City politics: unrest should be seen as a wake-up call

John Rossant is chairman of the New Cities Foundation and President of PublicisLive, which has been producing the World Economic Forum in Davos since 1995.

john rossantTwo days after the event, failing to mention the 4000 people gathered in London for the People’s Assembly, John Rossant points to a ‘common thread’ running through the Arab uprisings and Occupy Wall Street, the street battles that have convulsed Istanbul, Ankara and Stockholm this summer, and the current unrest that is coursing through São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Rossant believes that: “This unrest should be seen as a wake-up call to all of us: politics in this, the first truly urban century, will largely take place in cities and will largely be about them.”

He focusses on the speed of urbanisation

“More than half of the Chinese population is now urban – from barely 20% one generation ago – and scores of millions more Chinese are expected to move into cities over the next decade. India is urbanising at a similarly breathless pace. Istanbul, a city of 1m souls in 1950, today is home to 13.5m people. Perhaps more surprisingly, Latin America is now the world’s most urban region.”

And the glaring disparities in income and opportunity

“Meanwhile, the triumph (sic) of market economics around the world has created impressive wealth and brand-new middle classes in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere. But it has also brought vast disparities in income and opportunity. Skyscrapers for the super-rich loom less than two miles from Cairo’s Tahrir Square. And just two miles in the other direction are slums without running water or other basic services. It is a similar picture in São Paulo or Rio, where teeming favelas abut gated communities. In New York City, inequality has never been so glaring as today. One stop on the subway can sweep you from one neighbourhood to another where median incomes are three times higher.”

He sees other reasons for the ‘drama playing out in global cities’: “Urban citizens want to be listened to, want their city to work better, and want dignity.”

After brief reflections on Istanbul, Cairo and New York, he turns to activism in São Paulo, initially sparked by a 20% rise in bus ticket prices, and points out the “increased sense by some that the city, Latin America’s largest business hub, is becoming a citadel for the global elite as Brazil prepares to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016 . . . their protest is not vandalism but anxiety and anger that the wealth they can see is still light years out of their reach”.

His conclusion: “This is the most important issue of this century and we should be prepared for vast new urban upheavals. In China, I believe, it is only a question of time before the weight and demands of the new city population will transform the political life of the People’s Republic. Today’s urban spring is only the beginning”.

 

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