7 theses on the future of cities

7 theses on the future of cities

If you want to understand what is happening in the world today, I strongly believe, you need to study the evolution of global cities. In particular, the writings of Saskia Sassen, author of “The Global City” and “Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages” have opened my eyes to a fascinating phenomenon, one which the author attributes to globalization, namely: the changing nature of place and especially how it affects cities.

To make it very short (and potentially incorrect): Cities are the sites of globalization! They are the starting and ending points of the massive interconnections we see emerge throughout the world. This phenomenon changes not only the cities themselves but also the territorial states in which they are located.

While working on the Startup Heatmap Europe Report, we often discussed the importance of cities and their international connections for businesses and society, so here is my personal take on the topic.

What will the future of cities look like?

1. Global cities will be like popular night clubs: crowded and very expensive

Cities are blooming. Rents in city centers are skyrocketing and people are willing to pay a fortune to locate within the most crowded spaces of this planet. At the same time, small towns are struggling to keep the young and mostly are left with the old ones to take care of.

This trend will increase simply because human beings are programmed to invest in prospects. We are willing to pay a premium to have access to places where we hope to come across new opportunities. This is the whole concept of cities, as Austin Williams and Alastair Donald eloquently described in “The Lure of the City.”

With the ever-increasing connectivity that is created by cheap flights, fast internet connections, worldwide capital streams and global pop culture, we just NEED to have access to these opportunities. In a way, global cities are like that popular club in Berlin-Kreuzberg people line up for hours to get intoxicated in, while they would not even think of going to their local village pub in Spandau anymore.

Cities are becoming the sole source of opportunity in a world that seems to have leveled up to a global scale. Small towns that fail to provide this international flair will fall in decline. This is not only true in business but especially in terms of lifestyle and personal choices. Therefore, there will be a mix of global urban elites and local wannabes who are willing to pay a fortune to live in the trendiest neighborhoods of these global villages.

2.  Small towns will need to suck up to global hubs to stay relevant

Actually, speaking of cities is becoming increasingly misleading because we are in fact dealing with metropolitan regions – areas that are firmly connected to a city core by the everyday commute and relations of people. If you look at daily commute maps of cities around the world, you would be astonished how far people go to work every day (here is a recent publication on U.S. cities).

For the center, the connection with the region is important to increase its resources, human capital, as well as landmarks and development space to compete on a global level. My hometown Munich for example, quite naturally, advertises itself internationally with Castle Neuschwanstein (the one that looks like Disney Castle), even though it is located in Fuessen 120 km southeast from Munich.

While the central city needs these resources to be a truly global player, the region benefits from its share of visibility and can harvest the globalization pay-off. Not only in terms of tourism of course, but especially in industry, as production sites are located there. While for example, Munich-based car manufacturer BMW has a production line in the city, its largest production site in Europe is situated in Dingolfing, outside the Munich metro area.

In fact, many small towns and even quite sizeable cities of 200,000–300,000 people are facing dire challenges as their existence is often based on the success of a single industry. It means they need to grow closer to a metropolitan core to ensure that they can: (a) provide one of the essential resources needed to succeed internationally and (b) position themselves as a refuge for urban dwellers looking for the right blend of family life and tradition on one side and access to career opportunities, night life and international culture on the other side. This of course means that they would have to give up part of their independence and follow the trends dictated by the core for their own development.

3. The future city will be deeply split between the fortunate and those who hope to climb the ladder

The global city is however not a place of eternal joy – in fact, it is the place where globalization cracks open the idyll of political order we have grown to appreciate in the highly industrialized parts of the world.

There will be those who can afford to harness both the joys of the cultural center, where still a bunch of their unmarried friends will have an apartment, and who themselves are living in suburbia with lower rents; and then there will be those who are not so fortunate but are in it for the chance to grow up the ladder. Many of which will be immigrants stuck in surprisingly over-priced housing in run-down parts of the city without much time to enjoy any of the glitter the global cultural hub has to offer, sometimes simply because they are denied access to the other side. This restricted access might manifest in the figure of a bouncer at a nightclub or a landlord who prefers a different clientele. The city will be very different for both groups, their paths might even seldom cross. In the most extreme cases one will start to segregate from the other as in gated communities and the like.

4. Urban dwellers will be happy to move to New York or Shanghai but not to the countryside

Urban elites are growing together feeling that they need to safeguard their achievements and ensure their competitiveness. They do not worry (too much) about immigration but about remaining compatible with global developments and trends that span a wide range of topics. I would argue that next to multiculturalism, food trends like veganism are part of the emerging urban identity. Being urban means being compatible with everyone and accommodating everyone’s needs, i.e. not harming someone else’s beliefs or livelihood. Political correctness is the religion of the urban dweller.

To be a citizen of the world means I can live in Berlin, New York or Shanghai but definitely not in Castrop-Rauxel. And based on the life stories of my friends this is not just a saying – they actually did live in those places!

Of course, this urban identity is not completely replacing pre-existing belief systems and allegiances (we always need to think of identity as an onion with various layers). And many urban dwellers deeply detest the anonymity of global commercialism. Their solution is creativity. They create their own image of their identity by mixing traditional symbols and images with pop culture.

Again, Munich delivers a perfect example of this with the popular use of the “Lederhosen” as a symbol of its uniqueness and roots in the Bavarian tradition. The Lederhosen even makes it into the state’s slogan: “Laptop & Lederhosen” – implying that tradition and digitalism can go together.

In the same way, as urban dwellers around the globe portray their individuality in a congruous way, they will generate a new kind of diversity on a global scale. Global culture will not at all be defined by uniformity but rather by a concept of compatibility.  

5. Global cities will demand their say in national and international politics

While city branding is a rather soft approach for cities to position themselves on the international level, I do believe we will see more daring attempts of urban foreign policy in the future. Cities, as the loci of political decisions and their corresponding consequences, will increasingly demand their say in national policy formulations, attempt to leapfrog national governments and actively build relations internationally.

Global megacities like London and New York have always been active in international politics, leveraging their statuses as hosts to international organizations and events. It comes natural that the mayor of New York receives foreign leaders during the United Nations’ General Assembly and very unsurprising that its ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg is now the UN secretary’s special envoy for cities, leading a group of 40 cities around the world called the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy. These kinds of alliances have become quite commonplace among city mayors as they form associations on the national level or take advantage of international organizations who show an open ear to the local level. The European Union’s Committee of Regions is a prime example of this interaction that allows cities and regions to directly influence policies designed at the European level.

While city politics have always played some part in international relations, with increasing divergence of national politics from city interests, they can become much more relevant. After Brexit, voices have increased demanding a special status for the City of London if not even its independence from the UK. While calls for its transformation into a city-state might be a little far-fetched, it will be certain that it will pull all strings possible to safeguard its global competitiveness. There might even be some special autonomies granted to London to remain compatible with international financial markets and EU regulation after a hard Brexit. 

6. Immigration will be increasingly dealt with on a city level

One very likely field where cities will increasingly demand autonomy is immigration. The nation and the city have very different interests in this domain and due to the increased bargaining power of cities in the globalization phenomenon. It is therefore likely that cities will create their own immigration schemes which are different from those of the national government.

We have already seen city executives in the US announcing their resistance to assist any kind of deportation of illegal immigrants ordered by the federal government. The chief of the Los Angeles Police Department has strongly opposed the idea of checking residents for their papers or even referring criminals on scale to the immigration authorities as they are focusing on nurturing a peaceful community. This said, with a more aggressive push from the national government, cities will be forced to formalize their longstanding practices and demand for special rights in the field of immigration. This could include formal directives excluding local authorities from enforcing immigration laws (like Special Order 40, that forbids L.A. police officers to check the migration status of residents) as well as some kind of a special city visa and immigration status. Based on the high demand of foreign workers in a city agglomeration, officials may demand to have the right to issue limited immigration titles that allow foreigners to come to the city to work and live as long as they stay within the city limits.

As a matter of fact, this practice is already used in some cities where national immigration schemes are particularly tough. In Shanghai for example, international visitors can avoid the lengthy visa application process if they have an onward flight out of the city’s airport within 6 days. They receive a type of visa on arrival which is only valid within the city’s boundaries.

If the anti-migration populism in the West leads to a roll-back of past privileges with regards to the free flow of urban workers, it is highly likely that we will see international hubs adopt strategies like these more often.

7. The very concept of “space” will be object of heated political debate

The detachment of the global city from the national territory is creating new conflict lines about space and the “use of space” is the most obvious object of politicization. Already, urban projects are highly contested for being facilitators of globalization. Large scale infrastructural projects like airports or even train stations, landmark buildings like opera houses and event spaces like the Olympic games are all sources of aggravated debates and will continue to be as they are feared as accelerators of globalism and its negative consequences. This is especially true when development plans concern “traditional” spaces which represent the historical development of a place. These are quickly becoming a symbol of an almost lost identity that is now to be sacrificed for anonymous globalism.

While these highly visible debates will dominate the public discourse, urban leaders will face another challenge namely, the governance of space. Growing agglomerations and their global aspirations collide with existing jurisdictions of municipalities which follow a different logic than the rhythm of global development demands. Therefore, the old governance system needs to be supplemented by metropolitan governance structures. This kind of institutional integration process is comparable to that of the European Union and will be similarly contested.

Finally, these 7 theses show a growing concentration of human interaction in cities, despite the growing technological abilities allowing for more remote work and speedy long-distance traveling. As irritating as this might be, the signs show that the downsides of growing urbanization still do not outweigh its perceived benefits. The city of the future will be more powerful, more popular and characterized by social and political divisions. I do not believe that it is possible to say whether this will be an overall positive or negative course of development – but I believe that knowing the trends is the only way to govern the city’s future successfully.

―Written by Thomas Kösters

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