​The metropolitan area: How to regain control over a growing city

The founder of Metro Lab initiative, a course based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Director of the Cities Program at CIPPEC, an Argentina-based think tank, explains what kind of city managers our growing metropolitan areas need.

Gabriele Lanfranchi / photo source: Facebook

Paradoxically, until 2015 the management of large cities was still an underdeveloped subject at one of the best urban planning schools in the world. It all changed when Argentinian-born urban planner Gabriel Lanfranchi joined the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Hailing from Buenos Aires, one of the world’s megacities, he immediately proposed establishing a new research initiative devoted specifically to the phenomenon of expanding metropolitan areas.

“The city as a mechanism is not like a car-making plant where each part is assembled separately”

— How did you come up with the idea for the laboratory — was it something you have been planning to do for a long time, or was there was a particular trigger?

— I’ve been interested in this subject for quite a long time. At 29 I was already director of the Metropolitan Office in Buenos Aires Province government, coordinating the first metropolitan plan for the city. With only my architectural training to rely on, I found dealing with a large urban area quite challenging at first. For a period of time I also worked for the Inter-American Development Bank as a consultant on various metropolitan-scale projects. The idea for the initiative itself came to me when got into MIT as a SPURS [Special Program for Urban and Regional Studies – ed. note] fellow, and to my great surprise discovered that there wasn’t a professor there who specialized specifically in metropolitan management. 

Buenos Aires / Istockphoto.com
Buenos Aires / Istockphoto.com
Sunday market, Buenos Aires / Istockphoto.com
Buenos Aires / Istockphoto.com
Buenos Aires / Istockphoto.com
Buenos Aires / Istockphoto.com

— And what effect did growing up in a densely-populated metropolis like Buenos Aires have on your formation as a researcher?

— When you live in a big city, you constantly have this feeling of losing control over it. You get to know it little by little — first your neighborhood, then the central area, and, as you grow older and start using public transportation, the periphery. Only by my 20s could I finally claim to know a considerable share of my hometown. Like many other cities in Latin America, Buenos Aires boasts an attractive central area equipped with all the services, but once you leave its limits, the quality of the public realm decreases considerably. Even the most basic services start to disappear, accompanied by a serious decline in the quality of urban design and even the emergence of shantytowns. And, of course, after having faced such stark inequality, you start to question the existing city management efforts.

— In 2015 you conducted a special summer studio for your students in Buenos Aires. What were some of the conclusions that you arrived at during the course of that trip?

— In 2015 I had two really good students from MIT who wanted to do a training in Buenos Aires. Together we developed a very interesting approach: a survey aimed at local city leaders — ministers, bankers, and other important decision-makers. Our questions were very simple: “What is the size of the local population?”, “How big is your city?”, “How many municipalities are in it?”. It turned out that most of our respondents weren’t prepared for this questioning: many started checking, shuffling through their papers. But the intention of this survey was not to embarrass them, but to reflect on how difficult it is to have an understanding of the metropolitan area as a whole. It became evident that we don’t know much about the metropolitan object yet. And it’s not just the statistics — it’s our perception. In the last 50 years we’ve lost control of our cities, now we need to get them back and embrace them in all their complexity.

“We must abandon the so-called “silos mentality””

— What other aspects have you explored as a part of that research?

— During the course we had several discussions trying to formulate what we mean by “metropolitanism”. It’s an emerging discipline and not a perfectly shaped one yet. There’s only a small group of people whom I could call “metropolitanist” in the academic world. At every conference I meet more or less the same people. Many of them don’t even have an official specialization — everything is learned via practice. That is why I think that academia has an important responsibility of properly educating people who will be serving our metropolitan areas in the future.

— And what changes to the current management mentality should be made? Which approaches should remain in the past?

— We must abandon the so-called “silos mentality” and move towards integrated development. Complex objects should not be broken down into autonomous parts. The city as a mechanism is not like a car-making plant where each part is assembled separately. Every decision you make has an impact beyond its immediate sphere.

— And what do you think about the decline of the nation-state and the rise of the city as an independent entity?

— I think, we are indeed seeing the rise of metro areas as very powerful territorial organizations. Pedro Ortiz, my colleague at the Metro Lab and a well-known researcher, compiled this top-100 chart with countries and metro areas combined. 46 of those entries turned out to be metropolitan areas. They are also often the main contributors to the national GDP. That gives you a sense of how powerful they really are. The problem is that metropolitan areas are usually not recognized by the Constitution. So I’m not sure whether we’re going to experience the decline of nations, but the practice of urban diplomacy is clearly on the rise.

“It takes time for people to go through this transformation from rural citizens into urbanites”

— Rapid urbanization and especially the forced inclusion of rural areas within the administrative borders of cities almost as a rule create conflicts of interests and lifestyles. Moscow is no exception: former villagers suddenly find themselves surrounded by towering concrete blocks or simply pushed out of their homes to make way for new development, while rural prices turn into metropolitan prices. How can these confrontations be reduced?

— We must understand that cities all around the world are growing at an unprecedented rate. And the problems that are being created in the process are not defined by jurisdictions — we share them. So the first step would be simply coming to terms with this reality. How to tackle this situation is a different question. Two factors are at play here: first of all, local identity shouldn’t be overlooked — it takes time for people to go through this transformation from rural citizens into urbanites. The second factor is related to the first one: local people and their ideas should always be involved in the development of new residential areas. It’s a complex balance between the top-down and the bottom-up approaches, but it’s worth maintaining.

New York City / Istockphoto.com
New York urban agglomeration / aglomeration.ru
Seoul / Istockphoto.com
Seoul urban agglomeration, aglomeration.ru
Montreal / Istockphoto.com
Montreal urban agglomeration / aglomeration.ru
London / Istockphoto.com
London urban agglomeration / aglomeration.ru
Moscow / Istockphoto.com
New York City / Istockphoto.com
New York City / Istockphoto.com

— But often these new residential areas appear on empty land stripped of almost any kind of identity. What kind of strategy should we adopt in this case?

— In general, countries are not very good at this, especially those that are experiencing rapid growth. You really need to tailor this strategy to the particular city that you are working with, so there are no universal recipes. Of course, there are different typologies. In poorer countries you can find a lot of shantytowns emerging in the city. In that case what you need to do is to plan the city in order to allow the shanty towns to grow— it’s going to happen regardless of your efforts — but also provide the basic accompanying infrastructure or at least leave room for it to be added at a later stage of development. Otherwise we will have to face the consequences and problems familiar to many African cities.

“Without local representation the voices of citizens will never be heard”

— Decentralization of power in cities has been an urban governance trend for some time now. How do you see the balance between the local and city-level decision-making?

— Yes, it’s called subsidiarity. We need to define on which level what decisions should be made. In the 1970s we had this top-down approach. It didn’t work. In the 1990s we had the bottom-up approach of which I was a great supporter. But it also was demonstrated to have its limits. So, what we need now is an integrated approach, something that allows dialogue between both sides. Without local representation the voices of citizens will never be heard. But total decentralization is also harmful: local governments are concerned with local issues and systemic thinking is not their strength. They will not care about things happening beyond their jurisdictions. Inequality or climate change cannot be tackled on the local level — you won’t find the same level of responsibility in all the local governments. It’s undoubtedly a good thing there’s a group of eco-conscious neighbors in the area, but for the rest of the population fees and penalties need to be instituted.

Text: Alexandra Tumarkina

Article published as a part of the Moscow Urban Forum-2017.