Jeb Brugmann

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

An excerpt from Chapter 4

Anatomy of Urban Revolution: The Inevitable Democracy of the City

When rioting broke out between the Kikuyu and Luo people of Kenya in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru, and other smaller cities in January 2008, it was reported as another case of African political intransigence, rigged electioneering, and ancient tribal rivalries. But beneath the surface of this familiar story line another reality stood plainly: the riots were another violent lurching in an epoch of urban rebellion. For all practical purposes, Kenya’s political crisis in 2008, though manifested through a unique local history and social structure, was not unlike urban uprisings from Detroit to Manila, Beirut to Caracas, Johannesburg to Gdansk during this last phase of the Great Migration.

Established elites can succeed for some decades to deny growing migrant populations access to economic and political rights. But short of mass relocation and murder, as in Pol Pot’s dystopian anti-urban regime, there is an inevitable democracy in the Urban Revolution that continues to revolutionize world politics. Centralized, inegalitarian governments, initially empowered by their control of rural territories and populations, have steadily lost their exclusive grip over economic resources and international relations as their countries urbanize. Once settled in cities, even the most marginalized populations, under the most totalitarian regimes, can leverage urban density, scale, association, and extension to build their own economies, wealth, power, and political alliances. Their rebellions on every continent have continuously taken modern regimes and the mass media by surprise because they have not understood the nature of urban advantage. Urban advantage is a classic form of “public good.” The potential offered by a city’s density, scale, association, and extension infrastructure is accessible to all who determine to use and shape it, regardless of the impediments put in their way…

An excerpt from Chapter 5

The Tyrants’ Demise: The Irrepressible Economics of Urban Association

After the urban revolutions in the United States and Iran captured the world’s attention and transformed those regions; after the ‘People Power’ movement in Manila deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986; and as we watched the unfolding revolution in the cities of South Africa, we were nonetheless surprised when the communist regimes of Central Europe collapsed in a cascade of urban revolution in 1989. From the cities of Poland, a nearly defeated Solidarity trade union movement stepped out from the repressed underground and negotiated political power. Months later, the citizens of Berlin took home their souvenir pieces of the infamous Wall. The world’s collective jaw dropped ever lower as regimes in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania proved oddly impotent in the face of crowds of peaceful, celebrating protestors in cities across the region…

The final collapse of the world’s most authoritarian regimes was a logical consequence of their own centralized designs… The communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe had come to power with a mission to remove the “backwardness” of their prewar societies… [T]hey mastered the rapid development of their countries’ cities, thus creating dynamics of urban social organization that they could not control…

…[B]y reorganizing society into dense urban clusters and networks the regimes actually reduced the ability of rising nomenklatura elites and apparatchiks to control society’s self-organizing potential…Some [people] formed quiet alliances to work for change from within organizations of the system, in response to which many were expelled, exiled, imprisoned, or worse. Others organized at the fringes of organizations, using the contacts, meetings, and routines of the system to build independent, informal networks. As the security apparatus was extended to discipline or expel these people, the resisters formed underground unions, newspapers, and groups of dissident intellectuals…What the regimes didn’t realize was that the only way to stop new forms of association was to remove large numbers of people from the cities.

The further the system pushed to control its urban populations, the larger the marginalized segment discovered, in trial-and-error fashion, the zones of autonomy that the regimes could not control. Even in a system where every component of urban society—economics and employment, the police and courts, phone lines, neighbors’ apartments, jobs, doctors, license bureaus, passports, and prisons—was employed to try to stop free association, it could not be stopped. The communist regimes only proved that control of the city was contrary to the nature of cities…

…Urban revolutions foment wherever large urban populations are aggressively rebuffed in their attempts to steer the development of their cities to their group’s advantage. Urban advantage is a flexible, open-source public good in all urbanizing societies. It can be seized, shaped and deployed strategically in a myriad ways. Attempts to overly control it reflect a fundamental blindness to the imperatives and ethos of the city.

The regular news of simmering conflict in the informal city districts of China, like the riots in France and Belgium in 2005 or in Kenya in 2008, can be like a drip feed that starts to go unnoticed. But…the full picture began to emerge with a report from the RAND Corporation to the same U.S. congressional committee in 2005. “In the past five years officials in China’s public security system have confirmed what foreign observers have sensed for some time: social protest has risen dramatically over the past decade, and is now a daily phenomenon,” said the author to the committee. The number of sit-ins, strikes, petition campaigns, rallies, marches, traffic blocking, building seizures, and riots increased form eighty-seven hundred in 1993 to fifty-eight thousand in 2003…

Such a rapid increase in confrontation in China, at such scale, linked directly to the (mis)management of the urbanization process, suggests that we should be braced for a world of further urban revolutions in the decades ahead…

© 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).