Cities and the trail of commodities

Venice Architecture Biennale 2018 - Walls of Air - Catalogue

May 2018


Philip Yang and Marcela Alonso Ferreira

The awareness that cities are the largest and most complex artifacts ever created by civilizations has inspired urban studies in different fields of knowledge that go far beyond the classic discipline of urbanism. As a result, several metaphors have emerged to represent the city, revealing the new outlooks and distinct analytical and methodological perspectives brought about by this expanded range of approaches.

Semiotics and social psychology, for example, interpret the city as a sign.  In life sciences it is viewed as a living organism and its physical networks are described as tissues,   in an allusion to the sets of cells that make up animals and plants. A metaphor derived from biochemistry, urban metabolism  is used to describe the energy, water, food and waste processes of cities.


The ubiquitous presence in urban environments of commodities, understood as general products intended for commercial use, instigates the creation of yet another metaphor, derived from mechanics: the city as a machine, consumer and processor of such products. Albeit less seductive than the figures of speech derived from genetics, quantum physics or the digital world, the allegory of the machine city seems apt for contributing to an analysis  that fosters a better understanding (1) of the role of a city vis-à-vis others; (2) of the functions of specific parts of a city’s territory, at the peripheral level, in relation to others; (3) of the historical path covered by certain cities; and, perchance, (4) of their future paths and vocations in this historical moment in which several cities are transitioning from industrial to postindustrial centers.


As we know, the prefix “post” is used to designate periods which, despite succeeding something that has recognizably ended, still lack clearly defined traits. Therefore, given the ubiquity of commodities in cities, an analysis of the urban territory as a machine for their consumption, manufacturing and distribution may unveil trends and possibilities, positive or negative, about their future.


Economics defines commodities as a set of products of a generic, basic and highly fungible nature, i.e., without much apparent differentiation among them, so much so that their origin or producer is irrelevant to those who consume them. Among many possible categorizations, commodities may be ranked as extractive (iron, copper, zinc, aluminum), energy or fossil (gas, coal, oil) and agricultural (soy, rice, wheat). Given the broad process of commoditization of industrialized goods, one may also affirm that industrial commodities forcibly emerge as a fourth and necessary category of analysis.

The different relationships each urban environment establishes with commodities make it possible to tentatively classify them into five categories of machine cities: producer, consumer, trader, value adder and value-adder trader.

Cities such as Gillette, in Wyoming, or Araxá, in Minas Gerais, are prominent for being large producers of commodities, coal and niobium, respectively. They have poorly diversified economies and small markets, and therefore do not stand out as machines in the other categories. We might think of both cities as belonging to a subtype characterized by intensive extraction of non-fossil commodities and by equally intensive consumption of fossil commodities.

Venice and other cities of the Hanseatic League or located along the Silk Road were prominent traders of goods. Throughout history, trading cities have played a key role in the transfer of goods and exchange of ideas between different parts of the world. As a side effect, trade brought wealth and capital accumulation, which made it possible to improve industrial processes such as printing and the manufacture of glass and paper, as well as promote the advancement of medicine, philosophy, astronomy and agriculture.

Chicago stands out among big cities for hosting the world’s largest commodity trading platform. The trade of basic goods on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is worth one quadrillion dollars per year, although the city itself has no physical facilities associated with these transactions, which relate mainly to virtual operations performed over the entire planet.


Large metropolises such as Shanghai, São Paulo and London operate as urban machines in the five above mentioned categories, with more or less emphasis on each of their defining characteristics. Levels of operation, such as value adder, are certainly higher in more mature

cities with greater material and intellectual resources. And while such a correlation is intuitively obvious, the nuances that may be inferred from more in-depth quantitative studies are potentially revealing of less obvious social and economic causes and effects, even pulling in opposite directions.


Machine cities functioning as value adders and value-adder traders perform the function of de-commoditization. In their role as value adders, they aim to make goods that are fungible—or undifferentiated— acquire traits of differentiation. Such differentiation necessarily occurs in the field of innovation: enhancement of goods, branding and marketing, and the supply of services associated with them.

In a more constrained movement, but representative of new trends, several mature cities in the developed world whose production of commodities is currently close to zero are striving to implement agricultural production in urban areas. At the same time, many consumers in these cities have started favoring commodities with certificates of origin, and therefore differentiated, refuting the very concept of commodities, which is non-differentiation. Non-genetically modified corn, free-range eggs, organic vegetables and antibiotic-free meat are just a few examples of products offered to consumers interested in traceability (and therefore differentiation) of commodities.


In another example, potentially larger in scale, enhancement of 3D printing will allow, in the near future, the production of industrial commodities, currently restricted to peri-urban areas, in urban and even domestic environments. Auto parts, footwear, integrated circuits and chips are part of this new world of commodity production of increasingly non-rural and non-industrial origin.


The different examples listed in the sparse and disorderly inventory above suggest that forms of treatment and consumption of commodities in urban environments are lively indicators of various economic and social trends in cities. Commodities and the “commoditization” of industrial goods are associated with traditional sectors of the economy, while the search for product differentiation is related to the so-called new economy, dominated by the knowledge‐intensive services sector. On the demand level, comparison of consumption rates between different types of commodities may indicate the shortcomings and virtues of each urban machine and suggest a course of action for certain sectors.


One may conclude from these rambling ideas that the systematization in the machine city of an input-output framework focused on commodities may potentially generate a set of indicators capable of guiding urban agents regarding (1) the sustainability of their processes; (2) their positioning in relation to new paradigms of production emerging in the digital era; (3) how prepared their populations are as to the possibilities of production and consumption of higher value-added goods; and, lastly, (4) their possible repositioning in the international division of labor which, as we know, is strongly hierarchical.


Although they are less attractive to the marketplace of ideas than metaphors derived from emerging disciplines, the lines of research that advance in this approach— addressing the city-as-a-commodity-processing- machine—seem therefore worthy of the current agenda. This is especially true if we recall that the global economic restructuring initiated in the 1970s was also accompanied by a spatial restructuring of cities, which thereafter took on different roles. While some of them have become centers of command in the global economy, concentrating management roles, others remained linked to production activities. Within this economic and territorial hierarchy, the most prominent cities are those capable of managing their territories in order to induce their transformation into new innovation-producing machine cities.


Philip Yang (São Paulo, 1962) holds a master’s degree in public administration from the J. F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is the founder of the Instituto de Urbanismo e Estudos para a Metrópole (urbem).


Marcela Ferreira (São Paulo, 1989) has a bachelor’s degree in architecture and urbanism from the Universidade de São Paulo (usp) and a master’s degree in management and public policies from Fundação Getúlio Vargas (fgv-sp). She is projects coordinator at urbem and develops research in urban dynamics and regulation. 

1. See the interesting article by Nikita A. Kharlamov, “The City as a Sign: A Developmental- Experiential Approach to Spatial Life,” in Jaan Valsiner (edit.), The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Psychology. New York: Oxford Library of Psychology, 2012.

2. See the studies of urban morphology and references to the urban tissue in Saverio Muratori, Studi per una operante storia urbana di Venezia, I. Roma: Istituto poligrafico dello Stato, Libreria dello Stato, 1960.

3. See, for example, the lines of research developed by Delft University of Technology. Available at: urbanmetabolism. metabolism/. Accessed on: March 20, 2018.

4. Historically, extractive cities that did not diversify their economies, such as Ojuela in Mexico, Sewell in West Virginia (us), or Copperfield in Queensland (Australia), became ghost towns following depletion of the extraction resource. In a closer Brazilian example, Rio de Janeiro experienced wealth and fiscal and social collapse with the rise and fall of oil prices, the main source of royalties sustaining the city’s vigor.

5. Saskia Sassen, The global city: New York, London, Tokyo. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001.






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