I think we need more cities: Saskia Sassen

“Lower Manhattan years ago was full of artists from all over the world. Today, much of Manhattan looks like a sort of monoculture of luxury high-rise towers.” Photo:  

Saskia Sassen is a renowned Dutch-American sociologist, best known for coining the term ‘global city’. She is the Robert S. Lynd professor of sociology at Columbia University and is the author of several books on globalisation, migration, and the sociology of urban development. In an e-mail interview, Sassen discusses the current global trends that are dominant in cities around the world and what they mean for the people living in those cities. Excerpts:

What would you consider to be the single most important trend in urban real estate markets around the world?

One clear trend is a vast and very visible expansion of the luxury zone, for fancy offices and fancy residences, accompanied by an almost invisible expulsion of the working classes and modest middle class families from locations where they may have lived for several generations.

I think we need more cities: Saskia Sassen

What is driving this push towards development of luxury zones?

Private investment. In fact, the levels of investment in urban real estate are quite stunning. The top 100 cities worldwide that I studied together had investors acquiring existing properties (not new construction) for a total of $600 billion from mid-2013 to mid-2014. This went up to over $1 trillion for the next cycle, mid-2014 to mid-2015. What’s happening here is that a building is also functioning as a real estate asset, a deeply financialised item. If you take all the real estate that has been financialised worldwide, according to Savills, a real estate firm, it amounts to $217 trillion, and that is more than the global GDP.

What does this transformation of living spaces into financial assets mean for the nature of the city?

Each city is different. But we see two patterns. One is a massive expulsion of the modest middle classes out of residential areas that had long been theirs. They are displaced to more distant parts of the city, and they do not deserve this, for they had worked hard to get a reasonable life in a nice part of the city not too far away from their jobs.

Secondly, some of these cities become monocultures. For instance, Lower Manhattan years ago was full of artists from all over the world. I used to be a performance artist and it was a great time. Today, much of Manhattan looks like a sort of monoculture of luxury high-rise towers. And many of them are half empty. With all this added density, it actually deurbanises the city. We used to think that density was enough to make a place a city, but not any more.

In cities around the world, we find a paradoxical situation where a severe shortage of affordable housing is being met with increasing investment in luxury housing projects, even as a substantial quantum of housing stock lies vacant. How does one make sense of this phenomenon?

I think in some of these cities it is about buying urban land. One way of getting a foothold on the land of a city is to buy or construct a building. In many cities, if you went and said I want to buy land in your city, it would be a difficult proposition. It might be far easier to construct or buy a building. The law governing urban land is often much older than the more narrowly contractual law governing the purchase of a building. When you think about the amount of capital in search of a good investment, getting to own a chunk of land in a highly regarded city is not a bad investment.

More generally, I think the whole question of land, urban and rural, has taken on a whole new dimension over the last twenty years. It is partly a function of escalating environmental destruction in rural land, and rapid urbanisation of the population on urban land — an urbanisation partly fed by the expulsion of millions of small holders from their land.

So are we then building houses to serve as a store of financial value rather than for people to live in?

Yes, that is one feature for sure. There is a vast quantity of underutilised capital at this point. So it mostly makes sense to invest in urban properties even if you do not really need it. But the key value in play, in my reading — and it is not usually understood this way — is that you control a piece of urban land.

It is estimated that by 2050, about half of India’s population will live in urban areas, compared to 32% at present. Is this push towards urbanisation sustainable?

I think we need more cities, rather than to keep expanding existing cities until they become unmanageable. The problem — one that we don’t like to discuss — is that we keep expelling the lower-income households from their land to make room for a business park, a mine, a water-grab operation, and so on. So ‘development’ expands and at the same time produces massive displacements of millions. People go to the city when it is the only place left where they can put down their bodies. This is a bad cycle. Once you are in this cycle, it is not easy to get out. It is necessary to first understand the vicious cycle, and then it takes courage to act on that understanding. That means mixing two very different worlds — the world of rich developers, and the world of poor people and the social organisations that help them.

What about the smart cities paradigm, which India has embraced in a big way to address its urban development needs?

My starting point when it comes to the smart city is that, apart from the technological features, it should mobilise the intelligence of its residents. I think we have done more on the technological side than in mobilising people’s intelligence and imaginations via digital tech. There is a disproportionate presence of a few big corporates in the provision of digital services, and they have their own preferences, often ruled by profitability. Yes, there is a rapid multiplication of start-ups and there is a strong social sector in India that aims at developing tools for the disadvantaged. But so much more is needed when it comes to deployment of digital knowledge across a whole range of actors and situations.

In your work, you speak of the city as the only space where the powerless can ‘make their powerlessness complex’. But haven’t cities always been dominated by the powerful, with the only ‘space’ available for the powerless being to serve the powerful in the roles assigned to them?

It is in cities that the powerless have, to a large extent, left a cultural, social and economic imprint — mostly in their own neighbourhoods, but eventually these spread to a wider urban zone as ‘ethnic’ food, music, therapies, etc. None of this can happen in a business park, regardless of its density — for they are privately controlled spaces where low-wage workers can work, but not “make”. Nor can this happen in the world’s increasingly militarised plantations and mines. It is only in cities that there is a possibility of gaining complexity in one’s powerlessness — because nothing can fully control such a diversity of people and engagements.

Three things you would like to see in the urban development policy of a country like India?

I would rather not answer this since I am not an expert on Indian cities and governance structures. Nonetheless, I will say that I am shocked at the extraordinary amount of wealth in your country, and the even more extraordinary amount of deep poverty, with regions that have no water, no modern sanitation facilities. How is it possible that so much wealth cannot be used in some way to upgrade the lives of millions of the poor, whose very existence has become degraded to such an extreme? At the same time, I am also struck by how the poor in India are so dignified — they do not become like the drunks of London’s industrial cities described by Dickens. On the whole, I think it is the self-help organisations, devoted activists, and the poor themselves who are helping to make things better.

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Printable version | Apr 29, 2021 6:16:35 PM |

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