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University of Basel

On urban and rural life.

Text: Manuel Herz

Even as the borders between urban and rural areas become more permeable, we remain a long way from worldwide complete urbanization.

Matthäus Merian, view of the city from a bird’s eye perspective from the northeast, 1615/1617: famous de¬piction of the Basel in the Middle Ages. (Image: Basel-Stadt State Archives, BILD_1_291)
Matthäus Merian, view of the city from a bird’s eye perspective from the northeast, 1615/1617: famous de¬piction of the Basel in the Middle Ages. (Image: Basel-Stadt State Archives, BILD_1_291)

If we take a look at Matthäus Merian’s famous 1615 map of Basel, we will see something seemingly familiar: A densely built-up town surrounded by a wall. Beyond are areas with a rural topography shaped by farming. The separation of urban and rural areas, which is so noticeable in Merian’s engraving, continues to this day to dominate how we view cities: We associate urban areas with bustling activity and a lifestyle characterized by interchange, transformation, development and diversity; whereas we regard rural areas as synonymous with sparse population, constancy and tradition, as well as agricultural production.

Taking a closer look at the engraving, however, we recognize that this opposition is not so clear-cut. The city is not completely built up. There are various areas that have not been built on and even some that are used for agriculture, for instance between the Aeschenvorstadt and St.-Alban-Vorstadt neighborhoods. By contrast, the fields outside the city walls have highly regular, predominantly rectangular shapes that appear to be the result of deliberate design. In other words, we can identify urban elements in the rural area and vice versa.

Mutual dependence

In present-day Switzerland, as in other parts of the world, these categories are becoming blurred. With urban and rural areas dependent on each other, thinking of them as polar opposites no longer helps to make sense of built reality: Villages and small towns that used to have a strong agricultural bent have developed into logistics hubs. While Switzerland’s alpine region is hardly built up at all, it is laced with a tight network of infrastructures such as roads, rail tracks, power lines, cell towers, broadcasting installations and water pipes. An extensive transportation network means that the nearest town is typically no more than a few minutes away. It is no longer accurate to consider these areas as fundamentally different “lifeworlds”. Conversely, we are seeing activities introduced in cities that we associate with the countryside. Urban farming is one example. Urban and rural areas have reached an extremely high degree of interconnection.

The binary contrast of urban versus rural is problematic not only because it does not explain built reality or the interconnection between cities and the countryside; it can also lead to other dualist perceptions and judgments. If this view is adopted and cities are conceived of as places of progress and modernity, there is a tendency not only to treat them as separate from rural areas but also, implicitly, to see them as separate from cities outside the Western world. The urban-rural dichotomy is thus linked to a distinction between the supposedly modern cities of the West, which are considered the norm, and supposedly underdeveloped cities in the rest of the world, which are then deemed to deviate from the norm and suffer from a development shortfall.

New forms of urbanization

The African continent is one region that could lead us to question these binary categories. In recent years, African rural areas, for instance in Kenya, have undergone a rapid change thanks to the establishment of extensive infrastructures, with new irrigation systems installed alongside the introduction of harvesting and silo technologies. This mechanized agriculture dovetails with the international goods and commodity trade, which supplies wheat and rice to China, for instance. In the north of the country, along with a railroad line between Nairobi and Mombasa, a multimodal infrastructure corridor is being built that will comprise a highway, railroad line, oil pipeline, and fiber optic cable. In parallel, new towns are planned to be built along the routes in areas that have so far not experienced this form of urbanization.

Kenyan villages are being equipped with cell phone towers, and the African continent, in general, is considered to be leading the world in the development of micropayment technologies as well as the use of telephone-based transfers and cashless payments. This has brought a brisk trade to cities such as Nairobi, Abidjan, Lagos or Dakar, allowing people in distant villages to exchange goods and services more quickly and reliably than in many other parts of the world.

Thanks to their creativity, resource use, urban culture, and sense of community, and in stark contrast to the portrayed backwardness, cities of the Global South often usher in developments that are later echoed by the West. These are cities that can teach us new forms of urban life. The new transportation systems introduced in Kenya and other African countries have enabled, among other things, a new kind of periodic migration, with people moving to cities for a few months in order to sell goods from the villages before returning to their villages and repeating the cycle. Here, too, the distinction between what is urban and what is rural is becoming increasingly fluid.

Cities and globalization

This is not to say that cities have become indistinguishable from the countryside – although some scholars, for instance, American urban theorist Neil Brenner, talk about urbanization affecting every region of the world at every level. What we can say is that urban cultures, flows of goods, economies, planning practices and infrastructures are highly likely to occur in places that are less densely built up than a typical city. Nor does questioning dualist notions imply a prediction that globalization will lead to all cities becoming more and more alike.

It is frequently claimed and indeed taken for granted that owing to the global reach of international brands and the proliferation of “non-places” such as shopping malls, airports, international chain hotels, and theme parks, our cities are becoming more and more interchangeable. Although all these influences do exist, I claim that, on the contrary, globalization is causing cities to continually differentiate themselves.

Thriving trade centers

Let me illustrate this with an example: Near downtown Nairobi, the neighborhood of Eastleigh has been developing, where, since the early 1990s, Somali refugees have established trading centers and shopping malls. Thanks to their global connections, Somali diasporas in Dubai, Hong Kong, Minneapolis and London are able to import goods to Nairobi at lower cost than Kenyans could. As a result, not only has Eastleigh been transformed into a trading hub that attracts buyers from all over Kenya and even neighboring Uganda and Tanzania, but an entirely unique typology of shopping centers has emerged, whose architecture is geared toward the financial situation of Somali refugees.

These malls are vibrant places that radiate an extraordinarily rich urban culture throughout all three dimensions. While the factors that led to the urban transformation of Eastleigh – refugees, international flows of goods, and a United Nations presence, to name but a few – are a sign and result of globalization, Eastleigh’s markets and urban culture are unique and could have evolved in this way only in Nairobi. As well as highlighting the fascinating lifeworlds that cities like Nairobi have to offer, this translates into an academic duty to investigate and try to understand them, taking them just as seriously as cities in other parts of the world. And it reveals the conscious or unconscious prescience inherent in Matthäus Merian’s city map.


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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