Article by Oliver Wainwright. Monday 8th July 2019
The urge to build cities from scratch is not new – but this time they are being conceived by private multinational corporations as gilt-edged tax-exempt gated communities.
Songdo, South Korea’s self-styled “smart city”:
A place where the garbage is automatically sucked away through underground pipes, where lampposts are always watching you, and where your apartment block knows to send the elevator down to greet you when it detects the arrival of your car. Sensors in every street track traffic flow and send alerts to your phone when it’s going to snow, while you can monitor the children’s playground on TV from the comfort of your sofa. It looks a lot like many other modern Asian cities, a place of generic towers rising above a car-dominated grid.
Public life is mostly confined to the air-conditioned environments of malls and private leisure clubs.
Songdo represents a model that has been replicated numerous times around the world. Begun as a joint venture with US developer Gale International – which has since hawked its “city in a box” kit to other countries – the Songdo International Business District was conceived as a $40bn hub for international companies, an exemplar of sustainable urbanism and testing ground for new smart city technologies.
It claims to have the highest concentration of green Leed-certified buildings in the world, yet it is still entirely car-based, with not even a train line to the nearby airport. Songdo may have an “Integrated Operations Centre” – a Big Brother control room where reams of data are funnelled in real time from thousands of sensors across the city – but the physical urban model is no different to any other car-riddled business district. For all its low-energy labels, it is an expensive, exclusive and impersonal place.
The ultimate techno-eco-utopia?
Across the world, there are countless new cities like Songdo in the making. Barely differentiable, and often designed and serviced by the same international consultancies, these hi-tech urban enclaves are cropping up from Kenya to Kazakhstan. India has pledged to build 100 smart cities, while Africa is seeing $100bn pumped into at least 20 projects. China, having initiated 500 of its own smart city pilots, is now summoning a string of outposts through its Belt and Road initiative, from the dry port of Khorgos, on its border with Kazakhstan, to east London’s Royal Albert Dock, reborn as the Asian Business Park.
Saudi Arabia has pledged to trump them all with Neom, a $500bn mega-project billed as an answer to Silicon Valley. Planned as a centre for renewable energy, biotechnology, manufacturing, media and entertainment, it sprawls across an area 33 times the size of New York City. It claims to be nothing less than “the world’s most ambitious project”; an incubator for “the next era of human progress” – the ultimate “techno-eco-utopia”.
The vast majority of the newly planned cities are not being designed to house the coming tidal wave of rural-urban migrants. They are instruments to attract international investment and make the urban rich even richer, at a time when property has become the ultimate global currency.
This new breed of city takes various different forms, from government initiatives, to public-private partnerships, to entirely private enterprises. Many are being used to jump-start economies in the developing world, with masterplans carefully calibrated to attract foreign investors and treasuries looking to sink their funds into something concrete. They provide a powerful means for wealthy countries to expand their strategic influence abroad, with the construction of new cities acting as a form of “debt-trap diplomacy”, tying host nations into impossibly burdensome deals. They are billed as a panacea for the world’s urban ills, solving overcrowding, congestion and pollution; yet, more often than not, they turn out to be catalysts for land dispossession, environmental degradation and social inequality.
According to research from Savills, real estate is now a more valuable asset class than all stocks, shares and securitised debt combined, with a total value of around $228tn. That represents three and a half times global GDP, or 40 times the value of all the gold ever mined. While once we dug down to extract value from the earth, the bristling glass towers of these new urban enclaves are the inverted mineshafts of today – complete with equally damaging side effects.
As Rachel Keeton and Michelle Provoost of the International New Town Institute say in their new book, To Build a City in Africa : “New Towns are becoming islands with high quality services, while many existing African cities continue to suffer from unreliable electricity provision, limited access to clean water, and other ineffectual municipal services. Because of limited access to mortgages and other home financing models, the real African middle class cannot afford to live in these New Towns.”
Despite the evidence of half-built utopias lying mostly empty around the world, the seductive dream of building new cities from scratch shows no sign of abating any time soon. City-making, and the innumerable planning, engineering and technical services that go with it, is a booming industry, and corporations are intent on recycling their ideas irrespective of local context.
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