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.
Nov 6, 2013 | Architecture Column

In 1950 New York and London were the only cities with more than 8 million inhabitants. Currently there are 26 cities of over 8 million people, by 2020 there will be 37. Some of these cities now surpass entire nations in terms of population and GDP: the population of Mexico City is bigger than that of Australia, the GDP of São Paulo larger than that of Sweden.

However impressive, there is more than just their escalating size that makes cities a compelling subject. Perhaps most importantly: cities are also the main arena in which globalization takes physical form. Cities can be viewed as globalization’s test beds: the ethnic and religious mix of a city like Birmingham today is more representative of the world than it is of the UK, which makes the city the experiment of how to handle this. In the face of this new (emerging) global reality, when it comes to migration and cultural diversity, city authorities have little choice but to take a progressive approach irrespective of the approach taken at a national level (to whose political authority cities ultimately remain subject). In this sense, as cities become larger, they must also become more advanced in confronting the issues that inevitably occur in globalizations wake…

So far the city has failed to register as a political entity in its own right. Even the largest cities in the world are governed by municipal structures not much different than those of the average provincial town (with a mandate equally limited and with an infrastructure that is probably not much better) Very few of what we call megacities (cities with more than 10 million inhabitants) in fact even exist as such: in citing the large population numbers, city rankings mostly refer to larger agglomerations named after the biggest city in their midst. Generally the authority of that “larger” city stops at its municipal borders, leaving the rest of the agglomeration to be little more than a tapestry of congregated individual towns. Attempts at larger administrative units generally hit a wall due to vested interests and divided powers. Irrespective of the presence that the megacity has now gathered in almost any other domain, in terms of governance, today’s “megacity” mostly remains a virtual construct…

What ultimate political consequences should be drawn from the demographic, economic and cultural momentum that the megacity has gained? How should megacities be governed? What should be the mandate of their (elected) representatives? What should be the size of the territory subject to that mandate? What administrative systems should be devised to allow adequate representation of these entities? How should megacities register at the scale of world politics?

If the current rate of urbanization continues, the world could be a 75 percent urban by 2050, and close to 100 percent urban before 2100. Predictions indicate that by 2100, human habitation will be limited to less than 5 percent of the earth’s territory, leaving large tracks of land uninhabited. At that point, the megacity could even be dislodged from a context of nations to become an entity of its own: a kind of clever amalgamation of properties of both the city and the state, applying “large government” to limited territory. Antiquity – the world as an archipelago of city-states – could acquire unexpected relevance: challenging both the existing concept of the city, as well as that of the nation, it might offer a compelling reason to reinvent both.