“Cities are complex and incomplete systems, which is why they have remained so for centuries, for millennia”. Saskia Sassen opened with these words the public event in Amsterdam that culminated the first edition of the Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award.1
Over the past decade, cities have continued to generate growing interest. The United Nations announced in 20142 that, for the first time ever, more than half of humanity now lives in urban areas and that by 2050, the urban population will account for 68% of the total population.3 Cities occupy 3% of the planet’s land area but generate 80% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)4, consume between 60 and 80% of resources and emit 70% of CO2.5 These trends affect the rural environment and encourage increasing migration to cities, also leading to the proliferation of megacities and the unprecedented social challenges these bring.6
The importance of cities is not a new phenomenon. The trends that gave rise to modernity, modern democracies and the capitalist system began in medieval cities, leaving behind feudalism and absolutist monarchies by divine right. It is in the cities that the defining elements of an era become most visible.
Back in the early 1990s, Saskia Sassen pointed out that the world is better understood if instead of looking at it as a space of competition between states, we look at cities and their role as nodes connecting a global network of transmission of financial flows, value chains designed by transnational corporations, and spaces for the creation of fashions, trends and cultural influences.
Since the end of the Cold War, the most transformative economic and political process has been neoliberal globalisation, the latest stage of the capitalist system. As an economic and political model, neoliberalism encourages the transfer of control of economic activity from the public to the private sector, thus increasing privatisation and limiting public ownership and government regulation – including labour and environmental protection laws. In the neoliberal imaginary, successful cities are dense, with millions of inhabitants, a high concentration of capital, home to large numbers of transnational corporations, extensive use of communication technologies, airports and other communication nodes, great tourist attractions and monumental architectural works. The city is then re-created as a commercial brand that must compete with others to attract public and private investment, media attention, workers willing to be geographically mobile and, if necessary, to live in precarious conditions in order to gain access to the unique services and income sources existing in cities.
This imaginary has transformed cities and has had a great impact on their inhabitants, although not without resistance. Cities have been nodes of creation and transmission of the most significant social movements of recent decades. It was in Seattle in 1999 that the first major victory was won to halt the process of neoliberal globalisation. Massive civil disobedience actions impeded an agreement at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference, which intended to set a new global standard of trade relations and economic development based on neoliberal principles. The call came forth from the World Social Forums in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, another world was possible, encouraging the organisation of other World and Regional Social Forums in other cities around the world. After the financial crisis of 2008, the Arab Spring and the large movements of 2011 were characterised by the occupation of public spaces in cities: Tahir in Cairo, Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma in Athens and Zucotti Park in New York. Subsequent waves of protest to neoliberalism followed this trend, like the civil disobedience blockade of the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt. Cities are also the main organisational nodes of international movements fighting for a world without climate crisis or for gender equality.
At the same time, we must not forget the decisive and influential mobilisations that have resisted neoliberal globalisation from the rural environment, such as the Zapatistas in Mexico, other indigenous peoples in North and South America, or peasants in India. However, it is also in the cities that their proposals are becoming popular worldwide.
The local governments governing cities have also greatly developed their relevance the last decades. The neoliberal decentralisation promoted since the 1980s through New Public Management, promoted from the state level governments and international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, handed over to local governments the responsibility for managing a large part of public services, such as water and rubbish collection. However, the transfer of competencies was not accompanied by the transfer of budgetary resources, leading to a proliferation of public-private partnerships and privatisation. After decades of this process, the same local power is beginning to reverse neoliberal policies, as demonstrated by the wave of more than 1,400 (re)municipalisations of public services in 2,400 cities around the world since 2000.7
At the same time, local governments are more connected than ever, with multiple spaces and networks trying to determine the role that cities will play in this century, in particular which elements of urban life will be managed from the private or public sphere.8
We find, then, that cities are among the most economically and politically contested spaces, where imaginaries of cultural hegemony are being constructed today, and where the course of the 21st century is being set.