“Our modern city is a divided city,” wrote Henri Lefebvre in 1980. With this maxim, Lefebvre crystallised the idea – one that he had done much to shape – that cities were no longer integral things but riven by a dualist logic of centre and periphery. This was not merely a spatial divide, of course, but a social one. Where the centre was supposedly a bastion of commerce, decision-making and wealth, the periphery was a sprawling hinterland of industry and proletarian housing (or, at least, this is how things looked from his home in Paris). A decade earlier, when he wrote The Urban Revolution, it had seemed to Lefebvre that this social rift was potentially revolutionary. “Can such a strategy assume that the countryside will invade the city, that peasant guerrillas will lead the assault on urban centres?” Well, not quite. Instead, he concluded, what this dualism had engendered was a new feudal relationship between “a dominating centre” and “a dominated periphery”. In other words the city itself, and not industry, was now the crucible of social relations.
That view owes much to a particularly European conception of the city. The very notion of the centre is a historical fetish. It is heavily imbued with the aura of the Greek polis, the heart of the body politic, and with the idea of the medieval walled city as a self-contained citadel. The centre conforms to an ideal of the city, one bedecked with squares and monuments. And these are atavistic images that we relinquish with great reluctance.
The periphery, by contrast, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Only since the industrial revolution have cities spawned the factory zones and dormitory suburbs that troubled Lefebvre’s imagination. And such images are loaded with prejudice. Where “periphery” would seem to identify a geographical phenomenon, it is just as much, especially in Europe, a social threshold. Periphery means immigration (ethnic tension) and poverty (crime). The rings of tower blocks circling Paris and Milan have played the role of ghettos in the urban imaginary of those cities.
Those same towers feed another image of the suburbs as repetitious landscapes, monocultures both architecturally and socially. Often cut off by orbital roads, they are considered transient zones that one passes through as you follow the signs for centre ville. These products of standardised modernism were supposed to be the cities of the future, and their subsequent neglect and blighting lends them an air of failure. Their monotony and refusal to adhere to the tight-knit streetscape of the ideal city leads us to castigate them as “non-places” – like the airports and shopping malls that Marc Augé coined that term to define, they suffer from too much space.
And yet, even before many of these clichés were fully grown, there was revisionism afoot. For the artist Robert Smithson, the periphery was alive with weird potential. In 1967, his photo-essay A tour of the monuments of Passaic documented the very monuments that were supposed to be missing from the industrial hinterlands of New Jersey. It’s true, these car parks and water pipes were not “the ‘big events’ of history”, but that was the whole appeal – there was “no past, just what passes for a future”.
The post-industrial cities of the West have long-since discovered and exploited that industrial legacy. Warehouse loft living isn’t just for artists anymore, even the bankers have got in on that act. But the romantic monumentalism of Smithson’s portrait of Passaic wasn’t the only potential of the periphery. In America at that time, the suburbs were the boomtowns while the city centres were being abandoned to the poor. A paragon of so-called “white flight”, Los Angeles epitomised that trend. After the Watts riots in 1965, a million and a half residents left the fringes of downtown for the suburbs of Greater Los Angeles. And that was the story across the United States, with car-loving suburban sprawl being touted as the new urban ideal, while the crime-ridden inner cities were left to their own devices.
This was the case in London, too. For several decades, the UK’s capital subscribed to the model of the hollow core, or the hole in the doughnut. And yet in the 1990s it actively reversed that worrisome trend. It was called an “urban renaissance”, and the principles of high density, social diversity and mobility became mantras for cities across the world. The compact city was all of a sudden the sustainable city, the productive city and, in theory, the equitable city.
Such are the swings and roundabouts of urban attitudes from the mid to the late 20th century. The centre is taken for granted then vilified and then idealised once again. The periphery is by turns idealised, ghettoised and romanticised. But just as the fortunes of centres and peripheries have risen and fallen, their relationship is also undergoing dramatic changes. The very centre-periphery dialectic is on the wane. As the urbanist Edward Soja has written, “the old socio-spatial dualism of urbanism and suburbanism as separate and distinct ways of life has begun to disappear.”
As we shall see, there are numerous reasons for that. But one above all will define the changing nature of that relationship, and that is that peripheries are the zones of growth. As we know, most urban growth this century will take place in the cities of the developing world. And, outside of China, most urbanisation is of the informal variety. Eighty-five per cent of all housing is built illegally by squatters. By 2030 it is estimated that two billion people will be living in slums, mostly on urban peripheries. In other words, squatters are building the cities of tomorrow.
Even now, cities such as Caracas can claim to be 60 per cent informal. And while this has manifested itself as a city distinctly segregated between the formal centre and the informal periphery, that is not always the case. Rio for instance has 1,000 favelas, some of them in the city centre – the margins are not always on the periphery. Indeed, the margins are increasingly flexible, shifting depending on the viewer’s perspective. As the Mumbai-based urban anthropologists URBZ observed in Dharavi, to the slum-dwellers themselves the slum is always somewhere else. So where, we might ask, does the periphery start?
The nature of mass urbanisation in the global south is one of the great social and logistical challenges of the century. This is especially true in Africa, the first continent to experience mass urbanisation without industrialisation. One of the consequences will be the reconception of the city not as a planned entity but as a largely spontaneous one. In Latin America, which experienced mass urbanisation long before China or Africa, favelas and barrios are being recognised not as some kind of pre-formal city that is awaiting formalisation, but as bone fide pieces of the city in their own right – and that will have enormous consequences for the nature of the urban periphery.
With the compact city as our only sustainable option for urbanisation, it has become orthodoxy that cities cannot continue to sprawl in the manner that they did in the 20th century. And yet they must grow. The implications of that will be the reimagining of peripheries as sites of enormous potential. And as we absorb that challenge, the old certainties of centre and periphery will inevitably dissolve.
Arguably, London invented the concept of the urban periphery, or at least one version of it. The nation that launched the industrial revolution would, naturally, beget the first megacity. At the turn of the 20th century London was the largest metropolis in the world, and it was a suburban city. The vast majority of the urban fabric was made up of two- and three-storey terrace houses stretching, from the centre, for 30km in every direction. London invented suburbia, and with it urban sprawl. But London’s periphery is not subject to the same social segregation that defined so many cities in continental Europe. These suburbs are largely zones of middle-class comfort.
Two factors above all make London an interesting case study. The first is that precisely because of its ungainly size, it has always operated as a polycentric city. It does of course have a centre, the former heart of the empire at Trafalgar Square, but it doesn’t necessarily feature prominently in the day-to-day lives of the city’s 8 million residents. Instead, the periphery operates as a cluster of incorporated villages, each with its own high street or market as a commercial focal point. And this notion of polycentrism will be crucial to urban development in the 21st century.
Secondly, London has a clearly defined border. Implemented in 1944 as part of the Greater London Plan, the Green Belt remains off limits to new development, a natural straight jacket preventing the urban patient from munching all the daisies. This was a bold strategy, and one that few cities have dared to adopt. Tellingly, Medellin, in Colombia, is planning to implement a Green Belt, but it is considering doing so at the same time as creating a ring of transport infrastructure around the city that will only encourage its comunas, or informal settlements, to grow. Those two policies will counteract each other, making the no-build zone impossible to police. London was lucky, in that respect, that the Green Belt was adopted after the city’s hormonal growth spurt.
By the time the Green Belt was established, London was already starting to shrink. What was a population of 8.5 million in the 1940s would dwindle slowly but steadily until by the mid 1980s it was 6.7 million. Much as in America, this was a consequence of car culture and political neglect of the inner city. However, from the 1990s London was to reverse that trend in dramatic fashion. The centre was revived, particularly under the proposals of the Urban Task Force, chaired by Richard Rogers, which advocated higher density and more investment in public transport. Under the city’s first elected mayor, Ken Livingstone, “urban regeneration” became the watchword, and the city adopted radical policies such as a congestion charge for cars entering the city centre. These ideas represented a more truly urban vision than the quaint New Urbanism that had been advocating a return to the city in the US, and they were to have international influence.
London has been growing at pace over the last two decades, recovering the population size of its heyday. Most of this growth is now thanks to international immigration – 95% of immigrants to the capital were born outside the UK. London is now a polyglot metropolis at the heart of a global economy. And with that appeal comes new challenges for the periphery. With land in the city centre such a haven for international investment, the suburbs are coming under new strain. Traditionally, London has avoided the ghettoisation of the periphery, with the poor fairly evenly distributed across the city. But with a severe housing shortage and stratospheric prices even in the inner suburbs, the poor are increasingly being forced to the edges and even out of the city altogether. This is the great challenge London has to face in the coming decade.
The plan thus far has been to expand into the former industrial hinterlands of the east. The Olympics successfully created a new quarter in the brownfield sites around Stratford. But it is nowhere near enough, and even there the opportunity to start replacing the social housing stock that is being torn down across the city was missed. The next great hope is the Thames Gateway, the estuary scrublands of the city’s eastern fringe. It is earmarked for 200,000 homes, but this is an idea that never seems to bear much fruit. Perhaps, with the arrival of Crossrail, the express rail line across the city, in 2018 that promise will finally be delivered. Indeed Crossrail itself may prove a minor revolution to life on the periphery. Passengers will be able to cross from the eastern fringe, in Essex, to the western perimeter at Heathrow in just 20 minutes. That kind of edge-to-edge potential is new to this city.
If the very concept of the periphery was new to the 19th century then so was the segregation that it would later signify. The separation of work zones and residential zones was a novel feature of the industrial city, and so was the division of rich and poor. Paris, the archetype of a museumified centre surrounded by a disenfranchised periphery, pioneered this model. When Baron Haussmann cleared the medieval streetscape for the boulevards he set in motion a process of forcing the poor to the periphery and forged the concept of social zoning.
And yet, even in 19th-century Paris it was common for rich and poor to occupy the same building. It was not until the postwar period, with the construction of the banlieues, that social divisions would be so starkly spatialised. The tower blocks built on the periphery served two purposes: to boost the construction industry and thus the economy, and to house the workers, many of them from the former North African colonies, who would drive the mid-century’s prosperity. But with industrial decline and rising unemployment in the 1980s, the banlieues fell into a vicious cycle of empoverishment, urban decline and marginalisation.
When Lefebvre conceived of “the right to the city”, it was supposed to include the peripheries. Instead, Paris exemplified the dualism that he identified as potentially revolutionary, with the elite occupying the centre and the disenfranchised the suburbs. “Now we are beginning to realize that the suburbs are monstrous, that the high rises are unlivable, and that they produce new generations of rebels and delinquents,” he wrote. These rebels and delinquents were a far cry from “the marginal man” that the Chicago-school urbanist Robert Park had imagined in the 1920s. Writing about the role of immigrants in urban culture, Park identified a type of migrant, such as the emancipated Jew who had left behind the ghetto but not quite been accepted into society, as “the first cosmopolite and citizen of the world”. In contrast, the marginal man raised in the high rises of Paris was so thoroughly ostracised by the central elite that during the banlieues riots of 2005 President Sarkozy had no compunction in branding the perpetrators “scum”.
Paris is also the archetype of a ringed city, and concentric rings seem ideally suited to a hierarchy of urban space defined by distance from the historical and political centre. This is particularly so for suburbs that lie outside the psychological border of the Périphérique ring road. But like London’s Green Belt, these rings also define clear development zones. As Paris grows, it will have to densify within its second and third rings, which is no mean challenge, as it is already twice as dense as London. One solution is the Grand Paris Express, a new 200km metro line that is due to start construction in 2015. Seventy-two new stations, linked by driverless trains, will connect the suburbs beyond the Périphérique with the city centre. This so-called “super metro” will help wean suburbanites from their cars and stimulate a denser urban fabric for the periphery.
But aside from self-driving trains, Paris is home to an experiment that may have profound consequences for other standardised peripheries. Densifying the city will be difficult if the impulse towards tower blocks is to knock them down. And that that was certainly the inclination towards the Tour Bois-le-Pretre, a non-descript 1960s high rise on the Périphérique. It was likely to be demolished until the architects Lacaton & Vassal and Frédéric Druot undertook a dramatic remodelling of the tower. In consultation with the residents, they expanded each apartment with an outer layer of balconies, replacing mean windows with walls of glass. This transformed not just the perception of the building but the experience of living in it. And, significantly, this transformation was achieved for nearly half of what demolition and rebuilding would have cost.
The renovation of Tour Bois-le-Pretre stands out as precisely the kind of innovation necessary to regenerate urban peripheries. It is surely a persuasive argument against the demolition of a generation of tower blocks from the 1960s that, much maligned, are soft targets for local communities and developers, even though they may be structurally sound. Imagine what the implications of such a strategy might be for the peripheries of cities in eastern Europe or China. Imagine what it might mean for Moscow.
The suburb as machine
The Russian capital has clear affinities with Paris in an urban plan delineated by concentric rings. These demarcate a highly structured set of peripheries, from the Garden Ring to the new Third Ring Road, from there to the border of the official Moscow region and then out to the MKAD orbital road and beyond. This is a landscape that takes in the vast microrayons (standardised housing districts) that define the dormitory suburbs, as well as the dachas that Muscovites escape to in summer, and the satellite towns built to service industry and scientific innovation. Of these, the most striking by far are the microrayons.
Socialist suburbanisation was a very different phenomenon from the one that took place in the West during the same period. Faced with the enormous scale of rural migration to Moscow, in 1954 Khrushchev decreed that housebuilding should be rigidly standardised and industrialised. The state embarked on a construction programme the likes of which had never been seen. With factories churning out prefabricated components round the clock, the periphery of Moscow was transformed into ranks of megablocks, most of which looked identical. These were deployed in acres of space, in orthodox modernist fashion, to form microrayons, or municipal micro-districts housing up to 100,000 people.
If this was different from the banlieues of Paris it was not just in its scale. Firstly, this periphery was not reserved for an immigrant working class distinct from the gentry of the city centre, it was simply the standard living condition of the majority of the population. Secondly, and perhaps more obviously, there was no housing market, and thus these dormitory suburbs were not desired or rejected by a populace of consumers, they were simply allocated. Hence, though they had their problems, they were not zones of social exclusion.
However, since the fall of the Soviet Union this has begun to change. Moscow has succumbed to the pressures of a globalised market. And while that means that IKEA and other big-box retailers have arrived in the periphery, it also means that social polarisation is growing. A new elite is building itself office complexes and luxury condominiums in the centre, and rising land prices are pushing the rest further out. Moreover, while Russia’s demographic graph is pointing steadily downwards, over the last decade Moscow’s population has been growing by 200,000 a year. This has triggered some extreme solutions.
In 2011 mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced that Moscow’s municipal region would be expanded to more than twice its size, with most of this land grab coming from the south and southwest. The idea was that it would ease traffic and lead to 2 million new homes being built. But it was hardly the most sustainable solution. Instead, Moscow could look to the vast reserves of untapped potential in microrayons. Half a century after they were built, these are now the topic of much debate. Should they be preserved, demolished or reinvented? This is where Tour Bois-le-Pretre becomes an instructive case study. Surely there is a way in which the megablocks can be retrofitted to suit the new lifestyle demands of 21st-century Muscovites. Even beyond the extension of the buildings themselves, the microrayons contain huge reserves of under-used land – land that, crucially, is publicly owned. If the city was so inclined, it could open up some of that space to new uses on an ambitious scale without having to wrangle with private landowners. It could be densified not just with housing but with enterprise ventures, social amenities and cultural programmes – not just more beds in a monocultural dormitory suburb but everything that is required for a diverse and vibrant urban life. That is the path towards a thriving and polycentric city.
America, north and south
In stark contrast to the postwar patterns of peripheral growth in Europe and the Soviet Union, the United States came to define what we think of when we hear the word “suburbia”. Instead of publicly funded dormitory suburbs for the working class, these were privately developed enclaves of comfort, catering to a middle class that was giving up on the inner city. Far from that sense of collective humanity (ghettoised or not) that defined the banlieues of Paris and microrayons of Moscow, American suburbia catered to what was (in theory) a deeply individualist sensibility – a house, a garden, a parking space. What was extraordinary about the suburbs of Los Angeles was how in the 1950s and 60s they managed to leverage that sensibility into a separatist movement. As Mike Davis has illustrated, private neighbourhoods such as Lakewood strove for independence from the mother city. This was effectively a middle-class revolt against taxation, welfare and what it saw as the evils of bureaucracy. Here, the perceived rights of private property led to a wilful logic of segregation – a self-segregation, if you will – that was very different from the helpless marginalisation of the urban working class in Europe.
Lakewood epitomised a kind of homeowner activism and nimbyism that grew politically influential. Of course, while such suburbs were successfully fighting being incorporated into the municipality, Los Angeles itself was being drained of the tax revenues necessary for the maintenance of the inner city, which was increasingly being left to the Black and Latino communities. As Davis puts it, these were “zero-sum struggles between the affluent homeowner belts of the Westside and Valley, and a growing inner-city population dependent upon public services.”
But Los Angeles is another example of immigration’s ability to transform a city’s fortunes. In the decades since the exodus of a million and a half people from the inner city after the Watts riots, 5 million immigrants have since moved in. At the same time, the suburbs have been steadily densifying, turning what was once a byword for suburban sprawl into the densest metropolitan region in the US. If even Los Angeles can pull off such a counter-intuitive achievement, then it is a sure sign of what awaits the other major urban peripheries in the country.
However, density is not always the problem. South of the border, in Mexico and in Latin America generally, urban peripheries hold vast populations but the nature of that urbanity needs addressing urgently. In the mid 20th century, long before China or Africa, Latin America experienced mass urbanization on a scale that the world had never seen. Like sponges, urban peripheries soaked up these waves of rural migrants. Successive governments in Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina did their best to accommodate these burgeoning populations in state-built housing projects, and failed spectacularly. In the end, informal settlements – favelas, barrios and villas miserias – were the most effective option of giving countless millions a right to the city. From that perspective alone, the informal city has been a profoundly effective mechanism. But with it comes the serious questions of infrastructure, transport and quality of life. These are questions that Latin America has been coming to terms with, and the lessons learned will no doubt influence life on the peripheries of cities across the developing world.
The reason why Latin America is crucial to this debate is because, even though its metropolises are not growing at the rates they used to, all the growth is in the peripheries. And Mexico City is one where, to all intents and purposes, the city is the periphery. Since the 1980s Mexico City has seemed to offer an apocalyptic vision of urbanity as an endless, smog-ridden cityscape. In 1989, Time magazine called it an “urban gas chamber”. And in a population of 20 million, the majority must consider themselves to be living on the periphery.
Unlike the private suburban development of London and Los Angeles, or the public social engineering of Paris and Moscow, Mexico City has no dominant approach. Thus far, the city’s ability to reproduce itself has relied heavily on two opposite tendencies: self-built slums and developer-built communities for the poor. And the products of those processes can be witnessed right next to each other, in the neighbouring districts of Ciudad Neza and Ecatepec.
Ciudad Neza is an informal settlement of low-rise houses that are home to 1.1m people, making it the second biggest municipal district in Mexico. Half a century after it’s founding, it is not necessarily what you would call a slum. Ciudad Neza has proved that informal settlements have a natural capacity for regenerating themselves. More spectacular as a phenomenon, and in a sense more worrying, is its neighbour Ecatepec. Here private developers have built rows of identical houses that stretch all the way to the horizon. Ecatepec is home to 1.6 million people, making it the most populous district in Mexico. It is a singular example of how successful developers have been at transforming the landscape of the periphery. Here, companies such as Casas Geo build out of cheap, adobe-coloured cinderblocks, creating acres of traditional-looking cookie-cutter houses which they sell to the poor using facilitated lending schemes.
Amazingly, both squatters and developers each manage to build 100,000 homes a year in Mexico City. But which type is preferable? One might think that any formal house is better than any informal house, if only from the point of view of its potential to generate loans and capital. But Casas Geo’s monoculture is not conducive to commerce or streetlife, and has none of the vibrancy of Ciudad Neza. It is urbanism at its worst.
Mexico City’s current population growth is based on birth rates rather than migration, which means that rather than merely coping with an influx crisis it can now focus on creating a sustainable model of growth. The challenges here are both infrastructural and administrative. Part of the problem is that most of Mexico City’s periphery lies outside the municipality’s boundaries – the mayor of the Federal District only governs half of the city’s electorate. How does the municipality create the legislative consistency it needs to provide services and develop the city within its current footprint? Shanghai and Istanbul – and now it seems Moscow – did this by simply extending the municipality to the regional boundary. But that is a policy that is easier for authoritarian governments to pull off. The other challenge is transport. Clearly, the distances of Mexico City militate against walking. And, despite an affordable and popular metro system, it has one of the highest car ownership rates in Latin America, with chronic traffic and a disturbing traffic fatality rate. The city needs to invest in a public transport network for the periphery that can link up neighbourhood hubs in the manner of the polycentric city.
Latin America’s other great megacity, São Paulo, shares similar challenges: a vast periphery that oversteps the municipal boundaries, poor infrastructure and public transport, and rampant informality. Yet São Paulo’s periphery is a varied landscape marked by a diverse history of strategies for accommodating its swelling population. These range from enormous gated communities such as Alphaville, where the wealthy fled the inner city in the 1970s and 80s, to corticos, the tenement blocks where whole families occupy single rooms. Most obviously, there are 1,500 favelas across the city, many without running water, sewerage or legal electricity. For decades these were vilified in the city’s imagination, but they have been a phenomenal system for absorbing migrant labour. And their sheer scale testifies to the failure of half a century of government housing initiatives.
These include 1960s modernist estates such Zezinho Magalhaes, designed by Vilanova Artigas and Mendes da Rocha, which is not so far in spirit from the microrayons. But they also include Cidade Tirandentes, a vast and soulless housing estate 25km east of the city centre. Built over 20 years, largely under the dictatorship, it is the largest housing estate in Latin America. Here on the very edge of the city are 45,000 apartments, not just socially marginalized but excluded from proper public services and public transport. So often in Brazil, housing projects such as this one were merely tools to boost the economy and had nothing to do with good city-making.
Brazil’s dictatorship, like so many others in Latin America, had a disastrous track record of slum clearances and mass housing policies. It was partly thanks to the obvious failure of such schemes to meet the scale of the problem, and partly thanks to the neoliberal economics that took hold in the late 1980s, that the government more or less gave up on trying to solve the “problem” of the favelas. The laissez-faire decades of the 1980s and 90s – the so-called lost decades – saw them take on enormous proportions. President Lula famously lifted 40 million Brazilians out of poverty with his financial redistribution packages, but his housing policy commits all the sins of the past. After the economic downturn of 2008 he instigated a massive housebuilding scheme called Minha Casa Minha Vida (My House my Life), which continues to house the poor in terrible buildings far out on the peripheries, often three hours’ commute from the centre. Aside from promoting urban sprawl, the programme is really designed as a financial instrument to provide credit lines to the construction industry.
Far more promising are the slum-upgrading schemes that have been underway in recent years in favelas such as Paraisopolis. Here the city has been improving the quality of housing, retrofitting basic services such as running water and drainage and adding cultural hubs such as the Grotao music centre. The slum-upgrading programmes that have been adopted in Rio and São Paulo since the late 1990s serve as a progressive example for other developing-world nations with rampant informality. The experience of these Brazilian cities is that building connections to the favelas – through transport, public spaces and cultural initiatives – is the only way to integrate them into the city. In the 20th century informality defined the peripheries of these cities, and the challenge of the early 21st century is to incorporate them into one civic culture. That means giving the favelados the services they need and dissolving the physical and social barriers that led to stigmatisation. When that happens, terms such as formal and informal will become academic.
The polycentric future
The periphery served multiple roles in the 20th century but one thing is clear: it was a symptom of growth. For many developed nations in the 21st century that will no longer be the case. Aging populations and shrinking cities will require a conceptual paradigm shift. In Russia and Japan, for instance, the birth rate is in steady decline, and this presents unprecedented challenges. Beyond shrinking suburbs, what to do with Russia’s deserted single-industry towns? While Moscow absorbs more and more of the national economy and its human resources, cities like the former textile capital Ivanovo are in steep decline. More famously, a third of Detroit is now abandoned. Some hope that the urban farming being pioneered in the former home of the production line will yield a new kind of city, ruralised and agriculturally productive. Perhaps, but it’s unlikely to be enough on its own.
In parts of the developing world, of course, it is a different story. The rapid urbanisation of China seems to continue unabated. Beijing, a ring-road city like Moscow, is growing like London did in the 19th century, by swallowing up the surrounding villages, but aided by a state-sponsored construction boom such as the world has never known. Whether that experiment will end well remains to be seen. In India and Africa, meanwhile, urban growth is largely of the informal variety. Here the lessons of Latin America may prove instructive, chiefly that shantytowns are not necessarily the problem, and with infrastructural support and legal representation they may well be the solution.
Yet the very question of the periphery implies a single centre. But what if peripheries start to merge? This is something predicted by the UN Habitat report of 2010, which foresees metropolises joining together like blobs of mercury to create “mega-regions”. One of these is in west Africa, where the cities of Lagos, Ibadan, Lomé and Accra are threatening to merge – an amalgamation that would spill across the national borders of Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana. Are there strategies for trans-national cities? One example is the urban region created by San Diego and its neighbour Tijuana across the US-Mexico border. Their economies are so interlinked that the mayor of San Diego is currently trying to encourage a cooperative relationship. He even pitched a joint San Diego-Tijuana bid for the 2024 Olympics – a concept the International Olympic Committee is clearly not ready for yet.
There are excellent case studies, however, for how inter-urban regions operate. Tokyo, the largest metropolitan region in the world, pioneered a polycentric approach to growth. Originally, focused on hubs such as Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro, it has subsequently included satellite towns. Key to this strategy was an intricate public transport network. And the same is true of the Randstad in The Netherlands, which links Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht in one conurbation. Though small, distinct cities, their suburbs effectively merge. With their transport efficiency and the fluid exchange of their populations, each commuting to each other’s city, it is easy to imagine that this might be a model of the polycentric cities of the future.
Such complex urban and inter-urban networks will define the city of the 21st century. The old binary relationship of the periphery to the centre is changing. A globalised economy, flexible working patterns and communications technology are gradually altering the picture of a business centre surrounded by a commuter belt. The challenges facing the periphery are less about growth and more about transformation. In the face of increasing social polarisation, peripheries need to be integrated, connected and vibrant in their right. Already, in the major global centres that shift is beginning to occur. Peripheries are being made denser, more concentrated and woven into the city with elaborate transport networks. Suburbia is being urbanised.