Large cities: matrice of urban transition

07 February 2020ContactPaul Lecroart, Léo Fauconnet, Maximilian Gawlik, L’Institut Paris Region

Cities are matrices for the great transformations of the contemporary world. They are the places where economic wealth and technological innovations are created, and are the heart of financial and migratory flows. All are seeking to reinvent their development models and reduce their ecological and energy footprints, while remaining competitive and liveable. They will need to go even further in the future if they wish to survive the major transitions currently in progress.

Stimulated by globalisation, financialisation and the rise of digital technology, over the past fifteen years or so, and especially since the 2008 financial crisis, cities have massively concentrated global financial flows. More than ever before, cities are migration hubs and melting-pots of all the world’s cultures, and shape global societal values. Metropolitan regions are now part of a global interconnected urban system made up of established global cities (New York, London, Paris), of global challengers (Shanghai, Toronto, Sydney) and of emerging global cities (Shenzhen, Mumbai, São Paulo), forming a world apart that is detaching itself from national contexts. Cities increasingly resemble one another: “the world is covered by a sole [city] that neither begins nor ends: only the name of the airport changes1,” says Italo Calvino’s Marco Polo. The use of cities has intensified: after a phase of deindustrialisation and decline in the late twentieth century, at the dawn of the third millennium developed cities are enjoying renewed attractiveness, especially in their central areas. They have reorganised their economies around finance, high-level services and innovation. Density in terms of jobs and inhabitants, mobility and real estate, and educational, recreational and cultural opportunities are all on the rise. Reclaimed from cars, metropolitan public spaces are being transformed into open-air lounges offering varied uses and forms of mobility, spotlighted by global urban marketing. While the hearts of cities are intensifying, urban peripheries continue to spread, fragmenting natural and rural environments and continuing the centuries-old global de-densification of metropolitan regions.

The urban species

The last two decades have seen the world change faster than ever before. The planet has become hugely urbanised and anthropic: some believe that the human species is the origin of a new geological period, the Anthropocene2, characterised by the pre-eminence of Man over the biophysical balances of the terrestrial system. The Earth now has 7.7 billion inhabitants, 4.2 billion of whom live in cities3: for the first time in the history of humanity, in 2007 over half of the world’s population has become urban (55% today), and is thus bereft of its ancient connections with nature. There will be 5 billion urbanites in 2030 and 6.7 billion in 2050 (68%): twice the total world population in 1975... In the 1970s, just four “megacities” had populations of over 10 million (Tokyo, New York, Osaka and Mexico City). This had risen to 33 in 2019 (including Paris), and will reach 43 by 20304. The emergence of urban mega-regions, such as that of Shanghai (80 million inhabitants), the Pearl River Delta (47 million) and Jakarta (26 million), reflects the shifting of the world’s centre of gravity towards Asia. By 2050, nine tenths of global urban growth will occur in Asia and Africa, giving rise to a second world of giant cities (and slums). By 2100, according to some forecasts5, the ten largest world cities will be Lagos, Kinshasa, Dar-es-Salam, Mumbai, Delhi, Khartoum, Niamey, Dhaka, Calcutta and Kabul, each with over 50 million inhabitants.

Social crisis

Victims of their success, cities exacerbate the contradictions of the development model put in place in the second half of the twentieth century. In 2000-2010, the spectacular rebirth of post-industrial cities in Europe and North America led some economists to be overoptimistic. In 2002, Richard Florida thought that the “creative” classes would make cities more prosperous and liveable6. Edward Glaeser’s best seller, Triumph of the City7 is subtitled: “How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier”! Fifteen years later, things had turned out very differently: The New Urban Crisis8 from the same Richard Florida lamented growing social disparities and the pauperisation of the middle class in the most “successful” American cities. Among the factors that explain this are the disconnection between rising housing costs and stagnant salaries, along with the financialisation of real estate fuelled by the dizzying concentration of global wealth9. Since the crisis of 2008, the centres of New York, London, Singapore and Dubai, for example, have become “vertical safes” in which the liquidities of billionaires in search of safe investments can solidify; this helps to drive out the middle classes while increasing the risk of a property bubble10. Spatial segregation is increasing, as seen in the Paris Region11, threatening the cohesion of metropolitan areas that had hitherto been spared, such as Munich, Copenhagen, Berlin and Oslo. With relatively high levels of poverty and unemployment and shrinking public resources, cities struggle to play their historic role of integrating migrants: the number of homeless people is rising almost everywhere.

Ecological crisis

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), at the current rate global warming is on track to reach at least 3°C by 2100. With 55% of the population living on 2% of the planet, cities consume three quarters of its energy and of its natural resources and emit 70% of its carbon dioxide (CO2). These figures are growing, as the development model of cities relies 86% on fossil energy (oil, gas, coal)12. Taxes and public policy fail to curtail the purchase of individual houses, urban sprawl and car use, thus worsening congestion and pollution and affecting public health. Land artificialisation and the contamination of environments connected to urbanisation contribute to the global collapse of biodiversity. The global ecological footprint of cities is beyond the planet’s capacities: London’s footprint, for example, is equivalent to 124 times its area13: more than that of the United Kingdom as a whole… Floods, heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires: faced with the realities of climate change, cities are becoming aware of how vulnerable they are. While the water supply in many cities is becoming a problem, rising sea levels threaten cities such as London, Shanghai, Lagos and Dhaka. These crises may be combined with other catastrophes (earthquakes, epidemics, terrorism), making resilience into an existential challenge for cities.

Can cities change the world?

Faced with this situation, cities are mobilising to turn things around. Via their networks (United Cities and Local Governments, C40, 100 Resilient Cities, Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance), they are taking collective action against climate change, seeking a more sustainable, more equitable, and greener urban model. They played a key role in the 2015 Paris Agreement on limiting global warming to less than 2 °C by 2100. They were instrumental in the definition of the New Urban Agenda14 of Habitat-III and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (2016), whose Eleventh Goal is “to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Over 9,600 local and regional authorities in almost 60 countries have signed the Global Convention of Mayors for Climate and Energy, committing to reduce CO2 emissions by 1.3 billion tonnes, equivalent to 276 million fewer cars. Cities understand that reducing their global ecological footprint and their emissions by at least 80% by 2050 is a vital economic and social challenge. Although they know how tough this will be, Barcelona, Stockholm, London, Paris, Boston, Sydney, Melbourne and others aim to be carbon neutral within thirty years. For ten years, climate and energy plans and carbon strategies are developing increasingly integrated approaches: for example, going further than PlaNYC (2007), the OneNewYork 2050 plan, adopted in 2014 by the city of New York, fosters systemic initiatives combining housing, social fairness, energy, resilience, climate, greening, water management, the circular economy, etc. Long-term climate and energy strategies rely on massive public and private investment: reduction of energy consumption in buildings, the rise of renewable energy sources, the recycling of waste and materials, green infrastructures, sustainable mobility, etc. These strategies are integrated into spatial planning programmes: cities are adopting master plans for 2040 or beyond, often based on the principles of density15, compactness and polycentrism. Some refer to the concept of the “urban bioregion16, linking metropolitan and rural space within a more self-sufficient development model. Pioneers of eco-planning such as Stockholm, Malmö and Vancouver are applying the lessons learned in their eco-districts on a large scale. And now digital giants are positioning themselves on the market for major urban projects (Toronto) and urban management (China), prompting legitimate fears. Cities are rediscovering their geography and their “nature”. They are reconnecting with their rivers (New York), uncovering buried rivers (Seoul), rewilding watercourses (Munich), and revitalising suburban valleys (Milan). Thanks to intensive farming, cities are becoming islands of biodiversity providing a home for threatened wildlife. In response to the need to cool dense built-up areas, they encourage the greening of roofs, walls and terraces (Singapore), set minimum greening levels (Berlin), and develop urban forests17 (Vancouver), wetlands (London), farming belts (Medellín) and regional urban parks (Melbourne)18. These projects are often citizens’ initiatives: people are increasingly mobilising to invent new ecological and humanistic development models, as seen in the global “cities in transition” movement19.

A new era?

Do these changes point to a paradigm shift? It’s probably too early to tell, as the disconnect between economic growth and greenhouse gases is still in its infancy and only concerns emissions in cities in developed countries, excluding imported emissions. One thing is for sure, though: the acceleration of change (ecological, energy-related, economic, digital, democratic, etc.) that cities and humanity face is causing a great deal of uncertainty. According to some authors, the “great transition of humanity” we have been experiencing since 1945 is comparable in significance to the Neolithic revolution and to the emergence of the first cities20. Others, like Michel Lussault, think that we are reaching the end of a cycle of metropolitanisation and that we need to invent more local models for the production of wealth. Still others predict that tomorrow’s cities will be able to produce the energy they consume and recycle all the materials they need to operate, or even regenerate the planet’s natural environment21. Between density and liveability, between competitiveness and social fairness, between freedom and regulation, between ecology and “business as usual”, the future of cities is being prepared and debated. Each city, with its own system and its own expertise, can be an in vivo laboratory used to invent ways of managing the spaces where most of humanity will live. Time is the raw material for the transformation of cities and regions. The need for quick decisions and immediate action must not make us lose sight of the long-term impact of our individual and collective choices.

Paul Lecroart, Senior Urbanist, with Léo Fauconnet, Political Scientist and Urbanist,
and Maximilian Gawlik, Landscape Architect and Urbanist, L’Institut Paris Region


International comparisons and exchanges between cities have been part of the Institute’s DNA from the beginning*, informing and inspiring the development strategies of key players in the Paris Region. Close observation of what other cities are doing is crucial for comparison, assessing changes, providing inspiration and broadening the field of possibilities. The origin of this book is the participation of the Institute in the International Advisory Committee for the 4th Regional Plan of New York** between 2014 and 2017, alongside experts from other large cities. This book relies on exchanges with many cities and expert networks and features a large international panel of authors*** with very varied profiles, approaches and points of view: strategists, city planners, regional planners, geographers, economists, researchers, architects, landscape designers, ecologists, sociologists, and so on. The book is divided into four sections. Megalopolis focuses on the challenges, trajectories and strategies of large metropolitan regions, whose economic success exposes them to major crises and uncertain futures. In parallel it deals with established global cities and emerging megalopolises, seeking to analyse their urban policies and stimulate thinking on one particular megacity, namely Paris... Metamorphosis tells the story of strategy-minded, agile and well organised cities and regions which, in response to a crisis, have succeeded in the space of one or two generations in reversing their trajectory. Their experience may prove very useful as cities will have to adapt to rapid transitions and to find more resilient pathways in order to cope with future crises.
Explorations focuses on initiatives in progress. It analyses the multitude of projects and experiments taking place worldwide—including in the Paris Region— that are helping to build more liveable, more compact and greener cities that are economically attractive and socially inclusive. These explorations might serve as catalysts for change, leading to more sustainable urban models. Prospects aims to provide keys to understanding the metropolitan world and reflecting upon its possible futures. This chapter shows how cities are repositioning themselves in the global arena around environmental and social questions with the support of international networks. It testifies not only to the growing power of private investors and digital giants in the development of cities, but also to the strategic, tactical and creative role of ordinary citizens. It describes, via case studies, new forms of cooperation between cities, metropolitan areas, regions, and states, and mentions strategic reforms that might be necessary to respond to the new challenges faced by cities.

* “Paris et huit métropoles mondiales”, Les Cahiers de l’IAURP n°2, June 1965 or “Large-Scale Urban Development Projects in Europe”, Les Cahiers de l’Iaurif n° 146; June 2007.
** International Advisory Committee for the 4th Regional Plan of New York by the Regional Plan Association (RPA).
*** Draft articles were sent by authors between Summer 2018 and Summer 2019. Titles and sub-headings have been harmonised by L’Institut Paris Region.

1. Calvino, Italo, Invisible Cities, Harcourt, San Diego, 1974.
2. In particular Paul Josef Crutzen (Nobel Prize for chemistry 1995) and Eugene Stoermer.
3. World Population Prospects, UN, 2019.
4. Revision of World Urbanization Prospects, UN 2018.
5. Hoornweg, Daniel and Pope, Kevin, Socioeconomic Pathways and Regional Distribution of the World’s 101 Largest Cities, Global Cities Institute Working Paper, 2014.
6. Florida, Richard, The Rise of the Creative Class, Basic Books, 2002.
7. Glaeser, Edward, Triumph of the City. How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, Penguin Press, New York, 2011.
8. Florida, Richard, The New Urban Crisis, Basic Books, 2017.
9. According to Oxfam (2018), the world’s 26 richest people own as much as the 50% poorest.
10. UBS Global Real Estate Bubble Index, September 2018.
11. Sagot, Mariette, Gentrification et paupérisation au coeur de l’Île-de-France. Évolutions 2001-2015, L'Institut Paris Region, May 2019.
12. Energy and Resilient Cities, OECD, 2014.
13. Girardet, Herbert, Personal Communication, October 2018.
14. New Urban Agenda, UN-Habitat, Quito, 2016.
15. Ståhle, Alexander, Closer Together. This is The Future of Cities, Dokument Press, 2016.
16. Magnaghi, Alberto, La biorégion urbaine, 2014.
17. The Cities4Forests programme involves some sixty world cities.
18. Beatley, Timothy, Biophilic Cities. Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning, Island Press, 2011.
19. Transition towns
20. Afriat, Christine and Theys, Jacques (ed.), La Grande transition de l’humanité. De Sapiens à Deus, FYP éditions, 2018.
21. Girardet, Herbert, Creating Regenerative Cities, Routledge, 2015.