Here’s my latest op-ed on urban issues for The Toronto Star. They have a habit of changing my titles; this one was originally “The Age of Urban Unrest?”
Last week, New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg rang alarm bells when he said that high unemployment could lead to mass social unrest in cities across the United States. “You have a lot of kids graduating college who can’t find jobs. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here,” Bloomberg explained. The mayor was not alone in this assessment. Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said as much back in 2008; “unemployment,” he declared, “represents a risk to the stability of existing democracies.”
Bloomberg’s warning came with his endorsement of President Obama’s new jobs creation bill. As a big city mayor, Bloomberg knows too well that the social problems associated with high unemployment, widening inequality, and economic stagnation are most acute in urban centres. Whereas Strauss-Kahn’s words proved prophetic, Bloomberg was learning from recent history.
Since the onset of the global economic crisis back in 2007-2008, cities have seen rising levels of violence and social unrest: riots and looting in the UK, intensified gang violence in major US cities, street clashes in Athens, flash robs in Philadelphia, mass protests in Madrid, ghetto dwellers and security forces facing off in Kingston, Jamaica, rival drug cartels engaged in shootouts in Juarez, Mexico; the list goes on. As many political observers have remarked, a driving force behind the Arab Spring – apart from an unquenched thirst for democracy – is unemployment, and in particular, extremely high levels of youth unemployment.
Non-governmental organizations have started making the connections as well. A recent report from the International Red Cross, entitled Urban Violence: War By Any Other Name observes, “Around the world, cities are experiencing an alarming increase in violence and its resulting misery…Chronic conflict makes daily life in some places almost like living in a war zone.”
And images of urban unrest not only flash nightly across our TV screens and occupy the pages of our newspapers, they also permeate our popular culture as never before: just watch recent science fiction films like Attack the Block, District 9, and Battle: Los Angeles. The city as a place of conflict and civil disorder is part of our cultural zeitgeist.
We have then, it appears, entered an age of urban unrest.
But London is not Philadelphia and Cairo not Kingston. From riots and looting, to mass protest, flash robs, and gang warfare, there are very different types of urban violence and social unrest with seemingly disparate causes. But while poverty, inequality, and unemployment do not tell the full story in all places, they do tell much of the story in many places.
In the case of the UK’s recent disorder, we have learned from The Guardian newspaper that the vast majority of rioters brought before the courts are young, poor, and unemployed. In the Tottenham neighbourhood, where the riots began, 54 people chase every one available job.
Where austerity and cutbacks to government services deepen poverty and unemployment, unrest soon follows. Two Barcelona-based economists have published research which clearly shows a link between the variables. Empirical data on close to forty European and Latin American countries demonstrates a positive statistical association between government spending cuts, unemployment and levels of unrest, including anti-government demonstrations, riots, strikes and attempted revolutions.
In addition, path-breaking research by social epidemiologists has found that among advanced democracies, more equal societies (and by extension, cities) are also more socially stable and less violent.
In the absence of work and of hope, different ways of organizing human activity fill the social void. The anomie brought on by unemployment and other forms of social exclusion can be addressed through participation in other social groupings, sometimes a gang, sometimes a mob, sometimes a radical political or religious organization. When channelled into movements seeking to address legitimate grievances, as in the Arab Spring, urban unrest, disruption and disorder can be welcomed. History tells us that rough means can sometimes bring about progressive ends, especially when democratic channels are closed to those suffering injustice. Yet few urban denizens welcome the type of violence and disruption that causes misery, damage, and distress in their lives and in the life of their city.
We live in an urban age. In 1950, less than 30% of the world’s population were city dwellers. Now, for the first time in human history, the world’s urban population outnumbers its rural. As never before, the fate of humanity is tightly intertwined with the fate of the city. And whether we live in Toronto or Tokyo, Lagos or Los Angeles, safety and security are necessary conditions for a flourishing urbanity and a decent quality of life. As even the conservative-leaning Mayor of New York City has realized, addressing inequality, deprivation and unemployment with meaningful government action is central to maintaining social cohesion in an era of economic uncertainty.
Published Oct 11 2011 in The Toronto Star, pg. A19