Our cities: complex powerlessness!

“Cities are the spaces where those without power get to make a history and a culture, thereby making their powerlessness complex.” -  Saskia Sassen

Whether we like it or not, what happens in cities matters. What happens in cities spreads out and influences the broader culture.

I have a very weird relationship with cities. My strong belief of cities as culture-less and soul-less has been completely turned around as I slowly realize that every city has a meta narrative.

Cape Town, for instance, is the place where I grappled with the joys and pangs of what could be explained as ‘creating an identity for myself’. This being the city where I have spent most of my adult life. I still find it hilarious that there was a point in my life where Cape Town represented freedom…the freedom to dream and the freedom to be. This of course, was all because of the nice little bubble I had created for myself. Once that bubble burst, I could not see the city in the same light ever again.

“The battle for hearts and minds takes place in cities. From those struggling to make ends meet to wealthy investment bankers.” -Michael Allegretti

This is what makes cities complex and incomplete. They are the key social and economic organizing units of our time, bringing together people, jobs, and all the inputs required for economic growth. They are often vectors through which ideologies are born and thrive. For example; cosmopolitanism - the ideology that all human beings belong to a single community, based on a shared morality. 

We know that cities are growing at an alarming rate -  in 2013, 52% of the world’s population lived in cities vs 2% in the 1800s. Currently, 400 million people in Africa live in cities and this is likely to double in 20 years (Cityscapes magazine).

Understanding the history of our cities helps us understand the architecture of these cities. In Africa most cities were designed to centre around colonial extraction. The story of the city of Joburg for instance…here is an excerpt from a current exhibition (Unfinished City) at the Museum Of African Design (MOAD): 

Johannesburg was never meant to be. Born in 1886, it was the place where poor men came to make fortunes mining for gold. It was not a place to live. The Transvaal's mineral wealth prompted one of humanity's ugliest debacles–the Anglo-Boer War from–from 1899 to 1902. The city of Randlords was only meant to be mined, and then left behind.

You also have to wonder what happens to those places that we leave as we head to Johannesburg in search of opportunities. The social and economic landscape of both the ‘rural and urban’ settings is permanently altered by rapid urbanization and of course with every wave of urbanism there are questions around housing, healthcare, infrastructure…..livabilty.

This series on ‘our cities’ will explore; why cities matter, how cities are designed, how cities work, the freedom to move in & around cities, decolonization of African cities and more. Obviously I am not an expert in any of this, and I appreciate that cities are very complex and messy but I look forward to all the learnings through exploring this extremely intimidating and important topic. 

I suppose this blog series will merely be a way to organize all that new found knowledge.

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