Project 2020-2024

(Re-)Thinking cities and the urban: from the global to the local

The interest of the Urban Commission of the International Geographical Union (IGU-UGI) focuses on analysing the complex challenges and problems that cities and urban regions are facing in the early 21st Century. The economic, social and health crises of recent years indicate the need to develop new ways of seeing, understanding and governing cities. Urban futures demand a more integrative direction, a sustainable development strategy that brings urbanisation in line with territorial and social cohesion, inclusive economic growth, and the environment, and also help to reduce social inequalities. In this sense, the IGU Urban Commission is the framework that invites the international community of urbanists, from geography and related disciplines, to reflect upon the challenges of cities and future urbanisation and to share their observations, findings and reflections.

During the mandate period of 2016-2020, the IGU-Urban Commission, under the presidency of Professor Céline Rozenblat, and thanks to the work of the previous Steering Committee, was awarded the recognition of the best IGU-Commission for the year 2018.

Among the activities developed, we can highlight that:

  1. Annual conferences of the commission have been held annually, with a high level of
  2. Publication of the research has been encouraged, either through the conference proceedings or through the Young Scholar Book.
  3. The website has been improved, thanks to the work done by the President, who personally designed it and updated the contents.
  4. Since 2019 the Commission provides grants to help defray the costs of young participation to the Conference. Please note that, due to limited availability of funds, the IGU Travel Grants will provide only the contribution to registration. In selecting applicants to receive awards, preference will be given to young or emerging scholars, particularly from the Global South.
  5. A certain emphasis has been put on mailing and disseminating publications.

Objectives for 2020-2024

For the period 2020-2024, the IGU Urban Commission pursues the following objectives:

  1. Include more members from countries that are currently not represented in the IGU Urban Commission. Special attention will thus be paid to potential members from Latin America, South Asia and Africa.
  2. Generate new forums for debate: by conducting online seminars and workshops.
  3. Motivate and capture the attention of young researchers:
    1. Incorporating new topics that respond to their concerns and research interests.
    2. Opening a space for them to present their theses, with a dual purpose: to receive guidance from senior professors/researchers to reorient methodological aspects; exchange experiences, knowledge and methodologies with other young researchers.
    3. Publishing their contributions in articles and book chapters.
    4. Rewarding the best research based on two categories: articles and theses.
  4. Promote scientific publications. Collaboration agreements will be signed with indexed urban-themed journals and prestigious publishers, as it is already planned for. Promote collections on the study of the city and the urban from the commission itself.
  5. Create a bank of projects and informed good practices on urban issues (planning, urban regeneration, quality of life and basic services -education, health, housing, the environment, urban economies, resilience, mobility, green structures, etc.)
  6. Support the organisation of conferences in collaboration with other IGU commissions, with a view to promoting multi- and trans-disciplinarity. In this case, the promotion of thematic conferences will be pursued proactively.

A Framework for the Agenda of the 2020-2024 IGU-Urban Commission

In topical terms, it is our goal for the next mandate of the IGU Urban Commission to reflect upon a certain range of issues in the context of urbanisation, cities and urban policy, as addressed in the following. The problems and challenges mentioned below are considered to be of general interest and relevance. They can be understood as thematic orientations that provide guidance for a more detailed investigation by the Commission members, both established and early career. The topics include theoretical and applied problems in the area of urban geography, development and policy more specifically, derived from the need for ‘(Re-)Thinking cities and the urban: from the global to the local‘.


1- Cities as drivers of, and driven by, transformational change

Cities and urbanisation processes have gained increasing attention recently at the global level. As it was announced by the United Nations in 2007, for the first time in human history that more people live in urban rather than rural areas. While the underlying planetary perspective on urbanisation is shared by many observers, the interpretation of what this means to us seems to be more contested. Based on theories of agglomeration, some observers have argued that there would be an associated triumph of dense, clustered city areas as an economic model. Others have pointed at the many difficulties of the once strong industrial cities when adapting to recent economic and technological changes. A closer inspection reveals a rather differentiated view of today’s urbanisation processes and outcomes – one that approaches cities as being ambivalent, both subject to prosperity and growth, and also undergoing trajectories of decline Cities and urbanisation are both drivers of transformation, and driven by related processes. The polarised pattern that was inherent to the rise of the industrial city (polarised between city and countryside on the one hand, and within the urban system on the other) now seems to be a feature that also accompanies the rise of “tech cities”.

The largest urban growth in the world is observed in South Asia, Latin America and Africa, due to the combination of accelerated urbanization and population growth. Some of these unprecedented urban processes take place in an institutional environment of informality, and sometimes are located in the proximity of biodiversity hotspots or ecologically sensitive zones. These characteristics imply that urban development in the Global South poses new challenges for urban geography research. In more general terms, these developments render cities and the archipelago of city regions extremely well-suited as subjects of research, a view that is also increasingly applied to urban networks and urban-rural partnerships. Moreover, urban regions play a major role as entry points of global migration flows. This provides urban geography (as urban studies in general terms) an undisputed position in the context of the whole discipline and also in conversation with its neighbouring fields of inquiry.


2- Cities, urban systems and nation states

Current urban changes are reinforced by ongoing socio-economic dynamics at global scale. For a few decades, globalization was considered to be the main driver of a new urban hierarchy to emerge in different regions of the world. Most notably the rise of services capitals as part of the financialized global economy has shaped the traditional urban system. The once familiar setting of global cities and mega cities (or city-regions) has changed, now being increasingly accompanied by an accelerated urbanization in East and South-East Asia and in the Middle-East. Such processes were an outcome of market driven processes and also pursued by deliberate state power, particularly by variegated practices of the developmental state. Emerging from new practices of multi-level governance, such processes have widened our understanding of urbanisation, and they have also brought about new urban images and imaginaries. As globalization seems to have reached peak levels by the end of the 2010s, trade policies based on open markets are increasingly challenged by a return of the national sentiment. It remains open as to what this will mean for cities which were always considered to be forerunners of globalization.


3- Urban areas under pressure of transformation

Dynamic changes also apply to the internal organization of cities, which had long been driven by urban growth, spatial expansion and related differentiation. Urban shrinkage became a familiar pattern recently, as did the urbanization of suburban areas and the rise of polycentric, multi-nuclear patterns of urban development. Modern means of mobility have widened the spatial reach of both economies and individuals, thus pushing urbanisation processes forward. These transformations have happened against the background of historical trajectories of cities. It is also obvious that urban polarization and the related social and economic inequalities emerge in the shadow of a city’s success – simply when economic prosperity ensues as a consequence of rising attractiveness of a city and an associated increase in the cost of living, most notably in rents, which affects wider sections of the residential population. As a consequence, affordability has risen from an issue debated primarily in close circles of academia and practice, to become a general problem that creates highest-level concerns in policy and politics. Some of the related problems are labelled by popular terms such as gentrification or “touristification” of urban areas. However, the challenge of urban inequalities and segregation, of class, race and associated conflicts which has been reproduced in urban development patterns for decades remains high on the agenda of current urban studies and also (urban) politics. Also, the aging of urban populations provides an important framework for cities in what was called the global north, while strong demographic growth remains predominant in urban regions of the global south.


4- Climate change, resilience, urban health and well-being

Until recently, one of the most pressing concerns of urban policy has been the issue of longer-term sustainability and climate change. A special focus was put here on cities for two reasons: first, urban areas are considered to be specifically affected by climate change, simply due to the high share of the population that would be exposed to extreme weather conditions such as heatwaves, flooding events and the like. Second, cities were also perceived as major sites of mitigation and adaptation – given that the urban constellation was thought to be beneficial for sustainable ways of living, and also with respect to the traditional role of cities as motors of innovation. Not coincidentally, a broad range of experimental settings and policies have emerged at local levels that aim at supporting green transformations. While this is appreciative, it must be acknowledged that cities are not per se good for the environment, as they are not necessarily economically successful compared to other areas. This depends very much on the local conditions, as regards land use patterns, the provision of open space, transport infrastructure and the like, and also the user behaviour that is made possible in related contexts. The basic claim of sustainable development, which is to provide a balance between environmental, social and economic aspirations, is still valid. Hence ‘green’ and, more precisely, sustainable development approaches and strategies for cities and urban regions have always been, and still are, at centre stage of the Commission’s work.

The recent outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has put another strain on urban life and urban developments and renders them specifically vulnerable. Urban resilience, the ability to absorb external shocks and to adapt to disruption, is about to shape policy agendas quite significantly. Both the disease and the associated lockdown may also challenge some fundamentals of urbanisation: concentration and mobility. While it is clear that a mere territorialist perspective on the contagion is limited (for example given the important role that institutions play here), it seems important that cities will develop a new balance between density and concentration on the one hand, and dispersion and flows on the other. Also, the call for short-term adaptation to urgent health requirements may also be useful to rethink the conditions and trajectories of urbanisation more generally. Moreover, the Virus and the associated measures to lock down cities and societies could be a game changer in political regards: It could be argued that after decades of a neo-liberal political mainstream, the recent crisis has recalled the important role of common goods and public services for both cities and societies. This will also have ramifications for the urban arena in most general terms, and we believe that this is a unique opportunity to re-energise the urban agenda.


5- Governance, institutions, urban policy

Throughout the years, cities and city-regions have become more and more integrated into global economic networks as hot spots in the emerging services industries, and re-configured as strategic, competitive locales for cognitive-cultural capitalism. The associated consequences for urban governance were a shift from managerial to entrepreneurial urbanism, an increasingly competitive positioning of urban politics, and a rise of corporate power within the specific power constellations of cities and nation states. The territorial limits of the new urban region governance pose many questions of core-peripheries integration and equality for taxes and rights to the city. Civil society actors also seem to play an increasing role in urban decision making, with participation becoming a standard practice particularly in urban planning. This somehow contradictory pattern is complemented by populist developments that have recently started to rise in many countries, thus challenging established routines of the democratic process. Cities are also considered to play a role next to, and presumably also as a follow-up of, the once predominant nation states. In climate change policy for example, cities are expected to be more pro-active in international affairs, as national governments proved to lack effective policy making.

In response to a rising awareness for urban issues at global or transnational levels, the development of a set of New Urban Agendas also became popular in recent years. This applies for example to the Quito Declaration presented by the United Nations Habitat Programme, or the Urban Agenda pursued by the European Union. It remains to be debated as to what extent a genuinely urban policy exists, or whether decision making for cities and in cities is still determined by higher levels of politics and policy making. Also, the tendencies of these urban agendas to collect so-called good or best practice – often without addressing the specific contexts they have evolved from – make the resulting ‘urban solutions industries’ a questionable endeavor. In more general terms, however, urban governance as the collective term for understanding formal and informal decision making in urban regards remains on high on all research agendas, and will thus also continue to be of particular interest for the Urban Commission.