John Lorinc, Cities: A Groundwork Guide

April 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

[Eds. note: Over the next few weeks, I will be re-publishing some of the articles I wrote for the Complex Terrain Laboratory, a precursor to Current Intelligence magazine. For the most part, these are articles I don’t want to lose, so re-posting them here is my way of creating an archive of them. Some are book reviews, a series of articles on cities and the slum, and some on landscape, memory, and archaeology.]

John Lorinc, Cities: A Groundwork Guide.  Toronto & Berkeley, CA: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2009.  140pp + index, $11.00 (CAN) $10.00 (USA)

2009 was a watershed for humanity.  It was the first time that a majority of people, worldwide, lived in urban areas.  This was fuelled by a process of urbanisation in the developing world; in western Europe and Canada, the majority of people lived in cities by the First World War.  The United States reached this milestone shortly thereafter.  But in the developing world, people remained primarily rural until the past couple of decades when industrialisation reached this part of the world, in large part because North American and European companies began to outsource and move production off-shore.  This, in turn, had massive consequences for cities in this part of the world, as jobs dried up and industrial areas were abandoned.  This has led to a paradoxical situation in terms of urbanism in the world.  For example, Manila has grown by some 10.5 million people since 1951 to its present population of 12 million.  Meanwhile, Detroit and other cities in the North American rustbelt have experienced depopulation in the past few decades.

Throughout all of this, cities, especially in the industrialised world, gain more power and influence, not just on the national scale (such as London, the British metropole), but on the global scale (London remains the financial capital of the world, a position it has held for centuries).[1]  And in the process, cities, worldwide, continue to grow, becoming larger than some nations.  For example, there are more people in Tokyo than in all of Canada.  That is a mind-boggling thought, given the size of Canada’s geographic footprint (the 2nd largest nation in terms of landmass in the world) compared to that of Tokyo.

It is in this context that Canadian journalist John Lorinc has written a primer on cities for the 21st century, the appropriately titled Cities.  Lorinc is a specialist on urban affairs, his work having appeared in several Canadian publications; he also currently contributes to the New York Times’ eco-business blog, “Green Inc.: Energy, the Environment, and the Bottom Line.”  His last book, 2006’ The New City: How the Crisis in Canada’s Large Urban Centres is Re-Shaping the Nation (Penguin) was especially well-received and serves as somewhat of a basis for his argument in Cities, insofar as he notes the power of cities.  In Canada, a full one-third of the nation’s population lives in the three largest cities: Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver.  In this sense, then, Lorinc is very well-positioned to ponder the plight, role, and impact of global cities in the 21st century.

Cities is the latest edition to a series from revered Canadian independent publisher, House of Anansi Press, the Groundwork Guides.  Previous volumes have examined topics as diverse as oil, empire, genocide, slavery, and sex.  The series is meant to provide an overview of cultural and political issues, offering “both a lively introduction and a strong point of view.” [back cover].  Lorinc accomplishes both, this volume is a lively discussion of the role and plight of cities, and though his “strong point of view” is somewhat muted in his prose, it is very clear.  Lorinc argues that we must be conscious and aware of the impact of cities on our wider culture, their economic, cultural, and political power, to say nothing of their environmental impact, and the plight of the poor in the megacities of the developing world.  In making this argument, though, Lorinc isn’t really saying anything new, nor anything controversial.  He covers the expected, and says the expected.

Rather than focus on the benefits and upside of city life, like other urbanists like Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida, Lorinc is more interested in problematising the city.  And this is beneficial tact to take.  Whereas as Jacobs and Florida focus on how the city is a creative force, a site of community, and so on, this is limiting argument and only deals with a minority of cities and a minority of people in cities worldwide.  Lorinc’s more comprehensive approach to the city allows for a wider analysis, both in the developed and developing worlds.  Indeed, the problem with Florida, in particular, is that he is not all that interested in slums and the poor in North American’s cities, which is troubling.

Nevertheless, while Lorinc travels down a road already well-travelled in Cities, his gift lies in the quick and coherent synthesis of the urban condition in the new century.  Broken up into 7 simple chapters, he gives us an overview of the issues facing cities the world over today.  He also moves easily from the developed to the developing worlds, between the historical and the contemporary.  Each chapter covers a central concept of urbanism: the city in the 21st century, urban forms and functions, sprawl, the environment and energy, transportation, poverty, and crimes, epidemics, and terrorism.  In addition to this division, the book is unofficially split so that the first half more or less focuses on the developed world, whilst the second half deals with the developing world.  The division isn’t absolute, of course, as both halves of the globe fit into the discussion throughout.

Central to the analysis is the environment, and the city’s impact upon it, in both the developed and developing world.  Each chapter serves as an introduction to the topic and hand, and whilst it is impossible for Lorinc to be comprehensive and exhaustive in the roughly 20 pages devoted to each chapter, he excels in introducing the problems and challenges facing cities to his readers.

Cities are incredibly complex and complicated socio-political structures.  They require careful- and micro- management; problems arise from dense population structures, complicated landscapes, environmental degradation, communications and transportation, amongst other things.  And Lorinc is best at pointing out that the problems that the megacities of the developing world face are problems that cities in the developed world are perpetually struggling with.

Most obvious here is the question of the environment.  Cities are cesspools of pollution and toxicity.  As noted, Lorinc’s discussion of the environmental impact of cities dominates this book; no fewer than 3 chapters (3: Sprawl Happens; 4: Environment and Energy; 5: Cities and Transportation) are dominated by environmental questions.  Chapter 3 examines the environmental (and socio-cultural) consequences of urban sprawl, primarily in Europe and North America.  Here, Lorinc touts cities that have managed to tout responsible development, vertical rather than horizontal.  Manhattan and the west end of Vancouver are two such examples, as they provide high-density urban settlement of high-rise condo development.  His argument is hurt, however, in a table that accompanies this discussion, a “selected” listing of the population density of the worlds 250 largest cities.  The table, however, is ultimately meaningless, in part because we don’t know the overall population of the cities, and the neighbourhoods/boroughs that he points to in his text aren’t in the table.  Manhattan is grouped in with the rest of New York City, which sees its density rating fall to 16th on the table (though whether that is 16th in the world or not is another matter entirely) and Vancouver isn’t listed at all.  In short, this table is rendered ultimately useless, as it offers us no real basis of comparison.  For example, while it is clear that Atlanta is much less dense than, say, London, this nugget means nothing to me without information on overall population size and geographic footprint of the two cities.

Lorinc also focuses on the degradation of the air we breathe in urban centres, offering a quick discussion of air-borne pollution in western cities during the industrial revolution.  Here he notes that by the 1880s, London’s air was close to being a toxic soup.  Oddly, though, he doesn’t mention the most obvious and famous example of air-borne toxicity in the developed world: Los Angeles.  That being said, he notes the lack of political will in battling air-borne pollution, politicians were not all that keen on dealing with the problem because of the damage it would to do the local economy and business.  Whilst London is his example, nearly every industrial city in Western Europe and North America has faced this problem.  Indeed, this seems to still be the crux of the question of global warming and environmental degradation today, as politicians remain unwilling to show leadership and make hard decisions, out of fear of upsetting the populace and damaging the economy (despite the fact that many studies note that implementing the Kyoto Accord would not harm the economy in the way that its alarmist opponents suggest), to say nothing of their chances at re-election.

Lorinc then nicely segues into a discussion of “Environmental Degradation in the South’s Megacities.”  Here, he deftly explores the problems facing these cities.  For example, he points to Lagos, the largest city and capital of Nigeria, which is a bustling metropolis of around 8 million (Lorinc uses the metropolitan population of 15 million [ed.: see my post on the difficulty in using Metropolitan population statistics here]).  Here he cites journalist George Packer, who has noted that the inner-city urban slums of Lagos are, in part, built on and around a heavily-polluted lagoon.  (As an aside, it is interesting to note that Lagos’ entry on Wikipedia makes absolutely no mention of the city’s slums).[2]  The polluted water of Lagos Lagoon is where the poor draw their water from, and where fishermen catch food.  The consequences of this for the health of these slum residences are obvious.  In discussing Lagos’ problems, however, it is interesting to note that Lorinc doesn’t point to the obvious source of the problem of pollution and a lack of regulation: there is no central urban government for the Lagos metropolitan area, the municipal government that does exist only serves a small core at the centre of the city.

Emissions are also a problem in these megacities of the developing world.  Even smaller cities are moving towards an environmental apocalypse.  Recently, China eclipsed the United States as the world’s emissions leader; of the top 20 cities in terms of emissions worldwide, 16 are Chinese.  The problem, in part, is due to the fact that the Chinese tend to incinerate their garbage, which causes serious emissions problems.  But Lorinc misses the other side of the equation here: automobiles.  And China’s streets and roads teem with automobiles belching emissions into the environment.  Indeed, the picture of China Lorinc paints in Cities reminds me of Dr. Seuss’ iconic Lorax, who speaks for the trees.  But the Chinese experience also points to another question of emissions and global warming, as the developing world is unwilling to be held to standards designed to ease the problems, arguing that such regulations would be handicaps to their own development.  They quickly point to the fact that North American and European nations were not subjected to such regulation during their period of industrialisation.

The discussion about trash is important because garbage dumps are quickly emerging not just as environmental disasters waiting to happen, but because slums are developing in and around them in various cities, such as Lagos, Buenos Aires, and Manila, amongst others.  In these cities, garbage is just piled up on top of itself in dumps (not that the developed world has a great record here, New York City has garbage barges floating in its harbour, and Toronto is engaged in an on-going battle with Michigan about where to put its garbage).  Dumps in these developing world cities have become the site of labour-intensive recycling businesses.  Scavengers, many of them children, dig through the dumps earning their keep, usually a few dollars a day, which they earn by selling what they find to scrap companies.  The scrap companies themselves turn around and make a handsome profit by selling the goods to recycling companies.  Not surprisingly, work conditions are brutal and dangerous, not to mention unsanitary.  It doesn’t take much of imagination to visualise these scrap-pickers climbing over the mountains of garbage, trying to avoid cesspools of toxic runoff, lethal smoke, bulldozers, garbage trucks, birds of prey, and insects.  Accidents can be fatal, Lorinc reports, such as in 2000 when the 20-hectare Pyatas dump in Manila capsized.  The garbage has been piled up to 13-storeys high when it fell over, smothering several hundred trash-pickers who lived in shanties at the foot of the garbage.

But it’s not just these megacities in the global South that are leading us to environmental danger, writes Lorinc.  Cities in the developed world are also intimately connected to our long-term survival in terms of climate change: “The reason is that wealthy nations are heavily urbanized, so the way these cities grow has a direct bearing on the pace of global warming, which in turn is already causing havoc in populous low-lying cities.” [p. 56].  Here, he points to Tokyo as a model.  Tokyo’s housing requires less energy than is the case in Europe and North America; the city is more tightly-packed and the transit system is both cost-effective and efficient, making the city easier to navigate.

Lorinc spends some time discussing environmentally-responsible architecture, as well as the reclamation of brownfields for housing and other purposes.  Brownfields are former industrial areas, located all over cities in the developed world, the consequence of the de-industrialisation of the developed world in the mid-20th century.  Lorinc correctly points to the redevelopment of brownfields in city cores as a means of increasing density, as well as developing better transit systems.  But he misses a prime opportunity to discuss the legacy of industrialisation in North American and Western European cities.  For example, I live in a former industrial neighbourhood in Montréal, surrounded by former factories and other sorts of industrial concerns.  My neighbourhood is like many around Europe and North America; cities like Pittsburgh have been left with massive brownfields that they have tried to redevelop to recover from deindustrialisation.  Some of the factories in my neighbourhood have been reclaimed as condos and office space.  Others, like the former metalshop that forms the backwall of my back garden, stand derelict and abandoned.  Nearby is the Lachine Canal, on the banks of which the Canadian industrial revolution began back in the 1840s.  In other words, I live in a neighbourhood that has been the site of almost continual industrial activity for the past 160 years (a few factories and railyards still exist).  To this day, the leisure craft that ply the canal today (it has been reclaimed as a recreation site) cannot travel at speeds in excess of 15 km/h, otherwise they run the risk of stirring up the toxic silt on the floor of the canal.  Redevelopment in my neighbourhood usually means cleaning the soil, but either way, there are serious environmental issues in neighbourhoods such as mine, ones that Lorinc doesn’t explore.

One way in which North American cities, in particular, can contribute to reversing climate change is through the implementation of viable public transit systems.  Most of the major cities in Canada and the US have good public transit: New York City, Chicago, Boston, Montréal, Toronto, for example.  Others, however, do not, such as Houston, or Calgary, or Atlanta.  These three cities are also home to considerable urban sprawl.   And Lorinc notes that this sprawl isn’t conducive to public transit:

there’s a powerful economic relationship between transit, population density and land-use planning.  Transit agencies must make substantial investments in vehicles and other equipment, like signalling systems.  They have hefty operating expenses, such as drivers’ salaries, vehicle maintenance and fuel costs…without a critical mass of riders, transit service becomes unaffordable and inefficient.  In general, transit riders want convenience, reliable and efficient service, and value for their money.  When a transit service doesn’t generate enough revenue, it often cuts back on service – for example, by reducing the number of vehicles running on any given route.  And when that happens, commuters…are much more likely to rely on their vehicles. [pp. 72-3]

And whilst this is certainly true, what Lorinc overlooks is that two of his examples of sprawl cities, Houston and Calgary, are the centres of the oil industry in the United States and Canada.  Another city with a shoddy public transportation system is Detroit, home of the domestic car industry in the United States.  In the case of Detroit, the car companies made sure that the city didn’t have a viable and efficient public transit system; what would it say if the home of the car companies had efficient transit?  It would hurt their bottom lines.  Certainly, the fact that public transit in Calgary and Houston is a dodgy proposition is not all that surprising.

The discussion of epidemics and the city in the final chapter is quite timely, given the recent worldwide paranoia about H1N1.  Our concentration in cities will make the transmission of H1N1 faster and more intense (though, of course, H1N1 remains less potent than common influenza, at least in Canada and the United States).  Indeed, cities in the industrialised world used to be cesspools of disease and epidemics, even as recently as the late 19th century.  Montréal was the site of the last smallpox epidemic in the industrialised west, in 1885.  Epidemiology in 1885 was only starting to develop, but its successive advancement throughout the 20th century has meant that epidemics like the Spanish influenza in the wake of World War I have become increasingly a thing of the past.  Governments, at all levels, have recognised their responsibility to protect the health and lives of their citizens. To that end, massive public health bureaucracies have grown in the industrialised north to protect us from disease.  However, this doesn’t mean that we are no longer vulnerable.  Lorinc reminds us of this when he points to the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto.  SARS originated in the Guangdong region of China before spreading, primarily to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Toronto.  Why an outbreak occurred in Toronto, rather than Vancouver, itself a major city of the Chinese diaspora, is instructive.  In Ontario, the province of which Toronto is the capital, a right-wing, anti-big government administration came to power 8 years earlier, and proceeded to radically slash government spending in all areas, including public health.  The consequences were disastrous, as hundreds were infected and quarantined, and 43 people died in Toronto from SARS, as hospitals lacked the resources to deal with the infection (in Walkerton, Ontario, a small city, government cutbacks led to a fatal outbreak of e.coli in the water supply in 2000).  Meanwhile, in Vancouver, writes Lorinc,

provincial labor officials had trained health care workers in the proper use of special masks and other safety systems designed to protect them from catching contagious diseases while administering emergency procedures to ill patients.[p. 121].

All in all, Lorinc provides us with an instructive and lively introduction to the problems facing cities and, as a result, humanity in the urban century.  That being said, however, his conclusion remains rather trite and does a disservice to the discussion throughout the book:

The twenty-first metropolis will be a concentrated place of nearly unfathomable diversity – ethnic, social, economic, environmental, religious.  Large cities have become a microcosm of everything that’s taking place in this complex world.  For good or ill, they are our future. [p. 128].


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