Lab | Log

When it Comes to Cities, What Does “World-Class” Really Mean?

A view of the Hillbrow neighborhood in Johannesburg

A view of the Hillbrow neighborhood in Johannesburg. Photo: courtesy Kounosu, used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License

As a monsoon of icy rain greeted me this morning, heralding the end of summer in Vancouver, I sat down at my computer with a goal: to look back at urban news from the past summer and find the most important story of the season—at least in my mind. Of all the things that happened in cities this summer, which was the one I won’t ever forget?

The competition was tough. After all, a good portion of my summer was spent tied to Twitter as Detroit filed for bankruptcy. I was riveted, not because of the incident’s voyeuristic appeal, but because of what this bankruptcy could mean for the hundreds of other debt-ridden cities around America bearing the financial burden of their ’burbs.

But even in the shadow of Detroit’s misfortune, there is one story that I simply can’t get off my brain: the forced removal by the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASASA) of an advertisement proclaiming Johannesburg a “world-class African city.” The reason for this removal? A successful lawsuit by one citizen of the city proving the campaign was false advertising.

This story was not nearly as extensively reported as the Detroit meltdown, but it takes my prize for two major reasons. Firstly, it is potentially the most impressive example in recent history of a single citizen standing up to his or her city’s hollow promises—and winning.

The case came about when Joburg resident Steven Haywood launched a complaint to ASASA that the advertisement contained “blatant untruths.” As reported by the Guardian:

“Haywood challenged a radio advert that urged listeners: ‘Imagine a city where you can rest assured knowing that it is financially stable; that there is ongoing electrification of homes. A city that is saving the environment through different energy-efficient interventions. A city that continues to create new jobs despite the economic downturn. Can you imagine living in such a city? You do.’

“The advert was misleading, Haywood argued, since the city’s finances had received three consecutive qualified audits, authorities were struggling to repair roads and rubbish was often left uncollected. The unemployment rate in Johannesburg in 2012 was 24.5%, with most of its young people out of work.

“The advertising authority agreed and ruled that the commercial should be withdrawn immediately ‘in its current form.’ It ruled that the advert ‘communicates a misleading message about the overall wellbeing of the respondent.’”

But even beyond this display of citizen empowerment, the story also brought brilliantly into light the trouble of amorphous, ill-defined descriptive phrases like this—Feel Good Urbanism, as they’re deemed in the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossary—that are so often tossed around to promote cities. What, the story made us question, does something like “world-class” actually mean? When one begins looking into this question, it becomes clear just how problematic these kinds of descriptors really become.

If you want an example, take a look at this advertisement (included at the beginning of the news report below) from a few years ago, when Chennai decided it was time for the city to move into “world-class” status by 2026. The entire master plan? Tall buildings:

Then there’s the often-quoted Forbes article about what makes a city world-class, where several of the 10 prominent authors interviewed mention a sports stadium or winning sports team, top-of-the-line restaurants, and esthetic beauty (either people or buildings), but only one includes a housing market affordable enough that newcomers can get their foot in the door.

It seems that we often ascribe esthetic or tangible qualities to lofty terms like “world-class” before considering the values underpinning them, and how those values should best be expressed or manifested physically. Instead of saying that a world-class city needs tall glassy buildings, perhaps we should be saying that a world-class city should have housing available to all, and then decide what the best way to go about that is in each place. Maybe then we could genuinely standardize a definition to avoid such blatant abuse of such terms.

When it comes to Johannesburg, this notion was best expressed by Michael Clark, of Urban Joburg, who argued that a truly “world-class African city” would embrace the reality of its poverty and informality:

“We automatically assume the standardized notion of a “world class” city as perpetuated by the mainstream. We assume, as Edgar Pieterse writes, ‘that modern, gleaming, skyscraper-filled cities, with adequate networked infrastructures in place to support them, is the only and ineluctable way into the future.’ These cities are aesthetically pleasing cities free of ‘crime and grime,’ free of the chaos of informality and free of the poor.

“However, these assumptions of what a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ city is may be short-sighted. Poverty and informality are inescapable realities of our cities and we should be finding ways to make our cities work for all who inhabit them rather than trying to airbrush these elements out.”

A few last thoughts on this amazing story: if we were to develop a set of values that were required to be upheld by a city deemed “world-class,” what would they be? Leave your own thoughts in the comment section below. Maybe, together, we can begin to ensure that by next summer, “world-class” actually means something.

  • judith hansen

    So well said.

    My list? To have safe and well maintained play areas within easy reach of every child, to have schools that are free

    and well attended by every kid under 16, to have nice places for seniors to meet and clean water and good transportation that is affordable. To have safe streets and affordable housing that is not sub-standard. To have a market-place of ideas that can be heard…

    Th buildings, cafes, nice shops? Only the trimmings. It’s how we live together at the basic level that reflects how we take care of each other in crowded circumstances which are our cities.

    Thanks for your promoting that which is most important.

  • Caitlin Dover

    Thanks for that thoughtful comment, Judith. Agreed: our human interactions are what make our cities. And if those interactions are considerate and caring? Well, that’s what I call “world-class”!