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. I would suggest four topics raised in this dossier: 1) Geopolitical function of cities; 2) Chinese urban model; 3) The Global City in the age of COVID-19; 4) Importance of mitigating climate change.
Geopolitical function of cities
In recent years, we have repeatedly said that Global Cities across the planet have gone beyond playing a merely local role, gaining power and reputation through international networks and public debates. This has been particularly evident in specific fields, such as engagement against climate change and migration management. Since local communities are both the problem and the solution for such challenges, highly connected communities began to discuss such aspects among themselves and confront their national governments, at times even opposing federal policies and laws. The general feeling grew that power was moving up and down at the same time, empowering multilateral bodies as well as local communities.
Think of Europe. Member States have often looked weaker and weaker in the face of EU legislation, while cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Madrid, Milan and so on have blossomed into prosperous global cities. It is too soon to argue how such dynamics will evolve post-COVID-19 and the subsequent socio-economic crisis, but it is possible to say a new model of city-to-city diplomacy might very well appear through the BRI (See Klaus and Curtis’ article).
China is fostering cities to expand their networks abroad, exporting best practices and reproducing efficient models from around the world. Such efforts are encouraged particularly in countries that have minor diplomatic ties to the People’s Republic. However, it uses a different model to that of the West. The State maintains vertical control of these relationships, which aim to further China’s national interests abroad. Therefore, to define the geopolitical function of Global Cities in the coming years, we need to examine how the BRI will involve urban subjects.
Chinese urban model
In his old book “The right to the city”, French historian Henri Lefebvre described the Asian city as an alternative to the European city. Nowadays, many of the traditional characteristics of this urban culture have changed through different layers of history, starting with European colonisation and the large-scale urbanisation of the 20th century. Nonetheless, there are specific and still recognisable features that explain the Chinese idea of public/private space (see Genovese’s article).
The traditional structures of homes, buildings and factories defined how a community’s life was organised behind the entrance door and in a common courtyard. This old architectural concept might become current once again in the era of smart working and “decentralisation”. If we need people to commute less to avoid overwhelming public transport, then we need to design spaces where people can “work, live and play”, sharing multi-level experiences and belonging to genuine social ecosystems. Cities like Paris and Milan, to mention just two, are already thinking of “15-minute” communities where driving forms no part of your daily routine. That is why urban “Chinese boxes” and concentric clusters look so interesting today.
Chinese cities also rely heavily on social control. Community networks, units and supervisors were part of the urban structure even before the Communist revolution, and were then heavily supported by the Party. Technology and digitalisation have scaled up such an approach as much as possible. When thinking about the future of cities, it should be remembered that while social control and digital supervision can help contain the pandemic, they can also threaten personal freedom and civil rights.
Finally, Chinese communities are distributed across the globe through their enormous Diaspora. “China Towns” and neighbourhoods both in Western and Asian countries are a powerful boost for the cultural spread of the foresaid Chinese urban model.
The Global City in the age of COVID-19
Renowned sociologist Saskia Sassen codified the concept of “Global City” in the early 1990s. In her definition, she identified specific cities that were able to become essential nodes in the financially globalized economy. In these specific cities multinational companies, service firms and highly skilled workforces tended to gather to improve goods, skills and performance. Eye contact was more important than expected, despite many forecasts in the preceding years envisaging that technology would lead to people working from home or in the suburbs. Additionally, Sassen explained that for such hubs to work properly, highly skilled workers needed large numbers of low-skilled workers to look after houses, offices and families (children and the elderly). Therefore, Global Cities have always been very unequal, often segregating the wealthy and the poor.
The model she described was privately driven, and that is why it appeared right after a decade, the 1980s, in which many city administrations (even London and New York City) were really struggling or even on the verge of collapse. The huge percentage of GDP coming from cities did not turn into public services and spaces, or at least this was not automatic. Big companies and richer dwellers could drive local development in their own interests.
What might change in the BRI’s model of a global city? Having said it is impossible to describe the BRI as a unique model, there are two potentially positive trends. First, there could be a new public driven model of the Global City, where some cities are even built from scratch (see Tritto and He’s article) using the enormous investments provided by China (or other countries, see Ren’s article). Secondly, the recent spread of COVID-19 might also have a positive impact as both brand new cities and old ones will try to avoid hotbeds, investing significant public funds in social sustainability, healthcare systems and climate mitigation projects.
Importance of mitigating climate change
The BRI is first and foremost about infrastructure (see Talamini and Xue’s article), particularly gigantic bridges, harbours, railways and, of course, digital infrastructure. Such projects involve entire regions and different countries at the same time and pose huge challenges for the environment. As Lin Peng explains in her article, we need to change the approach from “polluting first and then treating” to “developing while treating”.
Touching solely on the main areas we need to focus on, cities should reduce air pollution, mitigate climate change, promote environmental awareness, attract public/private investment in urban regeneration, support the building sector in transitioning, and develop green financial instruments. These challenges require a systemic approach and a strong belief in the crucial importance of this battle.
It is also vital to remember that, while designing green and sustainable new neighbourhoods and smart cities is undoubtedly positive, we will not overcome the crisis without “fixing” the great majority of old, poor and polluted urban and metropolitan areas. On this front, a powerful vision and a long-term strategy for implementing the BRI will be crucial. Or a dangerous step towards environmental disaster.
To conlude, one thing is crystal clear: studying Chinese and more in general Asian cities, which first faced the pandemic, is a key area of research today. Local communities adopted various practices and responses through tests, trial and error. Since the world will possibly have to cope with new waves of COVID-19 in the coming months, understanding and recognizing cities’ best practices in containing the virus is more crucial than ever.