City in a box: ‘Fast’ cities in the global south

Recently, Lego began a new range of assembled toys. Called the Design Studio kit, it includes more than 1,200 white and transparent blocks with a 272-page design guide as a source of inspiration that provides tips for ‘building smart’ from world renowned architects like Moshe Safdie, SOM and MAD. Only this is not a play toy for children. In a break from tradition, the kit is designed to teach basic design and build skills for the first time to adults. This is a metaphor for the ‘city in a box‘, intending to bring out the Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright among architecture enthusiasts. One buys the ‘essential elements’ of the city one desires, uses the built-in instructions, and a city is made. This city has two necessary elements – it can be assembled very fast, and it can be purchased ‘off the shelf’. Is this the precursor of a new trend in city-making? Is this the future to come?

The future may have arrived. Across the global south, new cities are being packaged, marketed and sold to state authorities, city leaders and politicians. This is a new and emerging economy of ‘assembly-line cities’ spreading like wildfire in the global south. Indeed, the ‘city in a box’ metaphor was coined by the developer Cisco systems while describing the new ‘smart city’ of Incheon in Korea. Cisco describes this as ‘a product like no other: a complete city for a million people’, which is fast becoming a multi-billion dollar business. Incheon and other cities like it are being built at breakneck speed across Asia, Africa and Latin America. They show a rising trend in urbanization because of which it is argued, cities have to be built quickly and ‘smartly’ in order to cater to the rising demands of an urbanizing global population. So, while it has been reported that Asian cities top the 25 fastest growing cities in the world, it is these assembly-line cities that have recently occupied the imaginations of politicians and developers worldwide.

For the purposes of this blog I will call these ‘fast cities’. Apart from representing a metaphor, ‘fast cities’ also represent an intellectual agenda around the speeding up of time and its connections with space which condenses the process and experience of urbanization to within a few years rather than few decades. These cities are ‘fast’ cities since they represent an inherent feature of the ‘breakneck’ urbanization spreading across the global south. For example, it is estimated that in India alone, more than 200 new towns ranging from hundreds to thousands of acres are being constructed or waiting approval. Whether it is the building of new satellite cities around Jakarta, or the making of new master-planned cities from scratch such as Masdar, Lippo or Lavasa, they all point to an innovation of sorts across different countries of Asia, Africa, Middle-east and Latin America. While city-building in these countries is legitimized as the ‘solution’ to a number of economic, environmental and developmental crises that have been unprecedented in human history, the ‘city in a box’ is emerging not simply as the sites of ‘assemblage urbanism’ (McFarlane 2011), ‘worlding’ (Roy and Ong 2011), or as the ‘Dubaisation of Africa’ (Choplin and Franck 2010); rather as the hubris of mega-urbanization in the global south.

‘Fast’ cities and the urgency of global challenges

Fast city refers to a less debated aspect of urbanization in the global south – speed. Speed is an essential component of city-building. City-building in the global south now relies upon the speeding up of time that then condenses the experience of urbanization to within a few years rather than over a few decades. In other words, city-building in the global south now is not a gradual transformation of social, cultural, material and political landscapes as seen in earlier cities; rather they are a material manifestation of speed itself.  These cities then are not just ‘private’ cities or corporate-driven cities; they are also ‘fast’ cities – an inherent feature of the ‘breakneck’ urbanization taking shape across the global south.

Nation states legitimize these fast cities to their citizens by highlighting the urgency of global challenges – economic crisis, rapid urbanization, climate change, sustainable development, social justice and so on, which nation states are expected to respond to. Hence these cities are being presented by the respective states, their politicians, masterplanners, and developers as ‘solutions’ to these global crises. These then are marketed variously as ‘smart city’, ‘eco-city’, ‘sustainable city’ and a number of other labels that reference their credentials in dealing with the challenges of our times. These mythologies of sustainability highlight ever more these cities as new urban utopias of the 21st century.

Fast cities are shaped by marked characteristics of speed – of design, construction, marketing and connectivity (physical and virtual). These characteristics make the future of urbanization in the global south much more specific than that encapsulated in abstract descriptions of ‘concentrated and extended’ (Brenner and Schmid, 2010) planetary urbanization. This material manifestation of fast cities, re-energizes debates around how city-building goes hand-in-hand with mega-urbanization in the global south. They suggest how localized dialogues of power generate fast city masterplans, the ways that the state and different actors materialize in this speed of city-building, the violent impositions of the city in a box as legitimate solutions to the ‘crisis’ of urbanization and economic growth, and the mythologies of sustainable development that underpin its legitimization.

[excerpt from forthcoming book Datta, A and Shaban, A (under contract) Mega-urbanization in the Global South: Fast cities and new urban utopias of the postcolonial state, London: Routledge].


Brenner, N and Schmid, C (2011) Planetary urbanisation, in Mathew Gandy (ed) Urban Constellations, Berlin: JOVIS Verlag, 10-13.

Choplin, A and Franck, A (2010) A Glimpse of Dubai in Khartoum and Nouakchott: Prestige Urban Projects on the Margins of the Arab World, Built Environment, Vol 36(2), 192-205.

McFarlane, C (2011) Assemblage and critical urbanism, City 15(2), 204–224.

Merrifield, A (2012) The Urban Question under Planetary Urbanization, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 10.1111/j.1468-2427.2012.01189.x

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s