The defining features in Caracas, Detroit, and Metro Manila are different. But no matter if it concerns crime, bankruptcy, or disaster risks, the defining features are strongly related to urban crises. While some cities enjoy a status quo from which urban development can evolve in a relatively smooth and prosperous way, a majority of cities is struggling with a setting which leaves little space for hope that the near feature will bring significant improvements. Working in (mostly secondary) cities in Southeast Asia, I am asking myself how much one can or has to approach urban development from an optimistic perspective?
Obviously, I am not so depressed or distressed that I do not think positively about what benefits good urban development can bring to a city. I am rather concerned with a notion raised by one of my former professors: He argued that current urban development (and urban politics) is far too much primed and framed by concepts of vulnerability, disasters, and crisis. The professor challenged me by asking why urban development cannot be approached or done in a more optimistic way – with a belief in solutions that will arrive just in time to deal with whatever challenges might arise; and with a stronger emphasis on realizing the strengths, beautiful sides, and creative potentials of a city.
This viewpoint made me think. Do urban development experts, particularly in cities in the Global South, approach their daily work in a too alarmist or risk-sensitive way? Do I take a wrong perspective on many cities I am dealing with?
Assuming that general climate statistics are not completely false, the places I am working in are facing the terrible situation of recurring floods of increasing intensity and/or frequency. Not to mention other climate, climate change, and disaster risks (typhoons, rising temperatures, decreasing groundwater resources, higher influx of tropical diseases, etc.), the single, but multifaceted issue of floods is the defining feature of these cities – currently and potentially even more so in the future. What appears to others like a theoretical discussion from a mostly climate-resilient place such as Germany translates in my work into actual deaths every single year. Besides tremendous human losses, these floods heavily impact on the environment and the economy. This is a significant crisis* – not always acute, but reliably, brutally present.
Even in this situation, should there be a distinct optimism in urban development?
Necessary? What differentiates theory from practice is that the latter has a dirty engagement with real-life situations. It is important to understand the difference between a positive approach and an optimistic one. It is necessary to invest oneself positively into urban development work, because fruitful development paths can be created through a positive approach. A negative attitude blockades, and a pessimistic approach limits urban development to the containment of the ‘bad’. On the other hand, an optimistic approach can trigger a careless play by the expert with the future life of citizens. Optimism does not provide feasible development options. One rather reverts to it in situations that are really (perceived to be) lost. In that case, the result is ‘bullshit urban development’ with a possible creative value briefly before destruction.
Useful? However, there is room for optimism in urban development. It particularly comes into play in visioning. I am not suggesting that a city’s vision is supposed to be seen through rose-colored glasses. But going beyond the current perspective of feasibility broadens the horizon of thinking about a city’s possible futures. In that sense, optimism is useful as a conscious choice in an exercise. Also, without entering a dream world, an optimistic perspective on a city’s urban development might be exactly the thing needed to get people, in particular decision makers, interested in your work. Urban development does not necessarily rank high on the coolness or urgency list of political agendas. Therefore, nudging people to see what treasures might be within reach for their city, could be a useful tactic to trigger engagement and commitment.
Honest? The previous argumentation is characterized by political communication vocabulary: Urban development in the form of visions, plans, strategies, programs, or projects is something that has to be sold – in an actual financial sense, but even more so in a political and societal sense. These tactical aspects aside, an urban development expert still has the morale obligation to engage honestly with stakeholders. Not always might they want to hear about a given or future crisis situation. However, they might also not want to be deceived about a wonderful urban development path, while they are knee-deep or even shoulder-deep in water, seeing their few possessions and often also their lives at constant or recurrent risk. Therefore, optimism might be the right tactic for engagement, but it is a dangerous tool for guiding urban development through the design and implementation of various actions/projects. Unfortunately, there is often enough damage done through a lack of honesty by the political class to its constituencies. If urban development experts apply similar approaches of optimism intermingled with falsehood, they risk to end up not only in the same boxing ring of political conflicts, but also in the same corner.
In conclusion, these thoughts hint at the potential of optimism in crisis as a tactical tool to be applied in limited doses. Positive perspectives are needed in developing the activities which form the urban development in/of a city. The realistic (or perceived negative) viewpoint on urban development might still be required – after all, how much would others care about the urban development of Caracas, Detroit, or Metro Manila, if their attention would not be caught by ‘news themes’ such as crime, bankruptcy, or disaster?! This is not necessarily good, but it is the given situation in which urban development evolves and happens, as well as (not) features on the agenda.
* Crisis: It has become standard wording in international development to talk about “challenges”. An increasing, but still small number of experts in the field are openly complaining to simply call a problem a “problem”, instead of giving it the appearance of something that is manageable and acceptable to deal with in a neutral, technical way. In relation to that, I decided to talk about crises to underscore the imminent dangers which characterize urban life and development in many cities nowadays.