#learn power wednesdays: The many faces of cities


This week’s #learn power wednesdays
continues to explore the importance of cities in the distribution and
operation of power in the 21st century.

Back in 1991, Saskia Sassen coined the
term “global cities” (we
started this week on cities and power with quotes from her
), and
I am recommending her Elements for a Sociology of Globalisation for reading, in addition to her seminal work The Global City.
Sassen is very good at highlighting the ambiguous nature of
globalisation, and of cities in particular. On the one hand,
cities as globalisation’s powerhouses create and
radiate power. On the other hand, globalisation, and cities as both places and actors are the staging ground of very real power struggles, which
need to be made visible. Cities are places in which power is
suppressed, namely of those not rich and educated enough to gainfully
participate in their wealth-generating activities. They are also
places in which policies are made and which house the infrastructure that condition the lives of people half-way around
the globe.

I am also posting a link to
Connectography: Mapping the future of Global Civilisation, by
Parag Khanna. Khanna posits that it is cities which will drive world
development, in terms of economic growth, innovation, even in terms
of diplomacy, and of living together in socially heterogeneous groups
(yesterday, I posted a
couple of beautiful maps of his
). He seems to be more optimistic
than Sassen, stressing the positive elements of globalisation, of
cities, and of the ties that exist between them. For Khanna, power
resides within links, material and immaterial, between cities, and
within the ability to form and shape those linkages.

But are cities always powerful actors and places of prestige? It turns out that they can be quite
dysfunctional. Robbert Muggah from the Igarapé Institute points out two
things – the breakneck speed at which cities are growing, especially in
the global south, and the fact that all cities are by definition
vulnerable, to varying degrees, of course.

The fragile cities data visualization programme devised among others by the Igarapé Institute
is a platform that tracks risks in over 2,137 cities with populations
of 250,000 people or more.  Vulnerability is measured with
the help an index composed of ten indicators statistically associated
with instability. And the findings are surprising. Fragility of
cities does not exclusively correlate with underdevelopment and
conflict. Neither is size a main determinant for instability. It
seems that fastest growing cities are most at risk, exactly where the
vast majority of future city population growth is expected – in
sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and East Asia.

How to shift from fragility to
resilience? Build inclusive public spaces, support predictable
transport, invest in hot-spot policing, create meaningful
opportunities for young people, and plan carefully to mitigate
natural disasters. No small feat.

Reading suggestions:

Sassen, Saskia, The Global City:
New York, London, Tokyo.
Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1991, 1st ed.

—–, Elements for a Sociology of
Globalization [or A Sociology of Globalization],
W.W. Norton,
2007) A review by William I. Robinson, University of California, Santa Barbara, Saskia Sassen and the Sociology of Globalization: A Critical Appraisal, Sociological Analysis, Spring 2009

Parag, Connectography:
Mapping the Future of Global Civilization
, Penguin
Random House,  forthcoming

Muggah, Robert (with Katherine Aguirre), How fragile are our cities? Igarapé Institute, 9 February 2016

Johanna M

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