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Q&A: “The Trend in the Western World Is the Dissolution of Cities”

Emilio Godoy interviews Spanish urban planner JORDI BORJA

Care must be taken to avoid negative perverse effects from the regeneration of the historic centre of Mexico City, warns Borja. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

MEXICO CITY, Aug 23 2012 (IPS) - The prevailing trend in much of “the Western capitalist world is the destruction and dissolution of cities,” which represents a threaten to democracy, “because the city is the place where public freedoms were born,” warns urban planner Jordi Borja in an interview with Tierramérica*.

The current urban planning model confines residents to places that urban transport does not reach, and leaves public spaces abandoned, stressed Borja, a political scientist, sociologist, geographer and director of city management and urban planning at the public Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Open University of Catalonia).

Borja (Barcelona, 1941) lived in exile in France from 1961 to 1968, worked as an adviser for the remodelling of cities like Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago and Bogotá, and is the author of a number of books, including “La ciudad conquistada” (The Conquered City).

Tierramérica spoke with Borja during the International Forum on the Right to Mobility, held this month in the Mexican capital, where he was one of the speakers.

For the megalopolis of Mexico City, Borja recommended a regional metropolitan government to deal with issues like water management in a city that has spilled over from the Federal District into neighboring states.

Q: What are your criticisms of the current urban planning model?

A: The prevailing trend in many countries in the Western capitalist world is the destruction of cities, the dissolution of cities, and this poses a threat to coexistence, to democracy, to progress, because the city is the place where public freedoms were born. The city is a place where different kinds of people can live together, where innovation and progress arise, because of the diversity of individuals who come together in the same place.

An area where people only go to sleep, or gated communities, which are so popular among the middle and upper classes, are the antithesis of cities.

Q: If the future is urban, how can cities be made more sustainable?

A: The future may be urban or it may be considered urban with weak cities. There was a text written 20 years ago that talked about the reign of urbanism and the death of cities, a somewhat apocalyptic view. But there are no fatal tendencies.

In Mexico City there is an interesting, positive operation underway, which is the regeneration of the historic centre. What they are doing is great, but they need to be careful about the perverse effects of the good things they are doing, because property values are being considerably raised.

If they don’t take precautions, the market will push out lower-income housing and young people – since there will be more upscale businesses, more offices – and the essence of the historic centre, which is the coexistence of different kinds of people and multi-polarity, will be lost.

You can carry out a very successful operation for a working-class community in a neighbourhood in the city centre and later the market can gradually push them out, and you will end up with a very highly segmented city centre, purely commercial or purely tourism-oriented.

Land must not be a source of profit. A certain rate of tax can be applied to its value as undeveloped land, for example.

Q: How can a city like Mexico City be effectively managed, with its nine million inhabitants and problems with water and excessive traffic?

A: Well, the city has a government, which does something. It is very important for this government to be democratic. When there is a large population, there has to be a government that can deal with it. This requires decentralisation, so that concrete policies only need to deal with hundreds of inhabitants, not millions.

This type of pyramid can work, but there would have to be a reorganisation of the state structure and the creation of a state that brings together the government of the city, the government of the State of Mexico (which borders on the capital city) and the governments of other neighboring states, a metropolitan regional government for big projects and big issues, like water.

And then, municipal responsibilities and a specific authority for the Federal District. But there needs to be a stratification in which there is a government that makes decisions on big projects and guidelines, and then, as concrete measures need to be taken, government moves down.

Q: How do you conceive the right to cities?

A: Citizens need a group of rights at the same time. Therefore, addressing the right to cities would replace addressing the right to mobility, to housing and to education separately.

Q: Do you see the worldwide spread of slums as described by U.S. writer Mike Davis in his book “Planet of Slums”?

A: The book is highly exaggerated. The peripheries of cities, peri-urban areas, are another thing. In the cities there is self-construction, as a first phase in the creation of neighbourhoods. This in itself is not a bad thing. But it seems much more logical for there to be support and regulation for this, and later minimum standards.

The upgrading of neighbourhoods in Mexico City has worked in this direction. Here there is a need to improve public spaces and housing, and a plan has been designed to regulate these neighbourhoods, with the help of the residents.

At the same time, we cannot promote the unlimited growth of every area. In the case of Mexico, there is a sufficiently strong system of cities to redistribute this growth. For years there has been excessive fragmentation (of districts or neighbourhoods). Migration flows need to be reoriented towards a system of cities.

* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.

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