Citizens of the World: Seeing the City as a Site of International Influence

By Amin, Ash; Thrift, Nigel | Harvard International Review, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Citizens of the World: Seeing the City as a Site of International Influence


Amin, Ash, Thrift, Nigel, Harvard International Review


The urban condition is the human condition. In 1950, one-third of the world's population lived in cities, but by 2050, the figure is expected to rise to two-thirds, or 6 billion people. By 2015 each of the world's ten largest cities will house between 20 and 30 million people.

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Arguably, even those people who are not included in these figures now owe most of their existence to the demands that cities place on the world economy. There can be no doubt that the last 100 years have witnessed a major shift in the world's spatial organization. The question is: what difference does this make-economically, socially, culturally, and politically?

The answer to this question partly depends on how one defines a city. This is a problem. If the city is everywhere and in everything, if cities no longer have defined edges, if many settlements no longer settle, how can we find an object to grasp? In turn, if cities are the parentheses in the flows of the world, if they are the sites of diversity and difference, and if much of their rationale derives from their connections with other places, how can we grasp an object that is so internally inconsistent? So, we have the problem of where the city is located and what it does.

Recently, there has been a frenzy of research on this problem, much of which has concerned the exact nature of political agency when it is increasingly mediated by urban institutions. Classically, urban political agency has been thought of in three different ways. One has been to imagine the city as a place with powers arising from its particular nature. The second has been to make claims for the city as a community, and the third has been to argue that in some way cities bestow citizenship. All of these responses are problematic in some way. No one can deny the specificity of place, but increasingly, places overlap with so many other places that it makes it very difficult to say that they are truly concentrated in one location. The second response is even more difficult in light of the extraordinary diversity of impulse and orientation in any given city. And the final response confuses a political category with a place.

Instead of jettisoning these classical interpretations, however, they should be redefined since they continue to matter in today's world. Indeed, many contemporary global political issues are linked to these three different formulations of urban political agency. For example, the urban spectacle of anti-war protest cannot be ignored in any consideration of global geopolitics. Moreover, the close juxtaposition of peoples and cultures from around the world in cities has to be placed at the heart of any politics of identity, belonging, and affiliation, while the sheer environmental effects of cities themselves produce both enormous problems and practices that international regulators still sometimes see as beneath them even when they are all around them. Cities matter politically, not merely as sites where the political occurs, but as part of the political itself.

What is the Polis?

There are three instances of urban political agency. The first begins with the question of place specificity. The sheer physical nature of the city-its bricks and mortar, daily routines, wires and wheels-allow many people to continue to think of the city as a bounded space. But all of these mundane things connect up with other spaces, physical and virtual. None of them are complete unto themselves. Think only of the porosity of the modern house, with its multiple inputs and outputs from all over the world (and indeed beyond if we include satellites). Think of the modern park, with people and plants from around the world. Think of a car drive through the city, which for many people is their key experience of place, involving a constant hum of world noise if the radio is on, but also many sensings of a passing landscape that is never entirely local (the concrete comes from another country, the street lamp comes from another city, the grass seed or turf from a distant countryside).

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