Notes from the Tele-Present

It took awhile before Western design firms could believe that the building and design market in Asia was serious business, and also to come to grips with the ambition, scale and speed of development. By now they understand and are trying to pick some cherries from that trillion dollar tree; the more so now their home markets are slowing down or worse. ‘Going East Asia’ these days is not ´only´ about delivering housing quarters, railway stations, airports, fiber networks, waste water treatment plants and what not; it extends to the delivery of complete cities. It’s already been a long time that the West has been confronting the ‘building a new town’ theme, but today it is a business opportunity.

As follow up to the Privatize! and Centers Adrift issues, this Volume presents another shift: a shift in who’s taking the initiative, who’s deciding and who’s governing when it comes to city building and city management.

This shift in practice cannot be summoned up in one sentence, it has many grades and variants, but the general tendency is that companies instead of governments and their planning departments are starting to create and run cities: concept, investment and funding, development and exploitation – including all services – in short the full package or ‘city in a box’. That is no small thing. In fact it’s grand. The investment involved is without precedent, the risks are substantial (world economy is not very predictable these days), the projects are massive. One could argue that the creation of a city as complete system is a triumph of human ingenuity.

Again, there is not one formula. In some cases these cities are privately run like mini states, as smoothly functioning alternatives to messy everyday realities. In others it is more about the creation of well-functioning economic hubs, technologically advanced ‘full service’ cities, that can compete for talent and enterprise on a global market.

They come in different guises: the creative industry look of former warehouses and reused industrial buildings, postmodern new urbanist Italianate lake-town romanticism, international finance modernism, and maybe we’ll see hi tech indigenous styled alternatives soon. But that is not the point. The point is that the relation of the individual and his or her surroundings is fundamentally changing.

Cities are creators of value and wealth. But that is not their only purpose in life. They’re complex expressions of culture and society, aggregates of knowledge, talent and expertise, platforms for individual opportunity and development, places to share and exchange. To approach the city as business primarily, to operate it like a company and make it perform as stock market fund, seems to miss a value or two.

So, there are serious issues involved. This is more than a retreating public sector and the market stepping in. This is a question of whether we want to and can base the organization of society on capitalist principles in full; if we can allow the corporation to take over. The answer to this question may not be as simple as it seems. Western rock solid values like democracy, freedom of choice, individual integrity and let’s not forget social inclusiveness have been challenged for a while now. New technologies, new social patterns, and competing political systems have demonstrated that rock solid may not be as solid as thought. So, if companies can deliver what democratic government cannot, why worry, why bother, why complain?

Let me give a reason or two.

Maybe hubris is the first thing to tackle. Playing god is not something architects shied away from in the past, but when it comes to New Towns, we have an unhappy history to look back onto. The current generation of New Town is even more ambitious in the all controlled life it offers. What makes current developers confident to succeed where public authority failed?

More fundamental is the notion of inclusivity. The entrepreneurial city targets a middle class as consumers and inhabitants. Poorer sectors of society are included as far as needed to serve the ones that create profit. Inclusiveness and building for all is not the ambition nor in the interest of the city-in-a-box developer.

And then there is a potential conflict of interest between private and public. The US could have been the first country with a nationwide network of high speed trains, reducing CO2 emissions and pollution caused by traffic drastically. But the car industry prevented this by de-servicing complete rail lines, stations and public transportation systems, to secure its prominent role in transportation. What is good for the company isn’t necessarily good for society.

And in line with this: what society needs may not be offered by the company. Not every public service can be changed into a profit making enterprise. Yet the quality and resilience of a society depends on these too.

There is also an inherent problem. This kind of city development and exploitation is based on exclusivity for the preferred partners. It actually functions as monopoly. That is he axe at the root of capitalist principles, prescribing an open market and competition as prerequisite for its ‘best product at the best price’ promise.

And then, as far as we’re seeing now, these cities can only come about and exist within certain favorable conditions. Land for free, major infrastructural investments in its vicinities, etc.

Lastly, we see that in all examples as presented governance is an unsolved issue. For the immediate now it is avoided, postponed to a future when everything is up and running (and basic returns are secured).

Lots of objections and second thoughts. Important issues to address for governments and politics. And let’s not forget the designers who can bring important programmatic issues to the table and present models of integration that are commercially viable, yet less obvious for non-designers. All the more important now its common understanding that society has to be run as a collaboration between private and public entities, and that old oppositions no longer function.

The problem for the city developers is that tendencies that already surround us to different degrees in many aspects of our lives (lack of real choice, loss of control over ones personal data, and more), all of a sudden are very visibly present in one product, in one environment. It is the condensed way these developments come together in the new towns we present here that is so fascinating: the daring scale, the clever layered business models, non only depending on direct sales, but different types of profit making, commercial chains of hard-  and software, of products and services.

A peak preview of future’s urban future?

This issue started as a conference, New Towns New Territories, initiated and organized by the International New Town Institute, with the ambition to map out this development. They brought together leading figures from main players in this field of operation, gathered during a day at the NAI in Rotterdam (September 27, 2012). Most of the material included is related to this conference and INTI’s earlier investigations. We thank INTI’s Michelle Provoost and Paul Kroese in particular for their work and contributions.

This issue also features the ‘you talking to me’ insert, a research project in Beirut by the Dutch artists Bik van der Pol, concerning the messy reality of everyday life in the self image of the city. It functions as a reality check on what a city is. Not the ideal, but the real.

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