12 May, 2020

Sidewalk Labs is closing down - Lessons from Toronto's realpolitik

Photo by Carr
Don't forget to also look at Mariana Valverde's 
important addition in the comments section.

So, Alphabet Inc. is pulling its daughter company, Sidewalk Labs (sister to Google) out of Toronto. Alphabet, whose „cash and influence encircles humanity” (Lorinc 2020) claims that it too has fallen victim to the Virus. This is a story that will carry well in times of corona, stirring fears that if giants can fall, we must all be doomed. It also demonstrates what underpins corporate urban development. Covid-19 and the associated shutdown caused financial uncertainty that forced Alphabet to reassess its priorities, and check it out: Toronto was not one of them. Perhaps, then, it’s departure is a blessing in disguise to even its most avid supporters, if Alphabet’s Quayside plans were only ever about money, and especially given that the company has a record of abandoning projects half-way through. Its exit is better sooner than later, before construction starts, before lives move in, and before urban socio-spatial (dis)integration takes over.

For an urban studies perspective, to us what was most striking about this whole saga was the hubris of large digital corporations (LDCs) when it comes to engaging with people, cities and real life. Lorinc (2020) was right when he said that not enough attention had been given to the differences between Toronto and New York City politics: Alphabet apparently believed that if you make deals with big government, local politics will just fall in line. Meanwhile, no one warned them of the idiosyncrasies of urban development in general and of the related nitty-gritty details about land-use development and planning in Toronto in particular. Sidewalk Labs set up shop in a city whose politics they barely understood and land use procedures even less. Meanwhile, the Canadian governments at all levels appeared to have no idea what they were getting into, and seem to have spent much of the last two years scrambling for a happy medium where they could both profit and save face. Let’s not forget that land use policy in Toronto for the past three decades (or more) has been about scaling back public institutions and boosting private profit (Bunce, 2017: Desfor & Laidley 2011). The staggering gap—the complete misunderstanding between the two sides—is probably one of the more important lessons for onlookers.

Multi-sided communication deficit
Alphabet’s practice of commodifying data, that is the new logics of accumulation often called surveillance capitalism, was a central critique point. It needed, and still needs, constant attention because remarkably few actually understand it. The GDPR, for example, may protect personal privacy, but it does not protect against surveillance capitalism and platform economics,

“The GDPR’s reach is not exhaustive… Data processing without compliance is still permitted for matters of state security, justice and military matters”
(Aho & Duffield 2019, 18)

These are vague conditions, indeed, easily buried in procurement contracts between governments and businesses. Further, according to EU regulators:

“Companies seem to be treating the GDPR more as a legal puzzle, in order to preserve their own way of doing things… rather than adapting their way of working to better protect the interests of those who use their services”
(EDPS, 2019 p5 quoted in Aho & Duffield, 2019 p.19)

And finally, practices of lethargic enforcement of the GDPR among host country data controllers is raising concerns about regulatory capture and the potential race among EU states to host company headquarters and assume this lucrative role (ibid.). In Toronto, Jim Balsillie, Shoshana Zuboff, Roger McNamee, and a number of residents, scholars, community groups and smaller tech firms (collectively known as Blocksidewalk) loudly slashed the project for its failure to address data protection and public interest. The fight was also taken up by the Canadian Civil Liberties association that filed a law suit against all three levels of Canadian government. The Canadian governments were charged with failing to protect its citizens.

In this context, it is important to note that Alphabet is hardly the only company that can push forward this extractive business model. Further, governments and legal teams are equally capable of generating the necessary jurisdictions and profiting as well.

There is thus (at least) a three-way communication deficit, opening questions that are still not answered: What are, in fact, the arrangements being made between governments and big business? What do these agreements look like and how does each side understand their role? What asymmetries and incongruencies exist alone therein? Also, what modes of communication are happening at the urban planning level? How deep and thorough are these conversations? The saga at Quayside exposed these issues.  And, there is work to do figuring it all out. Bridging this gap, for example, was a recurring topic in a recent post-Sidewalk webinar, entitled, "After Sidewalk, what is the future of smart tech for Canadian cities" hosted by the Canadian Urban Institute. Further path breaking events addressing this topic can be found at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Sidewalk has left Toronto. Yet, weak, sloppy and patronizing public communications (see Google’s Dan Doctoroff’s swan song, and the empty-signifier good-bye letter from Waterfront Toronto) have left many wondering what the real reason was: Did Alphabet tire of public political campaigning? Or do they have bigger fish to fry in New York? For sure, we will be keeping an eye on the NYC mayor elections in 2021. Meanwhile statements from the City, the Province, and from Ottawa are still outstanding. Surely (!), there are different reasons in each case, but the outcome is the same: silence. As researchers, we sincerely hope that they will open up for comment.

There is also a more general lesson to be learned for other cases where LDCs try entering the field urban development: It is still necessary to seek out the blind spots. It is still largely unclear what needs to be known, or can be expected, when LDCs go for the urban without knowing how cities actually ‘work’ but are committed to their own interests in maximising power and profit. Dick Walker’s (2018) account of the long-term transformation of San Francisco and the Bay Area under the siege of the digital economy has demonstrated what happens when even an informed community of politically sensitive citizens fall victim to what is neatly framed as “cultural-cognitive” capitalism. Maybe New York City can also contribute to this debate, as it was not so long ago that Amazon.com was forced to retreat from its plans for a second headquarter on Long Island. Comparable to the case of Sidewalk, this was also caused by heavy public dispute over a deal that was initially, and rather secretly, made between political elites and the corporation.

In a paper we recently published in Urban Planning (open access), we concluded our critical exploration of the (post-)politics of the supposedly "smart" digital city as follows:

“While Toronto’s waterfront development as a hub in technological innovation is unfolding as an exercise of politics, perhaps there is a glimmer of realpolitik, as [advocacy] groups filled the discursive void by raising pointed concerns that were left unaddressed.”
(Carr & Hesse, 2020, 79)

Perhaps this is the story that Sidewalk’s clash with the mere urban planning reality also tells us: that a battle between big tech and civil society could also mark a return to the political that cannot, and should not, be simply ‘written off’ (ibid.).

Constance Carr, Markus Hesse

Aho, B., Duffield, R. 2020. Beyond surveillance capitalism: Privacy, regulation and big data in Europe and China. Economy and Society, 1-26. DOI:10.1080/03085147.2019.1690275
Bunce, S. 2017. Sustainability Policy, Planning and Gentrification in Cities, Routledge
Carr, C., Hesse, M. (2020). ‘When Alphabet Inc. plans Toronto’s Waterfront: New post-political modes of urban governance’. Urban Planning, 5(1), 69-83. DOI: 10.17645/up.v5i1.2519.
Desfor, G., Laidley, J. 2011. Reshaping Toronto's Waterfront. University of Toronto Press.
Walker, R. A. (2019). Pictures of a gone city. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Further Readings at Urbanization Unbound
Carr, Hesse. 2020 New publication in a special issue of Urban Planning (open access) on smart cities
Carr, C. 2019. Urban planning and the theatrics of aggressive scooter companies: This time the City sent the Bird flying
Carr, C. 2019. It matters how smart cites are governed
Carr, C., Hesse, M. 2019. Digital Urbanism and the Challenge of Urban Governance (DIG_URBGOV) – Short Research Summary
Carr, C. Hesse, M. New Publication on Smart Cities in Forum für Politik Gesellschaft und Kultur
Carr, C. 2019 Digital and city development and urban governance in Toronto
Carr, C., Hesse, M, 2019. Some notes on smart cities and the corporatization of urban governance
Carr invited to York University's CITY Institute as a Visiting Scholar, 2019
Hesse, M. 2018. 2HQ2 - Two new seats for the new Amazon.com Headquarters, not one

Carr 2018. Wagering the Waterfront? Angling the abc & xyz of Quayside Toronto
Carr, Lutz, Schutz, 2018 There is no one human scale - Reflections on urban development practice in Luxembourg
Carr/Hesse 2017. The Corporate City Looming? Part I
Hesse/Carr 2017. The Corporate City Looming Part II: The “smart” City competes
Carr 2017. Digital Cities - Toronto trying to get ahead
Carr 2017. Hipsterland in Toronto's East Downtown

14 April, 2020

Reflecting upon the fundamentals of COVID-19: Are there alternative geographies for Luxembourg’s relational urbanisation? – PART III

In terms of the impact caused by the Coronavirus, where does Luxembourg stand in comparison with other countries? Infection rate per capita is lower than in Belgium but higher than in France or Germany. The number of infections has risen to 3,292, the death toll has arrived at 69 as of 13 April 2020, which is high given the total population of just above 600,000. Policy responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, which were introduced in the Grand Duchy before mid-March, are in line with the practice of other countries. As elsewhere, Luxembourg’s government announced a lock-down of public life, with schools and higher-education institutions (such as the UL) effectively closed down, retail and commercial activities limited to the essentials (such as grocery or pharmacies for example), and also international travel reduced to a significant extent. People and institutions of the country’s health and safety sectors work hard in order to mitigate the outcomes of the outbreak.
The capital city, which is used to be pretty busy on workdays, has switched to a Sunday morning feeling of calmness and silence. Much of the economic life has come to halt, and neighbouring countries such as France or Germany have introduced border controls precluding cross the border without proper reason (mainly commuting to essential work). As mentioned in a previous entry, the national airline has suspended all passenger travel until early May, while cargo planes are still frequent users of the airport. As elsewhere, it is difficult to estimate how long such measures will last, what sort of exit-strategy would be taken, and when. An early attempt of the OECD to quantify the influence of the shutdown on the Grand Duchy’s GDP has estimated the short-term losses to account for roughly 20 per cent, with which Luxembourg would still be affected rather modestly, compared to other member states.
However, it is likely that highly connected, effectively globalised places such as Luxembourg (capital city, country) will experience a massive impact on their economy in the longer term. The shutdown has also demonstrated the particular, two-fold vulnerability of the small state against shocks like a global pandemic. Firstly, a particular combination of far-reaching connectivity on the one hand, mobilities of all kinds that are essential for its open economy, but that also bring the virus to its territory. Secondly, the rising density of land uses particularly in the booming capital which contribute to exposing higher numbers of people to possible infections. This combination makes such places prone to risk and thus specifically vulnerable (see Parts I and II of this Blog entry).
As a consequence, the question is whether there are any particular adjustments to the spatial pattern of city and country possible that would contribute to minimising risk and vulnerability: Are there alternative geographies that would help to stabilise the country’s society and economy, not to forget its ecosystems, which would thus make it more robust and also more independent from risk posed by viruses and pandemics? As to the first of the two factors causing risk—global connectivity—it seems extremely difficult to get any closer to proper strategies and measures, given that the country’s economy and state’s budget almost entirely depend on the inflow of capital from outside. Of course, it can be questioned to what extent this is an ultimate necessity (“Sachzwang”), or whether things can be operated at more modest levels. Speaking honestly, it is difficult to imagine that the economic dependence on places and sources of wealth abroad, and the continuous inflow of foreign capital, could be reduced in the foreseeable future. All the global services and financial market places are situated in a figurative golden cage, from which it is hard to escape. It is a pity that the imperative of growth and the related determination of the country’s development path have hardly been made subject to a serious, open and constructive debate so far (… more than a footnote here that the government once hired Jeremy Rifkin as an advisor and spiritus rector for change, but didn’t include the question of growth in this debate at all). The economic slowdown experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic may however highlight the sensitivities of the national economy and show that things can actually become rather difficult; developing strategies to adapt to such changes seems more justified than ever.
In concrete terms, more space for manoeuvre is perhaps available with regard to the internal organisation of territory under the conditions of relational urbanisation. What are the specific strategies that may help overcome the second-order problems created by excessive accumulation, most notably spatial inequality across the country, and the over-heated development in and around Luxembourg City? The big question to address here is whether relationality can be achieved, or maintained, at a smaller scale. Even in the light of the primacy of the political economy of the country, it is important to ask whether a certain re-scaling of relationality is possible that allows a rebalancing of the exuberant economy and the private rent-and-profit-making machine against social life of the many, in order to develop a new sense of the commons.
Alternative geographies would seek to develop a new spatial equilibrium in various terms: First and foremost, it seems urgent to plan for a re-balancing of jobs and economic growth compared to housing as a basic social need; it is widely acknowledged that the housing problem in the country is pressing and wicked but hard to accept. Affordability of housing taken seriously would, for example, challenge the dedication of many communes to create even more office real estate (or luxury apartments). Second, a re-balancing of the power of the capital city as against the rest of the country should be considered as well; not a new idea, as it was key to the government’s spatial programmes from the early 2000s. A robust approach to decentralised concentration is needed that takes the pressure away from the capital city, to the benefit of the Southern and Northern regions. However, the rationale of the market still works in the opposite direction, which triggered some critical commentaries recently, when it was announced that after post offices also bank branches will be closed in several rural communities. 
Associated with rebalancing the potentials of capital city and country, one must also be critical of the property-led politics of density that are pursued almost everywhere in the Grand Duchy. The pandemic is only one aspect of the many externalities and vulnerabilities of excessive density in the urban environment, which now deserves a more critical treatment. A resilient Luxembourg would have to be less crowded, even if this would mean a slightly more dispersed development pattern (and an associated ceiling to be placed on recently rocketing real-estate profits). Third, a re-balancing would be required with regard to the role of Luxembourg in the context of the Greater Region. Likewise at the global scale, the Grand Duchy is small but highly interconnected at the regional level, serving as a magnet that attracts an increasing range of commuter flows from its neighbour countries. Spatial mismatch is most obvious here, and it needs a strategy comprising multiple means of implementation, on the housing market, as concerns digitalisation and tele-working, and in terms of common development planning. The time is right for giving the Greater Region more than talks and annual summits, or non-binding strategic schemes as real food for thought and development.
The idea of re-balancing the spatial development and economy of the country touches upon the fundamentals of spatial planning (‘Raumordnung’ or ‘Landesplanung’) – so there is a certain temptation to craft models and plans of a re-balanced small state that develops in harmony rather than polarisation and fragmentation. However, such concepts seem equally attractive in theory, as they have hardly worked out in practice in recent times. One reason for this deficiency is that previous debates had underestimated (if not totally ignored) the power of the political economy, the inherent growth machine and its hunger for more which is deeply entrenched in the country’s development path. Another reason is that the binding power of the state is limited, being constrained by private property and municipal autonomy simultaneously.
A fresh approach to planning is urgently needed in this country, which seems to be both under-strategised and over-regulated in terms of planning and development practice. Alternative geographies would not only have to develop a new sense of realism as to what extent such guidelines and strategies are deemed a) practically possible to implement, and b) effective in steering development. One would also need to sketch some cornerstones of alternative economic pathways for the small state and its spatial development. Ideas that are already under discussion and thus offer some strategic entry points include the diversification of the country’s economic portfolio; a true greening of the financial industry; or the introduction of the circular economy as a principle – not a trendy sector – for future development more generally.
Once asked for the possible questions and issues to be covered by any ad-hoc research on the geographical and urban implications of the COVID-19 disease, these issues could mark our priority. It remains to be seen to what extent these ideas could be brought into a consistent set of strategies that are ready to be confronted with practice. However, among all the difficulties, deprivation and loss which the Corona pandemic has brought about, it is notable that the lockdown allows us to raise questions that might have been difficult to ask when everything was running seemingly as normal. Besides dealing with the pandemic, this ‘normal’ is actually what the crisis is casting a spotlight on.
Markus Hesse

29 March, 2020

Reflecting upon the geographical fundamentals of the Corona-issue, and the particular challenges for relational urbanisation – PART II

In this follow-up to Part I of the Blog entry that appeared here last week, we will discuss the possible risks and ramifications for cities that are confronted with the current – and maybe longer lasting – lock-down of social systems and economies. The point here is that those cities will be particularly affected that are based on openness and circulation. Luxembourg, a small but global, economically powerful and thus ‘relational’ place par excellence, has a lot to lose in this respect.

“That is all moot.” These were the words with which a prominent geographer responded to the cancellation of this year’s annual conference of the International Network of Urban Research and Action (INURA) (www.inura.org), that was planned for this June in Luxembourg. We’ve now decided to shift the meeting to next year, including the birthday party and conference part on the occasion of the then 31st anniversary of the Network. We look forward to welcoming an international community of urban researchers & activists who will also inspire and ignite debates around here (inuraluxembourg.blogspot.com).
“Moot” could also suit for interpreting current social and economic life under the siege of the Virus more generally. In Part I of this Blog entry (see below), I presented a quick reading of the Corona outbreak from a geographical perspective, with an emphasis on some essentials such as spatial diffusion and differentiation, temporal evolution, mobilities of all kinds, and the increasing degree of interconnectedness and interrelationships that seem to characterise localities in most general terms. It’s nothing sensational, but sometimes it is useful to stress the trivial-but-not-banal essentials of a subject matter (like geography), particularly when teaching disciplinary foundations for graduate students in light of current events that have been speedily gaining momentum.
A second reason to delve deeper into the geographical ramifications of the Virus and the associated quarantine lockdown is its inherent exposure of risk. The latent standstill of social and economic systems, caused by the constraints to the assembly of people and, even more important, to their spatial mobility, brings some severe challenges to places that are actually grounded on the principle of flow. This applies particularly to cities that we approach as being ‘relational’: (relatively) small but (highly) global places such as Geneva (Switzerland), Singapore or Luxembourg – localities that we studied throughout the course of the FNR-funded research project GLOBAL (Hesse & Wong, 2020). Corona gives a bitter lesson to these places, as it questions their historically specific, highly successful trajectories. These trajectories were already associated with a certain social and environmental cost. Now it looks as if they are in fundamental danger as such.

Liquidity and vulnerability of relational urbanisation
GLOBAL aimed at analyzing the past, present and future global trajectories of these three places, for the reason of providing a nuanced view of small but global urbanisation. The basis of the research was a large corpus of secondary data, which was assessed by content analysis. In a second step, we analysed about 50 research interviews that were conducted between 2017 and 2019. The main research interest was, firstly, to reconstruct the means and measures through which these – relatively small – places were able to gain a top-level position in global urban regards. Secondly, we wanted to identify the related consequences for urban development and policy, given that the high degree of internationality creates multiple tensions at local levels.
Geneva, Luxembourg and Singapore qualified for this research as all three locales experienced strong and rapid growth within a short period of time, more related to network embeddedness – being situated in between – rather than centrality within a given territory. They operate on bounded territories, template cases of borrowed size. Their growth rates are driven by financial and other services and integration in the global economy as well as global migration. The three places are ranked on GaWC as Beta, Alpha- and Alpha+ world cities, respectively (as of 2016). They also share particular governance patterns practiced locally and beyond, successfully set in place as a consequence of niche-making based on (relative) smallness: one is a capital city of a small state, the other the seat of a canton, the third represents a city-state. All three blend scales (Affolderbach & Carr, 2016) through local and state power.
The building blocks of relationality are the management of flows, supported by positionality and governance features, further underpinned by particular historical trajectories. The ability of the three cities to make the “most out of smallness” (Grydehøj, 2011) by “extracting profit from extraterritorial terrain” (Olds & Yeung, 2004) is striking, which is not least bound to specific historical trajectories. All three were able to build on earlier expertise and infrastructures to further establish themselves in particular niche activities. But they also actively seek diversification as a central policy agenda, and are extremely open to change, new activities and new pathways to growth. Each also began shifting towards a services and knowledge-oriented economy at different times, pushed by different external and historical conditions, supported by similar governance arrangements.
Most importantly, our sample areas focus heavily on managing the flows of capital and commodities, material and immaterial flows (conveying money, information, ideas), or political flows, in order to maintain their economic niches. Luxembourg is renown as a financial market place, managing investment funds, wealth, insurance and the like. It also hosts one of the world’s more important airfreight hubs. As an important seat of European politics, Luxembourg generates huge flows of political ideas, legislation and lobbying. Besides its role as a money hub and as a centre of diplomacy, Geneva is specialised in the virtual trade of commodities, of which a huge share is also administered there (see Haller’s 2019 fascinating account of merchanting in Switzerland). Meanwhile, Singapore manages a wide portfolio of capital flows in capital markets, private wealth and insurance, and both the virtual and actual trade of commodities. All three places, even the two landlocked ones, engage in maritime services. All three host ‘Freeports’ – fortified warehouses for collectibles of highest value, a most recent strategy to capitalise on flows. All three lack domestic markets and have a limited pool of local talent – hence they rely on interregional and international pools of highly skilled labour, mobilised due to their cross-border location. Accessibility and infrastructure policy are crucial here.
A unique position–or better, positionality–as key mediators and brokers between regional and international systems helped all three places to better capitalise on particular flows: Luxembourg from within the EU, Geneva from outside the EU, and Singapore within the Southeast Asian and Chinese markets. They are situated at borders: Luxembourg in the Greater Region (including parts of Belgium, France, and Germany), Geneva with Grand Genève stretching into France, and Singapore with Southeast Asia and China. These characteristics compensate for their small size both in regional and global terms. Consequently, all three cities have a multilingual society, which they offer as a unique asset to international businesses that increasingly require linguistic and also cultural translation in their cross-border settings. Openness towards what is situated ‘out there’ (Kevin Cox) is thus required to play out relationality and to capitalise on this. However, openness alone would not suffice, as all three cases demonstrated with their ability to blend scales, that is, to merge state power and local thickness to something that unfolds as a rather strong political power.

Risks to Luxembourg’s niche-economic path/business model
Making the most of smallness by attracting flows of all kinds is only made possible by particular governance conditions, and the somehow extraverted urbanism that has made city and country prosperous is associated with some sort of introverted governance. All three cases that we studied exhibit legislative autonomy to change regulation, create new laws, and administer regulation in a way that it creates a favourable businesses climate. Niche sovereignty enabled them to create a competitive advantage compared to other (larger) cities in federal states. Close links between state and local decision-makers, or even convergence between the two in their much praised ‘ecosystems’ or clusters, have been a defining feature in all three cases and used to their maximum advantage.
However, the Corona shut down demonstrates rather brutally what can happen to open systems and niche-economies like Luxembourg, when they lack their most important asset: flows and the seamless mobilities of people, goods, money and other commodities that make up their fortune. Starting again with the trivial-but-not-banal: If the country’s borders are shut down or are rendered less permeable, it will miss a huge number of workers such as nurses and doctors. The health system of the small country seems just as vulnerable as other branches (restaurants, taxis, retail, programming …) as it relies on the constant input from, and growth of, a foreign workforce. However, unlike taxis, hospitals and doctors’ cabinets can be classified as essential to the system (“systemrelevant”) and the society as a whole.
Indispensable to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is the now 200,000-strong workforce (almost half of the national labour market!) that crosses the national borders every workday in order to keep the whole business model going. (The same applies btw to Geneva situated at the French-Swiss border, and to Singapore with its reliance on Malay and Indonesian workforce). This flow of workers makes relationality possible; that is, these cities remain global but keep things small and under local control. In addition, the Luxembourg-specific division of labour between qualified (foreign) job holders that occupy a variety of relevant positions in basic sectors and the private market economy on the one hand, and nationals who have the privilege of (unusually highly paid) employment in state and municipal sectors on the other hand may not work anymore, if the commuter inflow would be blocked for longer.
Even more critical is the state of the services sector in general and the financial marketplace (“la place”) in particular. Corona probably brings the biggest threat to Luxembourg’s competitive position, which is being built on the concentration of financial resources that were successfully acquired over the last three to four decades. What started with offering half obscure, half legal tax advantages (and thus allowed for the milking of neighbor countries’ public budgets) became a full-fledged global financial centre including investment funds, insurance, legal advice and more recently also fintech services. This machine contributes massively to the country’s budget line. Keeping it going requires a global economy that operates by separating real economy from the financial system, a circuit of earnings and added values that are bundled in tax havens and other specialized domains. Such a business model is highly vulnerable to disruption, and the related ecosystems require face-to-face communication, which is no longer possible now (see the national flagship airline’s announcement on the grounding of its fleet). The serious midterm question is whether and how specialized financial enclaves can develop a sense of resilience at all (see Brunnhuber et al., 2005; Dörry & Schulz, 2018).

In a small country, there is also some concern about the disruption of material supply chains (for example in the food sector), as procurement in such countries heavily depends on imports from elsewhere. These imports can be questioned, as was demonstrated by the BSE food scandal. Yet at the same time, it is unrealistic to expect economic self-sufficiency from a nation state whose area is the same size as the neighbor state of Saarland in Germany, and whose population is only 60 per cent of that. Small units simply lack sufficient demand for creating a reasonable supply on that level of scale. Even more so, the high standard of living that Luxembourg’s consumers are used to enjoying would not be satisfied by any sort of local or regional sourcing.
More importantly, the challenges that Corona brings to interconnected places and economies coincide with the observation of “Slowbalisation”, as coined by the Economist to describe the global economy moving at snail pace on 26th January 2019. As a result of Brexit and Trumpism, a certain temptation of nationalism, or post-national regionalism, has entered the stage of global politics. World trade numbers have plummeted recently, and this was before national governments began blocking cross-border flows in order to keep the Virus out. All this will challenge the niche-economies of flows quite heavily: As one logistics executive from Luxembourg mentioned to us in a research interview: “When globalization comes to a halt, we’re done”. Trade blocks and diseases have the potential not only to disrupt, but also to actually dismantle the system of world trade and global exchange as we know it. Re-regulation in the regional or national interest – something that was difficult to imagine for decades – could now offer a possible pathway for the near future. Globalization marching onwards in the same direction as before is only one possible direction, but no longer the unquestioned truth forever. There could also be a multipolar world emerging with different patterns of trade, and the same applies to a possible renationalization of economic policies (Credit Suisse Research Institute, 2016).

However accidental the Virus came to us as societies (keeping in mind the various meanings that the term ‘accidental’ has to offer), the crisis brings indeed some good reason to reflect upon its systemwide impacts. It looks as if the Virus and the subsequent lockdown could erase some of the seemingly undisputed beliefs that research and practice communities have been dealing with for a while now, most notably the imperative of global economic competition, the exaggerations of consumerist techno-capitalism, and its hunger for more. While “pushing the limits for the sake of pushing the limits” seemed sacrosanct until recently, one could now take the freedom to rethink the issue further: Is there choice after the Virus, in order to escape from the iron cage of growth?
Are there alternative geographies of, or for, Luxembourg that could be distilled from rethinking capital city and country in the light of the current lockdown? In Part III of this Blog entry, I will soon discuss some elements of these alternative pathways. While this rethinking came up entirely involuntarily (accidentally, if you want), it could provide some essential inspiration for the time after the crisis, whenever that will be.

(Special thanks to my post-doc project collaborator Dr Catherine Wong in GLOBAL, and as always to my co-editor of this Blog).

Selected bibliography
Affolderbach, Julia & Carr, Constance (2016). Blending scales of governance: Land‐use policies and practices in the small state of Luxembourg. Regional Studies, 50(6), 944-955.
Brunnhuber, Stefan, Fink, Alexander & Kuhle, Jens- Peter (2005). The financial system matters: future perspectives and scenarios for a sustainable future. Futures, 37(4), 317-332.
Credit Suisse Research Institute (2016). Getting over Globalization. Zurich: Credit Suisse AG.
Dörry, Sabine & Schulz, Christian (2018). Green financing, interrupted. Potential directions for sustainable finance in Luxembourg. Local Environment, 23(7), 717-733.
Grydehøj, Adam (2011). Making the most of smallness: economic policy in microstates and sub-national island jurisdictions. Space and Polity, 15(3), 183-196.
Haller, Lea (2019). Transithandel. Geld- und Warenströme im globalen Kapitalismus. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
Hesse, Markus & Wong, Catherine (2020). Cities seen through a relational lens. Niche economic strategies and related urban development trajectories in Geneva (Switzerland), Luxembourg (Luxembourg) and Singapore. Geographische Zeitschrift, DOI 10.25162/gz-2019-0020.
Olds, Kris & Yeung, Henry (2004). Pathways to global city formation: a view from the developmental city-state of Singapore. Review of International Political Economy, 11(3), 489-521.

Markus Hesse

20 March, 2020

Reflecting upon the geographical fundamentals of the Corona-issue, and the particular challenges for relational urbanisation – PART I

This note comments on the Corona issue from a geographical perspective. It evolved out of a discussion with my 1st year Master students who attended “Foundations and Trends in Geography”, a module that is dedicated to familiarising students with fundamentals of the discipline, and how (and why) these have changed over time. Clearly, the Corona outbreak is essentially linked to geography, which is indicated for example by plenty of maps and diagrams spreading across the media, with spatio-temporal matters on display. This Part I of the entry will be followed soon by a discussion on what Corona means for ‘relational cities’ – small but highly globalised places that have emerged thanks to intermediacy and niche-economic strategies. Their prospect is increasingly challenged.

Every crisis has its momentum. It is now becoming clear to many of us that the Corona outbreak is not simply a matter of a short-term lock-down that can be reversed in a few weeks. It will most likely call for mid- or long-term strategies of adaptation, whose social, economic and environmental costs are extremely difficult to estimate at this point. However, it is undisputed that the Virus has created huge problems. As Mike Meadows, Assistant to the Secretary General of the IGU, informed the geography community:

“On March 18, 2020, cases of COVID-19 have now been recorded in about 160 countries, territories, areas, spread across six continents, and the number of confirmed cases outside of China has exceeded 110,000, clearly higher than the confirmed cases in China (81,116). Meanwhile, the number of newly confirmed cases in China has dropped to double digits. On March 12, China’s National Health Commission announced that the peak of the epidemic in China had passed. On March 18, there were 34 newly confirmed cases in China, and all the cases were attributed to travelers returning from abroad. No newly confirmed cases in Wuhan, China on March 19!” (E-mail communication, 19th March 2020).

In addition to that, it feels as if the Virus is posing some fundamental questions about a social and economic model that is characterized by interconnectedness, condensation and acceleration, a model that is actually deemed unsustainable. However, the questions is not only whether this model is sustainable or not, or whether current events signify that some of the things that we have become accustomed to are coming to end, sooner than later. Rather, in the first instance, it is fundamental to us, as geographers, to look at the spatialities of the spread of the Virus, and how governments and political actors respond to that.

In terms of geography and planning, which are the domains that we engage in, there are a couple of observations and interpretations that might be worth sharing. First and foremost, it is interesting to see that the geographical character of Corona outbreak is at the centre of public awareness. Maps and diagrams displaying the pandemic, such as the global dashboard provided by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland (USA), or the diagrams on the sequential move of the number of infections in relation to recovery rates and lethality of the virus as published by the Washington Post, are constant accompaniers throughout the media. Topics such as spatial distribution and temporal evolution have reached public awareness. This is essentially geography. To us, this might be good reason to re-read the work of geographers such as Torsten Hägerstrand or Peter Haggett – as issues such as time geography and also the spread of diseases is becoming are a hot topic again.

With regards to its geographical nature, it is interesting to see how the spread of the Virus also alters our perspective on urbanisation and, most importantly, on cities. Until recently, many accounts of the apparently law-based, planetary process of urbanisation (measured by the mushrooming of mega-cities, the rising share of global urban population, or the discovery of cities as global political actors) have emphasised the societal benefits of agglomeration. Corona sheds a different light on this, as did its predecessor SARS (see Connolly, Keil & Ali 2020). It is of course, and by far, not only density that makes us rethink the vulnerability of urban places against viruses and other epidemic shocks. However, risk exposure and the associated damages can be more intense in urban places, and failures of critical infrastructures can leave a disproportionate part of the population affected. And indeed, in addition to core city areas, suburbs and city regions are likewise coming into focus as places that are equally prone to the spread of the virus as they are affected by it. If there is an urbanisation related consequence of this debate, then it is probably that the specificities of the city region or the urban-rural distinction are becoming viewed in much more nuanced ways than before.

The second observation in the course of the Corona crisis points at its very particular mobilities and immobilities dimension. This is imminent not only in the current crisis and lock-down, but is also, and obviously, a key ingredient of modern society overall. The amount of flows of all kinds that maintain the functioning of cities and societies -- being these flows of people, commodities, commuters, money or political ideas and ideologies -- is simply striking. This matter of fact is far too often taken for granted, and awareness of it only surfaces when the systems are out of order, like now. Some geographers may recall the shut down of global air travel in 2010 as a consequence of the Icelandic volcano fallout, where so many of us couldn’t leave Washington DC after the AAG-Conference but had to wait for things to get back to normal. (I was part of a group who’d chosen a remote place in Delaware, in order to make best use of this non-voluntary, non-quarantine stay abroad). With the Virus deepening the constraints to mobility, this will stress corporations and individuals in their adaptation to the crisis, and the longer it takes to return to normal, the more extensive the damage will be.

Last but not least, both interrelation and complexity come to mind when reflecting further on the mess created by the Virus. Again, this only looks trivial, but it is in fact fundamental in the very consequences: Hardly any place can exist nowadays without being deeply connected to other places. Trade relations, city-regional labour markets, or food supply networks have constituted an array of webs and connectivities that keep our cities and economies going, one place embedded in manifold relations with others. The sheer extent of these relations is stunning. Some of the externalities of these global networks have been subject to criticism in the context of regionalist or post-growth discourses (carbon and energy demand, exploitation of labour), that are supported by good arguments. However, while it is difficult to imagine a world that needs to return to much more fine-grain patterns of supply of goods and services, it is not certain that a system, or pattern, would automatically be more sustainable than the global one. Spatial division of labour has certainly a range of benefits and advantages, “ecologies of scale” come to mind here, and these need to be balanced against the extractive nature of the large-scale system of global trade and international relations.

Markus Hesse

17 March, 2020

Fare-free public transit in Luxembourg - An afterword

While the world is in turmoil because of a virus, let’s recall what happened just two weeks ago, when the world was (perhaps) a world away: the introduction of fare-free public transit (FFPT) across an entire country, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, on 1st March 2020. We were swamped by it.

Back in December, we noticed that we were receiving, pretty much on a weekly basis, calls or E-mails from the media, colleagues abroad, or student groups doing research on the issue. The inquiries were a result of two articles that we had published – one in ‘The Conversation’ (2019) and another in the Journal Transport Geography (2020), which is available upon request here. Some readers might also have been reacting to our first initial reflection that we posted here, shortly following the government’s announcement and ensuing media storm in 2019. As the much celebrated 1st of March approached, however, these weekly contacts increased in frequency, to a point where we were doing several interviews inside of just (and only) a few days. On one hand, this attention was a surprising story about impact: We interrogated discourses, attempted to decipher the politics and the political behind the policy measure, and embed it into the context. Who would have thought that our pen could be so mighty as to generate such attention and sway the debate?

Media Exposure
To sum up the media events that have unfolded since January of this year: We were contacted by Radio 100,7, the Swedish Dagens Nyheter, the Belgian BTRF, the Swiss SRF, the Berliner Tagesspiegel, The Independent in the UK, the BBC World Service, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, Italy's La Repubblica, and probably the most influential of them all with his 2 million followers (at least with younger generations) Youtuber TomScottGo. We were not able to respond to all the calls. In some cases, it was sufficient to simply send articles that we had already written. (So, it is a good idea to have a publication to buttress a position, and it can never be assumed that journalists have done their homework). The University of Luxembourg’s communication office was also involved, helping direct media attention to the appropriate contact point within the University, and providing spontaneous assistance and advice about how to handle the media (Thank you Laura!).

In addition to the above, RTL, science.lu, Le Quotidien, the Tageblatt, all reported on, or took inspiration from, our article in the Journal of Transport Geography, and there are uncountable replicators of all of the above, such as The Global Herald, WikiNews, Bangal Viral, Go Tech Daily, and who knows what else. In tech terms: Our voices, and our faces, were summoned into the light, to orbit online platforms…

For sure, it was a lesson in journalism: We got first-hand insight into the different objectives and methods of journalists, the depth of journalism (and, to be honest, the equally often  lack of it), the working world of quick and dirty journalism that co-opts and transfigures a message. One notable example was how the RTL jumped the word “populist” above all else – a term that we used only once in our article.

Critical debate brings things forward
Yet, on the whole, the media was very supportive. Most journalists appreciated an opportunity to get the fuller picture, from insiders with some critical distance to the authorities. They were, after all, tasked with making sense of FFPT in imagery as opposed to FFPT in reality, and this is where we came in. Providing a reflection upon policies based on intimate knowledge of the cases at stake, without having a stake in it, can be considered one of the key aims of critical scholarship. 

And if our point was about discourse, framing and branding, maybe the most striking issue that we noticed was the difference between Luxembourg's self-perception and description on the one hand, and observations and judgement from a distance on the other. It is interesting to see that the government’s claim about what its actual intention was (from steering mobility behaviour to providing a social benefit) was completely overrun by the foreign media's perception that there would be an ecological turn in transport and mobility unfolding in Luxembourg. This perception certainly found applause in the government, and was never denied by the authorities who were grateful of the global media spread. If one learned about Luxembourg's FFPT via the media only, one would come to the conclusion that Luxembourg was spearheading the coming transport revolution. This would be awesome, of course, if only it were the case …

The overall positive aspect resulting from this attention was observing how the public and scholarly debate moved forward. In this respect, it is an example of how a scientific, double-blind peer-reviewed, journal article managed to change understandings of a certain phenomenon. In terms of public debate, the ideas that we list in our papers partly became mainstream thought.

Indeed, there were strange discussions cycling about. Some assumed that critiques of FFPT are automatically pro car. We also received a personal message, from someone of a far-right bent who dug up our one comment about populism, and used it as an opportunity to doublespeak and point the finger at democratic parties (this is when the 'delete' button comes in handy). Some ventured that critiques from science are a sign that state funding is a waste (insinuating that comments from the scientific corner ought always be palatable). It is surprising that what these perceptions missed was the fact that a critique of FFPT can be, in fact, not only pro public transit, but also pro public service.

The accomplishment, one might venture nonetheless, was that there a greater understanding was achieved: (a) the public transport system is in dire need of investment; (b) housing prices are a real social problem here; (c) transport is also labour issue. Yet, at the same time, we were also tied up in a weird figure-eight between scholarship, media, and politics — all missing the political. (One might note, too, that the media attention also served as a diversion, occluding more important global issues).

Most importantly, one could ask what will happen now that the March 1st fanfare is over and the media has packed up and gone home. Won't it most likely be a return to business as usual – long commutes, cancelled trains/busses, etc?

FFPT in a nutshell
The following is a list of key questions that a foreign media representative addressed. We use them here to summarise our position.

1) Why do you think free public transit is not a good idea?
Surely the role of politics isn’t be simply about providing gifts to the public, but about taking care of present and future issues and, most notably, addressing problems. Transit fares have never been a problem in this country. No one ever complained that they couldn't use the public transport because they couldn't afford it (which is probably different from many other places). FFPT in Luxembourg was a solution that lacked an underlying problem, a policy nobody had actually asked for. For that, the government is ready to spend EUR 41m/year.

2) Is there something specific about Luxembourg that makes the idea wrong?
Yes. The whole socio-demographic and economic trajectory is hugely specific. Luxembourg is de facto a small city-state formation run by central government, while the building and planning authorities sit with 102 municipalities. It seems extremely difficult to find a common sense between the two levels of governance (see Carr's paper here). Growth rates are extremely high by European comparison, effectively the capital city and its suburbs are like a sponge, attracting not only capital for investment and admin, but also 200,000 commuters from neighbouring countries per workday. For decades, the country was used to building roads and paving the way for cars – such as the Plateau Kirchberg, an economic zone in the centre of the country that that had a motorway built directly to it, connecting to the border regions. This habit has only been changing recently. So, the government is right in what it's doing in transport infrastructure terms, but: a), the investment numbers that are provided for comparison are an expression of backlog of need, not head start on infrastructure planning; and, b) its economic development policy – paradoxical as this effect turns out – will contribute to making the sponge even bigger. It thus deepens the real problem. FFPT has nothing to do with these issues, and it can make things even worse if cyclists and pedestrians should switch to transit, causing low-carbon mobility to lose traction.

3) Luxembourg seems the perfect place – small country, small population – to be a laboratory for mobility. Is it not true? What is necessary?
This case is far from being well suited for this; hence, we would not recommend that other countries take inspiration from here. The reasons for this is because Luxembourg is: a) so specific in its socio-economic and political-economic setting, and b) rather traditional in its obsession with the car, roads and motorways. Territorial size or population counts do not mean that public transit automatically works. When asked what is needed, we find following three elements. First, get rid of existing subsidies for corporate cars, petrol and diesel that promote toxic travel modes. Second, calm car traffic towards the benefit of pedestrians and bikers, children etc. and for safe environments and public spaces. Third, designate bus lanes to improve transit flow, and pursue the effective changes that can be implemented in the fastest possible ways for immediate impact. Fourth, address tact, increase frequency and improve reliability. A cancelled train that would arrive only once every 30 minutes anyway is hardly indicative of a reliable system. And, most connections do not make sense, meaning that many changeovers take 30-45 minutes meaning ridiculous time investment for riders. All these discussions, however, are far from political mainstream.

4) What else could one try to make significant improvements to public transit and mobility?
Inevitably, government and society will have to tackle the dominance of the car. There is no real alternative to this. Then, all other transport modes would benefit from that. In the long run, the social spatial imbalance between Luxembourg and its neighbour countries needs to be re-adjusted, as does the internal mismatch between the capital city and the rest of Luxembourg. Admittedly, there is no easy fix for the underlying dilemma to be expected from whatever measure in short term. The setting of economic and socio-demographic growth, local governance (and governmentality) and the resulting spatial imbalance is extraordinarily complex and can only be addressed by mid- and long-term political strategies. However, such strategies do not offer the immediate revenue that the governing parties would like to see materialising.

5) What do you think about the experience of free transportation in other countries/cities (Tallinn, Dunkirk in France…)?
These may also be pretty specific. While having never been to the places mentioned, it is difficult to make a proper statement about this. FFPT seems to be an issue that may suit for smaller not bigger spatial units. Large countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands or metropolitan regions such as Berlin haven't considered such a measure, for good reason: a) They need the fares as an important budgetary component; and b) they focus on quality, for which continuous and expensive investment is required. In many countries, rail and transit infrastructures need to be renovated or upgraded – either to catch up with economic and demographic growth or to implement transit-oriented development, or both.

Constance Carr and Markus Hesse

05 March, 2020

The 30th Annual Conference of INURA in Luxembourg!

This event was postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19. Find details at conference website: https://inuraluxembourg.blogspot.com.

Small State, Big Transitions - The 30th Annual Conference of INURA, the International Network of Urban Research and Action

June 18-24

The Urban Group at the Department of Geography and Spatial Planning at the University of Luxembourg is pleased to announce the 30th annual conference of INURA, taking place in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Full of surprises and paradoxes, participants of INURA 2020 can look forward to an exciting set of tours (June 19, 20) that aim to show the range of challenges and contradictions that constitute this urban space — a small state, city-state, multilingual sovereign nation, European capital, financial capital, international business hub, and cross-border (sub)urban region. 2020 is also a special anniversary year of INURA, celebrating 30 years of research and action. Organised in co-operation with INURA and the ETH Department of Architecture, anniversary celebrations (June 21, 22) will feature confirmed keynotes,

Laura Colini (Tesserae Urban Social Research), Jorge Peña Diaz (Urban Research and Action Group, Technological University of Habana), Michael Edwards (The Bartlett School of Planning, University College of London), Maria Kaika (Urban Planning, University of Amsterdam), Roger Keil (CITY Institute, York University), Ute Lehrer (Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University), Marvi Maggio (Confederation of Grassroots Committees, Region of Tuscany), Libby Porter (Centre for Urban Research, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology), Jennifer Robinson (Department of Geography, University College of London), Marit Rosol (Department of Geography, University of Calgary), Christian Schmid (Department of Architecture, ETH), Erik Swyngedouw (Manchester Urban Institute, University of Manchester), and video screenings from Spectacle Productions.

We are excited to announce that Early Bird Registration is now open (until March 15, 2020). Please visit the conference website, https://inuraluxembourg.blogspot.com, learn about the fee structure at "Registration/Fees/Accommodation", and click on the link provided that will direct you to a secure online registration and payment system.

Please note that each individual must register separately (including spouses and children). Please, also note INURA 2020 does have limited capacity.  So, please take advantage of this early bird option, not only to take advantage of lower prices, but also to ensure a place for you.  Questions? Feel free to contact: luxembourg2020@inura.org

02 March, 2020

New publication in a special issue of Urban Planning (open access) on smart cities

It was a great pleasure to contribute our article entitled, "When Alphabet Inc. Plans Toronto’s Waterfront: New Post-Political Modes of Urban Governance" to the Special Issue “Urban Planning and the Smart City: Projects, Practices and Politics” edited by Andrew Karvonen (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden), Matthew Cook (Open University, UK) and Håvard Haarstad (University of Bergen, Norway).

Abstract ‘Smart cities’ has become a hegemonic concept in urban discourses, despite substantial criticism presented by scholarly research and activism. The aim of this research was to understand what happens when one of the big digital corporations enters the field of real estate and land use development and urban planning, how existing institutions respond to this, and how modes of urban governance are affected. Alphabet Inc.’s plans for Toronto’s waterfront provided insights into these questions. Our investigations traced a complex web of place-making practices that involved all levels of government, the general public, and networks of actors throughout the private sector. Methodologically, the discourse was reconstructed with local fieldwork, interviews with key actors, participating in tours and public meetings, and secondary sources. It was found that Alphabet Inc.’s plan to build a world-class digital city contained some lessons for urban studies and urban planning practice. First, Alphabet Inc.’s plans, which unfolded amidst initiatives to expand the knowledge economy, confirmed concerns that the trajectory of neoliberal, market-driven land use and speculation along the waterfront remains unchanged. Second, digital infrastructures are potentially a Trojan Horse. Third, it was seen that municipalities and their modes of urban planning are vulnerable to the political economic manoeuvrings of large corporate power. Fourth, Alphabet Inc. operates as a post-political package driven by a new coalition of politics, where the smart city is sold as a neutral technology. The controversies surrounding the project, however, stirred a civic discourse that might signal a return of the political.

Download the article here
Download the full issue here

18 February, 2020

Professor of Urban Regeneration wanted!

The University of Luxembourg seeks to hire an associate professor (permanent position) in urban regeneration, for joining the Department of Geography & Spatial Planning within the Faculty of Humanities, Education & Social Sciences.

The new colleague is expected to provide excellent scientific impetus for fundamental research on urban development in the 21st century and will contribute to the study of urban planning challenges at regional, national and cross-border levels. Considering contemporary urban planning discourses and the ongoing territorial transition, the professorship will focus on urban regeneration processes. The candidate must demonstrate excellent theoretical and practical references in the socio-ecological transition of urbanised territories, both built and unbuilt.

The deadline for handing in your application (Ref: F3-130021) to the Dean of the Faculty is 18 March 2020. More information about the post, the required profile and how to apply is available here.

For any queries, please contact:
Prof. Dr. Christian Schulz
Telephone: (+352) 46 66 44 6327

A strongly committed team that works across the boundaries of planning, geography, architecture and other social sciences is waiting for you!

(c) Tom Becker, 2019