Jeb Brugmann

Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the World
by Jeb Brugmann

An excerpt from Chapter 1

Look Again: A view from the expanding edge of the global City

In 1994, during a visit to Machala, Ecuador, I was taken to a scattered collection of shacks, suspended on stilts eight feet above an open marshy field at the southern edge of the coastal city. There were no paved roads to the place, none of the elements that we associate with our idea of a city—no permanent buildings, walkways, drains, water pipes, or lights. The dozen or so shacks were made of scrap boards, sticks, and thatched grasses. They had appeared over the course of a single night a few months before.

The only adults around were women. My host, the city’s vice mayor, explained that the men had left in customary fashion to take up work on banana plantations, on construction jobs, or in the new shrimp farms. The women had organized their new community into a barrio association to fight for their claim to the land. As we entered the settlement, the women watched but avoided us, remaining focused on their chores. In contrast to the crowded sidewalks, blaring music, and broadcast political appeals in Machala’s busy little commercial center a mile or so away, this place seemed deadly quiet. But it was a deceptive stillness.

When I think of this place today, after looking at recent satellite photos of the region, I feel like an astronomer might, peering through a high-powered telescope, watching and measuring the clustering gases of a birthing star. For this new settlement in Machala—which itself was a town of only seven thousand in 1950—has proven to be far more than the isolated encampment it appeared to be in 1994. It was the expanding edge of a sort of organism, remaking that remote part of the world and connecting its people, commerce, and politics with cities everywhere.

Today, Machala is still a small city with its population of two hundred thousand. That makes it a tiny place on a planet with a population approaching seven billion. Even on the urbanized part of the planet, which counts 3.5 billion residents and nearly two hundred metropolitan areas with more than two million people, Machala is but a half-made town. It’s the kind of place you might pass through without even noting its name. But look again. Something truly revolutionary is happening in these small and isolated places.

A group of landless rural people—locally they are called invasores or “invaders”—came down from the forested Andean foothills in the middle of the night to claim a ten-acre piece of waterlogged land on the lip of the Pacific’s mangroves. Like those before them who had built the other barrios of Machala, this group arrived with tools and materials and a clearly planned division of labor. While some constructed the stilt houses, others stood guard with machetes. By the dawn of their first Machala day the construction work was done and they had started their new city life: creating animal pens, securing new jobs, and organizing politically to secure land titles, rights, roads, and water systems. Together, they were joining the largest grassroots movement ever known to this world: a movement of hundreds of millions of people that has transformed marshlands, estuaries, forests, fields, and hillsides everywhere to build and secure their claim to the emerging global City.

These so-called invaders were part of a fantastic phenomenon, for Machala, despite its remoteness and anonymity, has become a big player in the world. For instance, as much as a quarter of the world’s annual commercial supply of bananas is now shipped from its port. Over the course of the 1990s, the city leveraged its port along with its local culture of land seizure, plantation development, and labor-seeking migration and literally reengineered Ecuador’s southern coastal zone. It transformed the region’s natural fish-breeding mangroves into aquaculture plantations, which since 1994 have spread pond by pond over hundreds of square miles, making Machala a major point on the global industrial supply chain for shrimp. At the same time, the city has also reengineered the urban landscape, covering its drainage canals and streams to address the city’s persistent cholera and typhoid problems, and channeling the city’s untreated sewage into the remaining mangroves, further degrading the remaining natural coastal fishery.

Meanwhile, the city was also fomenting regional political change…In hindsight, we know that Machala was at the frontline of a wider populist revolution brewing in the region’s cities, which has since transformed the politics of South America, electing governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

Machala is one of thousands of little-known, small cities that have been shaping and connecting our world in ways far beyond their size or stature. The impacts of these cities reveal a fundamentally new characteristic of our world today: that local affairs are no longer just local. Our incessant city building, in particular over the last half century, has created a connected, worldwide system of cities through which we have been reengineering global economics, politics, and ecology in ways still barely understood. The evolution of individual cities into a city system, which I just call the City, has radically changed the relationship between local and global affairs. Through the City, local conditions and events, even at the margins of a provincial town, are amplified into global events and accelerated into global trends, often overwhelming the systems and strategies that nations, corporations, and international institutions use to manage their affairs.

Take, for instance, the city of Tiruppur, India. With a population of fifty-two thousand in 1950 and still only three hundred thousand in 1991, Tiruppur made itself into one of the world’s top manufacturing centers for cotton knitwear, successfully competing against India’s wealthier textile mega-cities, Calcutta and Mumbai. Its industrial rise is substantially based on local traditions…

Take another example from an entirely different area of human endeavor. In 1950 the small university city of Irvine, California, did not even exist. It was built out of ranch land in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, in 1989, Irvine played a catalytic role in starting global action to address the destruction of Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer and global climate change…The big-picture orientation of Irvine’s university population supported passage of the first North American law requiring a phase out of ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) compounds…The movement of cities that began in Irvine then went on to convince and assist more than eight hundred cities in fifty countries to dramatically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

While Irvine was seeking solutions to global environmental problems, a deteriorating Los Angeles district called Pico-Union, only forty miles away, was hosting the development of a different kind of movement. During the late 1980s, some of the millions of El Salvadorian war migrants settled in Pico-Union as so-called illegal aliens. Here they were introduced to the traditions and practiced methods of Los Angeles street gangs. Unable to get jobs, social services, or rights as citizens, and rejected by the established gangs, the Salvadorian youth of Pico-Union created the notorious Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 gang…Their rapid evolution in the course of a decade from a small-scale neighborhood gang in Los Angeles into an integrated drugs, stolen goods, and smuggling operation in Central America, and then further into a transnational political, military, and commercial operation demonstrates how the mismanagement of local urban affairs gets amplified through the extending reach of the global City.

Most telling about these examples—and many others like them—is how even the small districts, the remote provincial towns, and entirely new cities play a major role in world affairs today. Not long ago, developments in places like Machala, Tiruppur, Irvine, and Pico-Union went largely unnoted and had little consequence. Today, they are directly changing the greater world in measurable ways. These places have been the expanding margins of something much bigger: a global City of more than three billion people, soon to be five billion, that is changing the nature of human affairs and of nature itself.

Ideas like globalization, the “flattening” of the world, or the growth of a “network society” are abstract attempts to try to explain this change. But the world is a material place. Its economic and information flows, technologies, business processes, and social relations are not ethereal. They occur within geographies, infrastructures, buildings, and organized communities with very local histories and cultures that are all organized into distinct, tangible, three-dimensional city places that create the economies and social dynamics for particular kinds of activities and living. They are anything but virtual or ‘flat.’ Those local conditions and histories both constrain and enable the markets for wealth creation, the application of technologies, and the development of new politics…

…In this book we will explore the tangible form of globalization, which exists in longitude and latitude and three-dimensional space. It rests on the bedrock structure of the world’s growing cities, and gains definition through their particular designs, values, and routines as they interact in a billion undocumented ways in the emerging global City system. In the early 1990s, Machala’s vice mayor established a health clinic that offered (of all things) Indian Ayer Vedic treatments to the residents of that new stilt-shack barrio; a community of peasant-workers built a global industry; a group of Los Angeles migrants built a transnational criminal organization that is monitored by the U.S. Southern Command; and a group of cities led the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—all initially without the Internet, multinational companies, or breakthrough business processes. Something more fundamental and more concrete than just ‘globalization’ was happening…

© 2009 James E. Brugmann. All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Bloomsbury Press (May 2009): http://

Published in Canada by Penguin/Viking Canada (May 2009):,,9780670068050,00.html?WELCOME_TO_THE_URBAN_REVOLUTION_Jeb_Brugmann

Published in Australia by University of Queensland Press (August 2009):

Also in India (HarperCollins India), China (Mandarin translation by Cheers Books/China Renmin University Press), the Netherlands (Dutch translation by Business Contact).