Connecting Cities Metropolis Congress 2008

March 11, 2009

For the first time in history the population of cities is outstripping that of the countryside.

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This salient, though perhaps overstated, fact accompanied welcoming comments by Metropolis president Jean-Paul Huchon, who opened the Metropolis 2008 Connecting Cities Congress and set the scene for an intense yet fragmented week of information exchange and discussion. With the phase changing power of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” this simple truth resonated through the congress corridors. I heard it verbatim from at least half a dozen presenters.

The Congress fell under the banner of ’Connecting Cities‘, a particularly apt title when hosted by Sydney, one of the world’s most globally connected yet geographically remote cities. As the triennial gathering for the World Association for the Major Metropolises (the Metropolis Association) the Congress sought to bring together current thinking, policy, analysis and problem solving techniques from the numerous member cities. The presence of the Congress in Sydney was particularly timely with the New South Wales State Government’s Sydney Metropolitan Strategy and the City Council’s own ambitious Sustainable Sydney 2030 plans both taking shape while systemic transport and urban connectivity problems are trumpeted by the media on a weekly basis.

The Metropolis Association has a voluntary membership base comprising individual cities in preference to sovereign states or countries. The benefits of this fairly unique distinction became apparent during the proceedings of the Congress. First, as members are individual cities the issues of engagement are predominantly limited to concerns of the urban realm, the footprint of urban fabric. Territorial distinction is thus made on a per city basis rather than through the traditional boundaries of the nation-state. This distinction was highlighted by the fact that similarities between cities were more often found in the areas of morphology, topography and financial structures than in cultural origins or geographic proximity. Secondly, there was a prominence of local government interest and contribution that characterised a level of city stewardship, competitive positioning and even the occasional self-conscious cheap shot of the predictable Sydney/Melbourne or London/Manchester style.

Traditional concerns of the state (whole-country issues) such as welfare, health, education and defence had limited currency and were effectively bypassed. Instead we were presented with a smorgasbord of issues ranging from place-making and the attraction of global capital, to strategic water management and internet uptake in India.

Metropolis’ self-described mission is to “promote international cooperation and exchanges among members… [as a] spokesperson on cities’ interests in international forums”. There are currently just over 100 member cities in the World Association for the Major Metropolises. Sydney has been a member city since 1993 and Melbourne since 1988.

In addition to the triennial congress the Metropolis Association holds a number of other significant events and commissions that pepper the calendar in between. These events include ongoing technical assistance and training for members, subject specific commissions on identified common issues and meetings of the Association’s board of directors and the executive. The Association also delivers numerous publications, reports and newsletters throughout the year.

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Under the direction of local city enthusiast and director of Special Projects Division at the New South Wales Department of Planning, Chris Johnson, the 2008 Congress was titled ‘Connecting Cities’. For Johnson this theme acknowledges a shift in city thinking. He states, “Cities until recently were seen as places… but over the last 20 years or so a new reading of cities has emerged [based on] their role as connectors of global capital.” He flags a new plight in the competitive jostle between cities. To remain relevant, successful cities must exhibit a global connectedness above and beyond any local amenities or quality of life.

Rethinking the city in this way tends to ‘despatialise’ in the first instance. The global city can be described as a nodal point on a vast, intertwined and globally connected network. According to the Congress director, the city’s purpose on this network is to maximise the volume and quality of, and access to, ?ows of capital and knowledge. But local issues do still play a significant support role in the global city. For the globally connected city to remain competitive it needs to have highly skilled workers located in close proximity. These workers place huge demand on ancillary support such as social, cultural and recreational infrastructure. It is this complex reading of the connected city that comprised the central concern of the congress.

An integrated series of disbursed events made up the week-long program. The Convention Centre at Darling Harbour served as a central hub housing primary activities, including the plenary presentations, individual workshops and presentations from the Commissions. Either side of the primary events were a number of related seminars, forums, tours and, yes, more workshops. These events were scattered around the city in various places from Little Bay and Homebush Bay to Sydney Harbour itself. Content for the Congress was organised under four key themes for ease of navigation: City Leadership, Climate Change, Financial Infrastructure and Urban Renewal.

Keynote speakers in the plenary sessions were a somewhat divergent collection of academics, bureaucrats, big business executives, quantitative researchers and an actress. Presentations came from numerous countries around the globe such as India, China, the US, Europe and Canada. Particular highlights included the articulate and emotive opening presentation by local girl Cate Blanchett. Definitely an outsider in terms of the urban theorists’ clique, Blanchett ruminated on the pleasures of knowing a city, bottom-up, from the inside. Having worked and lived in many, what she cherished most was the uniqueness or essence each great city had to offer. As she described, “Cities are grown… out of homes, dreams, hopes and identities… Their life-blood is not money, but lives, whole lives.” Unlike the normalising effect of current planning processes she suggested the organic quality of cities should be nurtured, “like designing a great garden”.

Carlo Ratti presented a fascinating overview of his work with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, SENSEable City Laboratory. Ratti’s projects “focus on real-time, location sensitive tools for understanding cities”. He sees the digital as an overlay that complements rather than competes with the urban fabric of the city. Projects included a park pavilion with mesmerising computer-choreographed water-walls that ‘sense’ the presence of a visitor and form a momentary opening for their passage. In another study his mapping of mobile phone usage in the Real Time Rome project provided an animated three-dimensional mapping of phone usage over a World Cup Final evening in Rome. The graphic output was not only visually compelling but, Ratti argued, permitted a new understanding of people flows that could better inform emergency response during a major event or disaster.

The SENSEable City Laboratory’s most interesting undertaking to date concerns itself with urban waste. By embedding minute digital sensor technology into urban waste the laboratory hopes that the ‘removal chain’ of a city can be better traced. Currently only at conceptual stage, future feedback from this tracking experiment could be used to reduce energy consumption and double handling, and improve recycling.

Saskia Sassen was for many the clear highlight of the Congress – perhaps because she put forward a more re?ective and critical view than many other contributors. With limited time Sassen presented an intricately crafted and succinct “assemblage of issues”. She commenced by expressing concern at the tendency to value a city through globalisation indicators alone, stating, “The globalised city is an analytic concept. An insertion of a particular, partial economy [and] polity, in a city that is much larger, that has multiple materialities, multiple economic histories…” It was Sassen after all who invented the term ‘Global City’, and it did seem that in light of the recent global financial crisis, the downside of this global connectivity needs to be addressed. Indeed, with restricted time she rapidly moved to a critical account of the dimensions of the global financial crisis “that have an urban footprint”.

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On the way there she made comment on some interesting trends born out of recent (pre-crash) globalisation indicators: US cities are slowly being outranked by smaller, more unique European cites. Meanwhile, rapidly westernising Asian and Indian cities are “riding an express elevator” on their way towards the top of the list. Also interesting, and contrary to earlier network theory, is the trend for the most digitised and globally connected sectors of banking, finance and media to generate the highest development densities on the ground.
To return to the global financial meltdown, however, in Sassen’s view the pursuit of value in the city had moved on from the city’s use as “an object of investment for the global real estate development industry”, which rose to prevalence in the 1980s and is presently exemplified by cities such as Dubai and Shanghai. “The city [now] becomes a space… that is a source for the extraction of value from modest people,” she said. “Today a [financial] innovation allows an expansion into low income and modest income houses where the city again as a space is situated in profit-making circumstances that are global and go way beyond the city itself. We have to think now of finance as having an urban footprint in very low-income neighbourhoods.”

Corporate speakers such as Cisco Systems’ Wim Elfrink and Miles Young of the Ogilvy Group (recently commissioned to rebrand Sydney, as it happens) gave their own advertorial presentations laden with more upbeat metro-buzzwords and subliminal brand triggers. TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) were scattered through the presentations with growing support for the PPP (public private partnership), detailed discussion of a city’s USP ( unique selling point) and the personi?cation of the global corporation as a mere CCC (committed corporate citizen). The work of Richard Florida in defining the ‘creative class’ and ‘creative capital’ also seemed to have gained some purchase, particularly in local government circles.
Keynote speakers aside, the Congress provided a venue for review and reporting on a number of major research projects. These projects, titled Commissions, provide an interface for active collaboration between major metropolises. Five commissions in various states of completion were reported on during the Congress. They were:
* ecological regions
* financing of urban services and infrastructure
* comprehensive neighbourhood regeneration
* urban mobility management, and
* metropolitan performance measurement.

The issue areas of each commission were critically relevant and rightfully took their place in the Commission reporting sessions scheduled under the main program. The idea of combined research and experience from an average of 12 diverse global cities for each Commission filled me with expectations of new insights and unique outcomes. Unfortunately upon delivery the information seemed to be packaged for an internal review only, leaving the broader audience somewhat confused and wanting as reporters stole valuable time from the keynote speakers.

Less formal spaces and ‘occurrences’ wove their way around the timetabled events of the Congress. These included corporate sponsored lunches, delegate dinners, the Agora and the d_city experience. Of particular interest was the Agora, an open forum inspired by its ancient Greek namesake, where Congress presentations were redelivered in a more relaxed and discursive way. The aim of the Agora was to informalise proceedings and provide “a free and open event for the public to engage with”. In practice it was a little under-patronised, perhaps due to its location amongst swarms of suited delegates, one level removed from the public domain. I sat in the small audience imagining the interest this Agora would have drawn had it instead been a marquee on the Darling Harbour promenade.

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*Metropolis 08 research publications*
Five bound books were assembled and launched successively as a rolling prelude to the Congress. For delegates the books were a wonderful surprise find in the usually dull conference bundle. The books were developed with the ambition of foregrounding contemporary issues in city research and commentary and were consciously produced to provoke and stimulate.

Each A5 publication binds together contributions from Congress speakers and others, in the form of papers with related graphs, maps and the like. In assembling the books the design team Anagram Studio has clustered together what are sometimes disparate data sets with graphic clarity and a compelling format. Tables, pie charts, diagrams, maps and lists from the various contributors have all been redesigned for clarity. The original information remains intact, but with a consistent visual language applied throughout, the books somehow carry greater meaning.

The first book in the series is titled Networks and of all the publications this is the one that most directly explores the theme of the Congress, ‘Connecting Cities’. Its pages are dominated by no less than five contributors from the Global and World Cities Research Network (GaWC) – the world-renowned leaders in research on the concept of world cities and their ranking. Air travel, information, finance and knowledge networks each gain an airing with an emphasis on the quantitative performance ranking of cities under each category.

City Regions, the second publication, takes a closer look, investigating the morphological make-up of individual cities. Chapters in this book explore relationships between centre and periphery, density and sprawl, metropolitan area and governance structure. In the third chapter of City Regions Chris Johnson outlines the Government’s growth strategy for Sydney – a focus on five key centres in the Sydney basin, each providing for a full range of commercial, cultural and recreational activities.

The closing paper by Woods Bagot director, James Calder, is entitled ‘14 Hour City’ and proposes a radical shift in building use patterns, calling for a staggered workday period divided into an early and a late shift. With buildings contributing more than 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions yet grossly underutilised, the concept makes sense on a number of fronts.

Books three and four, titled China and India respectively, take a peek at the immense transformation and rapid densi?cation found in the urban areas of these two developing countries. India’s population increase, equivalent to approximately one Australia per year, brings the scale and pace of urbanisation into sharp focus. China’s market position and relative stability in the recent global financial crisis indicate a strengthening of power and reinforces the importance of Chinese cities in the global economy. Both books touch on issues such as environmental response, quality of life and social justice – issues which will be fundamental to the emergence of these urban agglomerations as truly global cities.

The final publication, entitled Mega-event Cities, was launched hot off the press during an early Congress event at Olympic Park, Homebush Bay. The book is an amalgam of research on and around Olympic Games cities. Papers within explore the benefits of global exposure gained from hosting the Games as well as the varied successes of pre- and post-Olympic venue planning.

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Metropolis 08 ‘Connecting Cities’ attracted a broad mix of attendees: city delegates, urban administrators, planners, politicians, academics, quantitative researchers and creative luminaries. Many came from faraway places and each had their own expectations of the event. While it is scarcely possible to satisfy such a broad range of expectations all of the time, the delivery of what was often sharply focused and specific data output could have been better packaged so as to be more palatable to this incredibly broad audience base.
As is often the case there was precious little time for ‘opening up to the floor’. Speakers went over time and session chairs stuck ruthlessly to the tightly scheduled program. Some of the very best speakers had little more than 20 minutes to present and no time for critical discussion amongst the panel. This oversight in the timetabling of events seemed to leave the speakers and audience wanting more.

More successful was the repackaging of Congress information into the five research publications. These documents successfully fabricate a counter currency for the original information. The books reassemble much of the Congress content into a new format and in doing so solidify any sense of fragmentation felt during the congress itself. The exceptional quality of these book-objects gives the knowledge of that moment an extended shelf life.
The alignment of the Congress with the global credit crisis was unforeseen, but served to sharpen focus on the broader consequences of globalisation. Ironically, city rankings, when measuring global connectivity seemed to correlate closely with the ranking of cities worst affected by the global credit crisis. This suggests that in the globalised world, what evolved as a convenient network of capitalist opportunity in good times becomes a network of dependence, or even a liability, in bad.

I think Saskia Sassen hit the nail on the head in her opening remarks, as she reflected on the Congress proceedings: “Multiples of very specialised forms of knowledge are in circulation, and I like that a lot. It’s a bit like a city actually.” She moved on to insist she had no intention of completing the subject that is the city, saying, “… in a way I don’t like completing; I like incompleteness because in incompleteness lies the possibility of change, innovations, experimentation.” So perhaps that sense of being connected, stimulated and informed, but not quite fulfilled is, as it is with the city, a healthy state to be in.

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