Urbanization: Making sense of its various externalities

On Day 2 of the GDN’s 13th Annual Conference, the third plenary session on “urban externalities, contagious disease, congestion, and crime,” discussed that very issue of the ramifications of urbanization, which is expressed very differently in various parts of the world.

George Mavrotas, Chief Economist with the Global Development Network and chair of the session, began by discussing the urban phenomenon, and its externalities, with an emphasis on what can go wrong, and how to ameliorate it. The speakers soon followed suit, starting with Teresa Caldeira, Professor of City and Regional Planning, at the University of California, Berkeley.

An anthropologist by training, Caldeira has conducted extensive research on changes in urban culture in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and how patterns of urban violence change frequently, producing new dynamics of violence, evident in the relationship between youth and city.

Leaving your mark on the city

A series of new urban practices in Sao Poalo began taking shape, protesting profound social inequality, where young frustrated males are the agents of that change, seeking visibility and expression in the city through what is referred to as imprinting, or graffiti, and through the rise of motor boys, largely lower-income courier boys, that crisscross the metropolis.

Also referred to as “Pixacao” in the local language, this new form of expression is seen as a mode of intervention by young men occupying and recreating the public space.

Violence as a form of expression

Young men are murdered frequently, and explanations are not agreed upon, since different sectors of society provide varying explanations. The gendered pattern of violence is also obviated in this scenario, where young men constitute the majority of victims, by being aggressive and putting their bodies at risk.

Motivated by what is largely considered an anarchic intervention and radical sport, young males rush out to the streets to inscribe space and experience a rush by risking personal safety, where accidents are not uncommon.

Motor boys moving through the city

Motor Boys are courier boys that navigate through heavy traffic, and bureaucracies; many of them are involved in graffiti and imprinting on Sao Paolo streets. An occupation demanding great risk, motor boys have a contentious relationship with members of the city and largely dominate the traffic today. Usually seen as a distraction by automobile drivers, owners of private cars see motor boys in their rear-view mirror and are usually annoyed by the reckless driving, seeing it as an invasion of their privacy.

How replicable are good city models?

Addressing a different facet of urbanization externalities, Susan Fainstein, Professor of Urban Planning, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, focused on the concept of a just city based on the model of Singapore, building on the three principles of equity, diversity, and democracy.

Singapore offers a different form of state capitalism, with many parallels to socialism, where the state owns large portions of the land. Largely defined by shrewd macroeconomic policy, the city increased emphasis on finance, tourism, and affordable, luxurious public housing, occupied by a large percentage of locals.

The Singaporean model

The city looked strikingly different before public housing, characterized by low-rise buildings, which are now mostly high-rise. Today’s standard of living came at a cost, however, and meant destroying many facets of the old way of life; including being able to set up shop and sell goods on the street. The city has now become a place for people to park their money, catering to its ultra-wealthy residents and eradicating all remnants of its by-gone slums.

The question remains whether the Singapore model, which turned out to be a success on many fronts, is replicable. With cheap, affordable housing in the heart and periphery of the city, malls, a great deal of amenities, including swimming pools and parks, one has to wonder how generalizable this model really is.

The Q&A session that soon followed shed more light on the extent of which the Brazilian and Singaporean scenario can be stretched out and applied to different parts of the world. Both speakers reiterated the fact that the local context dictates a lot about how change can take place. And that policy makes a palpable difference.


About Maya Madkour
I am a Sociologist, eternal optimist, and spreader of joy. I was born in London, raised in Cairo, and call Dallas my home away from home; where I have been travelling for the past fourteen years. This blog is a place where we can share insights, learn, grow and master the art of life together.

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