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Looking At Cities From The Ground Up: “Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers”

Leeron Hoory By Leeron Hoory Published on February 10, 2017

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This article was updated on April 4, 2017

Around the world, cities are growing at exponential rates. By 2050, it’s estimated that approximately 60 percent of the world’s total population will be living in cities. These cultural and economic capitals are also epicenters of massive and stark economic disparities. But inequality doesn't only exist between districts and neighborhoods. As cities expand, who lives where, and the conditions in which they live, is increasingly shaped across vertical, not just horizontal, geographies of power.

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In his new book Vertical: the City From Satellites to Bunkers, Stephen Graham, a professor at Newcastle University's School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape, argues that a traditional map is no longer sufficient to understand contemporary urban cities. He redefines urban geopolitics by looking at them vertically, drawing connections between international urban capitals.

While libraries are filled with books about the politics and geographies of the horizontal urban landscapes of highways, railways, subways, buses, cars, and bicycles, urban planners and architects have yet to pay as much attention the politics of skyscrapers, drones, basements, and elevators. “It is only through such fully three-dimensional and critical perspectives that the political, social and urban struggles of our rapidly urbanizing world can be possibly understood,” Graham writes. The book is divided into two sections, above and below, which include chapters on helicopters and satellites, or sewers and tunnels, thus challenging the limitations of traditional geography and cartography. The result is a complete revision of how cities are built from the ground up.

The implicit social power of height is already deeply ingrained into our cartography. For example, the idea of the global south or being “down under” was and often still is read as being geographically, economically or morally inferior. The hierarchies of power extends beyond maps.

Google Earth, for example, has changed the politics of the aeriel by making the view from above available to anyone with a computer and internet, rather than exclusively to the elite. Still, for a tool that appears objective and neutral, cultural and political biases inevitably seep in. The U.S. was Google Earth’s default central view until recently, and certain areas of the world are censored. Its use is also political: in 2009, during the financial collapse in Greece, the government used Google Earth to locate wealthy citizens who were potentially evading taxes by spotting their swimming pools from above. In response, the wealthy covered their pools with tarpaulins.

Yet Google Earth has also helped political and social causes. In Palestine, it’s been used to generate maps of widening Israeli control. In Bahrain, it allowed the Shiite majority to realize that 95 percent of the land is controlled by the Sunni elite. Yet, despite its potential for activism, Graham stresses that Google Earth developed from and relies on the military technology of GPS, locking it into a military industrial complex.

Other forms of satellite technology also have implicit and often unacknowledged assertions of power, whether the violence that results from helicopters, or how drones and satellite images turn the world on the ground into a mere video game.

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Helicopters, once a viable option for the future of public transportation, are now frequently used by São Paulo’s elite for their commutes, allowing them to forgo the massive traffic city dwellers experience and to condense a two hour journey into a few minutes. Inside a helicopter, “the snail-like progress of the city’s totally inadequate public transport system; the city’s deadly ground-level smog — all are rendered as little but a backdrop.”

Graham frequently points to the way in which aerial views and technology destruct what’s down below. It took public protests over the noise complaints to get Sao Paulo’s city authorities to limit the use of helicopters. These technologies aren’t just enjoyed by the elite, but used to control the population on the ground. Around the world, police increasingly use helicopters as a form of surveillance and a way to monitor mass crowds and protests.

Perhaps the most glaringly obvious form of height-as-power in the urban landscape is the skyscraper. In recent decades, skyscrapers have shifted from being unique symbols of corporate headquarters and banks to national symbols of pride; brand identities for countries seeking world recognition. Jeddah’s Kingdom Tower is expected to be the tallest building in the world when it’s finished. The chairman of the company building the tower is Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the nephew of former King Abdullah, and the tower symbolizes the shift of skyscrapers representing corporate capitals to symbols of national power, Graham writes.

Yet, as symbols of power, skyscrapers often alienate city dwellers themselves. After they were built in 1973, architect Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center twin towers were quickly considered “overbearing symbols of crass extremes” and the “widespread destruction of street life by monolithic modernist structures.”

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The domination of wealth also extends below ground. In London, companies are excavating space for expensive basement apartments as a way to bypass the vertical restrictions in historical parts of the city. Yet, underground living quarters are still associated with poverty, disease and lower social orders and as housing crises worsen in cosmopolitan cities like New York, Toronto and London, more of these cities’ poorer residents are being forced to inhabit illegal units below ground. In 2012, a city outside Toronto had 30,000 illegal and unregulated basement apartments which were occupied primarily by incoming migrants to Canada.

Vertical is an intellectually demanding book that demands that the reader radically revise how to look at cities. The compelling geo-political parallels between power and verticality make it impossible to see cities the same way.


Leeron Hoory is a writer based in New York City with a focus in arts and culture.

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