John Rennie Short examines the phenomenon of rapid urbanization.
We are living in an urban moment. The majority of people now lives in cities. Cities are at the very heart of transformations of political economy, civil society and governmentality. They are the setting for progressive politics and the context for new human–nature relations.
In some parts of the world there is a rapid urbanization with the growth of large cities. There are now over 400 cities with a population of over a million with a widening metropolitan reach. In 1950, Dhaka had a population of 336,000. By 2016 it was 15.6 million and estimated to rise to 20 million by 2025. The swell of population has often overwhelmed the market’s ability to cope or the local government’s ability to organize. The result are formal economies and housing markets that are simply inadequate to deal with the demand for jobs and the need for housing. A consequence of this is an enormous creativity as people build their own homes and generate their own economies.
Former industrial cities, such as Baltimore or Detroit, are unable to replace the lost industrial jobs and continue to lose population. In 1950, Baltimore had a population of 950,000 and, like may cities in the US, a vibrant manufacturing base providing jobs and economic security. The magnet of jobs attracted black migrants from the South. Since the mid-1970s, though, there has been a steady loss of manufacturing jobs due to offshoring, relocation to suburbs in non-union areas of the US and increased productivity. By 2016 Baltimore’s population had declined to just over 622,000.
Marx and Engels believed that cities were the crucible of new class-consciousness.
Today the liberating potential of urbanization is a more complex affair with class-consciousness not the only source of political mobilization or personal subjectivity. Urban civil societies are complex with new and old subjectivities in the process of being and becoming in continual relational interaction.
Cities are nodes in a global network of flows of people, ideas and practices. While the world is often described as a map of separate national states, it can be also visualized as a global urban network. Cities are learning from each other and testing policies, with the more successful ones diffused, adopted and adapted around the global network.
In A Research Agenda for Cities I asked a number of important scholars to look at this urban moment from different perspectives. Some looked at general trends such the complex relations between globalization and the city. Others explored new subjectivities and different understandings of life in the city in discussing queer theory and exploring ideas of gender, desire and food. Specific topics included gentrification, creative economies, suburbanization and sustainability. In order to combat the parochialism of much urban research, scholars active in various parts the world were recruited to explain regional patterns of urban organization. There are case studies from Australia, Brazil, China, Colombia, Eastern Europe, India, the Middle East, Singapore and sub-Saharan Africa.
The chapters presented here are reports from active research frontiers. And together they provide a more nuanced and more comprehensive understanding of urbanization and urban research. The chapters undermine the taken for granted assumption, that Eurocentric-US dominated models provide the royal road to understanding this urban moment. The chapters widen the debate about the nature of urbanization and open our eyes to a more global perspective.
Only such a wide coverage gives us the necessary intellectual tools to understand how cities are productive and competitive but also an empathetic response to how they could be and should be sustainable, liveable and fair.
John Rennie Short is Professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, US
A Research Agenda for Cities, edited by John Rennie Short is available now.
Read Chapter 1, Introduction to the Urban Moment free on Elgaronline