[OPE] Mike Davis's perspectives on the urban future

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Fri Jan 16 2009 - 20:32:07 EST

(...) in 1990, the then fairly unknown historian and urban theorist Mike Davis published his analysis of the history and future of Los Angeles, City of Quartz. His excavation of social and ethnic tensions in Los Angeles suddenly seemed prophetic. In a stroke, Davis was transformed into an internationally established and esteemed social critic, his books and articles gaining readers far beyond the academic world.
Now, I am sitting in his kitchen in a small villa in central San Diego. (...) From a pile of books, he pulls out one of his latest - Planet of Slums - and says that today one can identify four tendencies in the evolution of cities.

First, we have an urban growth that is detached from economic growth. Cities, above all in the South, tend to grow rapidly despite, in many cases, a receding economy. This growth is primarily powered by poor people from rural areas, who are drawn into the cities and their slums.

Second, prevalent definitions of what a city is are beginning to lose their descriptive value. Nowadays, urban growth occurs mostly in the city peripheries, both economically and in terms of population. "We are getting an entirely new urban landscape, a landscape which is neither city nor countryside. The rapid growth of slums outside the cities in the third world is one example. The immense areas of villa suburbs, shopping malls and workplaces here in Los Angeles, as well as other parts of the western world, is another."

Third, we now have great city areas that are entirely disconnected from the global economy; in the third world it is the slums, in the US it is areas like Watts and Compton; in Europe it is suburbs like Clichy-sous-Bois outside Paris. This development in turn forces people to make their living in informal ways, opening doors to criminality, extremism and fundamentalism, Davis suggests. "This is a development no one has foreseen. No one saw some decades ago that such a large portion of the world's population would live in big city areas entirely without connection to the world economy.

The people of the slums are furthermore of a social class that does not fit into our prevalent description of social stratification. They lack, for instance, the social power that the working class possessed at the beginning of the twentieth century." "The labour movement had strength since it could halt production; industrialisation had a tendency to unite people. Yet the logic of informal economy appears to be the opposite. The informal economy drives people to exploit each other, in the worst case yielding to nihilistic violence, like the street gangs in Los Angeles."

It's easy for people in power to turn their back on people living in the slums, Davis asserts. From a neoliberal perspective, they are superfluous. At the same time, he points out, it is dangerous to ignore the problems created by the global economy. (...) "Global epidemics and global terrorism are two problems that principally emanated from the slums. When one talks about 'failed states' one often means 'failed cities', such as Gaza, Sadr City or the slums of Port-au-Prince."

What is truly interesting and horrifying is that the American military recognised this condition early on, much earlier than any one else. And it recognised this development from a very practical perspective, not a theoretical one. According to the military, these slum areas are the battlefields of the future. That is where the battle will be fought.

"Two events in American twentieth-century military history determined this direction more than anything. First, the blowing up of the American embassy in Beirut at the beginning of the 1980s; second, the retreat from Mogadishu at the beginning of the 1990s. Both events have been of greater importance to contemporary tactics and strategy development than the war in Vietnam."

In reality, Davis states, the opponents in this war are militarily weak. They are narcotics syndicates, street gangs and terrorists. The problem is the terrain. For this reason, the American military has been working hard for a number of years on developing new tactics to take on the urban slums.

"The most interesting thing happening right now is the joint efforts of the US and Brazil in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I would argue that the US sees that effort as a possibility to test and develop strategies to stabilise cities by means of security measures, city planning and social efforts. A sort of modern equivalent of Haussmann's mop-up operation of Paris in the nineteenth century."

Against this explosive world of poverty there are isolated islands for the global elite, what Davis terms the "paradise of evil". In the anthology Evil Paradises. Dreamworld of Neoliberalism, he and a number of other writers and academics describe a world in denial. In gated communities across the globe, elites shield themselves from the brutal reality of the neoliberal economy.

"If Southern California has any significance to the development of the world's cities, it is as model for life in the protected enclaves." (...)

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Received on Fri Jan 16 20:34:04 2009

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