Experts have become increasingly uncertain about the lack of convincing models to handle the growth of cities. Less than two years ago, the instant collapse of the prestigious Dubai project which was labelled as a development model for the free market, came as a major shock. Following suspension of payments and a near-bankruptcy, almost one quarter of all builder’s cranes (30,000 out of approximately 125,000) are currently inactive. Due to financial and legal problems, the city is no longer able to contribute to accelerated global urban growth, which, consequently, poses the danger of a sudden boom of low-rise and on account of the resulting low density thereof, may entail a direct increase of the climate crisis. Recently, doubts have risen about the growth stability of the Chinese real estate market; a problem of a potentially much larger scope. Beginning of August, Chinese media spread the rumour that over a period of six months, 64,5 million electricity meters in Chinese cities have measured zero power consumption – a rumour which was instantly and expressly denied by the energy companies in question. After all, this number would imply that approximately 200 million newcomers in the rapidly growing cities have refused to move into the housing projects built for them, and abandoned the registered real estate market forced by its high costs, finding refuge in the unauthorised districts in and around the city. A scenario which is quite common in the great number of megacities in less government regulated parts of the world.
United Nations experts voice great concern about the explosive urban growth – which increasingly takes the shape of an uncontrollable virus infection, now that urban growth mainly takes place outside of the regulated real estate market. However, there are hardly any alternatives, or at least not any feasible ones, which also carries a great risk in view of the important choices and investments that must be made. One of the possible scenarios – albeit only available for a small elite – relates to the design of so-called gated communities at sea. A few steps further even is the plan of a number of scientists to digitalize the urban experience, allowing a much larger number of citizens on a smaller surface to have a ‘urban’ experience without the need of making high investments.
By now, after years of promoting, and in some cases, even forcing the free market, the World Bank increasingly pleads in favour of the opposite. Micro-credits and ‘bottom-up development’ are now regarded as a realistic and feasible alternative for stimulating the economy and wealth. Next to large controlled economies like China and the unmanageable utopia of the free market, small-scale alternative economies and communities have emerged worldwide, sometimes driven by poverty, and sometimes by dissatisfaction with current politics or consumer society. And although this development usually meets with a great deal of sympathy, experts also raise questions about this development. It is not uncommon for these new communities – whether it concerns gated communities for the super rich or ‘back to nature’ communities comprised of people disappointed in affluent society – to manifest themselves as true autarkies. The autarky, a combination of total self-sufficiency and economic, political and social isolation from the rest of the world, appears a stabile alternative, but recent history has shown that autarkic experiments like the one in Albania, are far from stabile. And what to think of the people who have retreated to the forests of the USA as fully self-sufficient communities, using the same arguments as the Californian hippies, yet heavily armed?
The urgency of this issue is of such nature that an expert group of the Utrecht-based Impakt Festival has hijacked the theme under the name Matrix City. Under the relatively safe umbrella of a cultural festival, Matrix City offers a stage for taking stock of contemporary urban developments, and discuss these in an independent and open setting.