Jeb Brugmann

What does it mean that half the world’s people now live in cities – and that two billion more will join them over the next 25 years? How does this change the way the world works?

The following five ideas summarize how the Urban Revolution is changing the world.

  1. It’s not about “megacities” or even “mega-regions” – it’s a new global system. Traditional concepts of cities no longer serve us. For more than 50 years, cities small and large have been connecting through infrastructure, migration, trade, and social networks into a single worldwide urban system. The growth of inter-city networks drives the further evolution of urban infrastructure, products, commerce, lifestyles and cultures, which together increase the consolidation of the urban system. “Globalization” is an abstract term for this very material and ongoing process of re-engineering the world into a new geography – the global City.
  2. The world isn’t “flat.” The City is made up of myriad nested local city systems at the metropolitan, district, and neighborhood levels—places with unique qualities, advantages, and vulnerabilities. Even as the growing City subjects small city districts to global pressures, it also amplifies very local conditions into world events. Through the City’s networked reach, events of very local origin constantly interrupt the old world order. Epidemics (SARS), political upheavals (Venezuela, Kenya, Iran), supply chain breakdowns (New Orleans), and transnational criminal organizations all arise from specific local conditions and spread to other city locations worldwide. The current global financial crisis (2007-2009) arose from a perverse new approach to city building in the United States. Managing global affairs during the next phase of the Urban Revolution requires redoubled attention to the details of localities and location.
    The particularities of distinct urban districts and regions are also increasingly critical to opportunity and competitiveness. Unique forms of city-building provide particular economic advantages in terms of legacy resources, reduced costs and resource efficiencies, and conditions for specialized forms of collaboration and productivity. Successful organizations carefully select or build customized urban locations to secure unique advantages. Then they establish a network of locations across the City, each with its own urban advantages, to create a tailored City-geography for their success.
  3. The City’s growth cannot be stopped. Migration to cities—both domestic and international—will continue for decades as people and organizations pursue urban advantage. Most of today’s anti-immigration and anti-migrant campaigns reflect a lack of awareness of the Urban Revolution’s unstoppable, grassroots economic dynamics. Drawn by the inherent economic advantages of urban location, the world’s most entrepreneurial families, ethnic groups, companies, and social and political movements are competing for positions and territorial control across networks of cities. Their diverse strategies to gain advantage through urban location will fuel an increase of world urban populations by two billion more people over the next 25 years. How we govern these city-building populations—whether we empower and enfranchise them as city-builders, or disempower and isolate them in poorly served urban peripheries and parallel cities—will define the social and political dynamics of the 21st century.
  4. At a time of rising dependency on cities, we have forgotten the basics of urbanism. The current economic crisis is ultimately traceable to the rise of a relatively new approach to city building: the industrial batch production of standardized urban “products” for anonymous, increasingly transient consumer groups. We have been witnessing more extreme “busts” at the peaks of urban growth cycles as industrial batch cityscapes have become the dominant transnational development approach. These busts—as in the 1997-8 Asian financial crisis—reflect a growing disconnect between the profit-and-loss equations of individual developers, banks, and governments and the total economics of emerging urban regions. In the United States, the rising cost structure of new, batch-produced suburban cityscapes (measured on a full-cost basis) exceeded real regional increases in income, setting the stage for defaults in both conventional and subprime mortgages. Simultaneously, industrial batch production has been taken to its logical conclusion: growing numbers of large and small investors have participated in the commodification of the city, producing, purchasing, and flipping generic units (i.e., square feet) of “city” for speculative purposes. This approach to urban development runs counter to the fundamentals of urban advantage.
    Urban advantage is created when places are built in customized fashion to support the economic (and/or the social or political) strategies of particular user-communities. To prevent crisis as we build the Cityscape for two billion more people, we must re-establish our capacity for real urbanism. Urbanism is the engagement of user-communities to innovate in urban design, infrastructure, building methods, policy, and governance, establishing customized places of unique value and advantage in the world. Real urbanisms align the different interests who compete for an urban location to co-create efficient, productive, resilient places for living and producing value together.
  5. There are clear reasons why some cities succeed in their ambitious plans—and why so many others underachieve. The success of “Strategic Cities” like Barcelona, Chicago, or Curitiba has nothing to do with hosting the Olympic Games or being a top-ranked business location. The source of their successes is found in their ability to renew or create new urbanisms to address their particular strategies and the unique challenges of their historic legacies, populations, industries, and times. The ways that Strategic Cities develop new urbanisms—explored in the book as their practices of “urban strategy”—also offer strategies to address the City’s biggest challenges: poverty, social exclusion, climate change, resource scarcity, criminality, and insecurity.