A New Country within an Old Country?

The following is a guest post from renowned architect Leonardo Fajngold, of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Fajngold writes of the virtues of urbanism and the opportunities within the current crisis to reorient placemaking towards long-lasting and equitable utility.

From the very beginning of humanity, man lived in society, in groupings whose complexity accompanied their political, cultural and economic evolution. Primary, secondary and induced employment existed since the first agricultural activities, and the primitive specialization processes and trade gave rise to the city as a means of physical expression and cultural and social interchange. But it is with the bourgeoisie and industrial revolutions where this process intensifies and acquires additional protagonism for its effects in employment and business opportunities. The result was an acceleration in cities' dimension and sophistication, but also a growing struggle for urban land that affected not only housing, but business development and corporate performance as well.

At the end of the 19th century Henry George (Progress and Poverty, USA 1879), already described the phenomenon of growth of poverty - even in times of economic prosperity - as a product of land speculation, and proposed complete elimination of private land ownership. Yet, considering the effects of such measure on existing rights, he replaced it with the idea of a single tax on free-of-improvements land that was adopted then and still remains in force in many countries.

Since then (and even before) many solutions to this problem were tried: from the Utopian Socialism in the beginning of 19th century with Fourrier’s Phalansteres or Owen’s Communitarian Dwellings, E. Howard’s Garden Cities movement, the New Towns movement (mainly in Great Britain, but also all around Europe). The 20th century shows the growth of suburbanization, mainly in the USA, and then spread to the rest of the Americas and Europe as a way to mitigate the effects of land value, and as an escape from urban life congestion. A lifestyle closely related to the use of the automobile led to the post-war boom and growth of the road network and  its economic and social implications. In the beginning of the 21st century, we insist however to a return to “the city.”The increase in energy prices and environmental damage due to fossil fuel use, the increase in commuting times and an appreciation of its values and advantages gave new impulse to urban life. But traditional cities are not able anymore to shelter a fast demographic growth that is eagerly looking for jobs and business opportunities, and are becoming centers of larger conglomerates: megacities.

The “globalization” process accelerated existing economic problems that directly impacted the social tissue and indirectly the urban structure of societies all around the world. Among them: a loss in traditional industry jobs, a widening of the gap between rich and poor and a gradual reduction of middle classes that indiscriminately affected both developed and emerging countries. In the United States, the top 1 percent of earners took home 18.3 percent of national income in 2007 -- that is more than two and a half times their level in 1973, when their share was 7.7 percent (US Census Bureau). Remedies and strategies applied to mitigate those changes seem not to have worked, and furthered speculative bubbles, particularly in activities that were supposed to be pillars for economic recovery: new technologies, real estate and financial services. These further accentuated these problems and affected even the ability of the Government to respond appropriately to the depth of the crisis. Although it exceeds the scope of this analysis to make evaluations of these responses, we can not fail to mention that the consequences of 1929 economic depression lasted for over 10 years, and ended when the USA decided to take active part in war.

Of course such a remedy is unthinkable to suggest, neither for this new - nor for any - crisis whatsoever.  But I also believe that in this case,  it will be necessary to find stimulus of similar magnitude that neither Governments nor the Private Sector can offer today, which are not only economic ones, but also resources that we believe could be obtained through a new approach to the process of urban development and housing. In this sense it will be useful to return to the concepts already mentioned of H. George on the effects of community involvement on the value of urban land, and trough them generate the resources to produce a strong recovery of investment, employment and consumption. Managed by a new institutional organization of the different actors involved directly and indirectly in the business, and created by a public call from Government to its formation, such a program involves both an intensive and extensive participation of the whole community, including both business and families. This is a collaboration not only to guarantee a strong funding, but to try to restore concepts of social responsibility very often postponed by goals of efficiency and productivity that society ends paying in terms of security, entitlements, and especially in quality of life. Such measures will help reverse the process of concentration of wealth and remove poverty.

The proposals supported by the CNU - mixed use, walkable medium-density neighborhoods, rational use of land, natural resources, energy and transportation, etc - are all and each one of them valuable and deserve support because of their intrinsic values. However I believe that they are telling one side of the story, to which we should necessarily add the socio-economic terms that stood behind traditional urban life. Otherwise we are running the risk of transforming them in simple scenographies, and worst of all, to repeat the causes that leaded to urban sprawl. This virtuous conjunction could produce a strong impulse to the development of new urbanizations as well as to existing ones, in order to build a sort of “new country within an old country” that interact, enhance  one each other, that will open an opportunity to offer Governments a massive investment and jobs plan without compromising fiscal resources, in return for the removal of all the hurdles that stand in the way of new urbanization initiatives.

Photo: Villa 31, Buenos Aires.

- Leonardo Fajngold.





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