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Putting the global in perspective

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Globalisation is an academic concept which aims to define real and complex economic conditions in which architects and planners have to operate. At the 'Globalisation and World Cities' conference held at the aa last week, political scientist Paul Hirst provided a measure of that complexity with his denial that globalisation actually exists, at least in its commonly assumed form as a dissolution of national economies and their replacement by a world economy of global transactions and an egalitarian flow of goods and employment.

He argued that, on the contrary, the world economy is a triad economy, bloc-centred on the eu, nafta and Japan, leaving developing countries still very much out in the cold. In this scenario, 82.7 per cent of the world's income is devoured by the top 20 per cent of the population, leaving 1.4 per cent to be shared out among the bottom 20 per cent.

But according to Nigel Harris, from the Development Planning Unit at University College, the effects of globalisation can be positive for cities. He cited the many cities of the developing world which now carry out, cheaply, much of the data-loading and processing required by the global information economy. Likewise, Mexican cities have become a huge provider of medical services to Americans at a third of the price; Bogota specialises in eye-surgery package tours. These developments, suggested Harris, stimulate city economies, generate infrastructural improvements, and a greater concern on the part of local politicians for the overall physical condition and image of their cities.

However, as Sao Paulo representatives revealed, this may take a very superficial form. Political scientist Lucio Kowarik pointed out that Sao Paulo is, of South American cities, the most integrated into the international economy. Yet less than 3 per cent of the population has an income higher than the taxable minimum, and the level of urban violence is very high. Raquel Ronik, the city's former director of planning, insisted on an end to big, cosmetic urban projects, and an inversion of those planning priorities in favour of a genuine social programme.

Geographer David Sibley presented a devastating expose of the same problems closer to home. He argued that 'much built form exacerbates the process of social purification' in European cities, fixing the marginalisation and stereotyping as 'bad objects' of those sectors of society with weak or non-existent links to the mainstream economy. His criticism of the programme of grand projects in Barcelona prior to the Olympics as an exclusionist operation to remove from the public gaze dirt, the homeless, gypsies and other undesirable elements overtly challenged received architectural wisdom. Sibley's succinct contribution inevitably bolstered the perception of globalisation as the 'utter shibboleth' which Harris had hoped to deconstruct.

This is the first review in a regular series on lectures and conferences

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