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Billy Cobbett

Billy Cobbett is an international expert in urban development and he is the former Director of Cities Alliance, a global partnership fighting urban poverty hosted within the United Nations. 

Greg Clark 

I'm delighted to welcome Billy Cobbett one of our most esteemed listeners to The DNA of Cities podcast. Billy, welcome. Tell us what you have enjoyed or found meaningful about listening to the series.


Billy Cobbett 

So far, two things that I would immediately single out. The first was the concept itself, which is the application of DNA to cities. I really enjoyed that and I'll come back to that. Then secondly, and I'd recommend your listeners to also do this, is on your website there are detailed interviews with knowledgeable people about that city. Just before we came on, I was reading the interviews with Esther Fuchs, in New York, and you know, I find them remarkably insightful. It's just wonderful to know that there are people who think about their city in such an informed and intelligent manner. So, I think there's a lot more material because there's only so much you can put into the podcast and a lot of the raw material that's back there on your website is very, very valuable, and very insightful.

 

We were joking at the beginning of the interview about being members of the urban mafia and that's a term that I've used many times over the last couple of decades of a group of people all over the world who worry about matters urban. They refer to things called 'the urban' which drives me ballistic, because it is a meaningless-- in my view, it is a meaningless concept that doesn't explain what we're talking about and just sets it up in distinction from the rural. So you divide the world into these two spheres that are in competition with each other. Misses the point entirely. I remember having these discussions inside the Cities Alliance, it was never the Urban Alliance, it was always an alliance for cities, about cities, with cities. And cities here, of course, means cities of all sizes, including towns. It's a shorthand. The point that I always want to stress is that each city has its own history, its own music, culture, neighbourhoods, markets. So yes, it's an agglomeration it is urban development, but there is no mayor of-- New York City's mayor of urban development, he is the mayor of a city with that history. And I think, your approach of bringing the DNA-- and I'm no medical person and no scientist, it immediately makes you think of the particular genome of that city and how it changes over time, I think was exactly right. So yes, there's a lot of things that cities share in common but each city has in its DNA, something that makes it quite unique so that when you're walking around the streets of that city, it feels different. Why? Because it is different. And that's the DNA. I think that attempting to understand that I think is a very valuable addition to all of the discussions and debates we've been having around cities and their role because my last point is that normally cities start off from a feeling of inferiority of being the victim. That is, they never have enough power from the centre. They never have enough resources. They are not taken seriously. National Government is where the heat is, and city government-- anyone who's worked in both, as I have, knows that working at a city level is far more challenging and interesting than it is working at a national government level. But too often cities and the protagonists of cities start off with an inferiority and victim complex, as opposed to putting forth the agency that that city has. I think that's what your DNA attempts to do. Well, it certainly gives the space for that to come across.


Greg Clark 

Well, Billy, I knew it was going to be an intriguing conversation with you. I'm just so grateful that you've looked at that huge bank of material that we've accumulated. Your understanding of what we're trying to do here is absolutely superb. It is the idea that every city is unique and has a unique history. In that uniqueness, lies, agency lies, autonomy, and lies the opportunity for intentionality by the city. I think you've, you've really summarised that brilliantly, so thank you. So what's one city whose DNA really fascinates you that you'd like to tell us a little bit about one city that that really appeals to you because of its intriguing, unique ingredients?


Billy Cobbett 

I'd go back to the city of my birth and that would be Johannesburg. Because I was very struck when I was reading the interview about New York about how it had gone through different phases and had to nearly collapse and then had to reinvent itself and the quality of its governance. Those are all features that exist in and around Johannesburg. At this point in time as we speak, it's a city that objectively from outside looks as though it's in terminal decline, that it is failing; it's failing its middle classes, it's failing its working classes. But if you go back and look at that history, and of course, it began as one of the largest cities in the world that is not based on water on a river or on the coast, but because of gold. That's exactly why it is there. And so number one, it's incredibly recent, it was only created in the late 19th century. So it doesn't have Barcelona's 2000 years of history and it doesn't have the conquering hordes of the Moors coming through, or the Greeks or the Romans, as you know, the little town in which I live [Cirencester, Gloucestershire] 2000 years ago was the second city in what was not then Great Britain after London, because it was a Roman capital, because we're on the Fosse Way and going up north.

 

So Johannesburg doesn't have that history but it has a very, very proud and visible history, of course, and also a history of which it can be truly ashamed. That is, it was a classic apartheid city and so it was designed to expel its black population. You know, District Six in Cape Town is very well known but Sophiatown which became the suburb of Triomf was another forced eviction of a vibrant neighbourhood with music, jazz, to the South African apartheid system called miscegenation, which is basically personal relations across the races. So it got destroyed in the 1940s, there was the Alexandria bus boycott in the 1950s. The breaking down of a city and the consciously separating and dividing in order to rule is a feature of Johannesburg through the 20th century. And of course, its neighbour, which is the creation of Soweto, which is the abbreviation is South Western Townships and that is basically the South African model where you have your your low wage labour force ready to service the wealth of Johannesburg, and to keep it "great" but Johannesburg with Johannesburg and Soweto was Soweto. Where I got involved, besides being a resident, I grew up in apartheid South Africa, and that's a story all on its own, is very difficult to remember a) how recent that was and b) how remarkably different it was which is also true, you know, when you look at the American cities and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But I got involved when I was running a small NGO, small but very well connected and looking at so much of what was the national policy of apartheid was, in fact, managed locally. So it was a national policy, but it was administered by the local authorities. And so they administered differentially to some extent.


We got a call-- this is during the State of Emergency of the late 1980s-- we got a call from the Soweto Civic Association, which was banned under the national legislation. So they very cleverly recreated themselves as the Soweto People's Delegation so it was the great and the good of Soweto: Cyril Ramaphosa the current president, Albertina Sisulu, Desmond Tutu, you know, the names just dropped off-- Frank Chikane. They tasked us with drafting a basis for negotiations with the City of Johannesburg. I thought we'd need about six months of research to that they said 'you've got six weeks.' So we produced in six weeks a report looking at the Soweto rent boycott, which was the reaction of ordinary residents to withhold their payment for their own oppression. So they're back at them, 'I'm not paying' for my what's called rent. But in fact, it is a misnomer. Its service charges for water, electricity, as well as an element of rent. We created five demands, which then were the basis for negotiations. But the final demand was for one city, one tax base, to make very clear that they cannot have separate lives and that the Greater Johannesburg must incorporate the entirety of the population. It's at one level a very obvious demand. And of course, in the context of South Africa at that time was very, very radical but that there was no other conclusion one could come to.

 

But what I found also most interesting is we had to dig into the DNA of the relationship. And that meant looking at the economics and the finances and the flow of funds. The immediate assumption which I would have made as much as anyone else was that Johannesburg subsidised Soweto. We proved exactly the opposite. Now I know that to be a worldwide phenomenon, which is basically, most cities and most economies are structured so that the poor subsidise the rich. That is a very powerful conclusion to come to and we were able to prove this and to put numbers onto it. Then of course, Joburg and Soweto were part of the 1994 election, and then it became an open city and it changed. The centre depopulated and that wealthy people moved north and then others moved in. And if you read Doug Saunders' Arrival City explains the process of cities acting as transmission belts for incoming work migrants is poorly understood, but I'm talking about new residents would be they locally from Soweto or from faraway. So I would say, I'm in danger of trying to do the DNA of Johannesburg, but that kind of city because the movie is never over, as New York showed in the 70s, when it was on the point of of financial and governance collapse, and then reinvented itself again. So Johannesburg has to do it. But the question is, who's going to do it and, and what are going to be the main strands of the DNA that they're trying to fix? Because it's once again, it's just-- it's a city that has re-divided itself, but not divided, not racially. Well, if this is progress, it's not good enough progress.


Greg Clark 

So well said, Billy. Of course, it's no secret that we're very keen to do a series of shows on the DNA of Joburg, and I hope we will but this amazing insight that just as in any gold rush environment, the poor are subsidising the rich. So a city that's built upon a gold rush is a city where the poor subsidise the rich. That's a great way I think to get into the DNA of Joburg and what we can do with that. Now, Billy, we want to come on to the next question. I think I know one of the answers but which city or cities would you like us to address with, with brilliant colleagues like yourself, in future episodes of the show?


Billy Cobbett 

I'd like to see you apply this to cities whose names we don't know, the size doesn't really matter. But in the urban development community, we had this big battle, I go back to the Millennium Development Goals and then the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which is shorthand for you and gobbledygook for many others. But it's trying to get the role of the third tier of government reflected on the global stage with agency. It’s possibly that agency part that is still missing to some extent, which is why I'm very happy to continue providing my support to United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG). So battle number one was to get cities onto the stage at all and it didn't end with SDG 11. But that was an important step forward. We were closely involved in the coalition that brought that to the fore. But what I have found is that the global focus on cities, to the extent that it's happened, tended to get stopped at the metropolitan city and the capital city level. So the big name cities, and it's no disrespect to say that they are wonderful cities but they don't reflect actually the global phenomenon of urbanisation and the fact that in absolute numbers, the vast majority of people are urbanising in small and medium sized cities whose names we don't know. So I was very, very struck when I went to Malawi, I went back visiting my brother who lives in Zomba and was the previous capital of Malawi until the mid 1970s. And I don't know if its DNA would be fascinating or not, but it would be very, very interesting. So I would love-- just because of the phenomenon that we were able to extract big lessons from a number of cities as to the speed of their growth, the lack of planning, that is currently underway for very significant increases in population, the fact that the majority of this growth is informal, and it is the poor. So it's not they're not built on gold rushes at all. It's often a collapse of either the rural agricultural sector or its people migrating purely for better life opportunities, which is why people have migrated forever and will continue to move forever. I would love to see and I don't expect an entire series but some attention to that category of city and they are more likely than not to towns. That would be a great addition to the debate.


Greg Clark 

Billy, thank you so much. I'm going to make you two promises. One, we're going to do Joburg in the next series and you are going to come on with some wonderful colleagues. We're going to do some cities that people have never heard of and we'll pick up this idea of the anonymous city and what it is, and we'll try to address some of the dynamics you've just brilliantly described.

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