Response to “Reframing the World as One City”

Looking at five predominant models for depicting urbanization (Global City Network, The World Is Spiky, Urban Age World, Single Planetary City, Planetary Urbanization) the UrbanNext forum asks three questions:

As designers, are we equipped to contribute and intervene on those new spaces? How? Reversely, how are historical notions of urban form, texture, scale and the like challenged or re-inscribed in this scenario?

To what degree can these and other metageographical frameworks inform possible roles for the design and planning disciplines in shaping the built and unbuilt environments of our rapidly urbanizing world?

Is the idea of conceptualizing the world as any of the five model above offering new urban tropes for intervention? Where are they? At what scale? Moreover, if we extend the conceptualization to integrate every square inch of the planet as part of the urban fabric, what are the new spaces to be claimed as ‘urban’?


It seems to me that all of the above questions orbit around a central concern regarding the relation between knowledge and praxis: how, by knowing the urban (following any or all of the 5 models), can we construct an appropriate practice of intervention? And of course each model is formed with its own implicit response: the Urban Age model opens space for intervention through an interface between global forms of governance and mechanisms of private development; the global city network places agency in the virtual flows of financialized capital set within a competitive hierarchy of cities; Florida’s model empowers the entrepreneurial mayor to mobilize her or his municipal structure within this global space of flows; Doxiadis’ Ecumenopolis proposes a liberal, technocratic rationality to tame the otherwise ‘natural’ process of urbanization; and the Planetary Urbanization thesis enables a Marxist critique and form of analysis to speak about urbanization as a product of capitalism—perhaps the least given to any particular design methodology of the five.

Perhaps the problem here is not with any one of these models in particular, but in the notion of the model itself. Why do we assume that the best way to interrogate contemporary urbanization should come in the form of a single model? Why the scale of the planet? What does it mean to debate the veracity of any one of these models when each one, in the end, asserts the same basic principle that the urban and the planet have become synonymous spatio-conceptual frameworks?

Obviously this is not to deny the effectiveness of such models in exploring contemporary urban space, processes, problems and modes of intervention (if we forgo the fact that the Ecumenopolis was not a model of existing urbanization, but a projected outcome for his reformed urbanism); like any spatial model, each one helps to highlight a certain set of relations that may be more or less accurately mapped across a particular space. Nor is this another plea for an urban theory to be predicated on the infinite plurality of human experience and the ease with which any one of these models may or may not be empirically disproven locally. Indeed, each model is in itself an argument, which, for better or worse, articulates a political position from which action can be taken, and this, we must acknowledge, has been powerful in bringing to light a new set of discourses on the urban.

Nevertheless, the problem we seem to face today is in privileging the planet/globe as the primary scaffold on which to represent the urban, which has epistemological ramifications that we can see across all five models, perhaps the most obvious of which is the reliance on data: Whether driven by quasi-neoliberal agenda or a Marxist critique thereof, the knowledge of the urban that we garner from all of these models presumes it to be understood as a field of information that can be mapped, compared, monitored and projected instantly and continuously. This is of course in part because the precision with which such data can be ascertained today gives urgency to see the urban as a map of data in the first place. Geospatial data, population densities, flight paths, land use, capital accumulation and flow: all of these metrics paint a very specific picture of urban space, despite the overt differences between models. Such a depiction is problematic not so much in that it presumes urban space to be first and foremost quantifiable (and thus universal and exchangeable) but rather, it points to a more implicit problem, namely that the urban is already a known category. When we use such models to speak about the urban and urbanization, it is not only the entire world that risks getting reduced to its representation as data, but the means by which we are then able to inquire about this space-process is relegated to whatever can trade as information.

Another issue that we face when thinking about the urban today, and which I am concerned with in my own work, is what I’ve called the burden of the present. These issues are of course linked and can be clearly seen in the way the text for The City of 7 Billion: An Index speaks about ‘the history of urbanization’ as a history of ‘cause and effect’. This common perception that the urban must be known only in the present allows any history of it to appear—much like world history for Buckminster-Fuller—as simply a managerial framework for constructing whatever quantitative models are needed in the present to project scenarios into the near future. Here, the opportunity is persistently missed to explore the urban as a historically-produced spatial order: a depiction that can open up more politically specific questions about what it means to act upon/within it in the present.

However, perhaps most problematic, for me, is the way in which the planet in each case is mobilized as a rhetorical object. Whether intended or not, by presuming the world to be the most suitable spatial and conceptual frame to comprehend contemporary urbanization, we construct a visibility through which spatial problems can be seen that, in turn, makes possible a corresponding set of socio-political responses. This is captured quite clearly in Hsiang and Mendis’ injunction that “a global problem demands a global approach that analyses and addresses the scope of the entire world.” Because each model articulates its view of the urban as a planetary problem, their responses naturally lend themselves to mechanisms of intervention that resemble (if not call for directly) global governance structures of ever vaster scales. Furthermore, by using the planet as a way to represent the urban, an implicit politics of crisis underpins each model in the way that the finiteness and fragility of the earth is set at odds with the alarming statistics of population densities, resource consumption, expanding land use and so on. Here, most frighteningly, we seem to have even slipped back into the fervor produced by Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb of 1968, whereby the urban is seen as the site in which a renewed crisis of overpopulation can be played out, while also lending itself as the spatial correlate from which to articulate a technologically revived form of global-urban population control: both poison and remedy. If we treat population as a normative category to stand in for the urban, as all but the Planetary Urbanization model do, we should not be surprised to see how well such models give themselves to the growing behemoth of global governance in its biopolitical management of world populations. Just in the same way that environmental governance today forces us to conceive of climate change (another planetary problem!) through the singular lens of global temperature rises, thresholds, and tipping points, such planetary models of urbanization run the risk of naturalizing the very category they intend to study while simultaneously giving it over as yet another problem to be resolved technocratically by the ever expanding, cybernetically coordinated bodies of global governance the have formed on the back of an equally planetary neoliberal society.

It is not surprising, then, that out of this, our possible modes of interventions appear in technocratic shades of ‘solutions’ with equally numeric valences. Metrics yield protocols to regulate metrics. Unprecedented events lead to thresholds and controls requiring more measurements: In a way, the question of how to intervene in the consensual space proposed by all models is problematic because the form of intervention each model suggests is likely indistinguishable from the model itself: measurements become ‘scenarios’ in which to test the latest in global governance technologies that, in turn, monitor, track and forecast change (since change tends to be how we ‘see’ the urban in the first place).

Presuming that the question of contemporary urbanization is what to do with it, at the cost of first asking what it is, may continue to be our fundamental error that we have inherited from 20th century thought. In this sense, I would caution a rush to find interventions until we have a deeper political understanding of the what we mean when we speak of urbanization today.

The challenge for me is not to avoid the planetary as such: certainly we do live in a time when the planetary has become a meta-discursive. Rather, it is a question of how we are to understand politics within planetary systems without succumbing to their totalizing and monolithic presentations. In other words, how can we construct a knowledge appropriate to contemporary forms of urbanization, yet which articulates a clear and effective practice of political resistance? I am encouraged by Jodi Dean’s suggestion of an ‘anamorphic politics’ which aims to approach otherwise totalizing and debilitating problems associated with the anthropocene/climate change from the perspective of its gaps, cracks and contradictions that can be exploited toward a strategic end. This idea builds a collective politics of resistance by first and foremost rejecting the notion that such problems must be seen either as impossibly totalizing horizons or as struggles that must be articulated from the so-called ‘bottom-up’. In this, I’m very sympathetic to Nikos’ and Alvaro’s emphasis on architectural form in its dialectical relation to the processual space of the urban, though not yet sure what this would mean in terms of a politics or against what it could direct itself. Looking forward to hear more.

(thanks to Roi Salguerio and Daniel Ibanez for the invitation and thanks to



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