Global Cities as a challenge for the 21st Century

Da Ispi, Desk Global Cities – 6 novembre 2018

This dossier inaugurates ISPI’s analysis of global cities. Various articles explain why urban areas are so important in regard to climate change, mobility and migrations, technological innovation, economic development, social inequalities. We do not deal with theoretical questions. With “global cities”, we refer to an empirical element, namely the fact that some human agglomerations attract more workers, students, economic resources, and innovative companies than others do. Sociologist Saskia Sassen explained this as early as 1991 in a book whose title codified this expression. Of course, not all global cities present the same phenomena in the same proportions: Lagos expands impetuously on the demographic level, but not so much in human capital; Miami, which has no comparable growth rates, nevertheless shows extremely important indicators of economic vitality and regional influence; and even two financial centers such as London and Frankfurt specialize in different functions, in a dynamic similar to the districts.

However, are cities real global/international actors? Moreover, even if they are from an economic point of view, can they be so politically? Furthermore, what narrative should we adopt about urbanization? Many research institutes in the world have been facing these questions for quite a long time. In Italy, there is still no structured debate on this issue, and this is why ISPI’s initiative also aims to open a path for other domestic subjects and potential interlocutors.

Global cities. For the first time in the history of humanity, for ten years now more than 50% of the world’s population lives in urban contexts. This is mainly due to migratory dynamics within the developing countries: think of India or China, but also of megalopolises like Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires or Mexico City (these are the so-called “primatial” cities), to end with the recent sub-Saharan metropolises. In fact, the European and North American scenario remains much more balanced. Many studies done show some interesting macro-data: within the next two decades, 80% of the world’s wealth – Increasingly financial, intermediary and digital – will be produced in cities (already in 2017, however, the biggest ten engendered a GDP higher than Japan’s, as well as France, Germany and Italy combined). Since every day on the planet about two hundred thousand people (more than two every second) move to a urban context, it is presumable that in the same two decades, we will reach the monstrous amount of seven/eight billion “city dwellers”, compared to two/three billion inhabitants in rural areas. Energy-devouring and congested, global cities are more and more connected to each other economically and politically (at the level of institutions as well as of networks between people), and distant from the surrounding territories.

Just think of Brexit (June 2016, with “Remain” prevailing in London), and the election of Donald Trump (November 2016, with Hillary Clinton winning in cities on both the East and West Coasts). The eternal city/countryside dialectic, which in fourteenth-century France ignited the peasant revolts of the “jacquerie”, becomes part of the narrative that sees rural people and elites in opposition. The former are frustrated because of greater urban opportunities (in his article, Edward Glaeser describes some elements of this inequality) that decisively influence the entire planet. This is also true if we concentrate on the last Italian elections: last March liberal parties resisted in urban centers, but they collapsed both in the productive regions of the north, and in the disadvantaged areas of the south.

City-state. This last “political” consideration, concerning the relationship between city and territory, leads us to focus also on intra-city dynamics. It will not be useless to start from a very trite etymology: the word “politics” derives from the Greek “polis”, which in ancient Greece indicated the reality of the city-states, first Athens and Sparta, whose model returns to being current for the Indo-American scholar Parag Khanna. On this scale, Aristotle saw the basic mechanisms of coexistence. Even today, (global) cities are “accelerators” of policies, laboratories that anticipate and make the conflicts of our time visible, as well as the challenges and crucial choices we face. In the city rich and poor brush up against each other, although the distance between them tends to increase because of the deregulated economic system. High income and human capital professionals encounter many unskilled workers, for whom the notion of “growthless work” was forged, a typical feature of the urban economy that is specular to the digital economy’s “jobless growth”. Traditional sectors are replaced by more innovative ones (hereafter described by architect Carlo Ratti), that reward capital and attract talent, but often impoverish the surrounding ecosystem. Impressive skyscrapers coexist a few meters away with unhealthy slums, inhabited by a very young population. Migrants are integrated or segregated, while loneliness afflicts old people, who lose social ties, but also many young people, who suffer from the “spleen” described by writers of the twentieth century, and experience that contradiction between maximum human density and maximum solitude, which is ultimately at the heart of urban alienation.

Cities in the flesh. Reflection in this sector must prevent two complementary risks: on the one hand, that of uncritical exaltation, often summarized in the rhetoric of the “smart city”; on the other, that of alarm about the megalopolis, destined nevertheless to failure when faced with the realities of urbanization. Instead, it is a challenge, and among the most epoch-making: ever larger, connected, influential and global cities are a huge opportunity and a tremendous risk; the outcome of this oscillation will depend on supranational, national and local policies. It is necessary to recover an attitude to urban planning, that “mending” mentioned by the architect Renzo Piano. We need, in the various urban contexts, an overall and inter-disciplinary plan able to combine the spontaneity of a neighborhood, or the informality of a settlement, or the degradation of a suburb, with a vision of territorial development that can enhance the vocations and solve the problems (Richard Sennett has recently written about the dichotomy between informality and planning). Likewise, the relationship between cities, rural areas and territories can not only concern the insiders, but must also be sewn into a broad and multi-dimensional alliance between citizens (this last word coming from the Latin “civitas”, a translation of “polis”) and activists, politicians at all levels, economists, engineers, architects and landscapers, sociologists and anthropologists. At ISPI, we intend to proceed in this direction.

Tobia Zevi

Italian Jew, Jewish Italian. PhD in Linguistics. Adviser to the Italian FM, Association of Jewish culture Hans Jonas' Chairman - Rome.