The challenges of global cities: EU's urban agenda

At the end of March I had the chance to attend Ispi (Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionale)’s online course “La sfida delle città globali”. It was a two-day event discussing the new challenges that global cities are called to face, such as social and environmental sustainability, their role in national politics, migrations and integration. Well-known Italian lecturers participated to express their own perspective on the question “What is the future of global cities?”.

But before answering, let me dwell upon what global cities are, and why there is such a fuss about them, even at EU level.

Why global cities matter

Did you know that, according to an UN estimate, 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas in 2030? This, in ten years from now, will result in 43 metropolises having more than 10 million inhabitants – in 1990 there were only ten. As pointed out by Tobia Zevi – an associate Research Fellow in charge of the Global Cities Desk at Ispi – it is a very complex reality to analyze, since the concept of “city” concerns most of the world’s population.

Moreover, it is an extremely interdisciplinary field of study. There is no single “city specialist” – Ispi put together political economists, architects and experts on migration to debate about this topic.

One of the first to talk about it was the American sociologist Saskia Sassen at the beginning of the 1990s. In her book “The Global City” Sassen claimed that these entities form as production points of specialized sectors in the world’s economy, which are in turn a consequence of the increasing economic globalization: “The mix of firms, talents, and expertise from a broad range of specialized fields makes a certain type of urban environment function as an information center. Being in a city becomes synonymous with being in an extremely intense and dense information loop.” It is, therefore, a self-generating process. As Marco Simoni, a political economist with experience in government and academia, clearly explained, global cities are innovation hubs that create the right ecosystem to foster further developments and investments.

By now, you should have already understood that global cities play a crucial role in the world’s dynamics, but if you need some more numbers, here they are: in 2018, 70% of global GDP was produced in urban areas. Hence, cities are a fundamental source of the world’s wealth – this, however, comes with its downsides. According to Tobia Zevi, urban areas are a scene of social and economic inequalities and criminality. Many economists have estimated that inequality levels within cities are even higher than those between cities and rural areas. And this, of course, is only one of the many challenges to social life that urbanization implicates.

Global cities’ challenges...

One prominent challenge that has gained much popularity lately is that of environmental sustainability in city centres. And that is no surprise, seeing that, despite occupying only 2% of total land, cities waste 75% of energy and produce 60% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions