In 1987, a special United Nations (UN) commission was tasked with creating a “global agenda for change” that would instigate an international cooperative strategy to address increasing environmental degradation and the intractable poverty of a world just coming to terms with the real limitations of our resources. Commonly known as the Brundtland Report, the most regularly referenced definition of sustainable urban development is pulled from its pages: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs.”1 The necessity of economic growth is presumed as a tool for equalizing global development, whereas restraints placed on that growth are demanded as a strategy for equitable distribution of resources across both space and time, with the intention of prioritizing the most disadvantaged in their efforts to catch up. The UN World Commission that produced the Brundtland Report was the first to recognize that a coordinated strategy among all developed and developing countries, regardless of political structure or economic vitality, was necessary in advancing a secure and sustainable existence for the world’s growing population. Fast-forward thirty years, and the optimism of Brundtland seems quaint if not preposterous. In this new era of the Anthropocene, in which the impacts of our development have stretched beyond our technological capabilities to repair them, Christopher Marcinkoski’s The City That Never Was (2015) shocks us into the global reality that speculative urbanization—a particular brand of intentional, overzealous development as a strategy of economic growth—is wielded far more often in the service of gaining or sustaining position on a competitive economic stage between increasingly generic places, than as a responsible service to increase quality of life or provide humane conditions.
“Of course it is!” would be the incredulous answer from developers, economists, politicians, agency officials, bankers, and real estate professionals—in other words, those in the complicated stakeholder matrix of city production who are not designers. Marcinkoski, as a scholar in this case, more than his other two roles as practitioner or educator, seeks to find the agency—if there is any to be found—of the core urban design disciplines (architecture, landscape architecture, and planning) in this surprisingly persistent version of urbanization. Not intended to satisfy the needs or desires of inhabitants, this version of urbanization is meant to serve as both means and ends of generating economic growth.
Questions of sustainability, however, are more an implicit sidebar of the text than its main mission. Primarily, Marcinkoski has crafted a dense yet completely readable and highly compelling collection of case studies, bookended by the history of pervasive boom-and-bust cycles in the first chapter and in the last, reflections on potential strategies for contemporary urban design and planning practice to engage, if not confront, these conditions. Two-thirds of the book is focused on the jaw-dropping case of Spain’s explosive urbanization practices between 1998 and 2008, the so-called second miracle (the first being a result of Spain’s housing boom in the 1960s). The spatial products of this boom include: housing for sixteen million people (though population growth was only six million), 13,000 new kilometers of roadway, 150 new metro stations and 180 new kilometers of rail expansion in Madrid alone, seven new airports (for a total of 50—more than two and a half times that of Germany, which boasts twice the population), and—apologies to Jerry Brown and the state of California—over 3,000 built kilometers of high-speed rail in a system aiming to locate 90 percent of Spain’s population within thirty minutes of a high-speed rail station (80–83). The extravagant numbers are just the skeletal data on which Marcinkoski reconstructs the very detailed land, capital, and governmental relationships represented in fastidious text, maps, and timelines that attempt to elucidate the preternatural logic of shuttered airports and empty trains. The real work is excavating the extremely complicated structures of how policy makers, property owners, and global culture collide (or collude) to produce brand new—yet nearly vacant—cities.
To imply that The City That Never Was is only documentary in nature, though, is misleading. It is the process of urbanization (or city building) itself that is under inquiry throughout the text. As Marcinkoski explains, “[Speculative urbanization] is not simply the product of capital; rather, it is employed in creating the conditions for the possibility of capital. … Of particular interest is the gradual shift from urbanization as a response to economic growth to urbanization deployed as a driver of economic growth” (18). Though speculation is not new to the urbanization process, the assets of choice and scale of that speculation have certainly shifted, and grown exponentially, over time. What may have seemed tangible if not relatively manageable before now (land speculation in the late eighteenth century, agriculture in the early nineteenth, infrastructure in the mid-twentieth, and building speculation throughout and ever since) has metamorphosed into entire districts, crossing the boundaries of building, infrastructure, culture, and industry (52). It is speculation itself that is the new industry, creating, in its wake, a labor pool particularly reliant on construction for the sake of construction activity as a generator of jobs and income (221). With that change in scale comes an outsized degree of both risk and reward reliant on a kind of addict’s cycle of more to beget more. One seeming reward, in many of the Spanish cases, is the windfall of design opportunities provided to both high-profile and local architects. As might be imagined, many of these spectacular projects now stand as burdensome reminders of the irresponsible excesses of the era (86).
The view from the American Midwest begs comparisons between the manufactured ruins of Spain (and China and Africa …) and the historical ruins of Detroit (and St. Louis and Pittsburgh …). Marcinkoski touches on this briefly out of what feels somewhat like obligation by first exploring their spatial similarities—overscaled infrastructure, emptiness, monofunctionality, residual spaces—and then reminding us, via the still haunting Stalking Detroit (2001), how designers outside of the Midwest first came to be enamored with the urbanization model and surreal spatial results of post-Fordist landscapes (86). Though both are burdened with a weighty physical emptiness, they differ in terms of their durations and history. The ghost cities of speculation sprouted like weeds seemingly overnight while the vacant cities of disinvestment grew into urban maturity over generations and slowly degraded through the repercussions of industrial demise (86). The first have yet to be occupied (and act purely as “transactional product[s]” ), while the latter have rich cultural and social histories, disrupted as a consequence of changes in industry and the compounding factors that resulted (220).
It is this social history—and common urban inhabitants in general for that matter—that seems underrepresented in Marcinkoski’s otherwise extremely thorough story. As a recent transplant to the city of St. Louis—a city that has actually lost a larger percentage of its urban population than Detroit—perhaps I am overly sensitized to the troubled relationship between people and vacancy. Though de-urbanization was undoubtedly a consequence of both industrial decline and the growth of highway-enabled sprawl through urban renewal, it was not a process of equitable dis- and then reinvestment. The flight of urban whiteness and wealth was also integrally tied to discriminatory attitudes, policies, and practices (both covert and overt) and the social injustices of segregated access. Though Marcinkoski references Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey’s differing positions on the order in which urbanization and capital accumulation occur (218), their work on social justice and spatial production feels missing.2Urbanization—speculative and otherwise—has never equally provided the right to the city for all its inhabitants. How these questions of social and spatial justice apply in places of such extreme excess capacity under radically different governmental systems may be more of an added layer than The City That Never Was should be asked to handle, but a critical and intriguing set of questions nonetheless.
Ultimately we are left to consider what this intensification of the phenomenon of speculative urbanism means for those disciplines directly engaged in the physical design and planning of these activities. Are architects, landscape architects, urban designers and city planners excused from responsibility for the consequences of these projects, since the ventures originate from political and economic motivations too often considered outside their concern? Or does the proliferation and escalation of this phenomenon provide a unique moment to reconsider the disciplinary conventions and cultural agency of contemporary urban design? (53)
As the increasingly uneven distribution of wealth seems to be dividing the world into rich and poor cities, the relationship between urbanization and prosperity, and the role design professionals have to play in it, seems more critical than ever. The City That Never Was ends by reflecting on the way spatial practitioners of urban environments might reimagine the status quo of architectural form, land use, infrastructure, and the public realm in this light. In the vein of ecological, landscape, and infrastructural urbanists, Marcinkoski calls for projects (and processes, I would hope) that are less prescriptive and more performative, indeterminate, and adaptable. He uses the terms “disposability,” “speed,” and even “cheapness” (per Alejandro Zaero-Polo) to describe an architecture that is more intentionally conscientious about its life span and perhaps more flexibly produced in terms of its business model (222). In addition to Alejandro Aravena and the London Olympics, one might also consider the border work of Teddy Cruz or the very straightforward Bullitt Center, intended to be reassembled over its life span to accommodate changes in use. To Pierre Belanger’s critique of infrastructure in particular (226), I would add the work of Nina Marie Lister, Geoffrey Thun and Kathy Velikov, Hilary Brown, and myself. In this area in particular, we are all investigating versions of ecologically modeled, hybrid infrastructural systems that capitalize on potentials for symbiotic relationships across systems with the ability to operate dynamically over time and space. Infrastructure is clearly a massive remnant of the speculative process and a potential place in the city to reinvent an agenda of publicness and sustainability.
Public space gets short shrift in this last segment, particularly considering its significance as the location where civitas is shaped.3 This brief section on the public realm could benefit from an elaboration on what seems to be a hint toward collective tactical processes (and one of the few places social and environmental justice are referenced explicitly). This could include what I call top/up urbanism—new models of urbanization in which top-down agencies are adopting the processes and techniques of grassroots actors and grassroots actors are being included and treated as agency surrogates. Janette Sadik-Khan’s well-known demonstration projects in Times Square are an example of the former, while Jason Roberts’s development of the Better Block model as a transferable, implementable method of instant urbanization is an example of the latter. Like today’s numerous sharing economies, top/up urbanism inserts an agility to the typically rigid and expensive process of large-scale urbanization.
Coincidentally, this year’s Venice Biennale (themed “Reporting from the Front” and curated by Pritzker Prize winner and socially conscious architect, Alejandro Aravena) features an American pavilion focused on underutilized sites in Detroit and a Spanish pavilion on the suspended condition of their urbanization explosion. In the former, “The Architectural Imagination" (co-curated by Monica Ponce de Leon and Cynthia Davidson), we are reminded that speculation in the design world typically references the creative process of proposing multiple and unrestricted alternatives to the reality that confronts us.4 The Spanish pavilion, “Unfinished,” curated by architect Iñaqui Carnicero, seeks responses to the partial and scattered remnants of overbuilding that are the subject of The City That Never Was. The combination of exhibition, lecture series, and website is intended to instigate and catalog creative solutions for this stagnant and degrading condition. According to the curator, “it will invite the public to actively explore different projects and think about them not as ruins but as potential tools for change."5
Marcinkoski is wrong to think it “unpunctual” to be looking at the global real estate crisis now (10); his book is right on time and more urgent than ever. Architects may find it too focused on planning, and planners may find it too focused on architecture, which to me means it is a reflection of the current state of both the disciplines and the world. I appreciate its unannounced struggle to identify our disciplinary umbrella, particularly the shout-out to urban design as the collector under which architecture, landscape architecture, and planning must come together to solve the problems at the scale to which he refers. Silos and site boundaries are just too restrictive to confront the real problems of the globe, under which I include the rigid lines separating scholars and practitioners, philanthropies and cities, cities and regions, and public agencies from each other.
Speculative urbanization may not be the biggest global problem, but it is a problem that has exacerbated all of the other problems—wealth disparity, environmental degradation, resource depletion, pollution and waste, and inequitable concentrations of power. To rein in the excess without stifling the opportunity, we must assist in recalibrating the balance between speculation as an economic tool (though never an economic end) and speculation as a creative imaginary. The former alone creates what Richard Sennett calls cities that “look like money”—sensory deprived, sterile, formulaic;6 the latter alone helps us to theorize and envision but runs the risk of impotence if not informed by a broad range of factors, including policy and economics. The City That Never Was reminds us—in superb detail—of the dangers inherent in greed, and the need for designers to speak the often-foreign language of economists, social scientists, and politicians. Taking responsibility for our own disciplinary fluency will help produce the city that really does reflect our highest hopes and aspirations, for all inhabitants of current generations and all the ones who follow.