Urbanization and the Decline of the State

By: Taylor Land

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U.S. Eastern Seaboard at Night. Source: NASA’s Earth Observatory

The world is in the midst of a slow-moving, yet systemically important, transition to cities. In 1950, 30 percent of the world population lived in urban areas. Today, slightly more than half of all people reside in urban areas and by 2050 two-thirds of the world population is expected to live in cities. As people become more concentrated in population centers, rather than dispersed more equitably across rural areas, the way we think about society is likely to change. Rather than defining ourselves by the broad characteristic of nationality, people may begin to identify with city before country. As the internet has connected the world, people are likely to narrow their geographic identity to their immediate “meeting area” and broaden their ideological identity in accordance to the vast communities of cyberspace; this can already be witnessed in the growing significance of non-state actors around the world. Furthermore, bilateral and multilateral relations between cities may begin to take precedence in global relations. Put another way, rising urbanization may mean the decline of the state, as we know it.

World Urban and Rural Populations 2010 -2100 UN
World urban and rural population 2010-2100 Source: UN DESA

Nationalism is still a thriving phenomenon, and it certainly won’t dissipate swiftly. In fact, Europe is experiencing a resurgence of nationalism in light of the 2008 financial crisis and ongoing sovereign debt crisis (it appears shared prosperity is an easier sell than shared suffering). However, this impulse involved contraction, from the larger European identity of the European Union (EU) to smaller, national identities. During crisis, this otherwise cooperative covenant became suspicious of the motives of other member-states. Does Greece have the same economic interests as Germany? Does Spain have the same defense interests as Latvia? The last few years have certainly made answering in the affirmative more difficult.

Paradoxically, I believe the same concept that is powering nationalism today may lead to its demise in a more urbanized world. Just as EU states do not feel fully aligned with one another, cities of geographically large countries are likely to feel increasingly distinct. Nationalism would have you believe Seattle is more aligned with Miami than it is with Vancouver, but this is obviously only as true as national identity dictates it to be. The two pacific coast, seaport cities (separated by 140 miles of road) certainly share more geographic, economic, and culture similarities with one another than they do with an Atlantic population more than 3000 miles away. Again, nationalism is a deeply ingrained value, particularly in the developed world, and will not recede quickly or without a fight. However, as populations concentrate, each of these concentrations are likely to desire more autonomy to pursue their unique interests.

Megacities (10+million inhabitants) UN
Megacities (10+million inhabitants) Source: UN DESA

In addition to the concentration of populations, the proliferation of the internet over the last three decades has made the world a more connected place than it has ever been in history. People are no longer confined to interaction with others in their immediate location. Information isn’t garnered from a local newspaper, but instead from online sources that can be tailored to individual interests and ideological preferences. As populations concentrate and coming generations become more and more globally connected, two venues will increase in importance: the “meeting area” and the cyber community. The ability to meet in-person conveniently allows for a level of intimacy in relationships that cannot be replicated by technology and, thus, will remain an important aspect of our identity. On the other end of the spectrum, the vast connectedness made possible by the internet has allowed people around the world to find others with similar beliefs and values, meaning people aren’t limited by the political options offered in their domestic community. For example, the Arab Spring is largely credited to social media enabling a movement that transcended borders. Unfortunately, we can also see the relevance of the cyber community through the recruiting tactics of ISIS and other terrorist organizations. As our identities become more stratified between the “meeting area” and the global community, it is likely to be at the cost of state relevance, which will seem less and less connected to the world we live in.

In a future that is simultaneously more local and global than the one we live in today, cities will likely have more autonomy because the collective populaces will support such a shift. For example, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. are likely to have differing priorities than Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, but all are currently beholden to the same trade policies negotiated by their respective governments. Increasingly meaningful bilateral and multilateral relations between global cities would allow for more common ground to be found on a smaller scale, rather than the current system which sometimes requires decades to make small progress on a grand scale. Regulations at the federal level would need to be put in place to ensure certain standards, but a greater deal of cooperation between markets could be achieved if individual cities (and possibly coalitions of cities) could tailor policies to their interests rather than national policy trying to achieve a workable one-size-fits-all success. Additionally, city elections may become more important, and campaign funding from foreign entities may become less taboo. Rather than waging ideological war domestically, campaigns will likely become more global as Political Action Committees try to swing the ideological pendulum in their favor around the world.


TL 3Taylor Land is a Master’s candidate at the Patterson School studying international security and economics. His core interests are geopolitics and macroeconomics, with regional interest in Europe and the Middle East. Taylor is currently pursuing internship opportunities and can be contacted at taylor.land@uky.edu

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