Eckart Woertz, ed., “Wise Cities” in the Mediterranean? Challenges of Urban Sustainability (Barcelona: CIDOB, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Eckart Woertz (EW): This edited book is a compilation of nineteen essays and was written by academics who met at a conference of the Kuwait Chair at Sciences Po in Paris last March to discuss their research findings.
I am personally not a specialist in urban studies by training. My interest was piqued by two things: firstly, much of the developmental issues I am usually dealing with, such as energy and food security, economic diversification, or climate change have pronounced urban dimensions, and secondly, I was a bit tired of the “doom and gloom bias” in Middle Eastern studies. To be fair, this bias is well earned, but if we make a bit of an effort, there is more to the Middle East than Islamism and hard security mayhem. Believe it or not, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is inhabited by real people with everyday aspirations and grievances, many of which are related to problems and promises of urban agglomerations. The urban studies crowd is cautiously optimistic and often deals with pragmatic, local, bottom up approaches—a welcome respite from the ideological bombast we occasionally have to deal with in other lines of specialization.
The book also offered opportunities to explore areas of mutual concerns on the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean in an effort to break the area studies mold, so to speak. Granted, the Mediterranean is not a mere geographical reference. Like the notion of the Middle East, it is an ideational construct of the West. It can mean different things to different people, and its boundaries and content have changed over time. The underlying premise of the Pirenne thesis—the notion that the Mediterranean is a natural political and economic space that was united until the Islamic conquests and should be re-united again under northern leadership—has loomed large in the European imagination. It can also be found in the ideology of Mediterranianism that was championed by Italian fascists in the 1920s and 1930s. It postulated a superior Mediterranean race and culture in dissociation from Nordistic racist theories of the time and called for a reinvigoration of such imagined history under Italian leadership. Even eminent historian Fernand Braudel used Mediterranianism in the 1920s in justification of French colonialism in Algeria. Such ideological baggage aside, the political notion of the Mediterranean became less ambiguous and more inclusive in the postwar decades, with southern countries participating in initiatives such as the Mediterranean Games or the acknowledgment of the Mediterranean diet as intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2013. In sum, the book tries to explore similarities and differences between the North and South Mediterranean.
Barcelona is my adopted hometown and has championed a lot of such pan-Mediterranean initiatives. The Barcelona Process was launched here in 1995, and since 2004, the city has hosted the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), which has a balanced representation of southern and northern countries. Barcelona has also been a pioneer in international municipalism. With United Cities Local Governments (UCLG), Metropolis and MedCities we have three organizations that deal with related issues of inter-city diplomacy and cooperation. The book offered an opportunity to venture outside the ivory tower and engage with politicians and practitioners from such institutions and NGOs.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
EW: It draws on the earlier Wise Cities research and action platform that CIDOB launched in 2016 together with over a dozen think tanks from around the world. It builds on existing concepts of city planning and management such as “sustainable city,” “green city,” “eco-city,” “ubiquitous city,” and “smart city,” but adds non-technocratic angles that are inspired by citizenship, such as socioeconomic development, political participation, and cultural diversity.
The articles in the volume reflect the diverse backgrounds of the authors who are not only academics, but also municipal practitioners. Topic wise, they range from the impact of touristifcation and gentrification, the role of rural hinterlands, approaches to architectural heritage, urban energy transitions, and the integration of migrants. Methodologically some authors have worked with remote sensing applications, others have conducted qualitative surveys and geographical field work, or have drawn on their practical experience with administrative issues and projects. Geographically, we have also included a chapter on neighboring regions, the Gulf and Sub-Saharan Africa, which have distinct forms of urban development.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
EW: A majority of the global population now lives in cities. In the MENA, this share is higher and in the northern Mediterranean much higher. Whether it’s GDP, waste, or green house gas emissions, much of it is directly or indirectly linked to cities. Hence, urban perspectives will be increasingly important in any of our work on development issues.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
EW: I would hope for a diverse audience, as diverse as the backgrounds of the authors. The essays are meant to stir debates and they are topical, as we managed to publish the book within three months after the conference. The essays only have a length of about four thousand words. That’s about half of your average journal article. It allows making a focused argument, but discourages digression.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
EW: In August/ September, CABI will publish a volume on Crisis and Conflict in Agriculture that I have co-edited with Rami Zurayk and Rachel Bahn of the American University of Beirut (AUB). It builds on earlier work on food security in the MENA, but has a comparative area studies perspective as it includes case studies from other regions, such as Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
In a forthcoming article for the Middle East Journal I will take a look at Iraq under the UN Embargo (1990-2003) and how food security and agriculture were crucial for Saddam Hussein’s regime’s survival during that period. Iraq is the only country of the MENA where we have contemporary accessible archives (at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University; the archives of the Iraqi Presidential Diwan at the National Defense University in Washington were unfortunately closed in 2015 for budgetary reasons). I have found the work with these archives fascinating and want to continue related work in the future, for example, on economic policies of the regime or a cross-regional comparison with authoritarian regimes under sanctions elsewhere, for example, in North Korea or Cuba.
J: How do you see this book contributing to the field of studies of urban issues the Arab world and beyond?
EW: I hope it helps to raise urban issues among students of MENA area studies, while making general urban studies specialists more aware of challenges in the region. Beyond academia, I hope that practitioners will give our academic musings some consideration. Hey, we talk a lot, but here and there we have really wise things to share!
Excerpt from the Book:
Introduction: “Wise Cities” in the Mediterranean
CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs) and Kuwait Chair at Sciences Po (Paris)
“If mayors ruled the world” politics would be more pragmatic, solution-oriented and less polarised, the late Benjamin Barber argued in his famous book of the same title. Some of his assumptions were daring. Cities are hardly without issues such as lack of accountability or inequality and they have natural capacity limitations when it comes to foreign policy. Yet the days when international relations were the exclusive remit of high politics are over. Municipal and metropolitan actors play an increasing role, whether it is climate change mitigation, Track II diplomacy, educational initiatives, or the accommodation and integration of refugees and migrants.
Cities are home to over half the world’s population, consume a majority of its resources and cause a large share of its waste. Cities are both a challenge for global sustainability and crucial for its solution. Their settlement density and networks of creativity provide the space and the ideas for improved resource management. Above all they epitomise the needs and aspirations of their citizens. They are spaces of longing and belonging with promises of social equitability, individual freedom, and political participation.
Over a dozen think tanks from around the world launched the Wise Cities research and action platform in 2016. It builds on existing concepts of city planning and management such as “sustainable city”, “green city”, “eco-city”, “ubiquitous city” and “smart city”, but adds non-technocratic angles that are inspired by citizenship, such as socioeconomic development, political participation and cultural diversity.
Cities on the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean are among the oldest in the world and can draw on rich traditions of architecture, urban development and municipal administration. Yet, there are fundamental differences between these cities. Mega-cities like Istanbul and Cairo grapple with different challenges than medium-sized cities along the Côte d’Azur that have higher per capita incomes and better infrastructure. Cities in the north of the Mediterranean also have stronger traditions of municipal self-governance and autonomy (Le Galès, 2002). In some cities of the southern Mediterranean mayors are more akin to appointed civil servants with limited fiscal space and decision-making power, while in many cities of the northern Mediterranean they are elected politicians with the freedom, funds and mandate to formulate municipal initiatives of their own.
Some of these differences are embodied in architectural designs and urban morphologies. The medieval oriental city stresses privacy in ethnically segmented living areas with splendid courtyards, but sober and windowless facades. Meanwhile the public realm (e.g. mosque, souk) is controlled by autocratic rule. In contrast, the divide between public and private is not as clear-cut in cities in the north, which have more public spaces (e.g. forum, agora, town hall) as an expression of their traditions of constitutional government and municipal autonomy (see Wirth, 2000/2001, and the chapter by Anton Escher and Marie Karner in this volume). In the 19th century colonial cities with right-angled street grid patterns were added to the urban geography in the southern Mediterranean, housing new centres of administration, commerce and education. The post-war decades would see the sprawling expansion of suburbs and dormitory cities on both shores of the Mediterranean. This expansion has been often informal (not only in the south of the Mediterranean), sometimes followed by later legalization and connection with electricity grids and other public utilities.
In recent decades modern Dubai-style urbanisation has developed in the Gulf with vast car-centred traffic arteries, signature buildings, corporatised value chains and gated communities in bespoke real estate developments, inspiring copycat projects of luxury real estate in Mediterranean cities such as Beirut, Cairo and Tangier. The resource inefficiency of such agglomerations, limited public spaces that are commercialised and securitised, the spatial manifestations of social segregation and discontent and the neglect and non-integration of architectural heritage has led to soul-searching about the adequacy of such urbanisation models and their underlying motivations. Cities struggle to integrate their architectural heritage in sustainable adaptation processes, oscillating between preservation romanticism and bulldozer runaway modernisation. They are also facing the challenge of interacting more equitably and sustainably with their hinterlands, from where they receive migrant populations and on which they rely for the provision of vital services (see Max Ajl’s chapter in this volume).
Housing and urban networks are at the heart of the urban fabric. Real estate is a means to protect and legalise the monetary flows that are created by the urban economy and the flow of rents (location rent, sinecure and monopoly rents) that are used by elites to foster political alliances in limited access systems. Cities in the southern Mediterranean have a large share of informal housing and struggle with the poor quality of urban services, such as electricity, water, and waste disposal. Violence tends to be more prevalent than in rural settings. In limited access systems, the formal institutions serve people unequally and second-rank institutions play a crucial role in the development of large projects. Self-organised informal neighbourhood initiatives (e.g. for housing, waste disposal or cleaning) form a third pivot of urban governance in these cities.
It is a matter of debate whether the current urbanisation drive in developing countries and emerging markets can be interpreted as a positive developmental process or not. Doug Saunders argues that the Global South will become largely urbanised over the 21st century, undergoing processes that are similar to the urbanisation history of the West in the 19thcentury. Now as then rural migrants are drawn by the economic pull factors of the “arrival city” on whose outskirts they settle. They gradually acquire urban equity and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with their rural origins by providing investments (e.g. second homes, tourism, agriculture) and helping newly arriving relatives to start out on their own. In contrast, Mike Davies sees such sprawling agglomerations as symptoms of a “planet of slums”: dumping grounds for the permanently redundant of the post-industrial age, without a real development perspective. Rather than pull factors he sees push factors as major causes of Third World urbanisation, such as violent conflict and the deterioration of state power in the rural peripheries in the wake of structural adjustment. Both arguments reverberate in some chapters in this volume. While Farida Naceur and Fatiha Belmessous’ chapters examine the role of family networks in the administration of informal housing areas and the integration of new arrivals from the countryside in the city of Batna in Algeria, Julia Bello-Schünemann discusses the detachment of urbanisation in Sub-Saharan Africa from traditional development aspects such as industrialisation and improved service provision.
For all their differences, Mediterranean cities share some of today’s most common urban challenges, such as environmental degradation, gentrification, and growing inequality, climate change, provision of services, mass urbanisation, migration, and the fourth industrial revolution, just to name a few. Against this backdrop, the Kuwait Chair at Sciences Po, in cooperation with CIDOB, the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, organised the conference ““Wise Cities” in the Mediterranean? Challenges of Environmental and Social Sustainability” in March 2018. With the generous support of the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science (KFAS) the policy-oriented conference brought together academics, city planners, policymakers and representatives of NGOs and international organisations. The discussion centred on alternative pathways for urbanisation, better engagement of citizens, and the localisation process of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Moving beyond the large metropolises, the discussion also examined the specific challenges of smaller towns and “second cities” that are not necessarily capitals of their respective countries, but have their distinct economic and cultural dynamics (e.g. Alexandria and Barcelona). Views from neighbouring regions such as the Gulf and Sub-Saharan Africa also formed part of the conference. The contributions to this volume reflect the diverse backgrounds, experiences and expertise of the conference participants. They are meant as a starting point for a necessary debate on the social and environmental sustainability of urban growth in the Mediterranean and beyond.