Boris Johnson’s plans to start again with the Thames Estuary Airport scheme are problematic. The Thames Valley area is completely integrated into the global economy. If Johnson’s plans went ahead all those firms would be stripped out. What proponents of the plan hope would happen is that these businesses would move to another area in the UK, but that is fantasy. Businesses would say, ‘Forget it. We’re going to Schipol Airport.’
There is an expectation that in the next 40 years we’re going to have mega globalisation, with increased migration from rural to urban areas. Cities will be in trouble because birth rates will decline. We may be about to see the final global system because soon we will have built all the cities ever needed. The question then becomes how cities will jockey for position.
Air routes reflect this city hierarchy in action. Frankfurt is a perfect example. It’s not the largest city in Germany; it has never been the capital, but it has become Europe’s financial centre. India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, wants to build an urbanised corridor through the country, and airports are a key part of that strategy. Western China needs airports to be joined to the global supply chain. Zhengzhou now has one of the largest airports under construction because that’s where Foxconn has moved iPhone assembly.
There will not be a global capital of 2040 in the way we think of New York in the 1920s. China’s cities will play a larger role than India’s because of its autocratic nature and commercial resources. India still contains both Californian and Afghani levels of wealth and poverty.
What holds Dubai back are a number of problems: the local interpretation of Islam means there’s a limit to the tolerance level in the city; there’s also censorship and the fact Dubai does not offer long-term visas. The city also suffered from the global financial crisis. If Dubai did it right, the city would give away all the unused office space to start ups that want to relocate there. Dubai is the creation of the US and Europe. After 9/11, Europe and the US started to close the borders. If you were a talented Algerian you did not have a chance to go to US or the EU, so where did you end up? You went to Dubai.
There are many cities like Tokyo, which grew slums from scratch after earthquakes in the 1920s. People built slums, but what happened there – and what’s happening now in Brazil – is that these slums became middle class cities. Researchers in Mumbai asked people in areas considered slums, ‘Do you live in a slum?’ People always said, ‘No, the slum is somewhere else. It’s not where we are.’ I used to favour more planning in cities, but now I prefer a more informal approach. There will not be enough time to plan all the cities required. At the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative we try to learn from emerging cities like Mumbai; we think ideas about creating an upwardly mobile slum could be applied to places like Detroit. This is a city with 40,000 empty buildings because of regulation and foreclosures.
Detroit is an example of how the divide between the developing and the developed world has collapsed. In Detroit there’s a group called the Detroit Water Brigade who provide water to residents cut off from the water system. There is an injustice because there are golf courses with water left on to water grass, while ordinary residents cannot get water. The best expert on informal water distribution is the largest NGO in Kabira [a slum in Nairobi], and that is where the people of Detroit turned for help. US cities have slum dynamics because of austerity.
I love New York. I also love Dubai. It’s not a melting pot because the city is very stratified. This is a place where the notion of a ‘city’ is a totally globally dispersed people. Dubai is filled with Indian businessmen and African traders; it’s the new Silk Road.
Detroit is a nightmare city because it is a bizarre alternate version of New York. Detroit’s Michigan Central Station was built by the same architects who built Grand Central Station in New York, but the former was derelict for years. If Detroit carries on its current trajectory, the US will be remembered for creating one of the world’s greatest cities and then destroying it. The poor are being forced out of the inner cities and the suburbs are becoming the centre for marginal groups. This is a new urban crisis where the challenge is to address problems in suburban areas that have nothing in common with inner cities.
1977 Born in Kankakee, Illinois
1999 Degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
2005 Editor-at-large for Advertising Age magazine
2007 Contributing writer for Fast Company magazine
2011 Publishes Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next with John Kasarda
2012 Work with the Studio Gang displayed at Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), New York for Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream
2014 Leads Emergent Cities Project for World Policy Institute and Clinton Global Initiative America
This story was published in the October 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine