jueves, 30 de octubre de 2014

The South American City: Urban Mechanism or Political Instrument?


Published on Monday, October 27th

on “Gkill City”, a counter culture

Guayaquilean eMagazine.

The translation runs on my account. Sorry for that!


What are the consequences of managing the politics of a city economically?

Illustration by Francisco Galarraga. 

Cities are the best invention mankind has done to ensure their survival. Surplus food allowed human gather in certain places, and we were able to diversify our activities. This allowed us to diversify our skills: some in agriculture, others on defense, other on doing handicrafts and others in the study of what surrounds us. We talked about those early days, in which to be a scientist and to be shaman at the same time and were not contradictory acts.

Cities are the turning point in which we inverted the rules of nature. Instead of adapting to the environment, we achieved it according to our standards. To paraphrase the metaphor of Genesis, expelled from Paradise, mankind were forced to built up its own Eden.

That was how we established our game field. The stage for our social interactions. The life of the city is not set by their streets and buildings. In contrast, the urban components are the materialized symptoms of human interaction. The urban structure reveals much more than what words often hide. It is generally believed that this urban interaction is defined by the market, which in reality is far from that sort of regulating god. It really is the metabolism of human interaction in a specific region.

However, humans have other ways of relating that are beyond the market, and we even use them to establish which kind of economy we want to implement. Politics is the stratum of the social metabolism that is beyond economics. Frank Underwood, this fictional Machiavelli's "House of Cards" series makes that very clear, when referring to a former associate of his, "What a waste of talent! He chose money over power. A mistake that many use to make around this city. Money is the Mc Mansion in Sarasota, that begins to crumble after ten years. Power is the old stone building that remains steadfast for centuries. I can not respect those who do not see the difference".

In general terms, the picture is this: the city serves as a means of interrelating and achieve our individual goals; and this is also reflected in a collective manner. the macro picture of social exchange is mostly projected through the economic prism. However, it’s the political aspect which can have major repercussions. The city is made ​​and unmade by political and economic affairs.

The economy gives a gravitational effect to cities. In theory, the increased economic activity attracts more people, that will turn into more labor and more entrepreneurship. However, the economic gravity does not produce immediate reactions. The economic "boom" of a region may be over, and yet a city would have to deal with those who see in the city a chance to get a better life. The balance between population and prosperity is then broken and the first symptoms of imbalance start to appear: unemployment, poverty, shortages of housing and basic services, increased crime, etc. 

No one can doubt the economic nature of the city. What is interesting is to decipher the relationship between its economics and its political facet. Which is serving which? This inquiry becomes even deeper, if the nature of the factors that keep the informal growth is analyzed. Surely, someone is making ​​a profit of so much human misery around. It's worth finding out if there’s is political or economic benefit.

Economics tells us that the benefit comes from a needed class in an early stage of development. Over time, markets require the neediest also to prosper, so they wouldn’t not only produce, but also consume; or rather, to diversify their consumption. An example is the US economy, after the war. The unemployed of the Great Depression were channeled through the infrastructure created for World War II, becoming mostly automakers and builders. The labor class gets involved as a link in the production chain, and also as a consumer. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in Economics, 2012, makes clear the reasons why the US economy fails to recover that dynamic that characterized it before the 2008 crisis. In his book "The Price of Inequity", Stiglitz suggests that new players in the new industry production are unable to incorporate all available manpower. Among the jobs outsourced to China, and improving industrial performance, the computers and Smartphones plants from our days do not require many workers. The US economy is in crisis, because, unlike what happened during the last century, it’s unable to give general and massive solutions.

In contrast, the political side gets a more immediate and recurring profit from the existence of misery. The South American cities have been and are in some cases witnessed the political strategy of "formalizing the informal '. A clear indication of this political behavior is that the constructed works are often not comprehensive solutions. They Always leave sections or parallel issues for later. They don’t talk about plans to build in different phases. Projects are worked independently, without any interaction with the already built environment, or with what is to be built. This is synchronized with the electoral calendar, and soon one begins to notice a strange coincidence between the elections and increase of municipal works.

And why not make history by solving all the problems of a city in one sitting? Why to open today a road, in order to install sewage networks; and leave the drinking water installation for six months later? Beyond the benefit of the doubt that may be given to the "magnitude" of problems (again, this should enter the scene comprehensive development plans, planned to be built in stages), the worst enemy a politician can have is a satisfied voter. Politically, the vote has become a sort of a power currency. This occurs after the reengineering of campaign platforms, which transformed the candidate from a community leader to an object of political consumption. The duality between the public authority and the candidate running for reelection allows the "more works by votes" deal. For this model to be made​​, it is essential that needs are partially satisfied. It's an easy way, with lower costs and it allows a long-term projection for the political figure ... "Perfect Business".

However, the previously described model is not permanent, even though the political class might be interested in maintaining the status quo. Inevitably, the candidate becomes obsolete; in part, by his own desire to maintain a certain strategy. The speed of project developments does not satisfy the public. Also, the nature of such projects starts to respond to an antiquated or outdated mentality. The candidate must then oxygenate his vision, and also his staffs. Otherwise, they should simply resign themselves to the relay.

These are the consequences of managing city politics in an economical way. Alternatives? I would go to use the policy in order to improve the economy, highlighting the origin of the word “community”. This is achieved by understanding the city as a sum of interacting communities. The city must then be served simultaneously from two perspectives: one general scale and one more related with the nature of neighborhood. Small projects done rightly have great regenerative power. This has been amply demonstrated in "Urban Acupuncture" the newly published book written by Jaime Lerner, great Brazilian urban planner and former mayor of Curitiba. That -combined with the general comprehensive regulations of the city- may allow a city like ours to operate in a harmoniously, authentic way; while generating a common benefit of its inhabitants.