by Kahira Ngige
“…one such concept is that of “urban metabolism”, which refers to the metabolic processes by which cities transform raw materials, energy and water into the built environment, human biomass and waste. The adoption of this concept has fostered new imaginations of what the city is and how material and immaterial flows – through infrastructure, through different economies – mediate the production and reproduction of the city, both as a biophysical and socio-economic entity…”
The control of biological processes has governed the theory and practice of modern town planning since at least the 19th century. We call the output of this thinking the Hygienic City. Modernity is the antithesis of metabolism – it does not allow for failure or disruption or reinvention. The city is predictable. Raw materials flow in – capital flows out.
In reading the city we look for instances of troubling – at how the linear process of modernity is subverted by biological super-systems. To do so we look at sites such as Dandora and Kibera – the City Apocalyptic. Monstrosity begins to creep into the urban imagination and spatial notions such as scale, mass and size are inadequate in contemplating the ecological implications of these mutations.
They cannot be read quantitatively but as specters of past mistakes or, as one may be tempted to call them, imminent doom. At the same time we must be careful not to analyze these manifestations through hygienist principals of what cities should be (or rather how the detritus of city function should be offset and hidden by a spatial logic). Instead, we look at instances of adaptation and alternative scenarios – the dumpsite as gold mine, the proto-formal recycling and upcycling processes, the cottage industries that feed off these monstrosities.
Examining the human subject within this city of constant change and decay, we wonder about the limits of the body in surviving this landscape. For this we have public health records to turn to. Looking at incidences of mental diseases, respiratory ailments and mortality rates. The “host” city rebels.
The more important question is, how does the body interface with this urban environment that is often hostile? This symbiosis of bio-mechanical systems, city governance and control, and ecological catastrophe present itself in highly unusual ways. The diseased body is the epitome and the output of the metabolic city.
While the city’s failure is largely recognized by all, the scale of catastrophe is masked in a kind of coded double speak. The State for all intents and purposes views failure as temporal – existing in the now rather than in some idealized future. I therefore critique Utopias like Konza City that reject metabolic process and historic precedent.
In both modernity and State Utopias we find that the human subject is a being to be perfected, controlled and bred. In the Nairobi of the mid-20th century, racial stratification was coded in the everyday narrative of technological progress. In utopias of the future, class distinction is celebrated above all else.
This brings us to the issue of marginality –how the limitations of state power create the grey zones where the urban boundary meets nowhere. These are the graveyards of past mistakes and radioactive truths. Sites of new housing for the poor rooted out of slums and ghettos (the products of monstrosity) are in themselves curious in biological role and economic function.
The ecology of the city, whether in the sewer network, parks, forests or the in-between spaces is a microcosm of the city. It’s a living, breathing organ underneath the tarmac, railroads and glass towers. Embedded within this ecology are veins of optic fiber and copper – our nervous system – the system of technological control. This complexity mirrors the body and is in a way, symbiotic. Technological advances and ecological catastrophes demand a new reading of the contemporary city.
In thinking about complexity we use the “cyborg” as a metaphor of the abstract organic and inorganic processes that constitute the Urban. In thinking about the relationships between city, subject and ecology we begin to table a discourse that exists in reality and in the abstract world of imagination. Meshing the language and syntax of metabolism with the techno-capitalist jargon creates a scenario of limitless potential seeing as the city is made up of the sum of all these interactions and more.
The intermixing of the corporeal body and the hybrid technological innovations that are the extensions of our biological selves creates an environment of hyper-awareness. The cyborg metaphor is therefore the critical lens through which complexity; virtuality and technology intersect with notions of self, the governed, and increasingly, the politics of the governed.
Rounding off this idea of metabolism in relation to the city and the body we come to the realization that the multiplicity of city life is a reflection of the extended identity if the body. Our “real” selves and our various virtual, cyber and genetically manipulated “selves” operate under complex systems of control and feedback –this is the urban system. The grey contact zones of bare life and marginality therefore operate on a level of absolute precariousness.
The antithesis to this prevailing logic is the nature of human self-organization and the replication of support systems and networks in the absence of state control and provision. Thus, parallel systems of food production and the dissemination of illegal water connections coupled with the use of mobile devices to undertake financial transactions at all levels is a fusion of this thing we call “informality” with the highly structured apparatus of a technically advanced financial system. The marginalized, reduced to a life of mere existence, find ways to feed off the system.
In looking at metabolism we reject formal distinctions of the colonial city, with its roots in phrenology, eugenics and medical practice. In reading disruption in the city we look for moments of chaos and the chaotic whole.
The ignorance of history (especially the Colonial) and specific cultural practices renders the state sanctioned claim to modernity hollow. In relation to the city and the body, or more specifically, the subject and the covert system of control, we begin to outline the demarcations of state led amnesia.
Reading the city becomes an exercise in unpacking our lives.
Kahira Ngige is an urban planner living and working in London.