Reinier de Graaf

Partner, OMA

Reinier de Graaf is a partner at The Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), where he heads the work of its think tank AMO, dedicated to demonstrating the wider relevance of architectural thinking beyond building and urban planning. Projects include: The Image of Europe, addressing the European Union's iconographic deficit; D-40210, a strategy to prevent further gentrification of European town centres; Eurocore, about the contours of Europe's first cross-border metropolis (spanning parts of the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium); and The State of Moscow, a proposal for a more accountable system of governance for Moscow. De Graaf is also in charge of AMO’s increasing work on energy planning, including Zeekracht: a strategic masterplan for the North Sea; Roadmap 2050: A Practical Guide to a Prosperous, Low-Carbon Europe, with the European Climate Foundation; and The Energy Report, a global plan for 100% renewable energy, with the WWF.

Jul 2, 2014 | Architecture column

At present 54 percent of the world’s population lives in cities, only 600 urban centers generate 60 percent of global GDP, and globally, there are 1000 cities with a population of half a million or more. 1/3 of which are larger than 1/3 of the countries in the UN. If the current rate of urbanization continues, the world could be 75 percent urban by 2050, and close to 100 percent urban before 2100.

What ensues in the wake of a definitive triumph of the urban condition? What are the real implications of the casually uttered, seemingly triumphant statement that by now more than half the world’s population is living in cities? So far the debate about the city has mainly been defined in terms of opportunities. (Not surprisingly, since so far it is mainly global players such as business consultants and technology firms which have shaped the debate.) Problems are defined as ‘challenges’, failures are defined as ‘set backs’ or simply swept under the rug. The political aspect is surprisingly absent.

Urbanization was supposed to be the world’s quick ticket to prosperity. The average urban dweller (on paper) represents five times the economy of the rural dweller. If a rural nation becomes urban in the space of a decade it doubles its economy every two years. But that statistical given scarcely serves to conceal the reality of most developing cities. And that isn’t just limited to the developing world: also in the west our economic reality on paper is increasingly divorced from any genuine notion of well-being.

Those who inhabit the city we define as Cosmopolitan: citizens of the world. When using this word, we generally think of a mobile business oriented group of people, no longer hindered by any traditional loyalty to place or nation: their playground is the world. With the urban condition about to become universal, we can all become ‘cosmopolitan’. And it is precisely this false promise that constitutes the most dangerous aspect of our current fixation on the city. The more the world aspires to a shiny urbanite life, the more it finds this kind of life unattainable. For the illegal migrant worker in Moscow an idealized, tech-driven urban environment is no more of a reality than it is for the inhabitants of Rio’s favelas. In the wake of a massive influx into cities, we are witnessing the emergence of another kind of ‘citizen of the world’: those who drew the short straw of globalization and for whom being cosmopolitan equals ‘cosmopoverty’.