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New city-states: power, growth, inequality

Milan, 21/01/2019, Aspenia

According to UN estimates, 65% of the world’s population will be living in urban settings by 2050, resulting in an increase in consumer and energy needs and development opportunities. Major metropolises already cover approximately 3% of the planet’s total land surface: The “city” of 103 million inhabitants now forming around Beijing is struggling with serious logistic problems, beginning with those related to transportation. While on the one hand, cities will increasingly become drivers of growth, accounting for half of global GDP, on the other, they are and will in the future be generators of inequality. The Western urban middle class has seen itself squeezed out of metropolitan centers over recent years and living conditions have deteriorated with globalization. Indeed, in 2008, during the subprime crisis, more than 30 million Americans lost their homes.

Major metropolises such as New York, Paris and London were essentially poorer cities in the last century; the new economy, technology and finance have brought wealth. Today’s metropolises are able to offer an array of advantages, and Milan is a good example of that. The city’s strategic plans envision the possibility of autonomous administration, investments in technology, life sciences and manufacturing, not to mention the contribution being made by the Human Technopole to the very florid period the city is currently experiencing. Nevertheless, Milanese and Lombard regional industrial interests need to step up efforts at enhancing the appeal of a Milan whose 2000 industrial patents pale in comparison with Boston’s 13,000. Further comparison with Barcelona reveals a city that has managed to put together a synergetic plan that links industry, digital administration, universities and transportation.

The environmental impact on energy needs and on metropolitan waste remains, and will continue to be, overwhelming. That is why the only solution lies in the circular economy and sustainable, zero-emissions development. Fighting climate change is a global goal that anyone not embracing the need for common awareness will stand in the way of meeting. That various metropolises are linking their existing networks in a joint effort to combat shared problems is a major step forward. The metropolises of the Commonwealth, for example, collaborate continuously on counteracting climate change.

This approach is obligatory for the rest of the world as well since, according to many studies, numerous coastal metropolises – home to approximately 50 million of the world’s citizens – could be subject to flooding, and these include New York and Shanghai. The Chinese government has acted quickly to implement a 60 million-tree reforestation plan to combat the effects of climate change.

It is important that metropolises recuperate a sense of community and make the best use of the vast range of skills at their disposal. Since offerings at the level of culture can make a decisive contribution to this effort, a strategic cultural plan was drafted for Milan in 2013: A public/private venture focused on financial access to culture and urban accessibility, with a major rationalization of the transportation system. European cities, with their thousands of years of history, will have a perfect opportunity for recovery if they manage to combine their rich cultural patrimony, extraordinary human traditions and extensive industrial development.

A comprehensive problem-solving strategy cannot neglect the importance of the social fabric, relations with the central government and industrial and cultural development. Indeed, at political level, ignoring these considerations to focus solely on megalopolises means ending up mired in predicaments such as Brexit – with small-towns out voting the megalopolis of London – or the “yellow vest” movement taking to the streets of Paris to voice their discontent not only to the government of France but also to the citizens of another major metropolis.