) and Soules (2017, 103).

The resulting model propagated by these forces since the first proto-suburb of Levittown has become such a pervasive condition in North America such that “suburban sprawl is not sub to anything anymore” (Berger 2008, 22) and that “the boundary that has separated city from country throughout American history is now almost gone…To some degree, in most parts of America’s inhabited domain the metropolis is almost everywhere.”(Ibid., 28)

Shortcomings

It can be argued that “horizontal urbanization” is the one of the more radical outcomes of a human-centric approach—a twisted humanism—in the sense that in these landscapes everything is subservient to the human need—the market inherently optimizes for maximum comfort. If capitalism is, as it touts, the pure expression of human desire, then perhaps like the bacteria that pollute themselves to death when given favorable environments to reproduce (Angier 2018), so too will this mechanism of urbanization. This sentiment echoes, on an abstract level, many of the critiques of horizontal urbanization. The conceptual foundation of the mechanism tends towards potential infinite growth and rebirth, and that inherently implies the need for infinite energy and infinite resources (hence lies the critique).

“As monocultures, the tracts of single-family houses…are truly one-dimensional, if it weren’t for our ability to dream ourselves out of them. Veggies from California, steaks from Chicago, barbecue equipment from China, oil from Nigeria, water from Colorado, all come mysteriously to the unknowing via faucets, pumps,…delivery trucks. If it weren’t for the fifty percent divorce rate, the subdivision would be the eternal summer camp where no one works and all is fun and games—and TV. Here in fantasyland the means of production is pure abstraction.”

As Lerup cynically highlights, the means of sustaining such lifestyles is divorced from the immediate reality. The material costs of these urban models are not readily apparent, obfuscated by layers and layers of distribution networks and infrastructures hidden from sight (and/or mind). Koolhaas similarly notes, on a more aesthetic level, the pervasive nature of Junkspace (2002, 175-180) in its ability to smooth and hide away the differences of reality to create an almost cancerous blandness, and critiques the directionless and ultimately wasteful processes of creative destruction.

Counter intuitively, but easier to grasp under the logic of creative destruction, is the assertion that “waste landscape is an indicator of healthy urban growth” (Berger 2008, 36). But as it becomes unsustainable to support these models of urbanization, the landscapes of waste grow faster and become obsolete faster than is possible to reinvent. It is especially evident after the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 which resulted in over 5-7 million foreclosed houses from 2008-2014 (Carlyle 2015). Berger categorizes such landscapes as “waste landscapes of attrition” (Ibid., 53). He attributes the shifting economic forces of a deindustrializing America with the obsolescence and wasting in many cities.

Like Berger, a few other authors have argued for the acceptance of waste and wasting as it is an inevitable fact of life. Cairns and Jacobs in their book Buildings Must Die (2017) advocate for the acceptance of the death of buildings in hopes of new design opportunities when the end of buildings is taken into account. Similarly, Lynch in The Waste of Place (1990, 24), tracks the process of wasting, and ultimately accepts and somewhat aestheticizes waste in the form of the “Urban Wild”. This attitude can be implied as well in Aureli’s reading of Ungers et al’s Berlin as Green Archipelago.

“Instead of being a project for the indefinite growth of the city, Ungers’ archipelago aimed to frame, and thus form, the existing city by accepting its process of depopulation…The strong parts are preserved and eventually densified, while the rest is abandoned to decadence or demolished. A huge green forest…fills the emptied part of the city and becomes the sea that surrounds the city-parts”

Allowing the wasting away becomes a limit to the infinite growth, and becomes “an instrument of separation” (Ibid., 119) which provides a solution to Aureli’s original critique of urbanization.

Emergent Infrastructural Countryside

Alongside the development (and wasting) of the residential urbanization, it should be noted that a purely commercial urbanization has also emerged. The counterpart to the “waste landscapes of attrition” this type of urbanization is characterized by Berger (2008, 53) as “waste landscapes of accumulation” due to the increasing need for cheap flexible space in a post-Fordist economy. This is a landscape of warehouses, office parks, and production facilities, “supported by extensive highway and infrastructure networks that allow…quick and efficient access to distribution hubs” (Ibid., 54).

The rural countryside as well is increasingly becoming infrastructural (Koolhaas 2015). Rem lectures about the massive, yet less-documented, transformations of the countryside. He talks about how the physical scale of the countryside is increasing while simultaneously depopulating. He shows the countryside as the physical manifestation of the technological “cloud based” services, as well as the staging ground for the new technological industries. These changes not only affect agriculture, with the introduction of automated technologies such as self-driving tractors, but also entirely foreign programs such as Tesla’s gigafactory, Amazon’s distribution centres and Facebook and Google’s server farms are introduced. These new architectures for servers and databases and factories are designed not for human comfort, but rather for the comfort of the machines within (Ibid.). As remarked in a conversation between Rem and Bratton:

“Traditionally, we can say that the old model was to look at the city as the site of where the machines live, and the countryside was where nature was. It was the big garden. And what you show is that this, in fact, is inverting, and the cities are where the humans are, and the countryside is where the machines live.”

Perhaps the green countryside can be seen as becoming a machine wilderness populated not by humans or nature, but rather by increasingly autonomous machines. When the problem of human habitation is removed from a landscape, all that remains is infrastructure. And with the rise of autonomous and distributed technologies there may be opportunities to reclaim and redefine these landscapes. Here lies the opportunity for the conception of a grey-ish green archipelago. And here lie opportunities to fold in productivities within the mono-culture space of the “urbs” while in turn creating limits and boundaries to human expansion through reclamation and re-territorialization.

Detroit

Looking at the proposals for the American Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Beinnale, there seems to be already an intuitive and nascent understanding of this opportunity.

Detroit, seen as a model city of post-war America and home of the automobile, as well as the largest metropolitan area in the United States, is a prime example of a wasting landscape. What was interesting about several projects to revitalize Detroit (through the theme of the architectural imagination), was the acceptance of the inevitable condition of its wasting. Rather than attempt to resuscitate the vast wasting sprawl with social, community, or housing programs, (human-centric design) many of the proposals instead proposed projects more in line with Stan Allen’s Infrastructural Urbanism (1999).

A(n) Office proposed an infrastructure for remediation as an architectural strategy in Detroit. Their project, although a bit far-fetched and unrealistic, challenges the nature of architecture for rehabilitation. They explored the use of architecture to rehabilitate its environmental surroundings (the air in particular) rather than attempt human (re)development.

Likewise, Greg Lynn’s project for the abandoned Packard Plant proposed a drone port and shipment fulfillment center (as well as university and factory). Although the proposal does include cultural programs in the project, it is interesting that the feature program chosen is one of an increasingly autonomous and automated industry (distribution and logistics) and that this is located in a residential fabric of the city. Similar to A(n) Office, Lynn accepts the inevitability of the abandoned urban fabric and instead reclaims that fabric as a more wild or grey condition.

Conclusion

The grey-ish green can be understood as the blending between a new autonomous infrastructure and the countryside, and perhaps within this concept there can be a possibility to contain the extents of the urbanization mechanism. Ungers’ in Berlin as Green Archipelago allowed for spaces to waste away and become reclaimed by nature—there was an understanding that (human) growth was not the goal. While predominantly an aesthetic concern back then, the effects of urbanization have now compounded into pressing social, environmental, and ecological concerns. But by questioning the centrality of human habitation on the landscape (expressed in the form of capital and expansion), new productivities and relationships can being to emerge.

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