Review: Now Urbanism: the future city is here

Editor(s) Jeffrey Hou, Benjamin Spence, Thaisa Way and Ken Yocom
Publisher Routledge (Taylor and Francis Group)
Year 2015

The Anthropocene, some claim, is here. Cities are arguably the ultimate complex human construct. They manifest and are active agents in the taut tensions between culture and nature. Now Urbanism takes the reader through a fascinating journey of a diverse collection of cities, including Nairobi, New York, Mumbai, Manchester, Caracas and Las Vegas. The book examines cities from multiple perspectives: as hotbeds of production and pollution; as beacons of hope in seas of poverty; and as flagships for sustainability in a rapidly globalising world.

This is the urban century. More than half the world’s population lives in cities. And one out of every three city-dwellers lives in a slum. By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities. How are cities to cope with providing infrastructure and housing for their burgeoning populations? Now Urbanism grapples with these issues through the multiple voices of academics and practitioners, theorists and activist, urbanists, architects and landscape architects. Embedded in theory and proven in context and action, the contributions are refreshingly sober and often inspiring.

The book overtly counters a reductivist view of the city. It considers cities in their complexity. Cities bring millions of people together to offer opportunity, excitement, and entertainment. Urban infrastructure overlays provide a stable framework of existence to millions and draw many people from villages. At the same time, the city’s allure and predictability is underpinned by structural violence. This violence is played out in the unsustainable exploitation of ecosystem services. Structural violence is spatialized in slums, which serve as reservoirs for cheap labour for the formal city. The slums are also poignant reminders of the relocation of rural poverty. While the rich externalise environmental problems, the poor internalise them. But closed ecosystem cycles ensure that even the rich cannot escape the consequences of environmental damage: contaminated water flows from taps in suburbia and shared chronic environmental problems, like climate change and extreme weather events become increasingly severe.

There is no utopia. The future city is here. We live in a world of smart cities and massive pollution, green suburbs and scraggly shanty towns. Unimaginable wealth exists in the face of abject poverty. We cannot erase the present and build the future city on a tabula rasa. The future can only start from what exists today. Now Urbanism is a call to embrace the present with neither innocence nor resignation. The veil of utopia should be removed to confront the messy reality of the lived city.

In Mumbai, the high-rise mixed-use blocks that exist amid the city’s squalor are illuminated against a plea for an alternative urbanism that draws from Mumbai’s unique history as a network of fishing villages. The history of Silicone Valley reveals its origins in massive strategic defence research investments and appropriation of fertile agricultural land by high-tech industry. In San Francisco, opposing versions of ecological urbanism are enacted between star architect Peter Calthorpe’s proposal for a brown-field site for a high-density mixed-use development with eco-mobility and conservationists aiming to restore its natural systems. In Las Vegas, the sustainability of green efficiency is contrasted with an anti-hegemonic sustainability of sufficiency practised by streetcar washers and guerrilla advertisers. The layers of history behind water sensitive design are uncovered to reveal links to the City Beautiful Movement and the New Town Movement alongside the evolving ecological objectives of watershed protection, place-rooted aesthetics, urban agriculture, flood control, and biodiversity rejuvenation.

The urban present is thick with multiple realities and viewpoints. It is a knotted entanglement of history, present, future, culture and nature. Borders are made to be crossed. Spatial and temporal boundaries are nebulous. Every city and every civilization must build on the rubble of the past. The comfort of the rich cannot be isolated from the suffering of the poor.

Now Urbanism casts an ethical eye on the contemporary city to formulate an agenda for inquiry and critical action for socio-ecologically sustainable urbanities. It calls upon designers to use their immense agency to tackle the big problems facing humankind: climate change, water scarcity, expanding populations and informal settlements.

The book sketches the premises for a new framework of engagement that shifts from hierarchical deterministic solutions to distributed open-ended interventions. Going beyond the strictures of the universal solution, the framework embraces serendipity and the unknown. Designers are urged to develop unfinished platforms with oddities of ambiguous possibilities so that users can appropriate them in unexpected ways, creating continually evolving user-generated urbanisms.

In Nairobi’s Kibera the power of small context-specific networked interventions for the rejuvenation of social and natural systems is demonstrated through implemented projects, like the Productive Public Space Integrated Intervention which transformed a crime-ridden, flood-prone garbage dump into a social hub with opportunities for youth and gainful enterprise. The “infoStructures” student projects built in the town of Tijuana on the Mexico-USA border are another version in this genre.

Now Urbanism reframes the dominant pessimistic narrative of slums to one of ingenuity, tolerance, and experience in recycling, reuse and sharing — all very valuable lessons for transitioning to a circular low-impact economy. A high-tech version of closed-loop urban systems is vividly illustrated in a biomimicry inspired design for a climate-proof Seattle.

The book invites professionals and institutions to break free from strict master planning and welcome lay people — “the organic intellectuals” — into the design, financing, and construction of cities. Partnerships democratise space production and use. In co-production, web 2.0 is positioned as a powerful tool for raising resources in cash and kind.

Guerrilla urbanism is presented as a subaltern practice with immense potential. In San Francisco, young designers narrate how they created temporary green public spaces on metered car parking. The project resulted in an internationally popular web-based DIY manual and an invitation from city authorities to partner in using guerrilla tactics for incremental participatory conversion of large swathes of land from car use to civic spaces. The 400m Luchtsingel pedestrian bridge in Rotterdam was mostly crowd-funded. The bridge was completed decades ahead of the official schedule. Tying these projects together is a generosity for the civic realm and a stance against privatisation of the commons.

To sum up Now Urbanism, it is useful to think of metaphorical streams. Streams that converge into and diverge from five basins (key book sections) respectively: situating, grounding, performing, distributing, instigating and enduring. The streams flow through urban and hinterland terrains in Asia, Africa, North and South America and Europe. They flow thick and messy with multiple knowledges of context, critical contemplation and action. The streams come together in obvious and unexpected ways, knitting together the destinies of contiguous and detached territories, urban and rural contexts, the rich and poor, people and nature. Now Urbanism offers a panoply of possibilities for imagining resilient cities in the 21st Century.


Tom Sanya (PhD) is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Cape. He teaches and researches in sustainable design of the built environment. He focuses on low-energy design, water sensitive design and ecological urbanism for human well-being and ecosystem vitality.

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One Response to “Review: Now Urbanism: the future city is here”

  1. phelisia

    Quiet interesting review.
    This is the hard truth about modern urbanisation


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