Reinventing Urbanism in a Time of Economic Crisis

Manuel Castells, University Professor and Wallis Annenberg Chair in Communications & Society, University of Southern California


Some points:

  • The current crisis is the end of some world – not the world.
  • The equivalent of 75% of global GDP has been wiped out by the housing bust.
  • We are moving into a post-consumption society. Living to consume is over.
  • The savings rate of US population is up sharply in the past decade, now up to 6%. Reducing demand farther, worsening the cycle.
  • Huge areas of the south and west have been developed for the purpose – solely – for profit. They should never have been built the way they were, specifically suburban tract housing.
  • Why has the system been so resistant to new models of urban housing? Because a cookie cutter approach to suburban single family development supports short term profits.
  • Truly an opportunity to rethink urbanism as if people matter.
  • The suburban age was spawned by the Highway act, and the rise of car culture, along with mortgaged single family homes. A machine that led to unprecedented social stability and wealth creation.
  • Came to a halt in the ‘70s with the recapitalization of the world’s markets by globalization, and the US fascination with borrowing against home equity. From 1997 to 2007, debt grew from 3% of personal income to 130%.
  • A new economic model is necessary. On top of the economics, we are confronted by an unsustainable ecological situation.
  • In the current situation and chaos – we are not out of the woods yet – a new sort of urbanism is necessary, and must be based on new ideas.
  • We need to free the land, but freeing up zoning laws and basing them on performance goals, including at the very least: ecological measures, social quality, and esthetic guidelines. Turning all areas into mixed use. A spontaneous, bottom-up community-based entrepreneurialism.
  • This would also include factories, which would end the sequestering of dirty industries in dirty edge communities: instead, the factories would have to be clean, and could be built in with other mixed use neighborhoods.
  • We should relax the limitations against local food production and preparation in neighborhoods, stimulating local entrepreneurialism.
  • The government is actually the basis of housing, though policy supports for development of buildings, roads, and other infrastructure.
  • The government is loaning money to banks in the hope that the housing market will restart, but the banks are not willing to accept the risks. They are requiring 20% down payment, and this effectively locking out people without the funds to do so. As a result, a great number of foreclosed properties go unoccupied and unpurchased.
  • Housing cooperatives could step in to fill this gap, if the government started to divert funds to actors other than banks.
  • This is blocked by the rigidity of local governments and the legal structures on the books.
  • Large houses created in the last period of expansion may be repurposed for communal living, based on new societal models of urban living. But it is impossible, legally, because of ordinances and zoning.
  • It’s important for us to open up ways to innovate with novel living arrangements – space sharing – through new banking relationships.
  • Web-based social spaces are good ways to support these efforts.
  • Fragmented social space leads to fragmentation of social life.
  • So rethinking social space will go hand and hand with a transformation of social interaction.
  • Consider conversion of malls into mixed use areas, including urban farming.
  • Urban farming is exploding, but requires space. And that will require rezoning, like mostly empty shopping malls.
  • No immaculate lawns anymore: people are converting their yards to gardens.
  • The corporate campuses are increasingly underused. But they could be converted to low income housing, work spaces, markets. The overarching concept is the creative reuse of existing built space.
  • The automobile is the epitome of the problems that we have in the future of the city.
  • Urban mobility is the central issue, since without it cities don’t work.
  • He recommends a new book, After The Car by Kingsley Dennis and John Urry.
  • More self-sufficient neighborhoods in the city will decrease inter-nuclear transport, and increase quality of life.
  • Ideologically and emotionally, the question is how much walking and coop biking can transform city transport.
  • But if you have bikes, where will they go? Bicycle freeways! A non-trained bicyclist can ride 15-20 mi/hour, which requires dedicated bicycle freeways. Perhaps above the dedicated automobile freeways.

  • Bicycling leads to the greatest satisfaction of all sorts of commuting, by the way.
  • Cites the City Car design – a foldable car.

  • This freeway program was motivated by Obama’s promises regarding the decaying infrastructure. If you are repairing they freeways, we should add bicycles to the mix, which costs one tenth of what a subway costs.
  • Combining parks, bikes, and commuting is all feasible.
  • The first thing is to liberate our imaginations, and then we are free to act.
  • The way we have been dealing with public space is monumental spaces with statues or monuments. But we could distribute public space: a deliberate policy of small squares, big spaces, all spread out over the entire the city. Public space is where people walk and feel at home, and feel safe.
  • Public space is related to our ability to reclaim our streets.
  • This is all being done, under the radar. The White House lawn is being used for urban farming.
  • There has been a massive shift of millions into alternative lives.
  • Check the Young Foundation website.
  • People all around the world are involved in this change. In the cracks of the current system, alternative forms of life are arising.
  • Ideas are fundamental, but it is finally based on how people can adopt them to shape change in the world.
  • Berkeley has been at the forefront of urbanism, and is likely to play a major role.
  • FarmLab – in LA – has a banner saying “another city is possible”.

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