Global Cities

Over the next 50 years, how cities accommodate the exponential growth of people together with urban challenges that result from climate change and limited resources will be one of THE defining issues for all planning and design disciplines. Growth scenarios anticipate that cities will gain an estimated 60 million people per year and over 1.15 million every week. In most countries, the urban population is growing two or three times faster than the overall population; however, it is in the Developing World that we will see the highest, fastest and most sustained growth of cities. Over the last 50 years, cities have reached sizes that are historically unprecedented with the average size of the world's 100 largest cities going from 2 million people in 1950 to over 5 million people in 1990, and the emergence of the megacity of over 10 million people.  Of note, this phenomenal growth of people in cities is and will remain equally split between smaller cities (below 5 million) and megacities (over 10 million). However, it is the speed of growth, the overall size of cities and the inherent social injustices embedded in the current growth mechanism that seem to pose the greatest challenge to urban design within the parameters of limited social and natural capital, and the need to develop humane, healthy and sustainable cities. 

As urban designers, we understand, appreciate and have developed over time a series of techniques, methods, and skills to understand, design and develop cities of the smaller scale.  However, it is for the new phenomena of the megacities of 10 million+ people and the even newer phenomena of the regional hyper-cities of 50 million+; Hoal believes require new and different urban design methods, techniques and skills. These mega- and hyper- cities are the territory in which “design” is challenged by the sheer geographical footprint, spatial complexity, and chaotic and random use juxtapositions as well as the multi-layered societies, cultures and economies that exist within these cities. 

These are cities whose spatial and ecological footprint is global in nature and whose “design” will have a profound impact on the future of global systems. In many cases, these are cities whose economy is more important than the country within which they reside as confirmed by the following facts: the top 25 cities collectively account for 20% of the world’s population but generate 65% of all economic activity, approximately 85% of technological & scientific innovation, and account for more than half the world’s wealth.

These mega and hyper cities pose not just technical and methodological problems for urban designers – which are significant enough – but they challenge the very notion of what is a city? – that is, the epistemology of the city. Until recently, urban design has theoretically and conceptually accepted and privileged the city as the focus of the urbanization challenge and solution.  We have understood cities to be distinct from the non-city – they are large, compact, dense, and social and economically diverse. 

Today, with these new sizes and forms of cities, if we only understand the city in this frame we omit the planetary flows of urbanization – an understanding of urbanization described by Neil Brenner as a “territorially differentiated, morphologically variable, multi-scalar and processual conceptualization” [Brenner, Neil (ed.) Implosions/Explosion: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization Jovis, Berlin, 2014. Pg. 15].

By including the non-city into the discipline of urban design - that which is beyond the socio-spatial boundaries of the city but yet that which is subsumed within the same system of urbanization - a more holistic understanding and theory of urbanism as a condition of global flows can be developed. The beginnings of this theoretical proposition can be traced to the writings of Lefebvre in which he suggests “the city is everywhere and in everything' a relentless, fragmented interweaving urban fabric – a 'net of uneven mesh”.[Lefebvre, Henri, The Right to the City in The Urban Revolution University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2003] 

This moves the discipline of urban design forward in that design is broadened, situated, defined and engaging of the complexity of processual flows of urbanization over time – the city is to be understood as an open-ended temporal spatial socio-ecological urbanization process. What becomes interesting for urban design is by removing the conceptualization that urbanism has to be defined only territoriality, it opens the design to the non-spatial – urbanism as space and urbanism as flow – such that each system (flow) within urbanization has its own condition of flow within a different space.  Each urban system has its own spatial pattern, size, and form determined and/or impacted by way of different densities and intensities of flow.

This reconceptualization requires that urban design interrogates separately and integratively the flows of urbanism (metabolism) with each flow having differential spatiality and geography (morphology) and vice versa. In this manner, each site of operation becomes defined inherently as a space of overlaps in time between varied multi-scalar spatial systems of flows and each site therefore holds differential potential of engagement and influence within the system. As a collective condition of urbanization, the result is a complex multi-layered juxtaposition of different flows in space over time – a completely open and fluid urbanism.

Through teaching at Washington University, John Hoal has researched and developed these ideas over the last 7 years through the formalization of the ten week summer Action-Research Global Urbanism[s] Studio in which two globally significant cities are studied in comparative perspective. The students and faculty study the place of the selected cities in global perspective, the cities themselves, and finally a selected site within the city for developing an urban design project. To this end, Hoal has developed a research and design methodology that allows the student researcher to interrogate the complexity of a megacity and propose strategies that can be developed through multiple scales of interventions – from region-through city and neighborhood to site.  An important part of the pedagogy is teaching as an immersion experience – we need to study cities in place – in person – experience the city - see, feel, touch, smell, and hear the noises of the city and its occupation – we need to be an anthropological participant observer / flâneur of and in the city.

Hoal organizes and leads this ten week studio, builds all partnerships, and selects the cities of study.  The cities of study include: Hong Kong, Mexico City, Shanghai, Singapore, and Tokyo with field trips to Bangkok, Seoul and Beijing. The key partners in the studio have been Tongji University in Shanghai and National University in Singapore who in turn have studied the American cities of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The typical ten week program starts with two weeks of city research and theoretical readings on global cities, and a lecture course of the history of urban design and current topics in urbanism and sustainability. Thereafter, the studio spends the next two weeks traveling to the cities of study and completing field work, site visits and a public life survey, attending lectures and engaging local architects and urban designers. Finally, the studio locates itself in one of the cities of study and completes the urban design project. 

Two examples of action-research documents are included here, one on Shanghai, China and the other on Tokyo, Japan, and selected studio projects that are illustrative of the multi-scalar design propositions that are required by the studio, as well as the overall studio program to illustrate the intensity of lectures, international faculty involvement, and reviews and site visits.