Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Future Day and Songdo (송도국제업무단지 )

Songdo Under Construction, Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

March 1 is the inaugural celebration of Future Day, and it's got me thinking about urban futures again.  On my futurist bookshself at the moment: Aerotropolis, by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay.  It's a business book, really: breathless descriptions of fabulous capitalists and the globetrotting edge cities they build.  I'm reading it because South Korea's Songdo is a poster child for this vision of the future.  At 7 miles from Incheon International Airport, this massive development on land reclaimed from tidal flats is supposed to represent the city of the future--a networked hub with near-immediate access to most of Asia, hard-wired for ubiquitous computing, and constructed for minimal levels of car pollution (although building a new city from scratch surely caused some pollution!).  Songdo will join other poster-cities for globalization, including Dubai and Shanghai.

As Kasarda and Lindsay point out, Songdo, and the many aerotropolis-like encampments in China and Southeast Asia, takes globalization as a mode of production as its organizing principle--both in its design and in its function.  It's all about circulating capital; and it's built to circulate capital and the humans that serve it in the most efficient way possible, from high-rise apartment to subway to airport and back.  They wonder "whether we will consciously choose to live in cities built in globalization's image--machines for living linked in great chains and tasked with specific functions: factories, farms, headquarters, hospitals, and hubs" (p. 13).  Living in Songdo means defining oneself according to flows of capital--living at the the vertiginous heights of advanced capitalism.  

Is this "the future"?  It's certainly one version of urban futures.  But I wonder if Songdo and Dubai are the only places "built in globalization's image".  An alternative possibility on the other end of the globalization scale: temporary housing fashioned from discarded cargo pallets.  The idea here is to utilize pallets discarded from

Pallet House,
cargo shipments (including international aid shipments) in order to build temporary (yet sturdy) housing for the enormous mass of refugees and urban poor.  This is another future certainly, but not one reflected in Songdo's design.

Similar to the "appropriate technology" debate in anthropology and development in the 1960's and 1970's, we see here a division: graceful, gated, LEED certified aerotropolises rising out of ground in Asia, squatter- and refugee settlements for the poor in the Global South.  Similar to solar ovens and composting toilets--clever technological hacks, but hacks for those on the other end of capital flows.

As David Harvey, Mike Davis and many others have predicted, the tendency for globalization is to develop according to a power-law distribution of wealth.  Both rich and poor are embedded in global movements of capital, but at opposite ends.  But living in Songdo means that this "other" globalization (what Gordon Mathews suggestively terms "low-end" globalization) is never visible, even though the "high end" spires and parks of Songdo very much depends on the contributions of the "low-end". Songdo--as a city of the future--suggests another future for the city: the ideological division of the world by social class, the networked hubs for the wealthy developing apart from globalized spaces for the poor.  If this seems like the inevitable future, then it is only because we have already (although perhaps tacitly) accepted the logic of these spaces of exception. 

But if we're choosing to live in globalization's image (or, indeed, if we have no choice in the matter), then we might choose a built environment that embraces (at least symbolically) more of the global supply chain.  Devoting a city of flows of financiers and computer programmers represents one end of that, but what about the massive cement industry that supports the spires of Songdo (Korea is the world's fifth largest producer of cement)?  And what about the host of other goods and services that move through, borne not on airplanes, but on trains and cargo ships? 

Globalization layers on inequalities after inequalities.  In terms of urban life, one of the most glaring: enormous amalgams of surplus capital to those states that can afford it (or, in South Korea's case, merely underwrite it), and make-shift re-use and re-purposing for an enormous cross-section of global poor.

Contrast this to Keetwonen, a massive student dormitory complex in Amsterdam fashioned entirely out of re-purposed shipping containers.  While denizens of Amsterdam's Keetwonen are hardly helping the world's poor, they are--at least in a symbolic way--engaging both ends of the supply chain.

If we're to build in globalization's image, then I am advocating a Jane Jacobs approach.  A future city that consciously connects with global flows at multiple ends--that includes multiple reminders of globalization's inequalities and builds accordingly. 

Keetwonen: the largest container city in the world