Storm warning for large cities!

07 February 2020Patrick Le Galès, Research Director at CNRS


Patrick Le Galès, Research Director at CNRS, Dean of the Urban School at Sciences Po, Professor at Sciences Po, Fellow of the British Academy

These Cahiers highlight a kind of schizophrenia in large cities, which are torn between competitiveness and eagerness to achieve a more inclusive model. Do you share this observation?

Patrick Le Galès I’d say it’s more a case of the fundamental contradiction in urban development: cities try to organise economic development, attract populations and investments and foster interactions between different groups, but at the same time there have always been significant inequalities in cities, especially in periods of growth. We are now able to perceive this phenomenon more sharply, because cities play a more important role than before in structuring and organising contemporary societies. Major cities are concentrations of social and political phenomena. But if these contradictions are exacerbated in the urban age, it is because they play a more significant role in the creation of wealth and the organisation of relationships between social groups, rather than because states are playing a somewhat less prominent role in redressing balances. Large cities remain key environments in which populations can gain access to collective assets, health and education. An enlightening recent study carried out by Raj Chetty1 in the United States shows that more than ever before cities are acting as social elevators. His investigation shows that, in the last thirty years, the chances of a child from a blue-collar background ending up in an executive role are increasingly linked to whether or not they live in a city. The major problem in the USA is that cities are becoming more and more inaccessible in terms of housing, at least in the twelve cities that account for most American wealth and where upward mobility is strongest. France Stratégie carried out a similar survey in France. In a number of countries, life expectancy is significantly greater in cities than in rural areas. For example, it is generally decreasing in the USA but increasing in New York and Los Angeles. It is nonetheless true that the dark side of metropolitanisation is growing in strength. Problems of pollution, poor maintenance of infrastructures and investments that fail to respond to needs are on the rise. These contradictions are real: the larger cities are, the more complex their ability to organise the production of collective assets becomes. By the same token, the more economic development there is, the more people they attract and the wider the income gap becomes.

So large cities now really do share a common trajectory?

P.L.G. Yes, the hypothesis this comparison leads me to make is that, despite their specific characteristics, these contradictions are becoming major issues in all of large world cities. In Africa, in Lagos for example, we see business districts that are more modern than those in major northern cities, as well as slums. The contradiction is stark, but the problems are not all that different in Lagos and Los Angeles: transport, facilities, the attraction of populations, the cohabitation of different groups, the circulation of capital, the production of public assets… But the issues in Lagos are increasingly different from those found in the rest of Nigeria. In reality, we are starting to think that an urban policy is taking shape and, in a way, becoming unifi ed. The book Seeing Like a State2 showed how the state both conceives of and transforms society. By analogy, we can say that we are witnessing the emergence of a world that is seeing like a city. Large world cities broadly share the same problems, and this points to a common political agenda. Solutions and strategic plans are exchanged, for example. More and more large fi rms are specialising in the urban environment (telecommunications, construction, etc.). There’s a “world of the city” that is starting to be well integrated on a global scale, with an important role played by corporate strategies, the World Bank, international consultants and researchers. This isn’t just the circulation of ideas, it’s also a kind of appropriation. We can see it in the field of transport, for instance, with bike sharing services and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems. And such transfers are not only happening from North to South: they can start to be developed in Latin America and Asia and later on be adopted in London and Paris. Cities and states have different processes and methods: in cities they are more horizontal and more often negotiated between different vested interests.

But isn’t there a range of very different metropolitan models?

P.L.G. There are certainly differing variables. If we wanted to establish metropolitan typologies, we’d probably have to mix together economic variables such as wealth and productivity, and political variables, which would allow us to assess modes of governance. And the time factor would also have to be taken into account. Typologies are often too static and take no account of medium-term changes. For example, Los Angeles has always been described as a city that’s very different from the rest of the world. But what has the city developed over the past thirty years? A cathedral, cultural facilities, redesigned squares. Its leaders are investing in public transport and increasing the density of the urban fabric. Urban trajectories also help us to see how things converge. This is what our work on São Paulo and Mexico City has shown us: the problem is not that they are not comparable to Paris and London, it’s just that there’s a time lapse. Conversely, cases that are more directly comparable demonstrate fundamental divergences. Will London move closer to the Paris model by regulating property investment, as its mayor has announced? Or is it more likely, given Brexit, that it will align itself with cities such as Hong Kong and Dubai, which specialise in a development model based on fi nancial attractiveness? It is interesting to observe changing trends that are guided by movements of concentration or, on the contrary, dissemination. Saskia Sassen hypothesised that global cities were the exception to the rule3. Her intuition on global cities was brilliant, but she was wrong to think that the process of globalisation would remain restricted to a select coterie of cities (New York, London, Tokyo). What does the future hold for the fi nancialised city-model? Will it be concentrated in certain specific cities, with the others seeking an alternative model based on assertive regulation, or will it spread to a large number of cities?

With the benefit of ten years’ hindsight, can we say that the financial crisis of the late 2000s sealed the fate of cities, confirming their dominant position in the geopolitics of space?

P.L.G. To my mind, the financial crisis merely confirmed positions that were already established. Movements, perhaps exacerbated by housing prices and inequalities, followed a trend that was already well under way. In a sense, what’s new is that the decline of cities that were already in difficulty has been accentuated, and that cities that were already fragile have been pushed over the edge. The position of dynamic cities and large cities has been confirmed. On the other hand, there may be some profound transformations over the next twenty or thirty years. It’s reminiscent of 1865 in Europe, at the time of the Industrial Revolution and political revolutions. First, large cities are increasingly leading the way in the twenty-first century world, but they are also increasingly becoming its targets. They may well find themselves being destabilised by forces that challenge the cosmopolitan aspect of the urban environment. Might we, in thirty years time, see a turnaround that would put an end to this dynamic where large cities spearhead development? Second, technical progress might be overturned, whereas today artificial intelligence is still in its infancy. Third, in response to climate change, how can we produce common assets while managing scarcity and constraint? Fourth, we’re still experiencing cycles where a huge number of people are moving around the world, perhaps in increasing numbers, while urban populations are growing. How can these very large cities with more and more diverse populations be governed? If we lay all this end to end, we can say that “storm clouds are gathering over large cities!”

In the context of the differentiation you describe between cities and the state, don’t these issues plead in favour of an increased integration of large cities into their regional areas?

P.L.G. We are seeing regional cities assert themselves in certain cases. This could be one of the models gaining strength in response to the increasing conflict between cities and states. We can see this happening between Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, as well as in the US. It’s still bubbling under the surface in Shanghai, and could emerge in Brazil in the new political context. As Barcelona and Catalonia show, the region provides the city with additional resources. This is an interesting question for Paris and the Paris Region. But that’s a model among many others. The decisive variable remains the capacity for collective action. This is the great strength of Scandinavian cities. Investment in transport or education, which attract fierce competition, and solving problems of pollution, which will no doubt end up causing the attractiveness of cities to wane, are not down to cities alone: they depend on cooperation, in particular with state governments.

Interview by Paul Lecroart, Léo Fauconnet and Maximilian Gawlik

We need more comparative research programmes on large cities

The limits to the development of knowledge on the trajectories of large cities must not be underestimated. For a long time we have had little research at our disposal because urban research is rarely comparative. Major differences exist from one discipline to the next. There has been extensive work in the field of critical geography, which is intellectually stimulating but has weak empirical foundations. What is primarily lacking is serious fieldwork. In addition to this, subjects of study are sometimes poorly defined. A significant proportion of comparative discourse is produced by professionals specialising in strategies and urban planning, providing interesting material but leaving many aspects unexplored. There is a tendency to reduce investigations of the management of large cities to studies of the proper implementation of urban planning, whereas the latter is just one aspect of public policy. Such studies only tell us a very small part of the story of what happens in these cities. New Delhi, for example, is traditionally thought to be ungovernable, because urban planning is not implemented there: this is to ignore the existence of very important educational, social and even environmental policies that structure urban development. This is the focus of the research programme at Sciences Po entitled What is governed and not governed in large metropolises? (WHIG), which tends to show that large cities are increasingly governed!
Last but not least, it is clear that, because urban planners are so fascinated by what happens in cities and the relationships between them, they often exhibit a great deal of naïvety, or even a genuine lack of understanding, regarding the relationships between cities and states. These relationships nevertheless remain an essential element in the transformation of cities and go a long way to explaining their differences. In response to this stark lack of knowledge, measurement, analysis and comparison regarding major world cities, knowledge, concepts and methods are, however, being recomposed. This is demonstrated in a recent book, edited by Bruno Cousin, focusing on comparison in urban research*. Michael Storper and I are trying to reconcile serious scientific conceptualisation with comparative empirical research. We are able to draw on work carried out at the Urban School at Sciences Po and, more specifically, by the Cities are Back in Town research group. This determinedly transdisciplinary group includes economists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, planners and geographers. Its core research, begun four years ago and set to last a decade, compares an entire array of public policies and governance issues in a group of cities: São Paulo, Mexico City, London and Paris. Our aim is to publish a book on each city, and we carry out comparative analysis, accumulating empirical research on a wide variety of subjects including networks of actors, business districts, utilities, corruption and so on. A second set of cities is also used for comparison, based on more targeted work on Istanbul, Dubai, Johannesburg, Manila, Beijing and Los Angeles.

* Jean-Yves Authier, Vincent Baggioni, Bruno Cousin, Yankel Fijalkow, Lydie Launay, D’une ville à l’autre, la comparaison internationale en sociologie urbaine, La Découverte, 2019.