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"An urban revolution that doesn’t make me a statistic"

06 March 2024

An unfolding global polycrisis has accentuated the critique of contemporary urbanism, which has failed to be inclusive and developmental, especially in the Global South. A shift in trajectory will require a shift in our imaginaries, inclusionary processes and institutions.

I recently asked colleagues in an online meeting what they would stop doing immediately if they never had to worry about earning an income again. There were many answers — some funny, some profound. But the one that made everyone pause to think was, “I would stop living in the city immediately. I would go to my rural home.”

Why would anyone feel that way, and why was it so understandable to everyone present? What is it about cities, these places that I advocate for and seek to understand better as an urbanist, that makes them merely a necessary evil for probably millions of urban dwellers around the world? What might they be to one person, but perhaps not to many others? What are they elevating, and what are they hiding?

The polycrisis appears in ephemeral and consistent moments of urban life. I have often questioned what cities hide, and perhaps part of the answer lies in this. I have watched Mazezuru worshippers gather around waters and ponds in southern African town and city velds — invisible to city planning in spite of their luminous white robes and consistent presence. Where is spirit and culture in our cities? I have seen a man slaughter and divvy up slabs of a young lamb in the white walled and tiled passageways of Baku, in a beautifully generous and bloody normal. Where is ritual in our cities? I have seen children play in cemeteries and sewage channels.

Where are spaces for innocence and play in our cities? I have visited immigrant districts in many major European cities to see how ‘they’ live (and ‘they’ are always there somewhere; you just need to ask). Where are the ‘others’ — the aliens — in our cities? I have seen informality in the Global South go from being an apparently non-existent fact to an over-theorised fad — changing nothing either way. Where are the economically and socially disenfranchised in our cities? I have seen parks and other public spaces designed to keep undesirables and hang-abouts (also known as, ‘the public’) out of them; I have seen the most expensive & best endowed parts of the city failing to do the bare minimum to ensure inclusion of differently abled persons. Where are your ‘lessers’ — the money-less, homeless, jobless, genderless? Analytical rigidity can be a tool of power to erase the life and hide the souls of cities. Unnoticed moments still happen to someone.

Our cities hide a lot; primarily, they hide difference and deep contradictions.

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Urban governance