Day By Day

Friday, January 21, 2011

A World of Cities

Parag Khanna, writing in Foreign Policy, argues that we increasingly live in a global environment in which cities, rather than nation-states, are the most important form of political and economic organization. He writes:
[T]he 21st century will not be dominated by America or China, Brazil or India, but by the city. In an age that appears increasingly unmanageable, cities rather than states are becoming the islands of governance on which the future world order will be built. This new world is not -- and will not be -- one global village, so much as a network of different ones.
Time, technology, and population growth have massively accelerated the advent of this new urbanized era. Already, more than half the world lives in cities, and the percentage is growing rapidly. But just 100 cities account for 30 percent of the world's economy, and almost all its innovation. Many are world capitals that have evolved and adapted through centuries of dominance: London, New York, Paris. New York City's economy alone is larger than 46 of sub-Saharan Africa's economies combined. Hong Kong receives more tourists annually than all of India. These cities are the engines of globalization, and their enduring vibrancy lies in money, knowledge, and stability. They are today's true Global Cities.
He argues that the growing predominance of urban areas will ultimately result in a situation in many ways similar to that of the Middle Ages outside Europe -- the golden age of Chinese, Muslim and Arab glory.
Now as then, cities are the real magnets of economies, the innovators of politics, and, increasingly, the drivers of diplomacy. Those that aren't capitals act like they are. Foreign policy seems to take place even among cities within the same country, whether it's New York and Washington feuding over financial regulation or Dubai and Abu Dhabi vying for leadership of the United Arab Emirates. This new world of cities won't obey the same rules as the old compact of nations; they will write their own opportunistic codes of conduct, animated by the need for efficiency, connectivity, and security above all else.
It's an interesting argument -- one that has much to recommend it. I suspect, however, that the nation-state is not going to wither and die anytime soon.

Read this provocative article here.

Now, consider an alternative.

Joel Kotkin, also writing in Foreign Policy, argues that the future lies not with centralized cities, but with the suburbs, by which he means more decentralized forms of living. The basic reason is that for most of the population, life in the emerging urban conglomerates is hellish and people will seek more comfortable and secure environments. 
As unfashionable as it might sound, what if we thought less about the benefits of urban density and more about the many possibilities for proliferating more human-scaled urban centers; what if healthy growth turns out to be best achieved through dispersion, not concentration? Instead of overcrowded cities rimmed by hellish new slums, imagine a world filled with vibrant smaller cities, suburbs, and towns: Which do you think is likelier to produce a higher quality of life, a cleaner environment, and a lifestyle conducive to creative thinking?
He is bucking a trend here. A whole generation of urban enthusiasts has been telling us that suburban life is soul deadening and that concentration of population in urban areas is not only desirable -- it is inevitable. Kotkin disagrees:
[T]he rise of the megacity is by no means inevitable -- and it might not even be happening. Shlomo Angel, an adjunct professor at New York University's Wagner School, has demonstrated that as the world's urban population exploded from 1960 to 2000, the percentage living in the 100 largest megacities actually declined from nearly 30 percent to closer to 25 percent. Even the widely cited 2009 World Bank report on megacities, a staunchly pro-urban document, acknowledges that as societies become wealthier, they inevitably begin to deconcentrate, with the middle classes moving to the periphery. Urban population densities have been on the decline since the 19th century, Angel notes, as people have sought out cheaper and more appealing homes beyond city limits. In fact, despite all the "back to the city" hype of the past decade, more than 80 percent of new metropolitan growth in the United States since 2000 has been in suburbs. And that's not such a bad thing.

In the course of my life I have lived in central cities, in suburbs, in small towns, and in exurban areas. I certainly sympathize with Kotkin's argument that life outside central cities is superior to that endured by urbanites, although I have friends and relatives who would strongly disagree. Like him I hope that the global trend toward urbanization will be accompanied by local and regional decentralization, but as Kotkin realizes, the current political culture is heavily biased in favor of urban concentration. What will be interesting to see over the next few decades will be the social and political alliances that form over the question of urban vs suburban growth.

Read Kotkin's response to the urbanologists here.

No comments: