The Paradox of Soil Economics

by bojanboric

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The April 2015 edition of “The Economist” magazine front cover featured an image of the dense skyscraper city with a small house in the middle – an obstacle to development. Above the image was a title “Space and the City”.

As the main focus of the text is the question posed on the management of soil and scarcity of urban land. The notion of land is presented as its real estate value in relation to the present and potential growth of the GDP. The author argues that the land scarcity is artificially generated by urban regulations and failed policies. It also points to the artificially devised disparity between the current land use restrictions, urban development regulations on one side and the evolving economic and cultural development trends in cities worldwide. According to this article, the current urban regulations don’t keep up with time and demands of society, technical and cultural developments that have put excessive pressure on some urban environments (Silicon Valey, NY, San Francisco, Mumbai) but have also caused depopulation of other spaces (such as Kentucky). In a way this text is a critique of capitalism while the cure perhaps is seen through more free ecologic or natural capitalism whose forces need to be completely unleashed.

 “Lifting all the barriers to urban growth in America could raise the country GDP by between 6.5% and 13.5%, or by about 1trillion – 2 trillion US dollars. It is difficult to think of many other policies that would yield anything like that.”

Who could argue with such statistically proven prospect for progress today in time of economic instability and lack of financial security on the global scale? I would further pose the question: Which fear is greater, that of immediate poverty, loss of a job and family income, the immediacy of the basic needs to be fulfilled, such as food, shelter, basic access to health care, etc. or that of destruction of the planet? Which of these fears seems more real in most human minds? At least for the time being, the global climate change is potentially a threat but still abstract and not yet an immediate threat for the most living in the centers of economic power.

The article also has a kind of social equality agenda combined and wrapped into the ecological imagery presented through images of integrated land, city and nature, all expressed in terms of money. The argument is that the restrictions in land use and building height restrictions create greater gap in opportunities, cost of living and wealth of broadest segments of population. San Francisco could, for example squeeze in twice as many buildings in its space and still remain twice half dense as Manhattan. This would offset the cost of housing and office space that is currently at staggering levels, also in negative terms to the economic growth. Increasing urban density is often one of the main arguments for ecologically minded architects and urban planners.

The most interesting perhaps feature of this article, perhaps is not its content but how the illustrations and images depict land, plants and soil as printed money growing out of the soil. These are also depicted as made of printed currency. The plants with leafs are literally depicted as an ecology of economic progress, the money growing out of the land. Therefore the natural cycle of crops and plants is translated into the double message featuring the economic necessity for capitalist growth coupled with an organic and free growth in nature. Advancement of capitalism is associated (perhaps in subliminal way) with free and unconstrained ecology of growth, development of society, equality in terms of financial opportunities and higher quality of life, as an agenda that integrates better and more efficient land use with greater economic and social justice.

In contrast this article could be placed against the Architectural Ecologies of Care by Peg Row and the featured art work of Agnes Denes, specifically “The Wheat filed – A Confrontation”. There is a chilling similarity and contradictions in use of terminology and agendas set from perhaps opposing views, assuming that the views and the agenda of the Economist magazine mirror what Guattari labeled as the agenda of the Integrated World Capitalism.

Both this article and the artwork by Agnes Dane express a certain kind of obstruction, freeing from human imposed bio-political control. Meant as a critique of the manifestations and effects of the Integrated World Capitalism, the artwork by Agnes Dane was an act of obstruction, stopping of the machine. In this project Dane constructs a top layer of soil, on an artificially built up land in form of the landfill on the island of Manhattan. This relation between artificiality and nature, the human and non-human, both product of culture and cultivation, in a way is in my mind a play of mirroring between the two. The artificial land that was added to the city as a physical construction of the landscape in an attempt to increase a space for an expanding economy and the city is at least for a while a base for another artificially constructed nature – that of crops of wheat (wheat is also an economic product). Both, the landfill and crops are a product of human activity and culture. Each are almost equally fragile and temporary. Later, through an ironic twist of fate, both have disappeared. The wheat field was replaced by the Battery Park City and the World Trade Center twin towers were destroyed in the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001.