Rejuvenative Cities – A Growth Sceptic Agenda

It’s not just celebrities, leading politicians, aristocrats and quangos that espouse limitations to economic growth and urban development. Philips, the Dutch, global electrics corporation, has recently published a report, ‘Rejuvenative Cities, A Transformative Vision for Urban Development’, articulating in a very attractive publication its commitment to what Daniel Ben-Ami calls ‘growth scepticism’. The report starts with the recognition that urban living is the future for the majority of us and that urbanization has brought great progress to human civilisation. Then comes the qualification of that little word ‘but’. In this case, ‘…but it is also a key factor in compromising the natural balance of the planet; it has become one of the key threats to loss of biodiversity.’

For reasons not explained, humans are ‘arguably one of the most successful and adaptive species on the planet’. Why arguably, what other species could be described as more successful or adaptive than humans? Whatever, according to the report, humans are damaging and progress is bad news. ‘The current model of human progress has an adverse effect on the quality of life and the sustainability and health of the planetary ecosystem’. Inequality is expressed in many modern cities increasingly being a mix of modern glitz and urban slums. This and a series of other problems have been dealt with in isolation and so responses have been ineffective and counter-productive. These other factors include the full list of criticisms of modern urban living, including overpopulation, expressed in the proliferation of megacities, wealth disparity, an ageing society, too many new cars and a lack of natural resources. Interestingly, contradictory prejudices emerge. For example, having pointed out that water as a natural resource is in short supply, the author, Roan Brand, states that less than 1% of it is available for human consumption. That Philips, a corporation that could profit immensely from innovatory ways of making more of the world’s water available, such as through desalination, should meekly accept this limitation indicates the extent to which organizations, even private companies, have limited their future horizons, and wish us to do the same.

All prejudices on modern, urban life are displayed, such as pollution and waste, loss of diversity, loss of cultural diversity, loss of biodiversity and poor health and disease from urban density (linked to epidemics), affluence and obesity. All of this despite most cities being cradles of parks, green spaces, cultural leaders, centres of medical excellence, vibrancy and inspiration, such that most of us want to live in or near a city. Again, in typical contradiction, the author acknowledges that urban areas can often harbour far higher biodiversity than their surrounding rural areas. Much is also made of the alienation of city life, ‘many cities have become dormitories of existence and have lost their welcoming capacity to share human warmth and conditions for flourishing communities’. The solution to all of this is ‘rejuvenation’, described in a lot of management speak. Rejuvenation is needed for identity, the personal, the socio-cultural, the environmental and the economic, all ‘systematically interlinked’. Many ordinary citizens are ‘able to create local value nets where value is exchanged’, and I thought these were called markets!

The examples of solutions cited in the report reflect the limited horizons of the Philips corporation. Vertical urban gardens and forests and ambient design for multi-functional spaces are no substitutes for the ambitions and aspirations of most current, let alone future city dwellers.

Philips grew from innovations of the twentieth century to become a global corporation. The electrical household goods invented during the thirties depression were its mainstay. Its customers were offered a taste of the future through appliances that released women from household drudgery. For a company with a long tradition of progress and invention, this latest report sadly limits future possibilities of positive resurgence, let alone rejuvenation. Perhaps companies such as Philips need to reinvent themselves if they are to lead us out of the current global economic crises. The small-minded thinking of this report needs to be replaced by genuine research, hard graft and aggressive assertion of the need to think and act globally, experiment, take risks and not be afraid to fail.


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