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Planetary urbanization

GLOBALIZATION / Wilderness disappears; continents become more closely linked; the distinction between town and country becomes more blurred; and urban inequality is increasing.


We live under conditions that the urbanists Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid ("Towards a new epistemology of the urban?", 2015) have termed "planetary urbanisation". This process has fundamentally changed the power relations in the world. The expression refers to far more than a demographic shift. Urban today is more than just a place. We find ourselves in a worldwide situation where all conditions – political, economic, social and ecological – meet regardless of location or morphology. Areas not usually considered urban per se, such as trade routes, parts of the Amazon or the Sahara desert, are today parts of an integrated, global urbanization process.

The "planetary urbanization" that Brenner and Schmid describe in their research is debated. The starting point was data that showed that the urban growth of recent decades has spread all over the world. The urban population, particularly in Africa and Asia, is "exploding" and is increasingly occupying new areas on land, water and in the air (airports). New forms of urban development are gaining momentum in wilderness and sea areas, but also in the countryside. This challenges the understanding of the city as a limited area with a dense population. In order to interpret the new, "mutating" landscapes that are emerging, new concepts are needed to help us with analyses.

"Planetary urbanization" is closely connected with the globalization of capitalism. Four main processes have been identified. They complement each other: Wilderness disappears; continents become more closely linked; the distinction between town and country becomes more blurred; and that the globalization of urban inequality is increasing. Let's take a closer look at these processes.

The wilderness

All over the world, areas considered pristine are being reshaped and degraded by urbanization. New cities are being built and mining and plantation operations are expanding on many continents. Ecosystems are challenged and new forms of contact between fauna, flora and people are developed. The rise of covid-19 also demonstrates how easily permeable the border between nature and culture is. Urbanization is increasing.

It was the far more settled working class in the service of the jetsetters who paid the highest price for the pandemic.

Corona and the economy

An important feature linked to the theory of "planetary urbanisation" is that this plays out all over the world almost simultaneously. But the interaction is underestimated – as we saw when the governments in most countries were poorly prepared for the spread of the corona. The way covid-19 developed also reflects how the planet is governed.

The interdependence of places, regions and territories has long transcended national borders. In addition, international communication and exchange of goods has become more complex and multi-scaled. The "flow" no longer only takes place between the business districts of the larger cities. It also happens between the smaller production sites:

For example, a strong connection between China and the textile factories in Val Seriana northeast of the Italian city of Bergamo explains why this peri-urban area became the site of one of the first Italian outbreaks. In Germany, the infection was first discovered in Starnberg, a municipality with 23 inhabitants 000 kilometers from Munich – a place linked to the world through the production of car parts.

Moreover, a central element linked to the hypothesis of "planetary urbanisation" is that a big city is no longer a limited, densely populated, vertical city. Economic financial power has historically resided in its business district – a collection of interwoven global networks.

The network of the upper class

"Planetary urbanization" is also characterized by how inequalities are reshaped spatially. Pandemics break out when social inequalities increase. Peter Turchin (Russian-American researcher on the dynamics of historical societies) has found a historical correlation between level of inequality, intensity of contact between distant places and the malignancy of a pandemic. The more a class confirms its wealth, and the more it spends on ostentatious consumption, often in the form of luxury products from distant regions, the stronger the contagion effect becomes.

Socializing at winter sports resorts, boat cruises, beach clubs and five-star hotels.

This is unlike tuberculosis or cholera, which primarily kill in poor countries or slums. The pandemic did not hit working-class areas to begin with. It spread through upper-class networks as a result of intense, short-lived socializing at winter sports resorts, boat cruises, beach clubs and five-star hotels. It was the groups with the most to gain from "planetary urbanization" that were first hit by the virus. It spread "downwards" because of their high global mobility.

It was the far more settled working class in the service of the jetsetters who paid the highest price for the pandemic. Their neighborhoods became epicenters despite considerable distance from the outbreak sites. In Europe and the USA, it was about winter sports venues. While Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest county in France, and Detroit, one of the poorest cities in the United States, became epicenters. Poor people were definitely not immune to covid-19 as a governor in Mexico claimed.

The French urbanist Henri Lefebre emphasizes in the book The Urban Revolution (1970) that if society becomes completely urbanised, then we need a new definition of the city. One that moves from seeing it as urban forms to focus on urban processes. Covid-19 has helped to shine a spotlight on how "planetary urbanisation" has not only changed the character of urban society, but also its relationship with the world more generally.

Is a new "stateless politics" developing? The question that must be asked is how to govern when the state is not the sovereign political actor that it used to be. Who fills the vacuum? A growing gap has developed between crucial global challenges such as climate, pandemic and conflict and the will among UN member states to seek solutions and finance them. What will be the implications for intergovernmental systems such as the UN?


The global architecture is being transformed. New "groups" such as the G20, regional organisations, local authorities, civil society and business today are gradually "eating" their way into the arenas of the UN. The Covid-19 pandemic showed with all clarity that it is necessary for the UN to give more leeway and voice to local and regional authorities. The risk is great that many multinational organizations and institutions that do not adapt to "planetary urbanisation" will be swept away by the tidal waves of history.

See also the article «It's the Geography Stupid! Planetary Urbanization revealed” by Eric Charmes & Max Rosseau, Public Books (2020).

Eric Berg
Erik Berg
Erik Berg worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs / NORAD from 1978 to 2013. He now heads Habitat Norway.

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