A New Perspective on Urban Development

The knowledge economy’s integration with globalization has brought enormous changes to the world. Our book, In the Post-Urban World (Routledge 2018) focuses on one of many aspects of these changes, viz. the transformation of cities that has occurred in the wake of the global knowledge economy’s breakthrough. This is certainly not the first book that addresses these issues. However, it is the first book that simultaneously addresses cities’ internal spatial transformations and extensions to new types of city regions, and the global networks of these, in the words of Edward Soja, ‘postmetropolitan’ regions. Combining these two aspects, our conclusion is that we are entering a post-urban world.

A first feature of the post-urban world is that while the crisis of the 1970s was accompanied by counter-urbanization in many of the developed countries (Beale 1975, Champion 1992), the following decades have mainly been characterized by re-urbanization. In contrast to the traditional urbanization that consisted of migration from countryside to cities (and often within the same region) this re-urbanization of the western world has been based on other sources:

1) migration from declining manufacturing cities and regions to expanding knowledge- and service sector cities and regions;

2) upward migration within the national urban hierarchies, i.e. from smaller urban settlements to bigger ones, and;

3) increasingly, on immigration from low-income, or war affected countries.

Another strong tendency in the current wave of urbanization is densification of city regions, in particular densification of suburbs. Edward Soja discussed the transformation of big cities from dense centers with sprawling low-density suburbs, to polycentric city regions with relatively high density all over. “Where this process is most pronounced, the longstanding urban-suburban dualism of metropolitan urbanization has almost disappeared, as the age of mass suburbanization shifts to one of mass regional urbanization, a filling in so to speak, of the entire metropolitan area” (Soja 2011, p 684). The result is according to Soja a ‘Postmetropolitan’ region; a new spatial framework in which the idea of place is weakened and the limit between what is urban and what is non-urban are blurred and tend to dissolve.

A third important trend is the ‘region enlargement’ in the form of spatial extensions of labor markets due to improved transportation infrastructure and public transportation, among others in the form of upgraded and more frequent commuter trains. This enhancement of the transportation infrastructure and its traffic has both contributed to the abovementioned densification of the suburbs as well as to extended commuter traffic and thus larger labor markets. This means that the city regions has not only been densified within a given area, but also ‘sparsified’ when more distant centers (and their suburbs and adjacent rural areas) have become integrated in the metropolitan transportation networks.

The fourth and last trend of the emerging post-urban world that we want to highlight is the downgrading of the relations between city regions and their hinterlands and the upgrading of their networks to other city regionsthat has emerged with the expansion of the knowledge economy. One of the most important differences between the knowledge economy and its predecessors is that human capital has replaced raw materials and physical capital as the main production and location factor. The large, diversified labor markets of city-regions have become a key location factor for both businesses and labor. The more peripheral cities, towns and rural areas suffer of lack of sufficient concentrations of the now most important production factor, human capital, which means that their labor markets remain small and the knowledge economy has difficulties to develop there. With the decreased relative importance of raw materials, these areas have less and less to offer the city regions. Instead, the city regions’ exchange mainly takes place with other city regions, whose import and export markets are much larger than those of their peripheral hinterlands. From the countryside’s perspective this means a division in two parts: one city-close part that is being integrated in the extended city regions, and one peripheral part that is less and less needed in the knowledge economy. These changes are expressions of that neither the city nor the countryside is what it was and that a stage that we can call post-urban has occurred.

The four features of the post-urban world that were sketched above are expressions of the dissolution of two dichotomies that have formed much of our thinking on urban development: the urban-rural dichotomy and the urban-suburban dichotomy. Both these dichotomies were based on the well-grounded perception that the urban was something fundamentally different from the rural and the sub-urban, respectively. This is no longer the case. The emergence of city regions where small towns as well as rural and natural areas are included, while other, more peripheral rural areas and smaller cities ends outside the positive influence fields and gradually fade away, means that the traditional urban-rural dichotomy is being dissolved. The emergence of densified, multinuclear city regions also signals that the dichotomy between dense city centers and sparse suburbs wither down. This latter process has been denominated as ‘postmetropolitan’ by Edward Soja. Together, these two processes have formed the base for the post urban world.

“We are on the threshold of a crucial era of change in the urban way of life,” wrote the respected architect-planner Henry S. Churchill in 1945. “Vast disintegrating and destructive forces are loose on the world,” he observed, causing Americans to seek “new physical urban settings” as well as “new social and economic patterns” (Teaford, 2006 pp. 1-7) These words and with a strong sense of correct prediction resonate today and a feeling of impending radical change is proving prescient. Aside from the features of the post-urban world sketched before, some of the leading ideas and discussions in Urban-Global-Age of development have and are still associated with cities and their different futures: the concept of global cities (Sassen, 2005) rise of the creative class (Florida, 2003), the network society (Castells, 1996), city of bits (Mitchell, 1995) and ultimately the triumph of the city (Glaeser, 2011) and well-tempered city (Rose, 2016). These discourses see a plethora of structural transformations and emerging patterns that are either in place, happening or in the continuous ‘becoming’. Creativity is becoming a more important part of the economy as cities hinge on creative people, i.e. they need to attract creative people’s human capital which generates growth and therefore the cities are engines of growth and economic prosperity when they exemplify this “creativity”. We are witnessing a major flow of social and economic dynamics of the information age, virtual places as well as physical ones, and interconnection by means of telecommunication links as well as by pedestrian circulation and mechanized transportation systems. The new network society becomes structured around networks instead of individual actors, and works through a constant flow of information through technology. This is closely connected to the ongoing miniaturization of electronics, the commodification of bits, and the growing domination of software over materialized form. The emphasis on the formation of cross-border dynamics through which cities begin to form strategic transnational networks is seen in the case of global cities; the dynamics and processes that get territorialized are global. The celebration of the city becomes an impassioned argument; city’s importance and splendor, humanity’s greatest creation and our best hope for the future is bestowed with the key role in addressing the important issues in these challenging and crises ridden times, Ultimately, the cities will be those battlegrounds where the environmental, economic, political and social challenges of the twenty-first century will be addressed and ultimately fought (or lost).

There seems to be growing consensus that the 21st century will be the century of the city, and just maybe the time and place of the post-urban world. The post-urban world can also be deducted from a philosophical framework. The transformation of the urban-rural relations can be described in a Hegelian dialectical framework, in which a thesis is being met by an antithesis and the two eventually are transformed into something new and ‘higher’: a synthesis. In this framework, the rural forms the original thesis and the urban emerges as the antithesis. Over centuries, the rural thesis and the urban antithesis acted as the two main poles of spatial interaction. The industrial revolution meant a substantial shift of balance between the two poles in favor of the urban. With the emergence of the knowledge economy, it is clear that a synthesis has arisen: the big cities have incorporated surrounding towns and countryside and transformed them to parts of multifunctional city regions that are connected in global city networks. Outside are the remote parts of the former hinterlands that, in the words of Lefebvre (1970/2003, p. 3), slowly “are given over to nature”. The urban-rural dichotomy has ceased to exist and a synthesis has emerged where neither the city nor the countryside are what they were. A world with these new spatial relations is a Post-Urban World.

Image: Pixabay

Source: Regional Studies

This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat.