The cities were the driving force behind the triumph of globalization, but they are now faced with an increasing number of warning signs.
In the 19th century, the rise of the industrial society was intrinsically linked to urbanization. The 20th century saw the arrival of conurbations, together with the move to mass production and consumption models, as well as the rise of a huge middle class in developed countries. The early 21st century was a time of globalization and metropolization. Worldwide capitalism was centered on a network of global cities – the 30 largest cities housed almost 15% of the world population. Today, however, there is a two-fold movement – towards de-globalization and objections to large cities.
Firstly, the trade, technology and currency war launched by the USA is causing a huge slowdown in world trade and payments. At the same time, the need for ecological transition is an encouragement to relocate production. The shock wave of populism that has hit the developed world is causing it to split up, and politics and economics are being reconfigured on the basis of national sovereignty.
Secondly, the cities that were the driving force behind the triumph of globalization are now faced with an increasing number of warning signs. City centers are being cannibalized as their inhabitants move out: 12,000 people a year have left Paris since 2010, 40,000 a year have left New York, 100,000 a year have left Greater London. The population – notably the young – are reacting to the rising cost of housing and expropriation by the international elite and by technology companies. At the same time, the cities – the centers of wealth, quality services, innovation and decision-making – are accelerating industrial, commercial, social and regional polarization. This is also causing revolt on their fringes, as illustrated by the “gilet jaune” [yellow vest] movement whose violence systematically targeted the heart of French cities. Thirdly, because of their huge size, their frequent proximity to the sea and their pollution levels, cities are finding they are highly vulnerable to the vagaries of climate change, water shortages and natural disasters.
Cities will never lose their attraction. But their expansion generates profound tensions that could compromise their future. Their huge size goes hand in hand with urban sprawl, creating insoluble urbanization problems, saturating infrastructures and making artificial terrain. City centers are increasingly places for senior citizens, wealthy people and tourists, whilst young people, the working population and the poor are concentrated on their outskirts. Intolerable pollution levels in urban areas and hygiene problems linked to shantytowns cause death rates to rise, particularly in Chinese and Indian cities. There is increased insecurity, and whole areas of some cities elude any sort of public authority.
In the past, with the rise of the middle classes, cities adapted to industrialization, electricity and the automobile. They now have to deal with the problems of polarization, inequality, the digital revolution and ecological transition.
Cities are linked to globalization and are the embodiment of the history and culture of peoples and of nations. There is no one universal law that governs their development. Their successful renewal does not depend on considerations of urgency or on any technological illusion that data management can bring about an intelligent and sustainable city.
Their governance should be open both to its citizens – by exploring participative management – and to the surrounding areas. It is vital to control their development by creating new sustainable cities, so as to avoid the likely prospect of an unbearable concentration of hundreds of millions of people. Priority must be given to inclusive growth that includes access to housing, transport, education and health care. It implies shifting to a model of sustainable, clean development, for cities are responsible for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions whilst occupying only 2% of the planet’s surface. In short, cities will be the testing ground for rebuilding the balance of our economic, human and natural resources.
The 21st century will belong to the cities. Their ability to modernize and regenerate themselves will largely determine the pecking order of nations and continents. It will also decide whether or not globalization can resist the nationalism and protectionism towards which the USA has veered, and will determine the future of political freedom which is under threat from populism.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 9th September 2019)