Chapter 9. The triumph of urbanity and spatial justice

Jacques Lévy
Professor of Geography and Urbanism at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne and Reims University

From the 1950s to the 1990s, certain observers predicted the death of the city as a result of the declining comparative advantage of spatial concentration in comparison with alternative configurations based on mobility (Webber, 1964[328]) or telecommunications (Mitchell, 1995[329]).

The kind of urban areas the industrial age had produced was, in a way, something like a dual misunderstanding. On the one hand, the “industrial district” (Marshall, 1919[330]), later enlarged as a “new economic geography” rationale (Krugman, 1991[331]), generated massive cluster areas, but weak diversity, especially when related to extractive activities. On the other hand, as a marketplace – labour pools and catchment areas – cities were strong if and only if manufacturing activities were immersed in a versatile, multidimensional productive system (Ohmae, 1995[332]) (Veltz, 1996[333]). At the same time, industrial systems have destroyed pre-existing urban synergies without creating new ones. Actually, the legacy of the industrial footprint includes gigantic and often unredeemable brownfields, deeply polluted areas and desperately homogeneous working-class neighbourhoods. Today, places that have missed the industrial era appear to have been lucky.

Urbanisation has continued in spite of, and also thanks to, the development of its two “co-opetitors”: mobility and telecommunications. The power of place, that is the vertical accumulation of social realities in the same location, is not threatened but rather enhanced by the growth of material or immaterial motion. Tourists go to cities, and urbanites manage even better the comparative advantage of co-presence by smartly taking advantage of the digital communication assets.

Today the victory of the urban spatial choice is overwhelming, but this triumph raises novel, major political issues.

Urbanity as a new urban age

However, if the North-American Rustbelt, the English Midlands or many European former coalfields are still far from recovering, the urban world can look at the industrial age as a henceforth closed interlude. In the process that has often been called “metropolisation” or “global cities”, the reinforcement of urban hierarchies and the emergence of megalopolises of more than 10 million or even 50 million inhabitants (such as the three major urban deltas in the People’s Republic of China) is the consequence of a more general trend that could be named “urban renaissance” or “emergence of urbanity”. Contemporary productive systems and, even further, contemporary societies, are giving cities new momentum. It can be argued, as well, that urbanity is giving productive systems and societies new momentum. This is the consequence of the growing part of creativity, that is the non-programmable component of production in social dynamics.

Two major consequences of this change can be noticed. First, the size effect has gained a new significance. It used to be a direct function of mass: more inhabitants meant more workers and more consumers. It has now become exponential because of the critical value of links: 1 million people can generate 1 trillion potential human interactions.1 In innovating sectors, this point turns out to be crucial: 69% of all British scale-up companies localise in London, 72% of the French ones in Paris, 61% of the Swedish ones in Stockholm, and even in such a multipolar country like Germany, 54% in Berlin.2 The 5 596 European scale-ups are located in 476 cities, but 67% of them concentrate in 48 cities only, which are, with few exceptions, the largest urban areas on the continent. In 27 countries out of 42, one city concentrates more than 70% of these mature start-ups. Promising economy-oriented activities tend to show the same geographical pattern as cultural creativity (science, design, art, media).

Second, the classic, early 20th century Park and Burgess (1925[334]) concentric model is experiencing a new lease of life. Suburban or peri-urban dwellers clearly remain part of the urban area, but even inside an urban system, locations matter. Whatever measurement we choose, either by their residential location (Richard Florida’s “creative class”, (2002[335])) or by their workplace, the centripetal tropism of creativity-based activity is obvious.

This overproductivity of big cities encompasses every single aspect of social life, including, for instance, innovation in personal ways of life, as well as in tourism attractiveness and aesthetic or scientific avant-gardes. Formerly, cities were visible on the map, but they were in competition with farming, mining or manufacturing locations, which contributed altogether to a higher proportion of a country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Never in history was a geographic configuration that correlated to both present and tendential productive logics.

To sum up this new emergence, the term urbanity has become an all-embracing concept that federates and metabolises what economists called “economies of agglomeration”, sociologists “urban sociality”, geographers “polarity” and urban planners “centrality”. Urbanity can be defined as a combination of density (of people, objects, ideas, agency) and diversity (of people, objects, ideas, agency). This simple approach makes possible to identify a series of urbanity gradients that encompass both the size of an urban space and the position of a determined place inside this space. What can be observed then is that, within a national or continental territory, places that share the same gradient turn out to be economically, sociologically and politically similar. Old regional identities have given way to archipelagos whose “islands” are connected through reticular rather than by territorial metrics.

This approach allows for a multi-scalar classification of urban styles. The “Amsterdam model” can be defined by the acceptance of urbanity as a consistent way of maximising density and diversity, especially by the cohabitation in fixed and mobile spaces of all components of the urban society. In the “Johannesburg model”, the advantage of concentration is challenged by a powerful drive towards fragmentation and privatisation of space. The geographic distribution of these models (Table 9.1) is significant in terms of creativity. Even more than Internet browsing, urban exposure to any kind of otherness is a decisive asset to serendipitous processes, which turns out to be a powerful engine in the emergence of any kind of innovation or invention. European, Asian and a few North American metropolitan cores possess an unequivocal comparative advantage on this point. Table 9.1 also shows the “hesitating” spaces (middle column) where the widest evolution margins could be found.

Table 9.1. A multi-scalar classification of urbanity models

Urbanity model


“Amsterdam” gathered city

“Amsterdam” and/or “Johannesburg”

“Johannesburg” fragmented urban space

…by continent

Europe; east, south and south east Asia

Latin America, Arab world

North America, sub-Saharan Africa

…by size of urban area


Medium-sized cities

Small towns

…by urban gradient


Inner cities

Suburbia, peri-urban, ex-urban

Finally, urbanity proved to be what is at stake in urban planning… whose name is progressively shifting to urbanism. What is expected now from urbanists? That they help produce urbanity. This production is less a technical, analytical expertise and more a multi-dimensional, political mediation. Urban changes ended up changing urban sciences.

Arbitrage on inhabiting models

In major city centres, bobos (bourgeois bohemians) cohabit with migrants and “pobos – poor bohemians, that is, people with much cultural capital and little economic capital and who are ready to spend a lot to live in central neighbourhoods of large cities. At the same time, bobos and pobos have confirmed their attachment to urban life. At the same time, many medium-income dwellers have chosen to leave the centres to accomplish the (bungalow + property ownership + car + garden) dream. This “urban flight’ began in the early 20th century in North America and is mostly a post-World War II process in Europe. Another difference derives from the better resistance in Europe to the destruction of historical districts by “Modern Movement”-inspired urban projects. However, recent inflexions are more synchronous across the Atlantic as the tilting point of the renewed interest for the city can be placed everywhere in the west in the mid-1970s or the early 1980s. Since then, there is something like a two-way crossover of those activities/people who need a high-intensity urban environment and those who don’t, either because they do not absolutely need it or because they simply reject it.

This convergence has, of course, strong effects on the desirability of urban space. Urban cores can be extended to neighbouring areas (such as West Brooklyn or West New Jersey in New York), but the pressure on real estate prices in central areas is dramatic. However, at odds with an abundant literature about “gentrification”, the social mix has either increased (due to the decline of inner-city ghettos) or has been maintained in some other neighbourhoods by the arbitration, as expansive it can be, in favour of a city-centre dwelling. In European cities, public social housing policies have also partially compensated the growth of land prices by supporting medium- and low-income inhabitants and preserve both sociological and functional diversity. As a result, central areas of cities, and all the more in big ones, are undoubtedly more mixed than any other gradient of urbanity.

These alternatives create a new geography. Significant inequalities in the opportunity to choose one’s inhabiting model do persist. However, it is undeniable that the actual map of population distribution is gradually overlaying this population’s desires. Said differently, fewer people are forced to live in a “spatial style” that is in an urbanity gradient they don’t like. It is therefore not by chance that such a strategic choice, the way of inhabiting (where and how I would like to live) meets another strategic choice: political orientation (what values and horizons I would like for society).

A gaping spatial-political divide

The following maps show recent electoral geographies in France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Figure 9.1. February 2014 “Against Mass Immigration” referendum in Switzerland

Source: Lévy, J. (ed.) (2017[336]), Atlas politique de la France, Autrement, Paris.

Figure 9.2. June 2016 “Brexit” referendum in the United Kingdom

Source: Lévy, J. (ed.) (2017[336]), Atlas politique de la France, Autrement, Paris.

Figure 9.3. April 2017 French presidential elections (round 1)

Source: Lévy, J. (ed.) (2017[336]), Atlas politique de la France, Autrement, Paris.

The phenomenon is massive and pervasive in the west (Lévy, 2017[336]). Across western OECD countries, almost every country is concerned. The pattern is the same: in city centres, and the most in metropolises, voters choose openness to public space, public goods, European construction and globalisation as, in certain suburban or peri-urban gradients, nationalism and rejection of any kind of otherness prevail.

Novel issues for spatial justice

Many “populist” voters nostalgically refer to a golden age of good wages and pervasive public utilities. Are voters less dotted in social amenities than the others? Have the places they inhabit been “abandoned” by public policies? It is far from evident.

By and large, the inhabitants of urban fringes in American suburbia or European peri-urban areas are wealthier than those of the city centres. However, many citizens living off built-up areas express a feeling of being left behind and fuel “populist” or nationalist-xenophobe movements.

First of all, new geographical freedoms have largely diffused throughout a large part of developed societies. Mobility has become faster and housing is, in relative terms, cheaper than it used to be in the first half of the 20th century. This dual solvability has changed the context of individual spatial strategies, enlarging the range of alternatives. In large cities, there is a certain economic neutrality in the housing + mobility budget envelope between inner and outer locations: in the centre, property costs much more but mobility costs less, thanks to the public transport system; the opposite prevails as you move away from core areas. Other parameters such as apartment/house, ownership/tenancy and, more and more, family style options have appeared on individual dashboards. There is a large “middle group” that must and can operate these arbitrages, an “upper group” for which it is not necessary and a “lower group” for which it is not possible.

The relative freedom to choose one’s favourite inhabiting model is underpinned by the equalising power of public policies. In France,3 a certain emotion was palpable in the media when it was revealed that approximately 1.5% of French women of childbearing age live more than 45 minutes from a maternity ward. The fact that 98.5% of the population is properly covered by a dense network of midwives and maternity clinics is so self-evident that everybody focuses on the yet minimal neglected population.

Among developed countries, this phenomenon is more visible in Europe and partially results from the history of the welfare state in this continent: in 1870, Otto von Bismarck was both the bold geopolitical player who created the second German Reich and the inventor of the Sozialstaat, quickly copied by the United Kingdom and France. Democracy and redistribution were the counterpart of the blood gift required by the mass wars that bloodied the continent until 1945. In Europe, taxation generally exceeds 40% of GDP, with a maximum in Nordic countries and France.

As Table 9.2 shows, in France, a powerful redistribution mechanism almost totally annihilates the productivity gaps between cities and regions. The personal median income is almost the same everywhere in the country. Moreover, if we take account of spatial contrasts in the costs of living, which is very unfavourable in large cities because of real-estate prices, metropolises prove to be the victims of this system. Residents in Île-de-France (Paris urban area), who represent less than 19% (column 2) of the population and produce 30.5% of national GDP – over twice the productivity of the rest of France (column 5) – receive, at the end of the day, less than their compatriots (column 7). In the case of a deprived neighbourhood (such as the Seine-Saint-Denis suburbs), a hardly reversible negative spiral of educational failure, violence, crime, drug trade, despair and even terrorism exists.

In short, no monetary incentive is given to the most productive part of the population. On the contrary, they bear the burden of less-productive regions. Conversely, almost all of the non-metropolitan regions receive a lot in spite of the fact that their productivity is stagnating below the average of European regions.

This situation can be summed up by the following phrase: “The poor from the rich regions pay for the rich of the poor regions”. The triumph of urbanity turns out to be a malediction for the majority of those who make it possible.

An element of the solution resides in a federal approach. Even participating in a substantial solidarity mechanism towards less productive areas, a democratically elected Paris metropolitan council and government could thus retrieve a significant part of the EUR 668.8 billion they produce (row 3). But this is not a sufficient guarantee. In many metropolises throughout the world, local governments are seriously undersized and, as a result, many municipalities each govern a minor, homogeneous part of the urban area’s population, which does not contribute to social cohesion, but, on the contrary, to fragmentation and segregation. In France, subnational governments get 12% of the GDP, but the spatially relevant government in Paris, in the Île-de-France region, only has EUR 5 billion, which is less than 0.75% of its GDP. All the remaining resources are seized by municipalities and départements, whose policies structurally tend to deepen intra-metropolitan spatial divides.

Table 9.2. From productivity to income in France, 2014-15

1. Population (million)

2. Share of national population (%)

3. GDP (billion EUR)

4. Share of national GDP (%)

5. GDP per capita (‘000 EUR)

6. Median net income per capita (‘000 EUR)

7. Median net income per capita, including cost of living impact (‘000 EUR) [deviation from average]

Paris (Île-de-France)





55. 2


18.1 [0.80]

Lyon (Métropole de Lyon, 2012-15)







19.2 [0.90]

Lille (MEL 2012)







17.5 [0.90]

Marseille (Bouches-du-Rhône)







18.3 [0.90]

Toulouse (Haute-Garonne)







19.3 [0.90]

Bordeaux (Gironde)







19.0 [0.90]

Strasbourg (Bas-Rhin)







20.4 [0.90]

Nice (Alpes-Maritimes)







18.9 [0.90]

Nantes (Loire-Atlantique)







20.2 [0.95]

Rennes (Ille-et-Vilaine)







19.9 [0.95]

Ten metropolises







18.6 [0.86]

Rest of mainland France







24.5 [1.20]

Mainland France



2 152.5




20.4 [1.00]

Overseas territories







13.1 [0.9]




2 194.2




20.2 [1.00]

Sources: Insee. Métropole de Lyon. MEL. 2014-15 © Jacques Lévy 2019.

Could the “Yellow Vests” reconcile with urbanity?

If we go back to the geography of the “populist” movements, it must be recognised that it is completely different from the geography of spatial injustice. An “anti-system” movement such as the Gilets jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) cannot be simply identified as a low-income protest: throughout the OECD, the income distribution in the concerned population appears to be highly comparable to that of the overall country. It is not a lack-of-welfare protest either: no evidence can be found of a particularly “left-behind” population or territory. Instead, the hypothesis of a paradoxical low-productivity protest movement could be put forward: persons detaining little cultural capital and living off the cities have eventually realised they are being progressively excluded (and, partially, are excluding themselves) from the dynamic sectors of society. The sensation of being “left behind” is probably related to this point. This means that the only way to strike up a conversation with these citizens is not to offer them more generous redistribution policies, but to help them increase their own capabilities (Sen, 2010[337]) in order to co-produce (and co-consume) public goods such as education, health and urbanity (Lévy, Fauchille and Póvoas, 2018[338]). Justice then becomes a combination of societal development and self-development. It implies the recognition by the potential beneficiary that his/her personal change is part of the solution, but the rejection of this approach is the very bedrock of their discontent. Let’s admit that creating conditions for this new political conversation will be far from trivial.


[335] Florida, R. (2002), The Rise of the Creative Class, Basic Books, New York.

[331] Krugman, P. (1991), Geography and Trade, MIT Press, Cambridge.

[336] Lévy, J. (ed.) (2017), Atlas politique de la France, Autrement, Paris.

[338] Lévy, J., J. Fauchille and A. Póvoas (2018), Théorie de la justice spatiale: Géographies du juste et de l’injuste, Odile Jacob, Paris.

[330] Marshall, A. (1919). Industry and trade: A study of industrial technique and business organization, Macmillan, London.

[329] Mitchell, W. (1995), City of Bits. Space, Place, and the Infobahn, MIT Press, Cambridge.

[332] Ohmae, K. (1995), The End of the Nation State: The Rise of Regional Economies, The Free Press, New York.

[334] Park, R. and E. Burgess (1925), The City, Chicago University Press, Chicago.

[337] Sen, A. (2010), The Idea of Justice, Penguin, London.

[333] Veltz, P. (1996), Mondialisation, villes et territoires: une économie d’archipel, PUF, Paris.

[328] Webber, M. M. (1964), “The Urban Place and the Non-Place Urban Realm”, in M. M. Webber (ed.) Explorations into Urban Structure, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.


← 1. The number of potential links in both directions between n operators is given by the formula: x (n-1), which is close to n2.

← 2. A “scale-up” is a start-up company that has raised at least USD 1 million. See the Mind the Bridge Foundation survey of 5 596 companies in 42 European countries,

← 3. French Ministry of Health and Solidarity, 24 January 2019,

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