Critical Thinking

The examples from both global north and south

The mental image produced
by the concept of the unjust and violent city tends to be one of two varieties:
the Dickensian Victorian industrial hub, filled with smog-choked street orphans;
or the sporadic tin-clad slums of an unspecified third world country with a
broken sewage pipe trickling idly by. These images do not portray the rapid and
spiralling socio-economic injustices that stem from rapid urbanisation in the
world today – caused by the perception that cities provide far more opportunities
for innovation, change and economic prosperity that rural living ever could. It
is not difficult to see how this perception could stem from imagery of the
modern city being a centre creativity, technological advancement and the centre
point for the meeting of a myriad of global outlooks within more economically
developed countries in the Global North. It would be easy to assume the growth
of the city in the global North is an overall positive affair symbolising a
growth in creativity and modernisation. However, the growth of cities, rich or
poor, is fuelled by the desire for change and prosperity. The parallel of the
city as a place of exploitation versus one of possibility can be seen mainly in
the forms of housing provision, socio-economic activity and service provision.
I will be comparing these using a number of examples from both global north and
south to demonstrate how both exploitation and innovation can exist in cities
regardless of their wealth or global status.

As of 2014, 54 per cent of
the world’s population lived in urban areas, a figure that is projected to rise
to 66 per cent in the next thirty years. Further UN projections demonstrate
that close to 90 percent of the increase would be concentrated in Asia and
Africa (Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations, 2014).  Such rapid growth in typical “global south”
or LEDC countries brings with it more obvious examples of the unjust and
exploitative city. Cairo, Egypt is one such example, with an estimated
2017 population of over 19 million, an exponential increase from the 1950
estimate of 2.4 million (Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations, 2014).  Perhaps it is somewhat unsurprising that
between 1986 and 1996 in Egypt as a whole, 45 per cent of new housing units
constructed were private and informal. The densely populated informal
settlements known as “ashwa’iyyat ” or “haphazard” in Arabic, gives a
brief insight into the current state of Cairo’s urban planning strategies of
the past (or lack thereof). The state provides minimal public housing
opportunities and private accommodation is far beyond the means of low-income
rural-urban migrants. Informal housing is the only option. (Sabry, 2010).

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Whilst it is clamed nearly
all homes in the city have access to clean water, the substantial differences
in terms of the quality, pressure and availability of their water supply
demonstrate a certain level of passivity by the Egyptian government which in
turn legitimises the informal settlements, regardless of their illegality.
Furthermore as sanitation provision and coverage is generally poor, apparent
limited upgrading of some informal areas that appear to be slums has given more
people access to sanitation ( United Nations Human Settlements Programme
(UN-HABITAT), 2011). This would suggest that the Egyptian
state itself recognises that the slums are perhaps some form of necessary evil-
as they improve the limited provisions to make life slightly better for
inhabitants instead of providing some sort of alternative that may eradicate
the situation entirely. This is demonstrated by an inherent lack of fear of
eviction by residents of informal settlements. Of course the argument of
humanitarian organisations would be that adequate state provisions would have
allowed for the apparently vastly underestimated levels of poverty within the
slum to be eradicated, the slum, in a normative ideal situation, should not
exist in the first place (Sabry, 2010). Sporadic and uneven
provision of basic public needs and services demonstrates how the injustices of
a city, particularly over populated cities, lies within the fact new migrants
or residents of slums live within a realm of adversity and poverty that is
somewhat accepted by the government in order to keep them within their current
socio-economic status rather than mobilise upwards within society ( United Nations Human Settlements Programme
(UN-HABITAT), 2011). Herein lies the primary notion of
exploitation- a passive acceptance of the current situation faced by the
poorest of those within the city, and an exploitation of the universally
acknowledged truth that in general the poor would rather remain in a
socio-economic stasis for fear of worsening their situations. It would be easy to
romanticise the notion of the slum; viewing it as offering hope as some form of
low-cost temporary living situation that will spring board into new found economic
prosperity far from what could be offered in rural areas. However reality
demonstrates that the urban slum confines residents to extreme poverty,
vulnerability and insecurity. (Turok, Budlender, & Visagie, 2017).

 According to the Egyptian government’s
National Research Centre, 40 per cent of Cairo does not have access to water
for more than three hours per day, with some districts receiving even less.
Other reports suggest that up to 40 per cent of Cairo’s drinking water is
wasted as a result of deteriorating supply networks (Khater, 2010). In addition, a significant part of the
loss consists of leakage in the supply system and the distribution system. The
real levels could be higher; this average loss of 34 per cent is considered too
low by many experts since most water connections are not properly metered (Abdel-Gawad,
2007).
Naturally this can be considered a ticking time bomb in an extremely over
populated and demanding metropolis within and infamously hash and arid environment.
Perhaps the fundamental of such an extremely scarce yet invaluable resource
would suggest a lack of innovation in vital technological areas of the Cairo
such an irrigation- as significant development in this area has potential to
improve the overall wellbeing of the entire area and thus stunts the
possibility for an overall improvement in quality of life. Egypt currently relies on the Nile for 97% of its water needs, and global
news is reporting that the river is under threat (Dakkak, 2017).  As the United Nations is already warning that Egypt could run out of water by
the year 2025, it’s evident that as resource scarcity hits the poorest in
society the hardest, majority of the hardship once again would be laid on the
slum dwellers, thus exacerbating their situations (Sabry, 2010).

Cairo’s most prominent
demonstration of injustice and exploitation is demonstrated mainly along ethnic
lines.  The Zabaleen- a sub-class of Coptic
Christians living within The City of the Dead and more recently in peripheral
areas of the city due to relocation efforts. This group have been Cairo’s
informal waste collection system for decades; maintaining high rates of efficiency
and recycling an estimated 85% of waste collected and selling it onto scrap
collectors (Fahmi & Sutton, Cairo’s
Zabaleen garbage recyclers: Multi-nationals’ takeover and state relocation
plans, 2006).
The remainder is given to the pigs they farm, reused to make sellable goods, or
the last 15% is sent to the landfill ( United Nations Human Settlements Programme
(UN-HABITAT), 2011).

Despite being such a vital part
of urban infrastructure, the Zabaleen have faced marginalisation and
persecution for years.  In 2009, the
Mubarak government carried out an alleged swine flu cull of more than 300,000 Zabaleen
pigs; many of the zabaleen community view this as a sectarian act against a
small Christian enclave in a majority Muslim country.  The state destruction of a vital portion of their
income made the Zabeleen’s existing task worse- as the children of the community
were involved in increasing numbers. In turn, this further limited the literacy
rate of the population’s dependants as well as further exposing them to
disease. (Kingsley, 2014)

This is a demonstration of
the exploitation and the injustice of the city in a more obvious form. The Zabaleen
are an extremely important and necessary part of waste management in Cairo, but
they need the city as much as the city needs them. This symbiotic relationship requires
the zabaleen to remain living in a state of extreme poverty and squalor in
order for them to be of service to the population. The Zabaleen collect rubbish
and deal with it with such efficiency as a means of survival; they do not recycle
at such levels and live amongst the waste as service to the city, but for the
sole reason that they have no alternative. If they were not in such a dire
situation (one that was perpetuated and exacerbated by past state administrations
(Fahmi, The impact of privatization of solid waste
management on the Zabaleen garbage collectors of Cairo, 2005)) they would not
perform such a service to the city’s spiralling number of residents, hence why privatisation
efforts of Cairo’s waste management system has failed in the past. Media
outlets in the First World continue to report on the Zabaleen as a symbol of
human ingenuity and innovation- using phrases such as “Egypt’s diamond in the
rough” (Aguirre, 2015). This further demonstrates
how a marginalised community’s survival through informal employment is romanticised
and euphemistically looked upon as an “entrepreneurial success story”.

 

 

A comparative success story
when it comes to allowing citizens the right to the city can be demonstrated
through the social housing policy within Vienna, Austria. 60 % of all Viennese
households live in subsidised apartments, all stemming from the so-called “Red
Vienna” period which saw tens of thousands of Gemeindewohnungen (council houses) constructed for the most
economically disadvantaged part of the population, mainly immigrants fleeing
from Eastern Europe and the Iron Curtain. (FÖRSTER, undated).

The city of Vienna owns
about 220,000 rental apartments. Still, in recent years, the major part of new
social housing has been carried out by non-profit housing associations under
the Non-Profit Housing Act. Regulated rents and subsides for low-income residents
are just a few of the mechanisms to ensure the most economically precarious residents
do not lose their homes in case of unforeseen circumstances. This demonstrates
how cities can be innovative and filled with possibility through supporting residents
in their most basic and fundamental rights and needs. Furthermore, Vienna
presents itself as an innovative housing model through its ecological and environmental
conscience. Low-energy consumption is a new regulation in the construction of
new housing units. This includes limiting water usage and wastage, the
recycling of rainwater and varying levels of solar polar usage. New housing
units most also be connected to the cities renewable heating scheme, thus
saving over two thirds of all primary energy. The present capacity of the
district heating company is extended continuously (Whitehead
& Scanlon, 2007).

However, the demographics
do not demonstrate an entirely fair utopian picture. An influx of immigrants
into social housing in the 1990s led to tensions on some areas. Additionally, they
tend to be placed in older buildings from the 1950s. This has led to an increasing
number of conflicts between generationally established residents and immigrants,
leading to local authorities establishing conflict-mediation institutions to
de-escalate these disputes. An interesting contrast is seen in how younger
middle-class families are found in the newer, more modern residences (Whitehead & Scanlon, 2007).

Whilst Cairo and Vienna may
not perfect parallels, they both demonstrate realities and disparities within
the housing provisions in cities, and how these can be exploitative as well as
innovative. However, it must be taken into account that the provisions laid out
by these two nations depends largely on the volume of rural urban migration,
individual government policies, as well as their respective material and
economic wealth.

  Whilst Vienna demonstrates how social housing
provision can be a relative success, Dublin and London on the other hand
provide an examples of how the modern, cities in the Global North, can see
their residents exploited by the very mechanisms and traits used to view it as
innovative and full of possibility.  The
concept of “The tech city” has opened up a new realms of both innovation but
injustice also, and the comparison of what some call the “sharing economy”
whilst others see it as disruptive.

One such example is the emerging
growth of the “gig economy” by which the workforce of cities is becoming
increasing characterised by short term precarious employment such as that
offered by “Deliveroo” and “Uber”. The gig-economy is usually understood to include
employment by  “crowdwork” and “work
on-demand via apps” (Kessler, Fast Company, 2015). This work is
typical and on the rise in modern cities due to the ease of use of the apps
which facilitate them. Whilst it has been said this type of work provides
valuable employment in a low wage economy such as the UK, the unjust nature of
this type of employment has begun to shine through due to the lawsuits faced
the tech companies as well as the organisation of allegedly underpaid workers (Kessler, Fast Company, 2015). At its core, precarious
work has exploitative origins as it is born out of a fear of losing work, and
thus breeds compliance to the companies they work under as well as silence and passivity
towards unfavourable working conditions. Strikes against Deliveroo and Uber as
seen in the UK, Milan and France can perhaps been seen as a sign that the gig
economy creates more problems than it solves (Cotton, 2016) . Furthermore, it
can argued that as human contact between these IT companies and those who work
in their name is minimal, workers are therefore made more invisible, and thus
their perceived rights are invisible also (Stefano, 2015).

In Conclusion, all cities,
regardless of global status or wealth, have unjust and exploitative elements as
well as creating opportunities for possible innovation.  It should however be noted that the nature of
the exploitation and injustices can vary based on the city’s place in either
Global South or Global North. Whilst it can be argued that poorer countries suffer
more deeply from rapid urban expansion due to their lack of resources and
materials on a more fundamental level, this does not take away from the fact
this occurs in more developed and seemingly more equipped nations also. Whilst
it’s important to be critical of the romanticising of the injustices faced by
the urban poor, there still is something to be said of the of “sites-and-services”
approach adopted by many urban settlements by which governments provide the
materials and means for settlers to build their own safer, legal, informal
settlements. Whilst it could be said the gig economy provides a comparative example
of self-help in the urban labour market, it similarly demonstrates a lack of
choice in each individual situation.

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