“I was so negatively surprised: This city looks exactly like a city in Europe or the US.”
“I couldn’t believe how they can do so much wrong – it is so different from our cities.”
I heard someone expressing these two opinions last week. We are in a city in Southeast Asia, although this does not really matter for the argument I am going to develop.
The quoted person was trying to explain why the city we were in is an extreme example for what can go wrong in urban development – traffic, car dependency, overcrowding, oversized malls, environmental pollution, no green space or public areas, etc. The quoted person explained to me how the big malls, the lack of public space, and all those cars prove how decision makers of that city had simply copied the textbook global city as we can find it in industrialized countries (or often referred to as ‘the West’ by many people). At the same time, the quoted person expressed concerns that these decision makers have been directing/managing the urban development of their city in the wrong direction – particularly contrasting what city managers in ‘the West’ are doing now; i.e. the quoted person was missing bicycle lanes, small-scale buildings and mixed-used neighborhoods, organic food markets, and low emission zones.
Why are those two opinions by the same person misplaced? As I see it, this person perceives the corresponding city as being at the very same time ‘like’ the West and ‘not like’ the West. The conclusion from the above opinions would be: Global city-style urban development is bad (in many regards I agree). And it is a pity that this city is not following the eco-friendly, socially inclusive urban development innovations of cities in the US or Europe (to be fair, the corresponding city has a size for which a comparison to Western cities would only be relevant if one takes Los Angeles or Paris-Île-de-France as examples). Eventually, the argument comes down to the following two questions representing the quoted person’s disappointment: Why did city managers of this city follow Western ideals in the past? And why do city managers of this city not follow Western ideals now?
At this point you can see where my discontent emerges from: Why follow at all?! If one agrees that cities beyond ‘the West’ have been (mis-)managed into less livable places by copying ideals of urban development, which were transferred and implanted from and by the West, then why or how could one ask now the exact same cities to follow again ‘our’ example!? How sure can urban development experts and city managers in industrialized countries be that their new solutions and agendas will bring the intended and good results (“This time everything will be better…”)?
My argument leads me to the conclusion that it is possible and probably even justified to critically assess urban development mishaps of cities in the Global South. However, looking as critically on the West’s inglorious legacy of shaping urban development in what had been colonies or Western puppet states, one should let city managers and urban communities in these places develop their own understanding of urban development challenges. And one should also encourage them to design their own context-specific solutions. They will probably know better how car dependency or environmental pollution can be realistically addressed in the complex setting of urban development in fast growing cities of the Global South (– city management in a small German town is like leisure time fun in comparison –). If they find good practices of bicycle promotion in Portland or green roves in Amsterdam helpful for their cities, one could/should support them to adapt these practices. But one should stop derogatory judging of cities beyond ‘the West’. And one should also refrain from overconfident or arrogant proselytization of Western ideals, since more sustainable approaches to urban development have emerged rather recently – after decades of developing unlivable urban spaces in our own backyards.