Project 2012-2016

Urban Challenges in a Complex World

Main objectives

The proposed Urban Commission is designed to encourage geographical research on the new Urban Challenges emerging in an increasingly Complex World, and to further the exchange of findings among urban geographers from many countries. Cities, with their distinctive processes and problems, are major features of the modern world. Hence the commission will use a comparative global context to focus on their properties, the social, economic and environmental issues they pose, and to evaluate the utility of political and societal solutions to their problems.

Multidisciplinary approaches are increasing in urban studies, but the commission will emphasize the specific contribution of the geographical methods and concepts to urban issues by focusing on how such features as differential spatial proximity, segregation, cohesion, environmental and governance factors are transforming the character and vitality of urban places and are creating new challenges that need to be overcome. Particular attention will be paid to the use of multi-scale approaches in analysing changes and to such features as: the differential diffusion of innovations, hierarchies, networks, concentrations, segregations, and renovations, etc. in altering both urban systems and the internal structures of cities.

Given this perspective, the current proposal is built upon the work of the 2008-2012 Urban Commission that deals with the “Emerging urban transformations”. It will continue the efforts to improve democratic and participatory practices inside the commission, which has been supported by a dynamic and interactive website, allowing for more bottom-up initiatives, and encouraging younger scholars to attend meetings.

History of Urban Commissions

There is a long tradition of productive urban commissions within the IGU. The current sequence dates back to the Moscow meetings of 1976, when Professor Kasimierz Dziewonski of Poland initiated a Commission on National Settlement Systems that emphasized comparisons between capitalist and socialist countries. Subsequent commissions have extended the urban interests to incorporate the variety of problems originating within and between cities, and have recruited commission members from countries throughout the world. They were chaired by Larry Bourne (Canada, 1984-1992), Denise Pumain (France, 1992-2000), Gerhard Braun (Germany, 2000-2008). The current commission, led by Christian Wichmann-Matthiessen (Denmark), includes more than one hundred academics, representing more than thirty countries. The fourteen last annual meetings have been held in Asia (Nanjing, Seoul, Tokyo, Guangzhou, Hyderabad, Tel Aviv), Africa (Cape Town, Pretoria), and Latin America (Mexico City) as well as North America (Calgary) and Europe (Ljubljana, Glasgow, Santiago de Compostela, Canterbury), illustrating our global focus and interests. The current commission has already received invitations for future meetings from Santiago de Chile (IGU regional meeting, 2011), Dortmund and Köln with a joint meeting with the Transport Geography commission (IGU general meeting, 2012). From 2013 to 2016, in addition to the regional and general meetings we have proposals to organize meetings in Beirut, Johannesburg, and Lausanne. The main scholarly contributions of the various urban commissions have been presented in papers at the meetings, and are also available in more than 25 published volumes of papers from almost every annual meeting; half a dozen of these volumes, each of several hundred pages, are still in print.

The Commission is also developing a website ( ) to publish working papers and exchange information. A regular newsletter is sent to all members, and a diffusion list ( includes more than 300 people all over the world. This list also provides information about various meetings, new publications, and academic positions in the urban field. Another important scholarly contribution of the Commission is the opportunity in the annual meetings to discuss ideas with colleagues representing markedly different urban environments, and to develop exchanges of faculty and graduate students. 

Rationale for the New Commission

In the beginning of the new millennium, the world reached an urban threshold in that half of the human population was living in urban areas for the first time in human history. While the demographic explosion is a major cause of urban growth, we can also point to the effects of new communication and industrial technologies, the growth of service sectors, an expansion of spatial interaction and migration, and the increasing speed and wider penetration of global capitalism through reduced trade barriers: each one leading to increasing urban interdependencies. Although the transition from rural to urban lifestyles has already taken place in many countries, this process now affects the whole world, transforming our urban settlements into more complex systems. Different processes occur at various geographical scales, including various levels of governance that are trying to regulate the development, competitiveness and sustainability of territories. A major issue is maintaining and promoting a high level of diversity of human and natural resources in these places, in order to preserve their future. In this new and complex world, the role of cities is central.

Within this urban world, the size and characteristics of the cities in which we live shape our life chances, our economic and social opportunities and our quality of life, both in the large metropolitan concentrations, and in towns of small and medium size. The growth of the urban system is not only quantitative but also leads to structural transformations, such as new combinations of urban land uses, increasing concentration or de-concentration, changing spatial distributions of employment, income and ethnicity, a revived emphasis on civic culture and policies, and increasing concern about the new hazards of the city life. In addition, there is an increasing recognition of the need to incorporate historical heritage and to address the quality of life and amenities in cities. At the same time, these urban transformations have imposed even greater pressures upon the nearby countryside. A growing population consumes the resources from nearby communities and generates a variety of contaminants, creating an expanding ‘footprint’ of environmental impact, often with negative consequences for the quality of both urban and rural life. This has led to the increasing interest in the notions of ‘sustainability’, as well as the determinants of the ‘quality of life’, all of which support a variety of new and important research projects for urban geographers that can benefit from the international linkages provided by the proposed new commission.

Although the various processes causing these urban transformations are common to many countries, the changes in urban systems and the internal geography of cities, as well as concerns about sustainability, take different forms in different places. The result is the creation of increasingly complex patterns of urban systems and urban structures. The common forces at work in our increasingly interconnected world do not necessarily lead to homogenous results. This confirms the urgent need to take a geographical view of the changes. The many transformations that are taking place are contingent upon local and regional circumstances, and the results are frequently indeterminate, often with varied and unanticipated consequences. Thus there is a pressing need to monitor and explain the new spatial organizations of the urban world, to identify the main emergent patterns, factors and actors, and to underline the urban actions that will help orient the world toward a more sustainable direction, through international cooperation – the research focus that has been summarized in the proposed title of ‘Urban challenges in a complex world’. Ideally, each contribution from the various commission members studying diverse cities, regions, and nations of the world will contribute to a common body of knowledge about the new trends in the evolution of urban systems, functions and forms, and the ways that they can be conceptualised, measured and become more predictable for the future. Since urban geographers have long studied the many regularities and idiosyncrasies in urban life, it is appropriate that a global community of urban geographers, under the auspices of the IGU, should take stock of the ways in which the particular relationships among, and within, cities shape human life in the contemporary urban world. The future expansion of the IGU Urban Commission, including members from many countries, is ideally placed to make useful comparisons of the rapidly changing nature of urban phenomena among countries, and to identify and discuss the problems associated with them.

The research issues that form the basis of our proposed work can be grouped into three major issues extending the focus of the current commission on “new urban transformations” toward the study of their capacities to address the “Urban Challenges in a Complex World”. The terms ‘interdependency, diversity and sustainability/equity’ succinctly encompass these issues and lead to eight specific research challenges that will focus the work of the proposed Urban Commission during its four year term. 

The Three issues of Urban Geography

  • Interdependent Urban Systems. Increasingly, a few hundred city regions account for much of the world’s consumption and production, just as a few hundred large corporations now dominate most of the world’s trade, and sites of production. More and more people live within huge agglomerations. One result is that these core cities (the ‘World Cities’) are increasingly connected in many ways: by more rapid, more intense, and spatially extensive linkages of information, goods and money, as well as migration and tourism. Large corporations link distant cities into the same global strategies, and international agencies encourage states to co-operate in international governance. At the same time the intense interaction supports greater variation in economic and political roles among cities. Small and medium cities are “shrinking” and are more dependent on the central large metropolises in order to connect with the rest of the world. These urban concentrations pose some key questions that are intrinsically urban and geographical: What are the nodes, structures and functions of these emerging urban networks? How can we locate each city within this multinational allocation of economic activity and control? These issues are especially relevant to problems of economic competition, development, and innovation since the networks transmit ideas, and the cities foster the innovations. This is not only a global issue, because each continent and each country contains similar networks. Clearly, we need to investigate whether these new networks are shaped by deep-seated structural processes, such as the market or individual choice, or through deliberate national and regional policies in the diverse regions of the world.


  • Diversity between and within Cities. The most striking feature of urban life is the compartmentalization of jobs, of social groups, and of land use, including workplaces and homes. Inevitably, these specialized activities are separated spatially both, among cities in a world division of labour, and inside urban areas by cluster formation and the increasing segregation and specialization of places. The new complexity of multi-scale interactions implies a world in which more and more of the population is exposed to this type of specialization and spatial structure that shapes urban behaviour and lifestyles. Many cities are becoming more unequal and more specialized, as well as multi-layered, in terms of social class and ethnicity. As a result cities differ in employment opportunities and exhibit distinctive forms of poverty, as well as providing opportunities that attract migrants from rural areas and other cities, while they also vary in their ability to preserve the heritage of their historic past. Rapid urban growth often creates an imbalance between the population and the city’s resources of housing and infrastructure and reduces the quality of life of its citizens. Economic integration and new immigration can bring insecurity, or accelerate spatial change and conflict within the city. In many cities crime, disease, and environmental degradation overwhelm the public sector. The study of the regularities in these processes has become a staple of urban geographic research over the years. It has led the proposed urban commission to reposition spatial diversity within multi-scale, multi-level and multi-dimensional urban processes.


  • Sustainability and Equity. Sustainability and equity are crucial to allow harmonized urban developments in the future. Geographers have always been leaders in the study of problems of urban sprawl and the associated pollution, transportation, and infrastructure difficulties that result as well as the problems produced by environmental disasters. But the new concept of sustainability, which has emerged as one of the key societal concerns of the last decade, has provided important new perspectives, through attempts to diminish the consumption of non-renewable resources, and reduce pollution and sprawl, whilst meeting the basic needs and aspirations of present and future generations. However, the processes of new urban concentrations, new compact forms and the renewal of cities, often create less equity, resulting in more social injustice and less security. Urban geographers in the new commission can help in our understanding of these problems by monitoring the increasingly influential efforts by individual cities around the world to build more environmentally and socially sustainable urban environments in the search for more just cities.


Eight Specific Urban Challenges

Within these broad themes, eight research problems and areas have been identified, in order to more closely focus the work of the proposed commission. These questions include both theoretical and applied issues derived from the general title of ‘Urban Challenges in a Complex World’. Each meeting will focus on one or two of these topics, although not exclusively, to ensure that emerging new ideas from specific members can also be dealt with. Debates and collective publications will be encouraged on these specific topics in order to elaborate the issues.

The commission members will be able to explore the global and regional nature of the urban transformations, to identify solutions to emerging problems, and to create new research networks among urban geographers in various countries and continents. Geographical models will be proposed, shared and collectively improved in order to formalize comparisons of common patterns and processes, underlining specific features and questions to be answered.

1) Complex Urban Systems

Urban systems have seen radical changes in the last decades and will continue to do so. How are the various national, continental and global urban systems changing – in such features as city size, economic specialization, migration, interactions through social, economic, communication and transport networks and control functions? What processes and differential development paths are involved and how have different government policies affected these changes? Previous urban commissions have produced a large body of work on the urban systems of individual countries. This work will be extended to incorporate updated national and international comparisons and the accelerated growth of a limited number of global command centres in the highly connected world of electronic communications, finance, trade, and rapid travel. In addition, we must seek solutions for those cities that are left behind by these changes.

2) Technological innovations and creative activities in cities 

Urban economies are evolving quickly, with the growth of the “service” sectors and new activities in science, technology, communication, media, design and art. How do these activities specialize within some cities and how do these new “clusters” integrate within urban economic, social and environmental development? Can we quantify “smart cities” or specific urban “creative activities”? Can one identify life cycles of cities in these economic trends? Does this growth benefit the entire city or does it increase polarisation and fragmentation in the development of urban areas? Does it alter the shape and structures of urban areas and does it lead to new forms of urban societies?

3) Contested Social Spaces

The increasingly multi-layered social and ethnic character of cities has led to more intricate life spaces within cities, and potential conflicts among the various groups. Since many multinational communities, either diasporas or cosmopolitans, combine transnational links and strong intra-community cohesion, they may threaten other communities. How can we measure these new patterns and changes and make effective international comparisons? Where and when do conflicts emerge? How can differences between the various actors in these spaces be reconciled, ensuring that local communities are themselves empowered, rather than simply passive recipients of change from forces beyond their control, and that all groups are able to live in tolerance with one another?

4) Creating Sustainability

Can sustainability be tackled at the urban scale? What progress is being made by cities around the world in the development of new programmes and policies to create more environmentally and socially sustainable areas? How can these solutions be evaluated at various spatial scales? What are the emerging best practices in cities, from smart growth to green solutions etc., and what are the problems that restrict progress in implementing these more effective policies?

5) Dilemmas of Aging Cities

A serious new problem has emerged in some cities of the developed world. The declining birth rate of industrialized countries is creating many settlements with increasingly aging populations. What are the effects of this trend upon the functions and character of these cities, especially their infrastructures and levels of social provision? What policies are emerging in cities around the world affected by this problem to cope with these changes? How can the so-called “shrinking cities” manage their future?

6) Increasing Insecurity

In the past, cities survived because of their ability to create secure environments for their citizens. In many contemporary cities crime rates, anti-social behaviour and ethnic conflict threaten to make them less liveable, despite higher levels of surveillance, and apparent solutions such as gated communities, which create more private spaces and segregation. Part of the explanation for these trends may be unequal income distributions in which the lower income groups struggle to survive or maintain their position and the wealthy create exclusive areas. Several key problems emerge from these changes. How we can best conceptualize and measure these new forms of insecurity and more compartmentalised spaces? How do we make international and national comparisons of the increasing inequalities within cities and the levels of insecurities? Can we apply the best practices of cities that have successfully overcome these problems to other cities and societies, as well as linking these problems to our understanding of the new forms of urban social spaces?

7) Urban Heritage and Conservation

The distinctive identity of many cities and societies depends upon their historical heritage, as expressed in their built fabric. How can these identities be understood and interpreted? What are the policies that support the preservation of these heritages, yet still provide liveable and affordable spaces in these areas, instead of allowing historic areas and city centres to be overwhelmed by homogenised tourism?

8) Urban Governance

It is an unfortunate, but undeniable, fact that most large urban agglomerations are not permitted to govern themselves. Control over revenues and investments is shared with other levels of government and/or fragmented among dozens of small municipal units within the metropolitan area. Inevitably these political arrangements affect the spatial structure of infrastructure and public services, including planning. We must explore the spatial issues that detract from urban governance, and investigate the utility of emerging administrative solutions seen in many countries, such as the ‘new regionalism’ that seeks to provide a new spatial solution to the provision of services.



The management of the proposed commission follows the rules of the IGU in having an Executive, (Chair and two Deputy Chairs) and a Steering Committee (up to eight members). These have been chosen from participants with records of high quality research, with an equitable global and gender distribution, and have been elected by vote of the membership at large. In addition, we added two advisory committees to increase participation within the commission: first, the expertise of long-term members is available in a Mentors Committee, and second, a Younger Scholars Committee encourage participation and ideas from younger members. Both consist of four members, elected every four years during annual meetings. These committees normally meet the day before each annual meeting to discuss problems, procedures and new initiatives.

Activities of the commission is open to all qualified urban geographers. A new effort is made to attract members from countries that do not currently participate in our work. The new commission formalise procedures to identify voting members, such as one based on attending at least two meetings during the previous six years, in order to encourage more active participation in the commission. Every effort is made each year to publish a book of research papers, or special editions of journals based on lectures presented at the annual meeting, in order to create a wider audience for the work of the commission. The commission also develop the website, listing current members and interests, the titles of papers, and how to access them, to help those unable to attend meetings.

During each yearly conference two formal open business meetings, will be organized by the Executive and Steering Committee. This will include: an agenda and minutes that will be available in advance of the meeting; votes on specific motions if necessary, as well as a section on ‘Any Other Business’ to allow members to raise issues of interest. Specific task forces, made up of separate and representative committees, is constituted on a temporary basis to deal with major urban problems as they arise. The proposed commission follows the successful pattern of previous urban commissions by organizing annual meetings in different cities, usually lasting for three or four days, followed by two days of scientific excursions so that participants will be able to have personal experiences of local urban issues and problems. The organisation of the meeting is the responsibility of the hosts and the Executive and Steering committee. Usually one day of the meeting is set aside for papers on one of the main problem areas to focus debate, and include invited papers by experts and/or roundtables. Written proposals for hosting commissions is required, along with presentations to the business meetings so members can provide advice on the plans of any host, and, if necessary, vote on competing proposals.



We believe that the IGU should have a broad ranging commission dealing with the new challenges for contemporary cities and city systems, especially given the increasingly dominant role of urban phenomena. Previous IGU urban commissions have produced many publications, debated key problems, and have supported interaction among urban geographers from many countries. They have also exposed participants to the practical urban problems in different countries, providing them with unique and invaluable experiences to share with their students and colleagues. We hope to continue this work.

This proposal was produced by the collaboration of 15 urban scholars from different countries, who have been active in the commission. It demonstrates the desire for urban geographers from around the world to continue their work in international discussion, cooperation, and problem solving. 


Management (elected)


Professor Celine Rozenblat
University of Lausanne, Switzerland

Associate Chairs:

Professor Adrian Aguilar
UNAM, Mexico

Dr. Daniel O’Donoghue
Canterbury Christ Church University, United Kingdom

Steering Committee:

Dr. Ludger Basten

Technische Universität Dortmund, Germany

Professor Liliane Buccianti-Barakat
Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth, Lebanon

Dr. Nico Kotze
University of Johannesburg, South Africa

Dr. Keisuke Matsui
University of Tsukuba, Japan

Dr. Lidia Mierzejewska
Adam Mickiewicz university, Poland

Professor Petros Petsimeris
University Paris 1, France

Dr. Maria Jose Pineira-Mantinan
University of santiago de Compostella, Spain

Professor Ivan Townshend
University of Lethbridge, Canada

Correspondents and advisers from India and China: To be invited to join the activities of the steering committee.