Lingering cityism and countryside entrapment

Publication Date
November 8, 2021

Flipping quickly through their power points, in separate presentations this past September, both Norman Foster and Karen Seto paused to emphasize their metropolis slide: bird’s-eye views of New York and Shanghai, respectively. Against these backgrounds, each lecturer proclaimed some variation of the outrageous statistics on how many cities the size of the former or the latter need to be built each year to house the rapidly urbanizing world. To be sure, they both underscored the crucial role that the architect will need to play in this story. This emphasis on urbanization that begets new city-making, that in turn necessitates architectural labor for the creation of ever more built space belies a conflation—one between the city and the urban—that prevents us from meaningfully responding to the question of the Non-Urban. Presenting in the school of Architecture, Foster, an architect and urban designer, picked downtown Manhattan for his metropolis slide, an iconic city-core with familiar connotations around the globe. Preparing her slides a few blocks away in the School of the Environment, Seto, a geographer and urbanization scientist, chose a rapidly urbanizing assemblage in Southeast Asia. Despite the different connotations with which these examples are invested—the traditional 19th century city of the West and the emerging and sweeping agglomerations of the developing world, respectively—both of the arguments presented to the students serve to render urbanization through cityness.

The “city” and the “urban” have been replacing one another in texts and imaginaries for some time now. That is, the quality of the “urban” is persistently equated with a single, distinct and bounded settlement typology. Perhaps most characteristic is the persistent belief that the evidence of the “urbanizing planet,” is primarily based on statistical demographic accounts of population concentration in cities—the familiar quote repeating that “by 20XX, Y% of the population will be living in cities”.1 Furthermore, contemporary processes of urbanization are typically addressed almost exclusively through the lens of the city, despite the fact that they arguably produce more forms than the city alone. Urban studies, Urban sociology, Urban geography, and Urban political ecology, all display a persistent focus on the city, something that scholars are now calling a “methodological cityism,” that is no less than an epistemological bias.2 There is a growing consensus in urban studies that the city is a problematic analytical category, one that fails to explain the many ways that urbanization has exploded in peculiar forms; examples of this can be found within logistics cities such as Basra in Iraq, cities in the scale of the territory such as the NEOM project in Saudi Arabia, discontiguous megalopolises such as the BosWash, cross-border hinterlands of extended urbanization such as those in the Singapore-Malaysia-Indonesia complex, or highly-networked countrysides such as, well, Switzerland.3 The proliferation of uneasy terms for the “quite urban”—the peri-urban, the extra-urban, the super-urban—, and the necessity to define the urban through its negative—the non urban/ the other than urban— are both arguably symptomatic of a crisis in the “urban=city” model, possibly part of an ongoing paradigm shift. In light of the above, the concern of this issue could be reframed: the problem is not one of “urban fixation,” but rather one of “lingering cityism”.

Most architecture schools, despite claiming authority in the organization of space beyond the scale of the building, remain attached to historical readings of the city/ urbanity and its others, struggling to follow the relevant discourse. Admittedly, the fundamentals and the key thinkers must be read; but how much time do we spend studying the evolution of city-making versus the ongoing debates that try to make sense of the built environment as we currently experience it and within which our designs will be performing? A logical explanation for this may be that in many Western curricula urbanism is taught either by trained architects with experience in urban design, or mostly, by trained architects with a phd in the history of architecture. How often do we see geographers, sociologists, and political scientists teaching these classes? (Note that in the schools in which this is the case, this is also where urban theory is coming out of architecture schools—Harvard GSD before Brenner left, UCLA, ETH among others). But further, we could even argue that architecture schools self-consciously avoid this critical reframing of urbanism: We choose to remain stubbornly entrenched within our current frame of thought, because within it buildings still seem relevant enough.

This persistent cityism unavoidably influences the view of the city’s negative as well; the two are interconnected. According to Hillary Angelo this “folk cityism” perpetuates parochial and romanticized understandings of nature and the pastoral, assuming connections between decentralization, a sense of community, organic products, and the color green.4 “Folk cityism” begets “folk pastoralism.” Even when some manage to see beyond these biases, and notice the contemporary highly automated environments—the agro-industrial landscapes, and the building-machines that breed and preserve organic matter—they still mispronounce their finding as the “countryside.”5 (Maybe this is why Koolhaas’s piece in the catalog booklet is full of questions.) But the center-pivot irrigation mesmerizing patterns we see on many of our friends’ desks these days, are not the countryside. Rather, they are the manifestation of the rapid urbanization of the rural: artificial, industrial, striated, mechanized landscapes, suggesting specific forms of social organization, with their owners being embedded in complex tertiary relations of production, and managing their irrigation system or controlling their tractors through satellites and big data.6 To overlook these ideas is to overlook other forms of urbanization: Benjamin Bratton’s dark factories, Keller Easterling’s El Ejidos, Nancy Couling’s energy producing offshores, or Martin Arboleda’s mining hinterlands.7 But it’s all so difficult to see and work on, as the city as a hegemonic analytical category has swollen to eclipse meaningful renderings of its others.

  1. For a critique see Brenner, Neil, and Christian Schmid. “The ‘Urban Age’ in Question.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38, no. 3 (2014): 731–55.
  2. Angelo, Hillary, and David Wachsmuth. “Urbanizing Urban Political Ecology: A Critique of Methodological Cityism” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39, no. 1 (2015): 16–27.
  3. For a review of the debate see Rickards, Lauren, Brendan Gleeson, Mark Boyle, and Cian O’Callaghan. “Urban Studies after the Age of the City.” Urban Studies 53, no. 8 (June 2016): 1523–41. See also Brenner, Neil, and Christian Schmid. “Towards a New Epistemology of the Urban?” City 19, no. 2–3 (May 4, 2015): 151–82.
  4. Angelo, Hillary. “From the City Lens toward Urbanisation as a Way of Seeing: Country/City Binaries on an Urbanising Planet.” Urban Studies 54, no. 1 (2017): 158–78.
  5. Rem Koolhaas. Countryside: A Report. Köln: TASCHEN, 2020.
  6. Ghosh, Swarnabh, and Ayan Meer. “Extended Urbanisation and the Agrarian Question: Convergences, Divergences and Openings.” Urban Studies 58, no. 6 (2021): 1097–1119.; Brenner, Neil, and Nikos Katsikis. “Operational Landscapes: Hinterlands of the Capitalocene.” Architectural Design 90, no. 1 (2020): 22–31.
  7. See Bratton, Benjamin H. The Terraforming. Moscow: Strelka Press, 2019; Easterling, Keller. “El Ejido,” in Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005; Couling, Nancy, and Carola Hein, eds. The Urbanisation of the Sea: From Concepts and Analysis to Design. Rotterdam: nai010 Publishers, 2020; Arboleda, Martín. Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism. Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2020.
Publication Date
November 8, 2021
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Gustav Nielsen
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