From Town to Urban

Throughout the 20th century we have been moving from town to urban. The dense European town is spreading out, initially in a regular fashion (suburbs) but now more and more in a multi-centric way (dynamic and lively urban centres organised as archipelagos which are themselves extending through zones of dense private housing). Extended towns cover a growing proportion of the land and, at the same time, are becoming more diverse and complex, even fragmented. We no longer live where we work, our consumption is done in yet another place, our friends are far away, and we have multiple social allegiances The greater spread of our towns has, at the same time, increased agglomerations but weakened the ‘city’. Several town centres, a suburb and several peripheral communities cohabit in a multi-centric urban area with three driving forces; three town policies that tend to ignore each other:

  • A selective peripheral urbanisation, with space (mainly detached housing), neighbours, often built in a loop (housing estates), which has the double propensities of movement (you have to move to go to work, to go shopping, to find entertainment) and security in public and private areas.
  • Town centres, which were often popular in the past, are becoming places for the gentry, inhabited by a class of mobile individuals, integrated, careful to take advantage of the historical town, the town as a museum, the town for pleasure – at the expense, if necessary, of relegating the disadvantaged classes.
  • The relegation zones become ghettos (bars, high-rise estates, waste land), where no one chooses to live, which are poorly linked to the rest of the town, from where it is not easy to escape, where social promotion is compromised, where only insecurity is dominant, where public areas and services deteriorate. In these zones, it is often the community that regulates itself which is another factor contributing to their feelings of isolation.

Megapoli and «world-towns»

Describing urban areas in terms of continuity rather than discontinuity (a town with no clear limits), with as much movement as there is space, is a significant change in our thinking. It is accompanied by the development of fixed and mobile networks and is well suited to globalisation. However, urbanisation and urban spread were occurring almost everywhere before economic globalisation started. Global companies need a limited number of world decision and exchange centres but production and distribution easily follow populations: the growth of Phoenix in the USA or the coastal areas in France obey individual location decisions as much as, or even more than, those of capitalists – who then adapt to them. The spread of business around the world requires that new ‘centres’ are reconstituted, the ‘world towns’, that concentrate the functions of direction, innovation and research and are organised in networks where each centre acts as a node of interlinking and commutation between multiple networks: Paris-La Défense, the West End in London, Manhattan (and not New York), Singapore, Hong Kong, which also have stronger relations between themselves than with their immediate neighbours. These centres carry other medium sized towns along with them but also leave others on one side. This networking is also a process of marginalisation and exclusion, of ranking and fragmentation of areas.