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Current prospects and future scenarios for Global CitiesHow is the urbanisation process changing our world?
Mobility and migratory flows, climate changes and the digital revolution connected with economic development and infrastructure networks are at the
centre of the agendas of large international organisations, just like policies to govern the so-called Global Cities. Increasingly, these compete at a supra-local level, talking to large international players and acting as primary hubs of a now globalised production system.
What does the future hold on the global role of cities? We talked to Tobia Zevi, Associate Research Fellow and Head of the Global Cities Programme at the Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI – Institute for International Political Studies) and Eisenhower Global Fellow in 2019.
The title of the last report that you drew up for the ISPI is ‘The Century of Global Cities: How Urbanisation Is Changing the World and Shaping our Future’. What does ‘Global Cities’ mean? What are the factors that determine the creation of a ‘Global City’? What transformation processes have the greatest influence on the development of a city making it really ‘global’?
The term global city was effectively codified by Saskia Sassen, the American sociologist of Dutch origin, in 1991. Sassen coined the concept, referring to New York, London and Tokyo, in her book ‘The Global City’ explaining how there is the need to concentrate some management and intermediation functions in an increasingly globalised economy (think of the large banks, insurance companies and service companies, etc.) in some hubs, often differentiated by function inside the same global network, where people with strong skills and specialisations meet physically and work together. Unlike the 1970s, when office centres were ejected from urban contexts, and downtowns emptied, with New York and London even going bankrupt in the following decade, there has been a renaissance of cities and a return to them since the end of the 1980s. Even in the most digitalised and financialised economic systems, nothing can replace 100% contact between people – being able to talk directly and easily increases professional efficiency. At this time which is so terrible because of the Coronavirus, I think that each of us can understand that – smart working is quite useful but also very complex if you can’t ever look someone in the face!
A second social sector of less skilled workers, who carry out service functions for wealthier classes and, as a result, tend to concentrate in the same places as members of the upper class live and work, congregates alongside the executives, managers and staff who work in large companies. They take care of the children, provide assistance to the elderly, and clean the houses and offices, all jobs connected with logistics, just to give some examples.
Today, alongside this socio-economic analysis, the geopolitical role of the cities is also considered. They have increasing weight in large global questions – the economy but also energy consumption, waste production or, more generally, environmental protection and, extending their influence, they pose a challenge to nation states, which find that they’re not the only players in international politics. As Parag Khanna, the Indo-American researcher, and others before and after him, explained, states are challenged on three levels – from the bottom, by the urban systems we’re talking about in our interview, from above, by international and multi-lateral organisations (e.g. the European Union) which, although with many difficulties and contradictions, have developed since the Second World War, and from above, but also the side, by multi-national companies which, operating on a completely global arena, bypass the regulations and national restrictions by playing in more than one field, opposing states on taxation, data, industrial relations and other aspects.
So, coming back to the role of the cities, it’s a process that can have developments and regressions, positive and negative aspects but which should be interpreted in the widest framework of geopolitical and international transformations.
RF: In an era marked by nationalist drives and elements of radicalisation of political discussion, what role do global migratory flows play in the definition of the agenda for the development of the large metropolitan areas?
TZ: There is a bi-directional relationship between cities and migrants where each needs the other – the migrants move to the cities because they need community social networks and job opportunities that would be difficult for them to aspire to in rural areas. At the same time, urban areas need migrants for many jobs, often the humblest, essential for the operation of the community but also the enterprising attitude that a person rebuilding their life in a place other than their place of birth usually shows.
We shouldn’t forget that when we talk of migration, especially at urban level, we’re not only thinking of those fleeing from war and poverty. We’re also thinking about university students or the creative classes who move because they choose to. The wealth of the cities also lies in their ability to attract different talents. Today, on this, we can refer to New York, Paris or London but it’s also much older. Historically, Alexandria, Constantinople or Rome were wealthy cities because different cultures met in them – the wealthy city has always been an open city.
Today, the challenge of integrating migrants not only concerns our cities, obviously, but particularly those in Africa or Asia and, in the past, South America, where hundreds of thousands of fellow countrypeople (‘internal migrants’) move to urban contexts, fleeing from social or environmental crises, populating urban areas that are not equipped to accommodate them. During the first industrial revolution, millions of people left the countryside to move to the industrialised cities, attracted by the opportunities offered, even though work conditions were often terrifying. Today, however, the cities in the southern hemisphere don’t have a factory’s ability to absorb and so we risk having millions of young city-dwellers without any prospect of social inclusion and professional redemption.
RF: What consequences must we expect for London, European Global City par excellence, following Brexit? And what opportunities for growth for other European cities?
TZ: My feeling is that we’ll see a paradox. London, which voted for Remain, won’t be particularly affected while rural and peripheral areas of the United Kingdom, which voted for Brexit as they felt they were the victims of injustice and marginality because of the European Union, will be damaged. In other words, the consequences will hit those who were already worse off and, in some way, have brought trouble on themselves. Don’t forget, that doesn’t mean that their choice at the time should be trivialised or even scorned. The feeling of exclusion should be understood and dealt with. However, this is what I think – some large companies and multi-nationals will leave London and move to other cities but London’s economic, social and cultural strength is such that its role will essentially be unchanged. We shouldn’t forget that London was the largest city in the world at the beginning of the 20th century and, with New York, is the only one of the large cities of that time to still be at the top of the list.
RF: Which Italian cities can be included in the supranational network of Global Cities?
TZ: It’s important to bear in mind that Europe presents a special case. The urban skeleton of the continent features medium-sized centres and only Paris and London can truly be defined as global cities while other centres are in some specific spheres (e.g. Frankfurt for the financial sector). European cities make an effort to become global but in this net-like and polycentric context. Think of Milan, which is currently experiencing an economic, cultural, tourist and production boom.
The challenge for Europe and Italy is, therefore, to be able to valorise the settlement peculiarity that arises from our history, which consists of lots of medium-sized cities and, instead, recover the areas that have been left behind. This conformation, which dates back to ancient Rome, is, in my opinion, wealth in a world that is increasingly made of megalopoles.
RF: In a recent article, published with your name on the ISPI website, we can read a criticism of the concept of ‘Smart City’, often over-used as a ‘marketing tool’ to sell software platforms and technological applications in the name of innovation, but often independent of the real needs of the cities. What governance tools will allow us to overcome the paradigm of the ‘Smart’ city and focus instead on the concept of ‘Sustainable city’? What’s the role of mobility in this case?
TZ: As with all fashions, an adjustment has to be made here. Smart city is a concept that refers to the potential that technology and data collection can have in the design of the city of the future. Having innovative tools that enable us to make our cities more efficient is fantastic. For example, let’s think of the mobility sector. We’re seeing a true revolution which allows citizens to try out many new, entertaining and ecologic forms of movement and, also due to the exploitation of data, forces public administrations to rethink this sector as a real ecosystem, made of public and private players, consumers and prosumers, data and technology.
However, if we look at the world as a whole, we find that there are many old cities, i.e. cities that are more and more crowded, polluted and unequal inside. In this case, I think that one of the most ambitious aims is to link the future of the city to sustainable development, i.e. to the agenda of the international community. This is a list of universal aims and so targets both rich and poor countries, cities and the countryside. It’s a holistic perspective that includes the environment, society, technological development, etc. and gives us interesting bearings. The participation and consent of the people have to be initiated to achieve these ambitious aims and, in this case, it would be fairer to talk of smart citizen rather than smart city.
So, our reasoning has to be contextualised in the widest sense of urbanisation. Billions of people around the world who move to the city – the urban population has exceeded the rural one since 2008, a new, disturbing fact in the history of mankind. The challenge that cities and the international community must face in the near and distant future is to design and build environmentally and socially sustainable urban areas. Urbanisation is a feature of globalisation but we have to roll our sleeves up if we don’t want to experience the nightmare of a world made of enormous megalopoles, slums and shanty towns.
RF: Is it right to talk of a culture common to ‘Global Cities’? What do cities like London, Paris, San Francisco or Tokyo have most in common? And what differentiates them from more ‘peripheral’ cities in the same country?
TZ: On one hand, we can say that there is a common culture as the globalised economy that is concentrated in the cities makes them similar. When visiting an area of Johannesburg, Chicago or Bogotà it’s easy to see that the commercial chains are the same, just like the main brands and the offices.
Yet, at the same time, the strength of a city lies in what makes it different from the others. A city that perfectly reflects the globalised super-technological paradigm is not particularly attractive because those who can choose where to build their life will make that choice based on factors that aren’t just ‘hardware’. The heart of a city lies in its bars, parks, monuments and the opportunities for coming together it offers. That’s why we choose to settle in one place or another.
From this point of view, the ability to have vision is required, all the more for recent cities or those that will undergo rapid growth in the coming years. We need an idea of city that puts people at the centre with their habits and aspirations; a project that’s able to ‘mend’ spaces to make them more pleasant and functional, but also a soul that prevents the proliferation of other ‘dead cities’, like those that we’ve seen grow in in Asia or Africa, where the anxiety to plan (right in itself) has proved unable to converse with human nature.
“the strength of a city lies in what makes it different from the others”