Reconsidering what sprawl, suburbs, and world-class city mean

A sociology grad student involved with the city of Calgary regarding development and growth suggests we need to step back and reconsider the “vacant terminology” used by “urbanistas”:

When it comes to sprawl, said Gondek, the term actually means “non-contiguous growth of an urban area.”“It’s uncontrolled, it’s unplanned. In our opinion, it’s simply not the case for Calgary,” she said…

“Suburb” is Gondek’s least-favourite misused term, preferring the term “community” instead.

“Suburbs, as they are properly defined, are areas outside the metropolitan region,” she said.

“They are bedroom communities. It’s an American concept that means independent municipalities outside of the city.”

Growth on Calgary’s edges actually involves periphery communities, not suburbs.

“Calgary’s so-called suburbs are actually a part of the city — there’s nothing ‘sub’ about them,” said Gondek, pointing out that these homeowners pay property taxes into the same pool as inner-city residents do.

The third phrase is the idea of just how “world-class” is Calgary.

Gondek looked at various indices to see how cities are rated on their globalness. She found a wide variety of measures, depending on what angle of “globalness” was sought to be defined: population, income, walkability, transportation — any number of measures.

Gondek drew the conclusion that indices of world-classness depend on the subjective views of what the creators of the indices decide is world-class, rather than any real, fundamental, unified definition of the term.

Some of this makes sense. Suburbs are now vital parts of metropolitan regions rather than ugly step-children of cities. Also, sprawl is not necessarily unplanned or disordered as critics suggest; there is a logic to it, typically involving profits to be made by developers and others. Both of these terms are often loaded with negative connotations by critics.

On the other hand, the definition of a world-class city seems more set to me. The term used widely in urban sociology actually is “global city” which has a lot of overlap with the concept of a world-class city. The global city is typically defined as being a global economic center with a high concentration of FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) industries. But, there are other dimensions to global cities including cultural and government institutions. (For one example of these various dimensions, see this ranking of global cities.) I wonder if the suggestion that world-class city is a nebulous term is done so that Calgary can feel better about what it is doing…

Conference talks suggest future is bright for big cities

A number of mayors and planners from big cities around the world are meeting in France this week. According to one report, the future looks bright for big cities:

“The future of the world lies in cities,” London’s mayor Boris Johnson told a packed auditorium at the opening day of MIPIM Monday…

“We have to keep putting the village back into the city because that is fundamentally what human beings want and aspire to,” Johnson told the crowd, adapting a famous statement made by India’s Mahatma Gandhi that the future of India lay in its 70,000 villages.

“Cities are where people live longer, have better education outcomes, are more productive,” Johnson noted, adding that cities are also where people emit less polluting carbon dioxide per capita…

A recent study by Citigroup published in Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper forecast that mega-cities expected to have the fastest growing economies by the middle of the next decade include London, Chicago, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Mumbai and Moscow.

What is being said here is not just the optimism of big-city mayors: others agree about the benefits cities offer such as reduced carbon emissions and being centers of innovation.

A few questions about this conference:

1. Are people bullish about the prospect of big cities because they live and work in big cities and therefore have to be more optimistic? Is this simply boosterism?

2. Is there a distinction made at this conference between central cities and metropolitan regions? When Boris Johnson, mayor of Greater London, talks about London’s prospects, is it safe to assume that he is referring to the whole region and not just Central London? I assume this is really about full metropolitan regions and not just about central cities.

3. Do city leaders in the developing world see things in the same way as the mayors from First World countries cited in this story? For example, mayors of places like London or New York or Chicago or Tokyo are already in charge of world-class cities that have established their place at the top of the hierarchy. Would a mayor of Cairo or Calcutta or Sao Paulo have the same rosy perspective?