Europe’s Greatest Weakness and Greatest Strengths

In short: it’s the borders, but not as you know it.

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A continent loosely summed up as 750 million people in the more northern climes of the world, famous for its history, heritage and export of culture (and peoples).

But let’s look closer at the geography: the world’s sole ‘landmass’ delineated from the rest by physical barrier – mountain ranges and seas (do ignore the Indian ‘subcontinent’, China or Eastern Africa that could easily do the same) – with the Caucasus forming an adjunct against the Middle East at one end, and the more spurious boundary of the Urals at the other. Never mind that this range peters out uncharitably 600km from the Caspian coast, and is low and heavily gap-toothed anyway – infinitely porous for the peoples of the Steppe, and to which White Russia has long suffered and capitalised on, this is the boundary that claims itself a stopper against the rest of the Asian multitudes. That declares itself more than just a peninsular of Asia.

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The idea that all continents are defined by their physicality demonstrates European exceptionalism – insofar that the idea of Europe is in reality more based on ethnicity, thinly veiled. That what defined this continent has long been the triptych of pale skin, Caucasian race and Christian culture, all but glossed over in textbooks to this day and accepted as an unsaid, unquestioned norm. With this idea comes the attachments of history, a richly influential vein that runs through collective peoples who went on to annexe 3.5 other continents (the Americas, Australasia and Russia/ Kazakhstan) as the greatest source of immigration the world has ever known and likely ever will. In short Europe is a sanctum alluding to the ‘old country’ for many hundreds of millions outside it still, and an idealistic narrative on governance  to even more – a cultural source code for successful nations if one may, yet often reduced to a sum of parts. Europe frequently gets boiled down to a list of these parts.

Ethnic map of the world by Haplogroup:

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This veneration is both the winning laurel and Damoclean sword. On one hand its historic urbanity, iconic motifs and exportable cuisines, languages, style and arts continue to draw visitors and investment by the billion, yet its exceptional storytelling can also jar with the demands of a globalised world, and demographic paths toward a more mutually reliant populace on the big spinner. As the per capita incomes of the Developed World and the Developing World (once known as the Third World) begin to converge the eyeliner so long denoting Europe as belle of the ball is increasingly consequential: attracting even more suitors but also a more fragile sanctimoniousness.

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For example, Europe’s plinth-like status brings in 671 million visitors (2017, accounting for 57% of international travel), with $767 billion investment to local economies – by far the largest destination for tourism, immigration and FDI. New housing, continents removed, still delusionally aspire to Tuscan villas, Norfolk farmhouses and Berlin apartments whether they be in the sprawl of the Texan interior, embattled Israeli outposts or upmarket estates in China’s third tier cities. The English language/ suit has become the uniform for global professionals, and Greek democracy, Italian art, French enlightenment, English industrialisation, British and Russian economics, and Swiss modernism have been adopted as worldly norms – sold as templates for governance and modern culture. Looking back on this weight of far-reaching achievement pride becomes an easy reaction, despite cultural piggy-backing, technology transfer strictly limited between brothers-in-arms, and disparate achievements conveniently united by one race (a redrawing of boundaries as and when needed), cultivated under the umbrella term of Western iconography – but subtly redolent of supremacism. Not to mention a more painful eyeballing from history on an inheritance built on colonialism, slavery, incessant power struggles, foreign invasion and hierarchical inequality no different from the rest.

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But Europe today is also a region most angst-ridden about outside influence and historic navel-gazing (or utter lack of, via rose-tinted media portrayals), susceptible to modern day demagogues, where every major economy is now, for the first time in a century, either right wing or in coalition with the far right.

To start, one cannot possibly quantify 750 million people, 130 languages, 50 countries, 87 ethnic groups and myriad cultures and histories as one. Witness the past attempts to do so, whether through bloody world war or cultural hand-wringing when pacts such as NATO or the EU sacrificed imagined sovereignty for greater geopolitical win-win. The continent is still a disparate collection behind the flawless face, with infighting commonplace between countries, and regions within – not to mention many societal pitchforks readied for the stream of newcomers, whether they be from the continent or outside (and despite the welcome also laid out). This is little different from many given parts of the world.

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Separatism within Europe:

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Yet should Europe give up on its institutionalised veneration on what it thinks it is to be European – rather than by dint of pure geography – it would find it can marry contemporary progressiveness with a rich past and continuation of traditions. Look at the record of the Nordic, Alpine and Benelux nations, world leaders in education, quality of life, social justice, economic performance and environmentalism coupled with a rich heritage of culture, architecture and the arts, all within the same breathless sentiment.

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But contrast that with worrying support for Le Pen, Jobbik, the Freedom Party or Brexit, coupled with instances of hate crime, terrorism, media-fuelled xenophobia and a stout lack of charity for the current refugee crises (the vast majority of the worlds 68 million refugees fleeing to neighbours within the already embattled Middle East and Africa – some of which have become refugee-majority populations within the last decade – with ‘only’ 1 million of the richest affording the crossings to Europe).

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Also note how Austria and Denmark straddles both these perceptions – open progressiveness with reactionary populism, which lends to the fact no part can be summarised despite all intent. Should Eurocentrism take down its artificial borders both in mind and physicality it can limit the damage wrought by a generalised decline in birth rates and productivity, both demographically and culturally. When the ‘old country’ no longer negates the idea that all societies are new, and that they have always had to be in order to survive.

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Europe is in short a wondrous, rich tapestry of histories and cultures; it does well to build on it. But it also does well to remember how porous its borders were in the age of empires, whether being invaded and influenced from outside (Egyptians, Phoenicians, Persians, Turkics, Huns, the Silk Routes, Moors, Mongols, Tatars, Ottomans) or doing the invading and influencing of the outside (Greek -Macedonian, Roman, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British, French, Russian, German), that has so lent it the multitudinal aspects to build and importantly, trade on.

Les trentes glorieuses:

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This is not to overlook the genius of democracy, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, but they were not entirely standalone as we have come to assume, and with often fore runners abroad, from China’s equivalent scaled Industrial Revolution in the Dark Ages (that was destroyed by Mongol politicking and climate change), to Mughal manufacturing that took a quarter of global GDP and Ming Dynasty navies that operated the largest pre-industrial ships, industries, explorations and fleets in history, to the first shoots of democracy in Iraq and India, alongside the worlds first cities, or the first modern warfare fired up by the Mongols.

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Many icons we think of intrinsically European come from beyond, from the adoption of a Middle Eastern religion that is Christianity, to the International Style of modernism (clue’s in the name) sourced from medieval Morocco and Japan, that the early modernists such as Le Courbousier studied – the white wedding dress of the Ottomans, the Romanesque arch of Arabia, the Mongol onion dome, the Chinese naval tech, the Japonisme of impressionism and modern art, the African beat, the SE Asian spices, the Americas coffee, Chinese tea, the Himalayan gardens, the Indian manufacturing, the modern American/Japanese business frame, the knife and fork, the apple, the tulip, we could go on, and still do. The idea of Europe breaking down its barriers to speed into motion its coming extinction, as had been done in the continents it itself overran in the past, only ever happened when coupled with genocide, including viral. The way we see the world today should, in a very European tradition, be encompassing, outward looking, clear – yet holding a subtle richness of history and nuance beyond the everyday.

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Do you agree? Comment below:

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The World’s Most Highrise City

Lets look at the raw stats. According to Emporis, a website that employs data from skyline fanatics the world over, Hong Kong has traditionally been the worlds most highrise city. Not only did it have the most highrise buildings (anything 35m-100m tall, or anything 12 floors or higher) with 7,931  -nearly 1,700 more than NYC – it also has the most skyscrapers (150m or over) with 353 monoliths compared to New York’s 272.

Let’s stop there for a minute. 8,000 highrises, incuding 353 skyscrapers. Imagine what this looks like. Imagine yourself on a Hong Kong style street. Highrises block out the sky along the whole thoroughfare, not completely unremarkable, but not completely remarkable either to a city dweller – from your angle midrises and highrises present the same bulk. You can’t see either end, or past that wall to see how many other highrises there are. Even going up in a chopper you’d get the awesome scale, but not completely due to perspective.

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www.shootingfilm.net

Now lets imagine some atomic cloud comes over all fluffy and transmogrifies you into a traffic stopping, stampede inducing giant 300 ft tall. Bummer. Your lower arm would be bigger than a Blue Whale or the largest museum dino; you could sit King Kong in the palm of your hand, or a tiny car between your thumb and forefinger if you weren’t particularly nice. In reality you’d be so big you’d catastrophically collapse/ implode, anything bigger than your lower arm would start melting down to gravity, and lifting a finger so weighty would likely break it.

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www.greengiantcanada.ca

Now lets imagine you’re breaking the laws of physics and can now see the top of many of the heads of these highrises, also transmogrifying into human like shapes. You are now in a crowd of 8,000, spiked by hundreds of people twice as tall as you, and a handful of goons three times bigger who REALLY look like freaks even to the giant you. Imagine your middle or high school assembly of similarly gargantuan people standing to attention, but the crowd 10 to 20x bigger. Then look at that tiny toy car balanced on your fingertip, and the tiny worried looking people inside, in comparison to that giant milling mass of flesh. That huge auditorium full of building shaped giants would be Hong Kong. And the fly on the floor of that arena would be you.

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www.pond5.com

As for supertalls (those freaks of 300m or over, scooping up ships and walking into bridges)  Hong Kong’s well pipped by Dubai, which has 22 to New York’s 12 or Hong Kong’s measly 6 (Shenzhen is second place though with 14, and Kuala Lumpur with 13). Dubai and KL though have far fewer highrises overall, despite their impressive forests of skyscrapers, so are out of the running.

However in 2015 a new top-spot came into light, when Moscow shouldered in with 12,092 documented highrises (the majority just making the threshold) to Hong Kong’s 7,931, thanks to some very devoted online fans.

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imgur.com

However Hong Kong still leads if you stacked all the tall buildings together it comes to a teetering 333,836m, with NYC a third of the combined total – at 109,720m. So thus it’s official: chattering, blazing, odiferous Hong Kong is three times more ‘built up’ than a ripped NYC. It’s urban areas cover almost the exact size of 59 km² Manhattan, but have triple the built density.

However, bear in mind although no stats exist on Shanghai, at its lowest possibe measurement of 35m x 16,952 highrises comes out nearly double HK, at 593,320m, and Seoul almost double even that.

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https://500px.com/alfredkhc

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/coolbiere

But criticism of Emporis shows it is not the authority in any way. The website rather imperiously only accepts data in English and German (where it is based), and refuses nominations from places like China, where Shanghai’s occasional contributions surmount to less than gentrified old London’s, or Kiev’s for that matter.

Most notably some bright spark noticed on the Shanghai Council’s dizzyingly complex open data website that number of floors had been included on an annual survey of housing and class, which contradicted Emporis’ presentations of factuality a tad:

shanghai council 2013

Basically the column on the left is the number of floors, the one on far right is the amount of buildings. Shanghai had an eye-popping total 14,479 buildings over 16 storeys in 2013, almost ten times more than Emporis claimed.

This compares with buildings over 12 storeys (note the lower threshold despite):

Moscow (2015) 12, 092

HK (2014) 7,931

Sao Paulo (2015) 6,332

NYC (2015) 6,250

Further back-up comes from aerial photos at the same scale.

Hong Kong:

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Shanghai:

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But for all these inconsistencies, Sao Paulo may hint at a potential unrecognised rival, like a vast, unnamed termite colony of Brazilianess teeming in the south, being all sultry and knifey and sexy:

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Sao Paulo however has only 7 skyscrapers, and 0 supertalls thanks to the relatively close proximity of the airport.

Also there’s the large question mark over other Chinese cities, notably Shenzhen and Guangzhou, which are actually contiguous now. If there’s anywhere in the world that’s building up at the moment, it’s Shenzhen, currently going through a construction boom that makes pre-Crisis Dubai look like it was making a few sand castles on holiday. It currently has 60 buildings over 200m, and a whopping 135 under construction, which is basically more than doubling New York’s strutting skyline. An additional 50 supertalls are under construction or approved, and all that is not even considering Guangzhou, the even larger beast in competition at the other end of the city.

Shenzhen 1986, an unremarkable border town of 30,000:

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2016, and its 15 million hawking, squawking inhabitants have conjoined with Guangzhou, totalling 41 million:

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But let’s for now, consider Shanghai, Pearl of the Orient / Whore of the East, a current reigning champ (*cough* Seoul). We’ll end on more urban porn from that city:

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https://blackstation.tuchong.com

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In 2003 the city began sinking from the weight of so many buildings, with a moratorium declared on highrises for a whole year.

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https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07/

The city council now dictates that x amount of people must live within y vicinity of z amount of green space (yep, good luck with that). To overcome the ruling the newer areas such as Pudong, enact a Courbousien tower-in-the-park idea, though much more lush and grandly utilised than the dystopian bleakscapes in postwar Europe.

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https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07/

The Puxi side of the river is far denser, where the traditional fabric of the city is still extant, and people actually socialise:

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https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07

But take a telescope between the highrises and you’ll spot the city’s Sino-Anglo terraces and courtyard homes  known as shikumen or longtang lane housing.

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https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07/

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https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07/

Large tracts of this historic housing remain, though highly endangered after years of fatheaded destruction. The old stock (most of which is 80-160 years old) covered an area almost equivalent to the City of Paris, saved from WWII destruction by a ground war (that incidentally took out 300,000 lives in ‘China’s Stalingrad’) rather than an aerial one. Then kept in aspic during the postwar years by a Communist govt intent on keeping a lid on the notoriously renegade, soul-selling city (this is where China was at its  most shockingly Capitalist, and where its Communism was born as a result).

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Despite the countless losses, and the much more visible skylines, from satellite it’s more obvious that the russet coloured roofs are still about – even dominant. After 30 years of dancing with a wrecking ball they’re finally being saved after the bigwigs realised they were quite profitable, with gentrification into chichi shopping or entertainment districts. Although this often rendered the residents just as homeless (though compensated), with some ‘misguided’ opportunity areas involving bulldozing the history and rebuilding it with mod cons for millionaires. A more favourable wave of protection has finally arrived as culturally restorative -beautifying the buildings but sodding the lattes, and keeping the damn residents, finally.

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It is poetic to end on a city that is in short the world’s largest skyline grafted on onto one of the world’s largest old cities. Both coexist, both are hidden to a large extent, at ground level, in global profile, and psychologically. It seems the most obvious of contenders appears to be also one of the least.

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