One of the starkest signs of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the now familiar – but still eerie – sight of empty cities. In the early days of Covid-19’s spread across Europe, observers could almost find solace in the immediate effects of the containment policies on the urban environment, with foxes, boars and porcupines commonly spotted even in daytime. That phase is long gone. Now, one of the questions that lingers concerns what the future of our cities will be.
Twenty years ago, the United Nations (UN) approved the so-called “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs) initiative, which set eight ambitious targets to improve the world and make it healthier, and more ecological and equal. Surprisingly, the word “city” was not included in the Agenda. Urban systems were neither considered as important actors within that global challenge, nor as crucial elements for the success of the plan.
Europe has a long-standing tradition of urbanization and urban regeneration. Interventions in this domain range from social inclusion to the recovery of historical neighborhoods, from migrants’ integration to green energy and efficiency, from smart mobility to public-private partnerships and investments. The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing cities worldwide to re-shape their model and re-think their priorities if they want to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” as spelled by the SDG no. 11.
After 6-years of rapid development, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has entered a new era in terms of quality development. In this grand picture, cities acting as sub-state actors along the BRI, have gained new momentum for displaying geographic significance and economic attractiveness. This paper intends to define cities’ role in the joint promotion of BRI, exemplify how cities will prosper in the process and explore new opportunities of investment after the COVID-19 pandemic.
By 2050, 68% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities, with almost 90% of the growth in urban population happening in Asia and Africa. Facing rapid urbanization, governments are increasingly adopting smart city initiatives as solutions for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 11-Sustainable Cities and Communities. ICT-based urban management has the potential to maximize the benefits of agglomeration, while minimizing negative impacts like pollution.
Most countries along the BRI are developing countries and emerging economies. They account for 31 percent of the global GDP, but constitute about 62 percent of world’s population(1). At the same time, the ecological environment is very fragile, due to the distribution of most of the global biodiversity hotspots(2). 58 percent of the world’s deserts are also concentrated in this area(3). In a certain sense, the historical Silk Road is also an international transmission channel for dust and pollutants(4).
China’s rise over the last four decades is, in part, an urban story. Internal migration has played a crucial role in China’s economic and social development, as has experimentation with an array of city-focused governance approaches, including various models of special economic zones. Looking forward, migration to, from, and between cities, as well as regulatory and policy frameworks around everything from artificial intelligence to urban planning, will continue to shape China’s political stability, social resilience, and economic trajectory.
What is the role of Global Cities in BRI? Global Cities, the symbiotic parts of the ongoing process of globalization, were popularized as hegemonic geographic polarities by the seminal work of Saskia Sassen. Global cities are empowered as physical infrastructures that enable the hypermobility of capital and the tentacular growth of extraterritorial transnational corporations, on a planetary scale, in the background of progressive financialization of Northern economies that followed the 1970s oil crisis.
This paper focuses on the “culture of space” in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For «space» we intend the empty living environment, physical or virtual, private, semi-private or public, where people have mutual social interactions. This is a direct expression of a society’s culture.
ISPI’s Global Cities Programme published a dossier on African cities a year ago. This is the second such dossier focusing on a specific macro-region: in this case, the area covered by the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). This notion is itself questionable as China’s flagship geopolitical strategy is a huge project, probably the largest in the word, but the borders, partners and budget remain uncertain. This makes it necessary to select specific issues to analyse the perspectives and challenges of cities in such a global framework.
What do China’s rise as a superpower and increasing global urbanization have in common? Looking at the long term, both trends will be defining features of the 21st century. Over the medium term, the Covid-19 pandemic bears unprecedented challenges both for China’s international role, and for urban communities around the world, struggling and learning to coexist with the virus.