Monday, December 21, 2015

City For Sale

BT Tower
London, England
Hello Everyone:

Are cities commodities that can be bought and sold on the open market?  This is the question that Saskia Sassen took up in her recent article "Who owns our cities-and why this urban takeover should concern us all" for The Guardian.  Ms. Sassen examines how the massive foreign and corporate investment spree of buildings and land, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, signals new phase in major cities and has implications for equity, democracy, rights.   She writes, "From mid-2013 to mid-2014, corporate buying of existing properties exceeded $ the top 100 recipient cities and $1trillion a year later..."  The point of her article is an examination of this investment surge and why it matters.  Essentially, cities and spaces are places where the powerless make history and culture, thus making their state of powerlessness complex.  She speculates, "If the current large-scale buying continues, we will lose this type of making that has given out cities their cosmopolitanism.

The current scope of acquisitions has given way to a "systemic transformation in the pattern of land ownership in our cities."  This transformation changes the significance of the city and has major implications for equity, democracy, and rights.  Cities are complex organic entities.  This state of being has allowed cities across the span of history and geography to outlive powerful national governments.  Think about how long cities such as London, Paris, New York, Bangkok and so forth have been in existence.

Hanoi, Viet Nam
Thrown into this mix, is the opportunity for the powerlessness to declare we are here and this is also our city.  It is not about the money, it is about acknowledging that actual people live hers.  It is in cities, to a large extent, that the powerless have left their footprints-cultural, economic, social; mostly in their neighborhoods.  These footprints have spread out into the greater urban landscape in the form of "ethnic" food, music, et cetera.

Density aside, none of this is possible within the confines of a business park.  Ms. Sassen describes business parks as, "...privately controlled spaces where low-wage workers can work, but not 'make.'"  Nor is the spread of the cultural, economic, and social footprint possible in the mines or plantations.  She argues, "It is only in cities where that possibility of gaining complexity in one's powerlessness can happen-because nothing can fully control such a diversity of people and engagements."

77 Columbia and 321 8th Avenue
New York City, New York
Yet, those how do have the power, to certain extent, do not want to be troubled by the powerless and just leave them their devices.  Ms. Sassen also points to police violence as a way for the powerful to keep the powerless down.  However, she points out, "...this can often become a public issue, which is perhaps a first step in the longer trajectories of gaining at least some rights."  The cities are the backdrop for which these struggles take and in part, have succeeded.  Be that as it may, it is this very capacity to make history and create culture that is being threatened by the surge of corporate redevelopment in our cities.

A new phase

One way to explain the post-2008 urban investment surge as more of the same.  Saskia Sassen points to the late 1980s which "also saw rapid growth of national and foreign buying of office buildings and hotels, especially in New York and London."  In her article, "The global city: strategic site/new frontier" (, Ms, Sassen wrote about the large number of foreign-owned buildings in London at the apex of this period.  Financial companies from the Netherlands and Japan needed a foothold in the city in order to access the European markets.

Russell Street, Hong Kong

Current trends suggest some significant differences and indicate a whole new phase in the nature and rationale of foreign and national corporate acquisitions.  There are four prominent character defining traits:

The sharp scale-up in the buying of buildings: Cities such as New York and London have long be the object of investment by foreign and national corporations.  More recently, the Chinese have emerged as major buyers in these cities.  Today, about 100 cities have attracted a significant amount of attention from prospective buyers.  To wit, "...foreign and corporate buying of properties from 2013 to 2014 grew by 248% in Amsterdam/Randstadt, 180% in Madrid and 475% in Nanjing.  In contrast, the growth rate was relatively lower for the major cities in each region: 68.5% for New York, 37.6% for London, and 160.8% for Beijing."

Toronto, Canada
The extent of new construction: Acquisition of buildings was a character defining feature of the eighties and nineties boom times-think Harrods Department Store in London, Saks Fifth Avenue and Rockefeller Center in New York City.  In the post-2008 period most of the buying has been done with the intention of demolishing the existing structure and replacing it with more high-end developments.

The spread of mega-projects with vast footprints: the death knell of the urban fabric?  These mega-developments increase a city's density and actually de-urbanize it-bringing to mind the comment about cities, density is not enough to make a city.

The foreclosing on modest properties: this has had the most catastrophic effect in the United States, where the Federal Reserve reported "...that more than 14 million holds have lost their homes from 2006 to 2014."  One major result of the vast amount of unoccupied or under-occupied property is that, at least, some of it is likely to be redeveloped.

Atlantic Yards development
Brooklyn, New York
  Saskia Sassen writes, "A further striking feature of this period is the acquisition of whole blocks of underutilised or dead industrial land for site development.  Here, the price paid by buyers can get very high."  She cites the Atlantic Yards development by one of the largest Chinese construction companies for $5bn.  Right now, the property is taken up a mix of modest factories and industrial services, neighborhoods, and artists's studios that were pushed out of Manhattan by large-scale developments.

This eclectic mix of occupants will be evicted and replaced by 14 luxury residential tower-"a sharp growth of density that actually has the effect of de-urbanising that space."  This development will become a de facto gated space with a lot of people; not the fascinating mix of use and people that typically make up the urban character.  This kind of development is spreading from city to city and will have similar de-urbanizing effect

Mexico City historic district
The sheer scale and nature of these investments, coupled with the enormous amounts spent on buying urban properties and land is mind numbing.  Ms. Sassen writes, "Those global, corporate investments of $600bn from mid-2013 to mid-2014, and over 1tn from mid-2014 to mid 2015, were just to acquire existing buildings.  The figure excludes site development, another major trend."

The proliferating urban gigantism has been emboldened and enabled by privatization and deregulation that began in the nineties throughout the world, continued to this day with minimal interruption.  The overall result has been the reduction of public spaces and the escalation in the large, corporate private spaces.  Ms. Sassen, "The result is a thinning in the texture and scale of spaces previously accessible to the public."  Where there was government oversight and regulation, or a mechanism to address public complaints, in its place is a corporate headquarters or luxury apartment building.

Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Saskia Sassen observes, "Global geographies of extraction have long been key to the western world's economic development.  And now these have moved on to urban land, going well beyond the traditional associations with plantations and mines..."  Essentially, the corporatization of access and control over urban properties goes deep, beneath modest homes and government offices.  What we are seeing is large-scale buying of chunks of cities.  The extraction mechanisms are frequently far more complex than the outcomes, which can be brutally elementary.

One important metamorphosis is the shift from primarily small private to large corporate means of ownership-public to private.  This process is accomplished piecemeal, part of the urban land market and urban development.  However, the wholesale purchase of city spaces takes on another dimension, the alteration of a city's historic fabric.

Guizhou-Chiang-Khong, China
This trend has become more acute because "..what was small and/or public is becoming large and private."  This means the transference from small properties within city boundaries, crisscrossed by streets and small plaza, to projects that erase most this fabric of streets and plaza via mega-projects with larger footprints.  Thus, it privatizes and de-urbanizes space regardless of density.

Cities are organic, ever evolving entities and because of this, they are capable of incorporating a diverse body of "...people, logics, politics."  This constant state of flux makes the urban space a "frontier zone where actors from different worlds..." can interact without the restrictions of societal rules of engagement.  It is in this frontier zone where the powerful and powerless can meet meet.  This situation also creates spaces for innovations.  This includes innovations by the powerless, even if they do not become part of the powerful.  The innovators, regardless of socio-economic-cultural background,  produce the elements of a city and leave a legacy that adds to the cosmopolitan environment in a manner that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Highland Park, California
The constant state of flux also has the ability to shape the urban subject and subjectivity.  The organic nature of the city can partly "...override the religious subject, the ethnic subject, the racialised subject, and in certain settings, also the difference of class."  Saskia Sassen observes, "There are moments in the routines of a city when we all become urban subjects-rush hour is one such mix of time and space."

Based on everything that Ms. Sassen has just said, it would seem that cities have this wonderful potential to models of inclusive spaces.  However, her argument takes a sharp turn, writing, "But today, rather than a space for including people from many diverse background and cultures, our global cities are expelling people and diversity."  This point does not seem to so much a self-contradiction rather, an observation that corporate heads and property owners are "...often part-time inhabitants,...very international-but that does not mean they represent many diverse cultures and tradition."  These part-time inhabitant frequently represent "...the new global culture of the successful-an they are astoundingly homogenous, no matter how diverse their countries of birth and languages."  This runs counter to the urban subject that large, mixed cities have historically created.  This is, first and foremost, the global "corporate" subject.

Boston Waterfront
Boston, Massachusetts
Change in the urban environment is ultimately founded on getting rid of what used to be.  Ms. Sassen writes, "Since their beginnings, whether 3,000 years old or 100, cities have kept reinventing themselves, which means there are always winners and losers."  Cities are full of rags-to-riches stories, accommodated by the richness of variety.

Despite the long history of success stories, the contemporary large-scale corporate acquisition of urban spaces creates a de-urbanization dynamic.  Instead of adding to diversity, it generates a whole new urban formation-the monotonous replication of high-rise luxury buildings.  We can look at this as a phenomena that contains its own logic that cannot be bought into line with logic of a traditional city.  It maintains its autonomy and perhaps, shows its back.  It is that backside that does not look attractive.

No comments:

Post a Comment