Global Cities and Their Discontents: Saskia Sassen and Teresa Caldeira in Conversation

In Cities, Knowledge, and the Digital Age, a new partnership between Public Books and SFMOMA’s Public Knowledge project, we seek to understand how technology has changed cities.
In a moment in which the populist right wing is ascendant globally, cities can serve as beacons of hope ...

In a moment in which the populist right wing is ascendant globally, cities can serve as beacons of hope with robust local articulations of democracy, alternative modes of politics and inhabitation, and popular imaginaries of the good life against the revanchism of many central governments. Yet many of our most celebrated cities are also increasingly unequal, plagued by housing crises and stagnant wages, failing infrastructure, and privatization of public services. In many instances, technology has emerged in an attempt to counter these trends, yet has also deepened divisions and exacerbated processes of dispossession. Airbnb and Uber, in addition to algorithmic models of policing and finance, have transformed housing markets, transportation systems, and traditional ways urban centers are governed and managed.

San Francisco, although limited in size geographically, with a rather short history, dating from California’s Gold Rush in the 1840s, is an intriguing site from which to contemplate these trends. The Gold Rush has continued to be a myth-making metaphor for the city, as people flock to Silicon Valley. Mining for gold has been replaced with mining for data. While it plays an outsize role in tech worldwide, the city also has strong representation in national politics and a high concentration of higher education institutions, and has been a center of the counterculture and labor rights activism. It is also currently home to one of the most acute housing crises in the United States, where the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment averages $3,700 per month and thousands sleep rough along its streets.

As a global city, San Francisco is a city of contradictions, where progressive politics and the 19th-largest economy in the world meet capitalism’s most pervasive consequences, tech’s hegemony and the intractable housing crisis push people in urban life ever outward, and the looming threat of rising sea levels means that SFMOMA itself could be under water in our lifetimes. San Francisco has many nicknames, some of which, like Herb Caen’s “Baghdad-by-the-Bay,” or the Paris of the West, point to the city’s cosmopolitan character. In keeping with these diverse urban references, this conversation between Teresa Caldeira, professor and chair of the department of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, and Saskia Sassen, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and a member of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University, explored what the City by the Bay might learn from cities of the Global South. I was pleased to moderate this conversation in addition to serving as contributing editor for this special series on global urbanism for Public Books.

Sophie Gonick (SG): We’re going to start with a brief introductory question to orient some of the rest of the conversation, and we’re going to start with Teresa Caldeira, who is going to answer the question, What can San Francisco learn from cities in the Global South?


Teresa Caldeira (TC): Thank you for the invitation to be here; it’s a pleasure to be here and with my colleagues. So, what can San Francisco learn from cities in the Global South? Probably there is a long list that we can go through. But basically I think that some of the most important things are political experiments that expand citizenship and affirm rights to the city.

Several cities in the Global South have been doing those experiments for at least 20 to 30 years, and I think those are incredibly important, because in fact the conditions that expand democracy are at the basis of all the other things that happen in those cities and that can be transmitted as experiments to cities like San Francisco. Many cities are creating practices of direct democracy and consolidating the notion of urban citizenship. Those experiments usually are experiments of deliberative democracy, of direct popular participation. They also frequently affirm the rights of citizens to the city regardless of national citizenship.

So cities can have very important roles in this political moment, in creating by themselves important policies that uphold the rights of residents regardless of their political citizenship status. The city of San Francisco already has some of this: for example, making health care available and affordable to uninsured residents; the municipal ID card; sometimes the right for noncitizens to vote for the school board; and transformation into a Sanctuary City. Those are all things that cities can do and are doing.

Another thing that comes from the experiments of the Global South, probably the most famous, is PB, participatory budgeting, which started in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 1989 and now happens in more than 1,500 cities around the world, including Vallejo here in the Bay area. Those are processes in which citizens are given the task of deliberating about how to allocate part of the city’s budget. This is very important, because citizens can deliberate: they not only discuss but also have the power to allocate the budget. This process of participation also creates very important networks and ties among citizens.

I will mention briefly two other ideas that I think can be looked at in the Global South as examples. One is a [type] of urban legislation that has been adopted in the last two decades, which comes out of a movement called the Movement of Urban Reform. This has generated an incredible amount of legislation all over Latin America, and the most significant are the two federal laws, one in Brazil and one in Colombia, that establish that cities and property have to fulfill a social function. This means that the common good, the interest of all, has to be prioritized over private interests. As a result, for example, property in cities cannot be simply put aside for speculation. If land is put aside for speculation, this can be overtaxed and that money can be used for social projects in the city. These mechanisms of overtaxation create money that can be distributed to projects of urbanization in precarious areas of the city, for example.

Another mechanism that has been used in several cities, especially in Brazil, is the creation of Special Zones of Social Interest, which is a very interesting mechanism. The idea is that you can use zoning to improve and protect spaces inhabited by the poorest residents. This mechanism establishes special areas of the city that are zoned to receive urbanization projects and to be maintained as spaces for housing for low-income people. So the lots are very small and they can never be combined, which means that a big developer cannot come and encroach on these areas and try to gentrify them, for example. Because you can never have big enough lots for any kind of significant development on the market, you can maintain those small lots as this preserved market for low-income residents. There is a lot of discussion about that, but the results have been incredible, because for example, on the peripheries of São Paulo, you have not had a process of gentrification. The areas have improved, but they have remained areas for low-income residents, since you cannot have the type of development that would attract richer residents.


SG: Turning to Saskia. You’ve been very involved with UN-Habitat for several years now and have written a lot with several of your colleagues about cities of the Global South. I’m curious to hear from you what you think cities like San Francisco might learn from those contexts.


Saskia Sassen (SS): The issue that I have been interested in is, number one, the complex city: the city that is a bit messy, the city that has inequalities, that is not perfect, et cetera. That kind of city is one of the few places where those without power can actually make a stand and say, “This is also my city.” Now that’s getting more and more difficult, as there is more and more interest in buying up urban space.

The city is a kind of frontier space, then. I ask myself, What is a frontier in today’s world? And 20 years ago, 30 years ago, we would have said it’s in the Global South. We don’t have that frontier anymore, because all that land, whether it is in Africa, whether it is in Asia, whether it is in Latin America, is bought up; it’s controlled. So then where is the frontier? I think right now in our world, in our modern Western world, the frontier space is in our big cities. And the frontier is of course a space where actors from different worlds have an encounter for which there are no established rules of engagement.

The second point, and this is what I’m doing my research on now, [involves] a very disturbing trend. We just did a film, Push, in which we tracked one big multinational firm that has been buying big housing complexes for modest-income families in about 15 countries, including in the Americas, but especially in Europe. Why are these big firms buying all that housing?

My interpretation is that there is a real search in the high investment circuit for asset-backed securities. Assets. Not derivatives. Derivatives have been losing ground; what you see now is that the high investment circuit wants asset materiality, something-backed security. So Goldman Sachs has just bought up loans and housing that is in arrears; it signals that housing, the actual meta-reality, matters. Now, it doesn’t matter as housing; it matters as an asset. We see the building, the house. What they see is algorithmic math. You construct out of that asset-backed securities, which you can sell and buy, sell and buy, sell and buy, so there are many, multiple levels. The housing question as such is one element—grounded, real—but the way they are manipulating that—because they are assets and we have already financialized so many other assets—that’s a whole other level.

TC: There is one big transformation that happened, I think, if you look at the change in the character of the housing crisis in the Global South.

Obviously housing has always been a problem for cities in the Global South, and this has been partly solved through the fact that poor people themselves have built their own houses. So they have occupied or bought cheap pieces of land in the peripheries and spent many years building their own houses and building those cities, building the outskirts of those cities. They have urbanized all the big cities in the Global South. People continue to build their own houses, usually in spaces that are not urbanized, that have very poor infrastructure. Obviously, they do this without any kind of mortgage, any kind of financing or support from the state.

What is happening now that is new is two things. First, some states have decided that they will create housing for low-income people by giving subsidies directly to huge developers that then develop large areas as public housing. And people, instead of building their own houses, start buying these ready-made houses, in many cases entering into financial arrangements.

So you have created a market for housing for the poor that did not exist before, and it is all attached to financing. So the poor people are now in debt, and they are in a situation that they have never been in before, because before they did not have access to credit and therefore had little debt and had to parcel out the construction of their houses over long periods of time. Now they buy financed, ready-made houses, but have debts. So the consequences of credit inclusion are severe, transforming the whole housing configuration and creating a housing crisis of another type, because it is the crisis of debt for people who have never been in debt before. And it creates other forms of inequality in places that have always been unequal anyway, but now see new forms of inequality.


SG: So, Raquel Rolnik, former UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, has actually called this recently the “empire of finance.” Against this empire of finance and these flows of money, and against the right-wing ideology transforming national politics in a number of different places, including Brazil and, obviously, this country, where we have a real estate developer in chief, I’d be interested to know: What is the role of cities in combating both this rightward trend and also this kind of hegemony of finance?


SS: The city is a space for communication. It’s going to be easier to lay things bare and to make things understandable to the residents of a city, whether they are highly educated or not, via the housing question. When it comes to the housing question, one immediately understands: because of financialization, because of treating physical houses as investments, one understands that the housing is misused. Because you are really trying to transform it into something else, to the benefit of high high-level investors. You now bring in your reality, because the example is right there in the city itself.


TC: Fortunately, cities still have some autonomy. So we see as the national politics really go bad that cities still have some room for maneuvering and for creating alternative policies. San Francisco has been exercising this relative autonomy, but there are other cities. For example, Barcelona is a city that has been a leader in trying to articulate an international network of progressive cities, if you can put it this way; they are part of a movement to set an agenda for a new global municipalism. Among other things, they want to bring to the discussion the fact that globalization has brought many huge problems for cities.

One of them is a massive process of gentrification, which is affecting housing markets, but not only housing markets, affecting styles of life; it is affecting the quality of life in cities, and so it is time for cities to get organized and network, so they can reimagine globalization and reimagine how from the local level you can create policies that will reverse some of those policies.

I think the same is true for right-wing politics. Fortunately, I imagine—for example, in Brazil—that when you have this kind of absurd right-wing government at the national level, if there will be spaces of resistance, they will be at the local level. So cities and maybe states will have a huge opportunity.


SG: Yeah, I would just add that, you know, Barcelona and Berlin have been very successful at addressing these kinds of housing questions and actually taxing and even expropriating empty units that have sat empty because of investment.


TC: That’s wonderful.


San Francisco; or, How to Destroy a City

By Shannon Mattern

SG: I want to shift gears slightly and think about the role of technology within cities. We see technology transforming urban landscapes in a number of different ways—for example, the rise of smart cities in Toronto’s Quayside, designed by Sidewalk Labs; but we also see it in the role of, say, Palantir’s predictive policing system in New Orleans. So I’m curious if you could reflect a little bit on how technology has altered urban landscapes and experiences.


TC: One of the most interesting things that technology is helping to promote is new types of political actions, like, as we all saw, the protests all over the world that are based on the use of communications technology. It’s not that the people would say that, now, technology will substitute for public life and life in the streets. I think that that’s not exactly what happened. Technology enabled a new kind of appropriation of public space that happened in unpredictable ways and that transformed the ways social movements are organized. And that was not by design.


SS: I would like to invite us all to remember how, in the 1980s, when new digital technologies really took off, there was a very strong understanding that, given digitization, cities would move functions, because why bother to be in cities? Now, let us also remember that in the 1980s, in the 1970s, cities were poor. Paris was poor. London was poor. New York was almost officially bankrupt. So the sense really was that the cities were useless, they were decaying, and who needed them?

Yet it was also in that moment that a whole new type of economy began to develop, one that actually needs cities for a particular reason. A new type of person and function installs itself in these cities, and one way of thinking about it is that it’s like a system made up of multiple, highly specialized forms of knowledge that installs itself in these cities. Why? Because given deregulation, globalization, and some kind of internationalism that emerges, there is a real need; in other words, if you are going to be operating in 15 countries and you need 15 hours of Mongolian accounting, 38 hours of Argentinian preferences of investment, blah, blah, blah, you’re going to do that all in-house. As we globalize, as firms are operating in multiple areas, what you have is a multiplication of very specific knowledge inputs, and out of that comes a kind of systematicity—I apologize for that term—a concentration of highly specialized firms totally interconnected, because they need each other.

Even as the experts were saying cities are finished, they are dangerous, they are dirty, who needs them, with digitization we need them even less, even as that was the dominant discourse, there was this other reality, which was actually installing itself in a material way in cities, which is this notion of networked zones. And that is what we are still living with now. That is why cities have become so expensive, you know. It’s out of control.


SG: So, along those lines, globalization has obviously transformed cities, and along elite lines, but I’m also curious as to how it’s transformed life at the urban peripheries and how people in those peripheries experience and live through these changes, but also imagine their neighborhoods, their communities. And I think, Teresa, you might be able to tell us something about that.


TC: It’s an interesting question: how people imagine their houses and their neighborhoods should be. And we go to the point that Saskia was making, that there is the materiality of the houses that are, that can be, transformed into assets for something, for somebody else; but for the people who live in those houses, that’s their life, right?

If you ask people what their houses should be, they will tell you two things. Neighborhoods should have good infrastructure and the houses have to have dignity. Those are the two main ideas, and so the people building their houses in very poor neighborhoods, in one of the poorest neighborhoods of São Paolo, involves just this process of trying to invest in a space to transform it so that it will be dignified.

Another thing is that they are dreaming this with repertoires that are global. In very different parts of the world, people refer to common images and ideas to imagine their houses and spaces. There is today is a globalized language through which those dreams happen. There is an imaginary about houses and consumption that circulates globally and is appropriated by people from different classes and backgrounds.


SS: That’s amazing. To me, big cities are collections of desirable materialities that can be transformed into asset-backed securities. Many of your fancy buildings, they are asset-backed securities involved in that, and I think that the average citizen should be aware of this. When you see a beautiful building and you hear, oh, such and such bought it up, et cetera, you could be suspicious. In Manhattan, an empty tower can deliver more profits than an occupied one. Because an occupied one, you have the people demanding, they want this and that.

It is invisible. If you don’t know that this is happening, you can’t see it, because a building is a building. But in fact, a building is no longer the building.

SG: I am going to ask the final question, which is reflecting on both these kinds of collective dreams from below and also the extractive capitalism from above: What is the role of social movements in confronting these, the growing and extreme urban inequalities that we see? Even if San Francisco looks glittering and beautiful, it is obviously producing a tremendous amount of inequality.


SS: Well, first I think that your average urban resident should know some of these facts, you know, and that can help [them] mobilize. The leadership in cities should also know these new emergent forces, which are truly extractive, you know, they just want to get profits, et cetera. We should be aware of that.


TC: I think that if I look from the perspective of these poor peripheries that I’ve been studying for many years, if they went from worse to better, if they have been transformed and become reasonable spaces with some kind of infrastructure and some kind of improvement in the conditions of life of their residents, it was not because the government decided to be nice. It was because citizens protested. Without organized social movements, nothing happens. There is not going to be policy to improve the conditions of life of segregated areas, of poor areas, just, like, for free. And people are totally aware of that. If they are not organized, if they do not demand, if they don’t claim their rights, nothing is going to happen.

And so I think that the urban social movements have become some of the main political agents in the last 30 to 40 years. And if you have seen the conditions of cities throughout Latin America and throughout large parts of Africa, they have been improved just because you have organized citizens. The way citizens are organized changes, but I would say that we cannot doubt this: the importance of experiments in democracy and in the struggles for democracy for changing cities throughout the Global South. The same thing for the United States. Do you think you transform the areas in which African Americans live throughout the United States without organization and protest? No.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured image: Urban Apprentice, São Paolo, Brazil (2012). Photograph by Michael Anranter / Flickr