ArchDaily: What will cities be like in the future?
Saskia Sassen: Well I have two scenarios: a very optimistic one and a very dystopian one. The dystopian scenario is that we will have a lot of private cities. Abuja is de facto a private city. It is how not to be in Lagos in Nigeria. The mechanism is very simple. Everything is super expensive. The milk, the houses, everything. It de facto eliminates all kinds of people. But I think we’re going to take it further. Songdo is sort of a private city. There are now big firms that sell you a city. They will build you a city. And some of them will rent you the city. So that’s the dystopian scenario. That’s the dystopian scenario; in other words we will have vast settlements with probably many toxic conditions, where a lot of people—modest, middle-class people—will be living in slums. In a country like Brazil, many people who are in the civil service of the government live in the slums. Same thing in India. This is contrasted with these brand new perfect cities that aren’t really cities in that full robust sense of the term.
At this end, my utopia is that when so many new people come to cities there is going to be a lot of making—making of sub-economies, not the economy. Making of urban agriculture, making of buildings that work with the environment. People of modest means will use their imaginations; they will understand how to make air circulate so that mosquitos are less likely to come in. They will work and have that knowledge—that is my optimistic scenario. So even a modest, poor slum will have people that know that the shack that they are building is part of larger systems. Then of course, the rich will be the rich and the upper-middle class will be the upper-middle classes. I think the modest middle-classes will keep on splitting up. The splitting up of the middle class has been happening for 25 years. I wrote about it in the late 1980s and people didn’t believe me. They said, “That’s not happening. We’re all becoming richer.” Well, no. Now we know that.
On a larger systemic map about cities, I think that the desirable, optimistic format is multiple articulations of the territory—not one endless metropolitan zone. I think we will have understood that the vast metropolitan area does not work.
The option is articulations. China is building all of these cities so they build nine small cities around Shanghai rather than letting Shanghai become an endless stretch. In my optimistic view, I see a different way of articulating the urban with territory. Moving away from metropolitanization. Now, my Dutch, practical sense tells me that we’re not going to be able to do that. We’ll build something unmanageable and then the elites will move out and build a new private city.
Those are the two scenarios. There’s much more to be said but it’s a complicated question.
ArchDaily: What is the role of architecture in growing cities?
Saskia Sassen: I think of the city as a complex but incomplete system. There are other such systems; the city happens to be one of the most complex and the most incomplete. It is an extreme condition—a big working city. I like to work with extreme conditions. My assumption is that they are heuristic: that they produce knowledge about more than the thing itself. So I look at the city to understand all kinds of other things.
Architects could be doing much more in the city. But it would mean expanding the range of interventions that architects do and thinking of the city as a complex space where there are multiple very diverse points of intervention—looking at the slums, low-income neighborhoods, degraded spaces, toxic spaces. At the other end, we look at architecture as a form of art, where it is a beautiful work and it amplifies the experience of being in that place.
ArchDaily: How does the internet affect cities?
Saskia Sassen: There is something very good there—the constituting of a global public that might be fed by people who are otherwise quite isolated in their own cities. There’s an opening there. They are non-cosmopolitans who might be poor and physically isolated, but they are part of an emergent global, subjective space. You don’t have to be online all the time but you can know that you’re not alone doing what you’re doing. This is extremely important. It’s a truly subjective global space. It’s not about communicating, it’s about knowing that that connectivity exists.
I find that the discussion of the internet that looks just at the communication bit is reductive. This global subjective space does not depend on communication—it’s something else.
On the other hand you have finance and all the global farms, who create their own separateness. When I look at the world of 100+ global cities that we have, I see also these fragments—the central business district—that constitute their own urbanity. But they are often far less connected to the hinterland that is city itself than they are to each other. The business centers in these cities connect much more with each other than they do with the larger city. Even though I insist that they need the larger city (the cleaners, the truckers that bring them stuff); I’ve written a lot about this. So that’s a subjective disconnection that means that you do less philanthropy for the city because you think that you don’t need the city. You just need that little bit of central business space—the global city functioning in the narrowest sense.