THE TIME AND SPACE OF URBAN TECHNOLOGIES
A major set of challenges in how cities grow and evolve over time (or shrink and decline for that matter) is related to the interconnected time-space they inhabit. This is always linked to the social and physical technologies that shape urbanization at any given conjuncture: railways build different cities than automobiles. Today, technologies are ostensibly measured in intangible metrics. It is all about data. In a world of planetary sub/urbanization, we are now used to seeing the urban as functionally and symbolically spread across continents and oceans, and data networks, wired and not, are indicative of these relationships. As are the cities that anchor them. I want to be more modest here, though, and talk about the urban region, not the urban world.
Let us first consider time. The inevitability of technological progress needs to balance the inevitability of its eventual decline. If we build a neighbourhood from the Internet up, and if this entails disrupting “the neighbourhood itself” as Nabeel Ahmed muses, we need to ask what its demise might look like. What will be left when the ever-changing built environment gets swept away by a new and accelerated wave of technological disruption?
We know from the big box retail outlets that colonize our urban periphery that they are amortized after a few years and will be torn down sooner rather than later. They will never be the old buildings Jane Jacobs tells us are necessary for urban progress and innovation. What kind of ruin will the technology campuses leave us with in a generation? We need to ask ourselves: How does a smart city die?
Secondly, let us look at space. Cities and regions under capitalism by definition have unequal geographies. This is a function in the first instance of land markets that create hierarchies of value and that appreciate some areas (and their people) more than others. A new glass and steel condo tower downtown has a different meaning and value than a rental concrete slab tower in Scarborough from the 1970s. Mainstream rent theorists tell us that in their world of supply and demand, there is little to be done about the inequalities that are built in stone over generations, sometimes centuries.
In Toronto at the current moment, this is connected with what Michael Edwards calls the “fetish of agglomeration.” It leads to super-dense, brutally handsome environments for life, work and play. Those divide into a) increasingly uninhabitable, forbidding environments for the poor, often in the suburban grey spaces of in-between zones away from everything that is central and useful – those environments are variably colonized and policed or abandoned and forgotten; and b) into exclusive and exclusionary environments for the rich, often in locations that allow access to power, work, entertainment, education, health care and commerce. Protected by status and walls, those central spaces are impenetrable for the poor except to access them for the menial, low wage service work they are expected to perform on their terrain.
The challenge for city building in the age of the smart city and in the era of anthropocenic climate change remains how to build new for sustainable and adaptive use and how to build equal spaces that defy the capitalist laws of uneven development. If those two principles are not respected, a city that emerges from the Internet on up will risk dying prematurely or explode in social upheaval along the lines of contradiction it builds into its fabric.