A Planetary Megalopolis

28 September 2012, 10:00

Any urban citizen wants to live in a comfortable and safe environment. Unfortunately, Ukrainian cities cannot boast having even the minimum of benefits for their citizens. In Ukrainian the urban reality is that municipal services are economically underdeveloped and unready to face environmental challenges. When heat peaks in summer or heavy rains flood cities, it emerges that utility services are unprepared to deal with the whimsical weather. As a result of uncontrolled frantic construction in Ukrainian cities, park and recreation areas are rapidly shrinking. The Ukrainian Week talks to Blair Ruble, a world-renowned expert on urban studies, about the development of post-soviet urban space and how cities in the world are adjusting to economic and climate change.

UW: What urban development concepts are currently popular in the West? What will cities look like in 10 or 20 years?

The latest concerns in urban planning and development revolve around two sets of issues: economic and environmental sustainability. These two concerns are linked, of course, and emerge from the global challenges of international economic stagnation and fiscal crisis in many countries, as well as the unprecedented trials of global climate change.  As we look forward, planners and municipal leaders are increasingly concerned with how to structure cities to be attractive to the so-called ‘creative class’ taking shape as a result of the increasing economic dominance of knowledge-based economic sectors.  Sustaining this class requires large scale investment in human, rather than fixed capital.  The challenges of climate change present other tasks, including greater reliance on public transportation, more efficient energy use, enhanced coastal security, and retrofitting cities for new climatic realities.  Chicago perhaps represents a compelling example of a city that is rethinking its future along both fronts, as local leaders are reimagining their city by 2050 with the climate of New Orleans in the deep American South. 

UW: How do you see the development of East European cities, considering post-WW II reconstruction, plus the construction boom of the 1950s, intense building in the 1970s-1980s, and the contemporary urban development of the 2000s? How are the situations in Prague, Budapest, Warsaw different from those in Kyiv, Minsk and Moscow?

I believe that the trajectories of East European and former soviet cities are quite different right now. Despite shared experiences with socialist city building, those cities now within the European Union are guided by very different policy assumptions from those further East.  Urban planning and assumptions about technology and transportation align with similar policies elsewhere in the EU (as can be seen in investment in public transportation, including facilities for bicycles). Former soviet cities are struggling to find the most appropriate balance between planning and the market.  More importantly, cities in the European Union adopt models of meaningful and open citizen participation in local decision-making while democratic participation in all too many cities of the former Soviet Union remains little more than fakery. 

UW:  In certain countries of the world, such as South Korea and Japan, cities are built to fit into the natural landscapes in the best way possible, and green spaces are essential benefits for urban dwellers. Is this trend widespread in contemporary urban development? In Kyiv, for example, the destruction of green zones to make room for new skyscrapers has become a norm over the past 10-15 years.

While there are examples of the greening of urban landscapes in South Korea and Japan, I am not at all sure that they are the only – or even the best – examples of what is possible.  Returning to the issue of environmental sustainability, we see the construction of new – and the retrofitting of existing – urban landscapes with green zones, even at the level of grass-covered roof gardens on high-rise buildings.  “Green” is considered to be an amenity to be valued, not thrown away.  If the goal of a city is to attract a creative labour force as the new ‘creative class’ that adds the greatest value to the local economy, then what better way is there to do so, than to value your green spaces?  Kyiv entered the post-soviet period with unique assets in the form of its green areas, an asset which is busily being destroyed for the short-term benefit of a few.  This is a consequence, of course, of elevating the quick gain of a few at the expense of a more significant long term gain of the many; a strategy which sadly appears to stand at the centre of Ukrainian political and business plans at the moment.

UW: What role do modern megalopolises play in the modern world? How specific is life in the biggest urban centres of the world?

There are a few trends, in my opinion. If you talk about post-soviet cities, they have opened to the world and turned into international migration and tourist destinations. However, the two urban trends I’ve mentioned earlier are both great challenges and good chances for cities. In the first place, they facilitate the evolution of city dwellers who are integrated into the international economy and oriented towards each other rather than towards their country. There is a category of global cities which manage to feed on each other, such as New York, Tokio, London and increasingly Shanghai. They all begin to exist separately. Another big challenge is that most of the planet’s population lives in cities. They are concentrated in Africa, Asia and Latin America. China is a different story. Over the past 20 years, nearly 200mn people have lived in Chinese cities. Many rural dwellers moved to cities in Africa which, however, are not big enough to fit them all. The same thing had happened in North America and Europe over a hundred years ago, when people moved from villages to cities where jobs were created for them. Nothing like that is happening in Africa now. Its cities develop rapidly, yet they are overridden with epidemics and poverty, where people earn a dollar or less a day. These people shape the world, so it is time to think about how to resolve the situation.

In the first place, this refers to Latin America – a hyper-urbanized continent today. After 50-70 years, it has passed the significant state of urbanization and has valuable experience worth sharing. But look at the deeper changes, such as climate transformations, health care and urbanization. They are all intertwined. If you look at the Earth from the sky, the density of cities is shrinking even when the cities themselves expand. This results in the shrinking area of farmland. We have to realize the process. It cannot be stopped but it can be controlled.

UW: Megalopolises have always been popular migration destinations. Are there any specific phenomena or changes that are typical for our time?

People always move and migrate. The difference between the present and the past is technology. They can now move faster and further. The Internet allows people to stay in New York while living a life as if they were in Kyiv. This changes the essence of a migrant’s life. When someone wakes up one morning in Kyiv and says that he or she will move to the USA and become an American because Kyiv offers no economic prospects, this is not an accurate definition of migration. We are witnessing great acceleration today. The way we move has changed and the meaning of these moves has changed, too.


Blair Ruble is the Program Director for Comparative Urban Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington. Dr. Ruble received his MA and PhD degrees in Political Science from the University of Toronto in 1974 and 1977. Prior to August, he chaired the Kennan Institute, and worked at the Social Science Research Council in New York City, as well as at the National Council for Soviet and East European Research in Washington. Dr. Ruble is the author of six monographs and is an expert on urban and political processes in Ukraine, Russia and Eurasia. 

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