Urban governance - at what scale?

The notion of urban governance generally refers to a specific spatial terrain (the bounded city, metropolis or region) which is thought to contain various regulatory problems (for instance, of economic development, housing, transportation, environmental relations and so forth) whose alleviation requires coordinated collective action. Today, however, the boundaries of that terrain – from city and suburb to metropolis, mega-city and metropolitan region – are being exploded. What, under these conditions, is the appropriate spatial terrain of “urban” governance?

Urbanisation, generalised

Settlement space has long been differentiated by place names, and it seems intuitive to demarcate the terrain of the urban, both historically and today, with reference to the world’s great cities – London, New York, Shenzhen, Mumbai, Lagos and so forth. Even amidst the intense volatility associated with accelerated geo-economic restructuring, such places clearly do still exist, and in fact, their size and strategic economic importance appear to be growing, not diminishing. But what, exactly, are these places, aside from names on a map that have been institutionalised by governments and branded as investment locations by growth coalitions? What distinguishes them qualitatively from other places within and beyond, say, the South East of England and Western Europe; the US Northeast and North America; the Pearl River Delta and East Asia; Maharashtra and South Asia; or southern Nigeria and West Africa? Do they contain some special quality that makes them unique – their size, perhaps, or their population density? Their infrastructural outlays? Their strategic centrality in global flows of capital and labour? Or, on the other hand, have the socio-spatial relations of urbanism that were once apparently contained within these units now exploded haphazardly beyond them, via the ever-thickening commodity chains, infrastructural circuits, migration streams and circulatory-logistical networks that today crisscross the planet?

But if this is the case, can any city, whatever its size, still be said to have coherent boundaries? Have the everyday social relations, inter-firm networks, labour markets, built environments, infrastructural corridors and socio-environmental footprints associated with such densified clusters now been extended, thickened, superimposed and interwoven to forge what Jean Gottmann once vividly described as an “irregularly colloidal mixture of rural and suburban landscapes” on national, international, continental and even global scales?1 And, to the degree that all this is indeed occurring, shouldn’t inherited understandings of the urban as a distinctive, bounded settlement type be abandoned?

This was the position advanced by French socio-spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre over four decades ago, when he opened his classic text, La révolution urbaine, with the provocative hypothesis that “society has been completely urbanised.”2 Although he viewed complete urbanisation as a virtual object – an emergent condition rather than an actualised reality – Lefebvre suggested that the broad outlines of a complete formation of urbanisation were already coming into relief during the 1960s in Western Europe. When actualised on a planetary scale, Lefebvre suggested, such tendencies would entail a relentless, if fragmentary, interweaving of an urban fabric – a “net of uneven mesh” – across the entire world, including terrestrial surfaces, the oceans, the atmosphere and the subterranean, all of which would be ever more directly operationalised to support the voracious pursuit of capitalist industrial growth.3

When this “critical point” is reached, Lefebvre suggested, the condition of complete urbanisation would no longer be hypothetical; it would, rather, have become a basic parameter for planetary social and environmental relations, imposing new constraints upon the transformation of the global built environment and unleashing potentially catastrophic dangers, but also harbouring new opportunities for the democratic (re-)appropriation of space. In the late 1980s, Lefebvre suggested that the critical point of complete urbanisation had actually been crossed, and thus that a “planetarisation of the urban” was being realised in practice.4 This planetary formation of urbanisation has been further consolidated since that time, and it has seriously blurred, even exploded, long-entrenched socio-spatial borders, not only between city and countryside, urban and rural, core and periphery, metropole and colony, society and nature, but also between the urban, regional, national and global scales themselves. Once understood as a relatively bounded, self-enclosed settlement space, the terrain of the urban has today become more ubiquitous, if also now more slippery, than ever.

Urbanisation’s operational landscapes

In a collaborative project with Christian Schmid of the ETH-Zurich, I am exploring this emergent condition of generalised urbanisation in various regions and territories of the contemporary world.5 Alongside its many methodological and empirical challenges, this endeavor has also required us to break quite radically with inherited assumptions regarding the spatiality of the urban, and thus to reconceptualise the imprint and operationality of urban processes on the planetary landscape. In the absence of this labour of reconceptualisation, we argue, our collective ability to understand, and thus to influence, the thickening worldwide urban fabric of early 21st century capitalism is seriously constrained.

Inherited approaches to urban knowledge have long demarcated their focal point for research and action with reference to cities – conceived as settlement types characterised by certain indicative features (such as large populations, density and social diversity) that are thought to make them qualitatively distinct from a non-city social world (suburban, rural and/or “natural”) that is putatively located “beyond” or “outside” them. By contrast, our work builds upon some of Lefebvre’s methods and concepts to supersede such understandings, and on this basis, to transcend the urban/non-urban divide that has long anchored the entire field of urban research and practice.

In pursuing these agendas, our claim is decidedly not, as some urbanists have occasionally proposed, that cities (or, more precisely, zones of agglomeration) are dissolving into a placeless society of global flows, borderless connectivity or haphazard spatial dispersal.6 Nor do we suggest that population density, inter-firm clustering, agglomeration effects or infrastructural concentration – to name just a few of the conditions commonly associated with cityness – are no longer significant features in contemporary economy and society. But, in considering this assemblage of issues, we insist that “cities are just a form of urbanisation,” and therefore must be understood as dynamically evolving sites, arenas and outcomes of broader processes of socio-spatial and socio-ecological transformation.7

But how, precisely, to theorise this process of urbanisation? The task poses considerable challenges because, in most accounts, the concept of urbanisation refers, tout court, to the process of city growth: it is circumscribed, by definition, to refer only to the growth of large, and perhaps dense or diverse, settlements, generally in conjunction with some of the other macro-trends of capitalist modernity. Although the origins of the concept of urbanisation may be traced to various strands of 19th and early 20th century social theory, this city-centric conceptualisation was paradigmatically embodied in sociologist Kingsley Davis’ classic, mid-20th century definition of urbanisation as the expansion of the city-based population relative to the total national population. Rather than defining cities in social, morphological or functional terms, Davis famously used numerical population thresholds – generally 20,000 or 100,000 – to demarcate their specificity as settlement types.8

Davis’ mid-century definition is today firmly institutionalised in the data collection systems that are still used by the United Nations (UN) and other global organisations, and it is also still rigidly entrenched within major strands of contemporary social science, urban planning, social policy and public health.9 Indeed, it is precisely this empiricist, city-centric conceptualisation of urbanisation that underpins the hugely influential contemporary assertion that more than 50% of the world’s population is now located in “cities.”

Aside from its empirical blind-spots, which are considerable given the non-standardised, nationally specific definitions of settlement types that are intermixed within the UN’s global data tables, our work suggests that such a proposition is a quite misleading basis for understanding the contemporary global urban condition. It presupposes an ahistorical, population-centric concept of the city that does not adequately grasp the extraordinary scale and diversity of agglomeration processes that are currently unfolding across the major world-regions. Just as importantly, the notion of a 50% urban “threshold” fails to illuminate the wide-ranging impacts of urbanisation processes that are unfolding far beyond these large centres of agglomeration – including in zones of resource extraction, agro-industrial enclosure, logistics and communications infrastructure, tourism and waste disposal – which often traverse peripheral, remote and apparently “rural” or “natural” locations. While such operational landscapes may not contain the population densities, settlement properties, social fabric and infrastructural equipment that are commonly associated with cities, they have long played essential strategic roles in supporting the latter, whether by supplying raw materials, energy, water, food or labour, or through logistics, communications or waste-processing functions. Consideration of such issues also rather dramatically illustrates our contention that the terrain of urban governance must today be massively broadened, both in research and in practice, to consider not only cities and metropolitan regions, but their complex, evolving connections to the broader landscapes that support their everyday operations, developmental dynamics and metabolic processes.

Today, our research suggests, such landscapes are being comprehensively engineered or redesigned through a surge of infrastructural investments, enclosures and large-scale territorial planning strategies intended to support the accelerated growth and expansion of agglomerations and inter-urban systems around the world. Their developmental rhythms are thus being linked ever more directly to those of the major urban centres via worldwide spatial divisions of labour. Meanwhile, the continuing commodification, enclosure and socio-ecological degradation of such operational landscapes are directly contributing to the forms of mass dispossession and displacement that are too often uncritically catalogued or even celebrated in contemporary mainstream urban policy discourse under the rubric of modernising, “rural-to-urban” demographic change.10 Consequently, if we do indeed currently live in an “urban age,” this condition must be explored not only with reference to the formation of global cities or mega-city regions, but also considering the ongoing, if uneven, instrumentalisation of the entire planet – including terrestrial, subterranean, oceanic and atmospheric space – to support an accelerating, intensifying process of urban industrial development.

Insofar as the dominant model of capitalist urbanisation continues to be based upon the generalised extraction, production and consumption of fossil fuels, generally from remote zones located well beyond the major city centres, it is also directly implicated in a form of global ecological plunder that is permanently altering the earth’s climate while infiltrating the earth’s soils, oceans, rivers and atmosphere with unprecedented levels of pollution and toxic waste. Climate change and the transformation of the biosphere, then, are likewise connected directly to historical and contemporary urbanisation processes.

Towards urbanisation governance?

A new understanding of urbanisation is needed; one that explores the mutually recursive relations between agglomeration processes and their operational landscapes, including the forms of land-use intensification, logistical coordination and socio-metabolic transformation that accompany the latter at all spatial scales. In such an approach, the development, intensification and worldwide expansion of capitalism produces a vast, variegated terrain of urbanised conditions that include yet progressively extend far beyond the zones of agglomeration that have long monopolised the attention of urban researchers.

Contemporary questions of “urban” governance must be correspondingly expanded – both analytically and spatially – to consider the challenges of coordinating such complex interconnections and, more generally, the intensely variegated, volatile and often destructive socio-environmental geographies of urbanisation. Of course, the classical question of the “growth of the city” remains as essential as ever to the politics of urban governance; municipal politics and inter-city coordination remain hugely consequential for social, political and economic life and environmental relations. But, under conditions of generalised urbanisation, the process of urban growth increasingly hinges upon a planet-encompassing operational landscape whose most minute contours and macro-environmental parameters are being powerfully transformed to support diverse forms of urbanism, often in quite distant locations and in lastingly destructive ways.

How are the connections between cities and their dispersed operational landscapes to be institutionally coordinated and
environmentally managed, within and beyond national states and supranational regions? How might those systems of socio-economic, infrastructural and environmental interdependence, and their wide-ranging externalities, be reconfigured to create more socially just, democratically vibrant and ecologically viable regions, territories and landscapes? These macro-spatial questions are all-too-rarely explored by urbanists, but they today urgently require our systematic attention: the field of urban governance must be articulated to a much broader terrain of questions regarding large-scale socio-territorial organisation, infrastructural planning, environmental stewardship and democratic (re-)appropriation of the planetary commons. Under contemporary conditions, urban governance – or, more precisely, the governance of urbanisation – and the governance of the planet as a whole are not only inextricably intertwined with one another; they are identical.

1 Jean Gottmann, Megalopolis (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1961), 5.
2 Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution. Translated by Robert Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003 [1970]), 1.
3 Ibid., 1-23.
4 Henri Lefebvre, “Dissolving city, planetary metamorphosis,” in Neil Brenner ed., Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization (Berlin: Jovis, 2013), 566-571.
5 Neil Brenner ed., Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization (Berlin: Jovis, 2013). See also the website of the Urban Theory Lab (Graduate School of Design, Harvard University): urbantheorylab.net.
6 The locus classicus of such arguments is Melvin Webber, “The post-city age,” Daedalus, 94, 4 (1968), 1091-1110. See also Stephen Graham, “The end of geography or the explosion of place: conceptualizing space, place and information technology,” Progress in Human Geography, 22, 2 (1998), 165-185.
7 Matthew Gandy, “Where does the city end?,” in Implosions/Explosions (Berlin: Jovis, 2013), 86.
8 Kingsley Davis, “The Origins and Growth of Urbanization in the World,” American Journal of Sociology, 60, 5 (1955) 429-437.
9 See Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, “The ‘urban age’ in question,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38, 3 (2014): 731-755.
10 See Timothy W. Luke, “Global Cities versus ‘global cities’: rethinking contemporary urbanism as public ecology,” Studies in Political Economy, 70 (2003) 11-33.

Neil Brenner is Professor of Urban Theory at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.