A Vision for the city – The 21st century city as a problem

With an estimated population of 14 million now, Lagos is one of the fastest growing cities on the African continent. By 2020, it is expected to be the third largest city in the world, with 24 million people

The 21stcentury city is an urban sprawl. Internal migration fills the city’s slums.

In the global system, the poor countries of the world are said to have reached their steady state, an eternal inferior position in the global hierarchy, relegated to suppliers of cheap labour and raw materials. This unfair relationship creates a situation where wages are low among the workers, and the prices for the country’s products on the international markets are low because they are unprocessed goods.

In such a situation, the country’s governors have scant resources to spend in prol of the common good. They don’t collect much tax from citizens or businesses, and require paltry hand-outs from international financial institutions or individual countries for the betterment of a handful of services, or symbolic infrastructural developments.

A graph that shows how little tax money developing countries’ governments have to play around with.


The rural hinterland of these countries has been transformed into infernal monocrop agriculture industrial parks. On the best land. Migration from the countryside to the city occurs at a rapid pace, because of the perceived safety in numbers of the city, and because of the precariousness of life in rural areas, given the state’s lack of ability to provide services in these areas.


The cities swell. In fact the cities slums swell the most. They grow organically as people self-organise and industrially do what they can to build themselves stability in the city. Their residents commute for hours and hours daily to work as servants for the more privileged, on decrepit systems of transport, through black dust smog traffic jams and over bumpy potholed roads.

Well informed Development Specialists specialising in questions of urban administration look on anxiously at the daunting challenges facing the sprawling megalopolises of the majority world. These cities can only afford to pay Public Servants a low wage, mediocrity is the norm at best, workers are not motivated, corruption and clientelism are rife. There are also too few of these professionals to even nearly meet the demands of the city anyway. Where 5,000 police are needed, there are perhaps 500 badly paid and badly equipped ones. While social services for children require comprehensive infrastructures, there is perhaps a dingy and small office responsible for this, staffed by workers traumatised by the daily frustration of their job, and so on and so on.

Public servants themselves are disenchanted with their bosses, with the political party representatives whose game of election campaigning amongst each other causes the already scant finances of the city to dwindle further as it is syphoned off into special accounts to be used during campaign season. Tired of the commute to work, tired of their bosses, tired of not having the money to do even the most basic programme in a minimally successful way the public servant is defeated. He develops a resistance strategy, working as little as possible, making money from corruption if he can, and generally being as inefficient as possible.

For the Mayor it is a constant headache:

    “Who authorised that slum to be built on that hill? It’s so far away, am I know expected to build a road to it? Put in lights? Put in a sewer system? Hold on, whose is that development over there?”

    “Oh, that’s a real estate development, one of the city councillors authorised it, and he is going to make a killing when it’s sold, market speculation.”

    “Bastards.  Then they will complain that the Mayor doesn’t provide adequate services, but I never authorised the bloody thing to be built so far away! Miles from the local schools, no roads!”


Meanwhile the slums grow and grow, they all need sewer systems, they all need street lights, they all need health clinics, and police, and nursery schools, and jobs for the young men and women.

According to the United Nations Centre for Human Settlement (Habitat), Nairobi’s slums are overcrowded, with four to six people living in one room. The dwellings are very close to each other; services are basic, while morbidity and mortality rates are high. City authorities say more than 1.6 million (out of Nairobi’s estimated population of 3.5 million) live in the slums or ‘informal settlements’. Most live below the poverty line – earning less than US$7 a week – according to experts.

A report on slums in Delhi says that “It’s estimated that one hand pump serves an average of 125 slum households (a minimum of 750 people). Water pumps are often in disrepair and women have to walk long distances to fetch water. There is an average of one latrine for 25 households (around 125 people), so around 40% of people defecate outside the slum or in drains.”

Bored the young kids in the slums have sex. The less there is to do, the more sex becomes the only option. Men with a bit of economic power get more action. They impregnate various girls who are children themselves who then bring the child up full of resentment and sentimental attachment, on their own with very little resources. Men get that economic power working with violence. This dynamic causes a certain weakening of the social fabric of the slums, as unprepared mothers bring up kids alone, with no personal  resources, and the state hasn’t got money to help through providing services either.

Zambia’s population is projected to increase 941% by the end of the century – the highest growth rate in of any country in the world.
And as one of the most urbanised countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with 35% of the population living in urban areas, rapid growth – particularly in Lusaka – the frantic growth rate is placing a heavy burden on housing, roads, water, sanitation, healthcare and energy provision.

The informality of these settlements is natural, it is the norm. The lack of ability of the state to provide assistance and basic infrastructure causes resentment, more than resentment the state becomes irrelevant, a joke. Security is provided by the guys, health care when necessary is dispensed privately requiring a lot of cash. Paying any tax is not possible. In this context people do what they can to subvert the system, they sell drugs and fight for the territory to sell drugs on. “Oh it’s wrong” Cry the moralists, but the response is wry smiles and another swig of beer as people reflect on the right and wrong of all of it all.

Ostentatious displays of weaponry in a Rio favelaOstentatious displays of weaponry in a Rio favela

The cities of Nairobi, Manila, Johannesburg, Mumbai, Delhi and Rio are emblematic of the starting points of the type of cities we are likely to see in the future if we continue with the same development strategy. Factors such as the financial crisis and subsequent indebtedness of Governments, the shift in industrial demand and production to China are causing cities such as London, Athens, and Madrid to become decadent as budgets are cut and unemployment rises. It seems that we are heading towards a convergence of fortunes of the cities of the North and the cities of The South, towards the model of sprawling metropolis governed by a sparsely resourced and corrupt administration, with not enough jobs, petrol, or perhaps not enough food or clean water.

There are plenty more ideas to be discovered in the squatter cities of the developing world, the conurbations made up of people who do not legally occupy the land they live on—more commonly known as slums. One billion people live in these cities and, according to the UN, this number will double in the next 25 years. There are thousands of them and their mainly young populations test out new ideas unfettered by law or tradition.














The above description refers in a roundabout way to what I mean to describe as the challenge of the 21st century in relevance to cities. I will try now to identify some possible solutions or ameliorating practices off the top of my head, so as to be able to imagine somehow a silver lining, or possiblity for a virtuous form of development within these parameters.

I have the following initial observations to make:

    Citizen Voluntary Participation

As authorities do not have the cash to do anything for the common good, citizens are going to have to make do as well as possible. In order to survive as well as possible, self-organisation at the neighbourly level is required, as people collaborate, take responsibility and engage with their local environments. An environment which facilitates ‘citizen culture‘ would need to be created.  Citizen culture is defined by Bogota’s Mayor 1995 – 2000 Mockus as ““the sum of habits, behaviors, actions and minimum common rules that generate a sense of belonging, facilitate harmony among citizens, and lead to respect for shared property and heritage and the recognition of citizens’ rights and duties.”

The difficulty in this is that the urban poor have to work so hard, they have families to raise, jobs to commute to and like all of are not Saints and probably want a beer after work, or to relax in some other way or other, however they will be required to work for themselves, with each other after to voluntarily improve their lives and the lives of their neighbours even if they are tired.

To extrapolate, if this system of self-organisation works, and people can productively survive by producing their own food and energy, who is to say that they should not opt out altogether of a menial wage earning rat race?

A second challenge is the educational level of these people, their lack of self-efficacy, or belief in their own abilities, and also the lack of collective efficacy, the ability to work with collectively as neighbours towards a common goal. Improving this requires a strong work of ‘conscientization‘ and community coaching.

Emphasis on the collective, at a very local level, working together builds community bonds, builds engagement and provides the nursery through which virtuous leaders can emerge. If leaders are selected from among those who contribute the most voluntarily to the common good, then we should have the most engaged and tireless leaders, who have the necessary outlook to assume more responsibility at even higher echelons of power.

    The application of science and technology

What I mean here is use-value science with a premium on true sustainability, cost-efficiency and applicability. Ivan Illich’s observations about the Use-Value of technology are pertinent here. Technological advancement needs to be applied for the benefits of the citizens of the city as a collective. There are two ways to do this:

(a)    At the city-wide level apply energy generation systems, water preservation systems, sewage systems, transport, food and water production systems which benefit the citizen and are founded in cutting edge technology. In order for this to be achieved however, a funding system is necessary which is capable of allocating research and resources for these programmes. Examples of these programmes include:

(i)                  Satoyama landscaping as a water managemet resource

(ii)                Agro-forestry food production and green space management

(iii)               Intelligent closed circle waste water and irrigation systems

(iv)              ‘Project Cybersyn’ style systemic management and planning tools

(v)                Cool fusion energy production(such as the E-cat model)

(vi)              A one world integrated electricity grid

(vii)             Solar panels where applicable

(viii)           Gardens and Green spaces where applicable

(ix)              Quality of life enhancing interventions – such as perfumed flower gardens, natural places for children to play, play spaces and recreation spaces for adults, sound also

(x)                Tram systems, bicycle infrastructure, electric car rentals

(xi)              Mixed social  and private housing initiatives

(xii)             Local hiring and development programme

(xiii)           Iranian ice-reserve architecture

(xiv)           Earth building social housing and building regulation

For these programmes to be applied there needs to be a political shift where vested interests who would lose economic power or inequality power[1], in order for these programmes to be implemented.

Such programmes would also require highly capacitated individuals currently working in the private sector, to somehow come back and work for the city, however these individuals would not be attracted by the low salaries of the city worker. How to attract the well-qualified city worker to work for a low wage could be achieved through some sort of stakeholder system, where high level public servants get benefits in terms of land rights, or some form of exchange for their contribution towards the common good.

Financing of city wide systemic issues is also an issue. Paul Blomfeld of Bogota points out that the first initiative of a city reform plan is to raise taxes, but the costs involved here would require an initial high cost, which would generate returns in efficiency at a later date. Perhaps some form of city-bond scheme could be set up?

In terms of legislation, very strict legislation, with sufficient ‘disciplining power’ is required so that the current way in which the market is calibrated (i.e. towards polluting technologies and socially destructive enterprises) could be re-callibrated towards a more virtuous system.

Waste in the city

Waste management could be recalibrated towards an approach which emphasises composting and re-use of adobe, and biogas generation. At the same time, Public servants should be taught cybernetic systems theory, or ecological systems theory. A fundamental philosophy of working with nature in an elemental system approach and always looking for ways in which different things are connected, and placing a premium on solving solutions to linear paradoxes[2].

A new approach to waste management would be to take an integrated approach, requiring citizen participation and collaboration, and inter departmental cooperation. Infrastructure would need to be created.

On site waste recycling and composting centres could be established. Organic waste could be composted and integrated with local planting initiatives, or even used to build houses out of earthen bricks. Composted adobe could fuel city wide planting initiatives:  scented flowers, cooking herbs and medicinal plants in some areas, lettuces and tomatoes in others. Thus the city gets greened, and the paradigm regarding the designated uses of public space changes.

Coconuts would require separate waste receptacles, and require specific recycling infrastructure.

Composting on a larger scale could be used for the generation of biogas, in fact there could be some way in which sewage systems could be harnessed in order to capture the biogas from the collective excreta, in public institutions and in large buildings or housing estates this could happen perhaps close to the site of extraction. The water could be cleaned and re-used as part of an irrigation system for the cities green areas.

As all households separate the rubbish, different materials go to different processing plants to be re-used.

The waste of industrial production is controlled by strong legislation which frowns at ‘linear sustainable development paradoxes’. Industries are clustered together to form synergies between each other.

The above discussion is just meant to fire the reader’s imagination to think about the possibilities of more integration and understanding of always thinking one step ahead as to a consideration of the effects of a given action. A cyclical awareness of cause and effect, where we should work towards always looking for creating virtuous efficient win-win situations for all parties.

Why this will happen first in the third World?

The cities in the so-called Third World will emerge as the leaders in innovative urbanism because the high aggregate energy use per citizen of the linear development model never became so widespread, it did not affect the basic infrastructure of the cities so much, because populations were too poor for this spatial organisation to become entrenched. The places where the streets are unpaved have the advantage,  where city infrastructures are orientated around an assumption that each family will possess at least one car (the commuter city model), developing a more virtuous form of city organisation will be more difficult, as what has been built will have to be dismantled before the new can emerge.

In the first world unsustainable use of energy resources is built into the architecture of buildings, everything is expensive, people are used to energy luxury and wasteful energy use. Slum dwellers have much more sustainable lifestlyes, they make do on much less resources, for the person whose house is a shack, shifting to an earth architecture dwelling is a step up. For the London city dweller it is almost unthinkable. Thus socially, the body politic of Southern Cities has an advantage.

Of course there are power-differential obstacles to be overcome. The rich must see that the sense of community that they will gain through being close to other people, experiencing a sense of community is as much an important resource, more important perhaps than their socially alienating wealth differential.

A new form of governance
Citizen lead interventions, power sharing participation, budget restrictions

In times where the world’s states are increasingly indebted, where they spend a large portion of the meagre taxes collected on foreign debt repatriations there is not that much cash floating around to pay for pretty much anything.  To compound this, the government can only afford low salaries and thus the public servant is often under qualified to manage the complexity required of the job.

At the same time cities require shelter, infrastructure, transport and security. Within this context of cash scarcity, skill scarcity of the public servants and burgeoning urbanisation a new model whereby citizens voluntarily contribute more and assume responsibility is necessary

Localisation. The paradigm shift that I am suggesting comes from an understanding that the current form of state democracy, whereby we elect people every few years, and then wash our hands of the democratic process is out-dated. We complain about politicians not respecting democracy, but we are also kind of glad that it is not a daily concern of ours. Out of necessity involvement with local budgeting, voluntarily, and involvement with public works for the common good at the community level will become essential. We will have to do all of this voluntarily, because the government won’t have the money or the capacity to do things itself.

On the one hand this will require that the government develop a new way of organising itself where mechanisms can be created which empower local communities, incentivizing them to assume leadership for their own affairs, and creating pathways to communication whereby public servants and voluntary citizens can work together.

This work should start from the block level, at the neighbourhood watch level of a streetblock or ‘quadra’, the neighbours on the quadra define priority areas of common interest, they meet once a week, get to know eachother, and become involved in voluntary work for the common benefit on the local quadra.

Technology based on the principles of permaculture and scientific innovation should be made available at this very local level. Communal tool-sheds and 3D designed tools should be made available in a cheap and easy to implement format.

While the neighbours identify their common challenges, a plethora of easy to implement true sustainable development initiatives, such as community agro-forests, bee-keeping, orchards, vertical gardens, herb gardens, solar power generators, water power generators, dry toilets, bio-construction tools must be made available.

The reader should become aware that fundamental to this model working is the necessity for a conscientization of the citizenry regarding (i) political literacy, (ii) the duties of the citizen, (iii) techniques of permaculture and sustainable development. A parallel conscientization of public workers also needs to take place, in terms of new mechanisms to include citizens as a cost-reducing strategy, a question of efficiency. Fundamental is a new understanding and conceptualisation of democracy as a process which requires the continued and engaged participation of all. The key words are democratisation and localisation. Localisation in terms of citizen engagement with the issues on their doorsteps, together with a new paradigm for conducting democracy requiring the input of all. The case for localisation is built by the example from Cuba, where with the withdrawal of Soviet support in 1992, the country was forced to engage in citizen led sustainable practices.

This leads us to another question, the economic system. One of the ways in which we are most controlled, and our agency to cause change is most limited is through the discipline which having to work for a living imposes upon us. It is not only in the favela, among the poor that it is difficult to mobilise people, equally in the middle classes people have a limited amount of free time, and working for the common good, attending neighbourhood association meetings, or doing something voluntary on a Saturday is a rare occurrence. I was struck by an example from the Cuban education system where workers are given time off from work to go to Parents Teachers Association meetings, and to be responsible for daily  homework clubs in the houses of one parent or other. The point is that in order for citizens to be able to participate effectively in the body politic of the city, they need official time allocated for doing so, perhaps formally as in time off work, or perhaps through some sort of legislation.


If all of these different aspects were to come together, human cities could begin to function in a completely new way, as communities become more empowered to do things for themselves, building off grid power supplies, achieving local food security, communities, poor communities would become strengthened as individuals no longer need to sell their labour in order to survive. In fact, this is the radical implication of this essay, that with a reconstitution of society along these lines, a city can be conceived which opts out of capitalism altogether.

A discussion which begins by looking at the practical issues of proving solid waste management in the city, leads us to discuss the difficulties which the state has in providing adequate services. Pondering these questions brings us to discuss voluntary citizen involvement in state affairs, at the local level, and the importance of emphasising local food security and sustainability. From this discussion we come to the conclusion that with a few things in place, a conscious citizenry, an application of closed circle sustainable development practices, as well as a devolution of power to citizens; then citizens would in fact be empowered, because they would not have such a pressing necessity to sell their labour in order to survive.

We can see the elements of what is needed to achieve this:

Education – (a) conscientization about democracy and citizen duties, (b) specific technical education on sustainable scientific technologies

Time – time to work for the common good, and get involved with the management of state affairs. Could this be some sort of Public Private Partnership?

Political Will – Political leaders and bureaucrats need to devolve power and inspire people to participate

Innovation – The state and business must have the courage to embrace innovation, even if the innovation requires a new way of doing things

Disciplinary Power – The state and citizens need to have the collective disciplinary power to over-ride objections from powerful interest groups and stakeholders who will lose out from cost-effective and socially useful innovations

The idea is that we are creating a city that primarily serves its citizens, and technology is used to support them, rather to produce things and services to sell to them.

What would such a city look like?

It would change depending on the environmental context where it was situated.

Earth houses, gardens, hanging gardens, rooftop gardens, vertical gardens, and architecture influenced by bio-mimicry, the architecture copying nature, transport systems copying nature’s geometry, spaces for play and for group conversations, people-friendly corners.

More on Linear versus Circular Development

My critique of development is that it follows a linear path rather than a circular path. By this I mean that development can be compared to a 100 metre race, where athletes continuously improve always running that 100 metres faster and faster, perpetually improving their time. A more circular development within the same metaphor would be for athletes to get to a certain speed and maintain that speed, rather than to continuously improve upon the time.

The word development implies a constant in satisfaction with the present state and change towards an idealised goal, of improved-ness.

The current development model is linear in that its parameters are defined by a crude economics which ignores collateral effects or left overs. It is a theoretical monoculture rather than a forest or garden. The problem is that this straight line thinking leaves rubbish heaps, and holes. Holes where minerals are extracted and rubbish heaps at the end processes.

A vision for circular development would be a development where nothing is wasted. Simple systems like composting are a perfect example of this sort of development in a circular fashion. We eat, we shit, we throw the waste in a specially designated area, we compost the waste, we use the waste to grow plants we eat the plants, etc.

Circular development also refers to a form of development which understands human lives as embedded and part of a natural system, an ecology which even the coldest Cartesian analysis must admit that we require for our very survival. Circular development therefore places a premium on the sustainability of that which sustains us. A people orientated development which understands that people’s lives can be facilitated by technology, but that technology should work within natural laws.

Essentially this is a communist vision in that a premium is placed on the common over the individual and it requires a vision of all of a given community working together for the shared goal of the common good. It is also communistic in the sense that it sees as a desired state the achievement of the idyllic vision which Marx set forth. That of all citizens living in material comfort, only needing to work for a few hours a day, who could spend the rest of the day learning to play the violin for example, or doing what they jolly well pleased.

Out of ‘political correctness’, no one talks about the exploitation of either nature or indigenous peoples any more. They talk instead about ‘sustainable development’ – but there is no such thing. Not only can development not be sustained; even the existing fabric cannot be sustained any longer. (Stafford Beer 1992)

The present crisis is not just a crisis of the growing scarcity of natural resources and services. It fundamentally is the crisis of a type of civilization that has put the human being as the “lord and master” of Nature (Descartes). In this civilization, nature has neither spirit nor purpose, and therefore, humans can do what they want with her.

According to the founder of the modern paradigm of techno-science, Francis Bacon, the human being must torture Nature until she yields all her secrets. This attitude has devolved into a relationship of aggression, and a true war against a supposedly savage Nature that had to be dominated and “civilized.” Thus also emerged the arrogant projection of the human being as the God who dominates and organizes everything.[3]

August 2012

Rio de Janeiro


[1] Inequality power refers to the power an individual has accruing from his or her differential in wealth viz the rest of the population. In this instance it is not the absolute wealth that the individual has that matters, rather it is the differential in wealth compared to others which is important. The relative wealth of an individual has ramifications regarding power over violence, political influence, control of resources, in general a kind of social power.

[2] By linear paradox   I am trying to express what I mean by the problem of having a waste product at the end of a current policy. For example current city waste policy has the end product of a poisonous waste-tip at the edge of the city which pollutes the water table and the land. What we see here in fact is a mis-judgement, while policy legislation allows a certain area to be designated as a rubbish tip, it is an oversight not to understand the rubbish tip not as a final destination, but more like an inter-connected part of a system. The rubbish tip is not the end of a process. Something like collect rubbish, take to tip, stop, forget about it. A systemic view takes a critical viewpoint of this, the rubbish tip has effects on the surrounding environment which are not virtuous, it pollutes the water system, smells, accumulates space, etc. Thus even if we want to see the rubbish tip in a linear way, the ecosystemic characteristics of nature belie it as mis-judgement.

[3] Leonardo Boff / The Rag Blog / July 19, 2011