Home page Help page Preferences page
Search for specific termsBrowse by ThemesBrowse by Geographical RegionBrowse by MOST DocumentsBrowse by How ToBrowse alphabetical list of titles

Discussion Paper Series - No. 16 - The new social morphology of cities
Open this page in a new windowDon't highlight search terms

Management Of Social Transformations - MOST

Discussion Paper Series - No. 16

The new social morphology of cities


Guido Martinotti

This paper, largely based on material published in Metropoli. Nuova morfolgoia sociale della citta, Il Mulino, Bologna 1993, was presented at the UNESCO/MOST meeting held in Vienna (Austria), February 1994. It has been published in a revised version under the title 'Four Populations: Human Settlements and Social Morphology in Contemporary Metropolis' by the Academia Europaea in the European Review, Vol. 4, pp.1-21, 1996.

The facts and opinions expressed in this series are those of the authors and do not engage the responsibility of UNESCO.

Table of Contents

1. Changing equilibria between population and territory
2. Four urban populations
3. From the traditional city to the first generation metropolis
4. City users and the second generation metropolis
5. Metropolitan businessmen and global cities
6. New communication technologies and urban life
7. Conclusions

1. Changing equilibria between population and territory

In several countries, the discussion about the new urban form in which we live started in the early eighties from the concept of deurbanization, with loose talk about the "death of cities" and even on what has been called "neo-ruralization" (1). The idea that the city is dying is not new and it has surfaced periodically ever since the urban form made its appearance. However, the census returns of the 1980s, coupled with speculation on the social effects of the explosive diffusion of information technology, gave empirical body to the most recent version of this recurrent idea. In fact, the city, and even the large city, is far from disappearing. Trends observed so far, in urban systems in most of the advanced economies (2), indicate that cities are not declining but are undergoing a profound transformation, the full consequences of which are still to be completely fathomed.

One of the aspects of our conceptual apparatus that needs fairly radical reconsideration is the implicit or explicit intellectual heritage of social ecology.

Both in its classical and contemporary versions, social ecology (which remains, despite all possible criticisms of the originator, the most substantial body of empirical knowledge on human settlements) is based on a version of the analysis of competition of different human groups for living space (3). It is true that in social ecological analyses many other functions are equally considered, but the residential one is largely prominent. Simple evidence of this lies in the fact that the great majority of statistics about cities are based on residential patterns and residential units of observation. On the other hand, it seems quite evident that the new form of urban morphology is largely the product of the progressive differentiation of several populations gravitating around metropolitan centres. With increased mobility of the population in numbers, direction, span and frequency, the very relations between population and territory become highly dynamic, and the set of social ecological concepts aimed at reconstructing structures of spatial arrangement are strained to a critical point.

There is little doubt that one of the major issues confronting our society, and the European continent in particular, is the profound readjustment of established equilibria between populations and territory. These can be examined at three levels of analysis.

At the highest level, we have the disappearance of large geopolitical units, such as the former USSR or Yugoslavia, and their substitution with a host of new and often undefined political units, sometimes as new states and sometimes as quasi-states. European integration, albeit in less dramatic ways, has set in motion processes of the same type, as witnessed by the post-Maastricht controversies, and by the generalized growth of regional political movements.

At a lower level, we have the growth and competition of large urban entities competing with each other across national borders, and increasingly playing independent roles in the globalization processes.

At the microsociological level we find the complex interplay of ethnic, class and age traits defining populations with the social ecology of the city. It is a particularly difficult situation when administrative areas in the city interact with culturally sensitive population-identifying morphologies, and social actors try to position themselves strategically vis-à-vis the invisible network of administrative cages. This process is well-known in American cities under the heading of "redistricting", and it is likely to become increasingly stronger even on the European continent.

Admittedly, the relation between population and land has never been totally stable, as is witnessed by large scale movements such as the shift of the agricultural frontier, the waves of historical migrations and the more recent urbanization dynamics that have given rise to the world in which we live. To be sure, not even the land has remained stable over time, as creation, destruction and transformation of the inhabitable land goes on perennially. Today, however, a new dramatic dimension has been added to this relation through the speed in which, physically or experientially, different points in the matrix of places can be connected with different points in the matrix of persons, social units, and events. This new dimension undoubtedly has far-reaching social consequences that we have recently begun to explore systematically and on which our knowledge is still greatly limited.

Class-based analyses meet equally serious difficulties in a period in which, on the one hand, actors such as social movements, become increasingly visible on the urban scene and, on the other, changes in the structure of the economy deeply affect established class patterns in all the advanced economies as well as in other countries. Here I have to stress that this analysis is particularly applicable to urban systems in advanced economies, although interaction between the various parts of world economy renders this distinction less and less legitimate (4).

But reconceptualization is also badly needed because many of the established intellectual tools used to depict the urban phenomenon were built on a radically different urban morphology, and are strained by the new patterns of social relations emerging in time and space. In the end the deep changes in the structure of contemporary urbanization raise the problem of social, economic and political governance of the emerging large metropolitan complexes. Traditional municipal policies and institutions seem inadequate to achieve the aim of governing these new entities. In large regions of the world, such as Europe, even national governments no longer appear adequate in governing systems evermore dependent on an integrated world economy, and capable of moving autonomously on transnational markets. The weakening of traditional social formations, such as class-based ecological units, tends to affect long-standing practices of local government, as economic and social actors constituting localities are increasingly outward looking. At the same time the search for social identity often appears to translate itself in paranoid localistic claims.

If we want to understand current urban dynamics and related social problems we must adopt a new visual angle based on the idea that the study of cities is systemic in character and that at present the system we have to consider tends to have planetary extension (5). This is, however, more easily said than put into practice. As it happens in all periods of deep structural mutation, the old and the new are highly mixed, in reality as well as in the minds of men, and it is difficult to separate one from the other. Thus it is possible to talk about deurbanization and live in cities choked by automobile traffic, to hear about cabled cities, and see flourishing businesses of express mail transportation manned by cyclists, to observe large chunks of urban land vacated by manufacturers, and to experience increasing urban settlement costs.

2. Four urban populations

This is only an exemplificatory catalogue of the many facets of the inadequacy of our conceptual apparatus. The urban structures in which we walk - or ride - in our daily existence are already radically different from the urban images we carry in our minds, and in our hearts. Thus, I believe that there is an urgency for a very profound reconceptualization of the intellectual and empirical tools we need for the study of urban social facts and processes. It would be very naive to pretend to lay down a new theory of urban development and I do not propose to offer one. But I would like to contribute to the many efforts currently underway in this direction with an attempt to analyse urban changes evading the straight jacket of strict social ecological thinking and class analysis based on the simple concept of population: namely an aggregate of individuals defined by one or more simple common traits. Contrary to the kind of theoretical assumptions we need in order to analyse classes, movements, groups or organizations, it is possible to talk about populations without any strong assumption about their collective rationality.

To give an example of both the simplicity of definition and empirical power of the concept of population, it is sufficient to look at current patterns of urban migration from developing countries to the developed ones. Migration flows are mostly composed of individuals moving according to random personal motivations. The effects of these aggregate decisions are far-reaching precisely because they are a loose sum of individual actions. Looking at the Mexican border of the United States, at the Mediterranean or at any other of the many "gates of the world" between rich and poor regions, it is possible to see large populations in movement, and to foresee the effects on faraway urban structures. The pressure is unrelenting and very difficult to control. Physical barriers, such as the many historical walls raised by Roman or Chinese emperors, French or German generals or Soviet bureaucrats, can only delay these movements, and render them even more explosive when the barriers give way. It is very difficult to cope with population movements. It is much more difficult than coping with class conflicts: these can be mediated through institutions and organizations representing class interests and goals.

When we observe the dynamics that Durkheim, talking about the movement from the country to the city, called "un courant d'opinion, une poussée collective" one can be fairly sure that such currents reflect or anticipate the reactions of the âme collective to some great mutation of a deep structural nature.

Many signs tell us that a phenomenon of this kind is affecting contemporary cities in these very years when, on the one hand, we can observe the interruption and even the inversion of century old urbanization processes and, on the other, there is a growing renewed interest in urban life where the enticing images of the new technologies mix with the disquieting promises of a new urban middle age à la 'Gotham city'.

Based on these very cursory considerations, I propose to represent schematically various types of urban morphologies by using a simple combination of four populations in successive phases. The scheme is a simple heuristic device that leaves many problems aside, but I hope that it will be suggestive enough to raise new issues when looking at urban development (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Four urban populations

3. From the traditional city to the first generation metropolis

In the traditional town, on which all the current thinking about urban life is still largely moulded, the inhabitants, or the population living in the city, largely coincided with the population working in the city. City limits encompassed both these populations in one territory or spatial unit for millenia and were, until very recently, encircled by walls and neatly separated from the rest of the land. The additional population of market-goers, visitors, pilgrims or suppliers, while not irrelevant numerically or functionally, did not deeply affect the social and ecological structure of the city (6). Until a few decades ago city walls, even when they had lost military relevance, retained administrative significance: tolls were paid at the entrance, and doors were closed at night (7).

The industrial revolution did not greatly affect this situation, because production of goods in the secondary sector mostly requires the shifting of raw materials, manufactured goods, and financial assets, while workers and entrepreneurs remain largely concentrated in urban areas once the great transformation that has brought them there was completed. One important aspect of this traditional urban structure has to do with the structure of local government. This is based on the autonomy and franchise of inhabitants all over the world, and especially in several European city systems, where the basic political patterns of local government (as well as the finely meshed network of settlements on the land) can be seen to be derived directly from medieval (or earlier) origins (8).

The early metropolitan development that took place in the United States from the 1920s, and after War World II in Europe, can be seen essentially as a growing differentiation of two populations: the inhabitants and the workers. One can think of this early metropolitan development as two circles progressively separating one from the other while they both grow in diameter, as in a Venn diagram. While a sizeable portion of the diagram remains overlapping, the two circles move increasingly apart. Commuting is the consequence of this process, namely, the development of the most characteristic and widespread circadian experience of the urban dweller of the mid-twentieth century. From the sociological point of view the class structure of the commuting population is quite different, and actually almost symmetrical in the USA and in Europe, and the urban morphology produced by this differentiation is similar. The result is what I call first generation or early metropolis largely based on a functional urban system (FUR) or daily urban system (DUS), or commuting basins, and is embodied in the concept of metropolitan area.

This new pattern introduced great changes in the organization of cities, but it was not totally disruptive to their original structures. For one thing the commuter population spent most of the time in the central city secluded in working organizations and largely separated from the rest of the city population. Changes were indirect, affecting the socio-economic traits of urban regions, and creating problems in the superimposition of new functional entities on existing administrative subdivisions. Difficulties were more acute in areas where the contrast was sharper. For instance in the United States, the largely middle-class character of the suburbs contributed to the fiscal crisis of central cities, through the well-known phenomena of spillovers and free riding, but on the other hand the flexibility of territorial administrative units like the county allowed fair degrees of adaptation. In Italy, where the fiscal system is largely centralised, and where the middle classes until very recently remained in central cities, the fiscal crisis did not take the same proportions as those registered in the USA (9). On the other hand the more rigid network of communal or municipal institutions delayed, and has actually prevented, proper administrative adaptation to the new urban morphology. All in all, however, early metropolization did coexist with the traditional urban structure to a fair degree.

4. City users and the second generation metropolis

Some of the same factors that contributed to the first generation metropolis, however, contributed to a further differentiation, in particular the diffusion of private cars and, in general, of fast transportation systems, giving rise to the jet era. The increased mobility of people, combined with the availability of greater income and leisure, allowed the differentiation of a third population in the diagram, the city users, namely a population composed of persons moving to a city in order to use its private and public services: shopping, movies, museums, restaurants (10). This is a swelling population that has increasing effects on the structure of cities and actually uses them in a rather uncontrolled way (11). There are cities that have a very small population of inhabitants, a slightly larger population of commuters, but a vast population of city users. Venice is an extreme case, but many other cities of the world experience phenomena of this kind. Unlike commuters, city users make use of the public areas of the city, more often than not in a rather barbaric way (12). It is not surprising that at the beginning of 1990 the Mayor of West Berlin declared that he was not worried about disposing of Der Mauer "because tourists will take it away" (13). In practical terms, city users have given substance to the famous prophecy of Marx and Engels that the Chinese wall would be destroyed by "the heavy artillery of the soft prices of merchandise" (14).

The size of this population is growing, but it is difficult to assess precisely because all our collective cognitive apparatus is geared to a traditional city that is undergoing a profound mutation and statistics still deal mainly with inhabitants, and to a smaller degree with commuters, but not at all with users. If we want to perceive these new trends systematically we have to look to entirely new sources of information. Every year the London airport system handles a transient population numerically equivalent not to the inhabitants of London or any of the world metropolises, but to entire nations like Italy or the UK, and this population is expected to double in the next few years. A large chunk of this mass is composed of city users, coming and going and increasingly contributing to the economy of London, or of any other major metropolitan city, from buying a postcard and eating one hamburger to leaving a sizeable amount of currency in shopping, hotel fees and restaurant bills, not to mention the usage of collective services, such as streets, parks, parking lots, and public transportation, all still largely paid for by the inhabitants.

Sociologically, the population of users is difficult to define, for the very lack of statistics just lamented. An educated guess would assess it as being fairly varied and including out-of-town youth on evenings and week-ends, middle class tourists and shoppers of all ages, and special groups like football fans or concert and exhibition-goers. A theatre like La Scala, traditionally the artistic and social temple of the Milanese population, is increasingly fully booked, years in advance, by city users coming from faraway countries (15).

Although direct competition or conflict of the users with the inhabitants is not evident, indirect competition (in the sense in which classical social ecology uses this term) is in fact taking place. The users population is not attracted by residential areas, except when the latter fall into the category of picturesque, but it heavily affects the spatial composition of central cities, and of some specialised suburbs. In particular, commercial and leisure areas of the city are affected with increasingly profound impacts on the global social structure of the city. Areas like the Latin Quarter in Paris, or parts of Rome, London, New York or scores of other cities, teeming with discount stores, jeans shops, fast food and the omnipresent signs of multinationality, tend selectively to filter out the original population of the neighbourhood, even when it constituted the local attraction in the first place. The same is happening in top commercial strips such as Rodeo Drive, Faubourg Saint Honoré or via Montenapoleone - a street where, recently, real estate topped 15.000 dollars per square meter.

The type of metropolis that is growing out of the increasing gravitation of city users is the one we are living in nowadays. It is very different from the city we are accustomed to dealing with in popular and scientific terms and could de defined as second generation (or mature) metropolis.

5. Metropolitan businessmen and global cities

A fourth metropolitan population can now be distinguished. This is a small but very specialised population of metropolitan businessmen. People who get into central cities to do business and establish professional contacts: businessmen and professionals visiting their customers, convention goers, consultants and international managers. This fourth population, relatively small but growing, is characterised by having a considerable availability of both private and corporate money. It typically stays for a few days, but sometimes for more extended periods, but it is not a permanent population. It spends part of the time doing business, but part using the city, although at a relatively high level of consumption. This is a population of expert urbanites and the individuals composing it tend to know their way around, be very selective in terms of shopping and hotel and restaurant use, as well as in the use of not only top cultural amenities, such as concerts, exhibitions and museums, but also saunas and gyms. Increasingly business and top level tourism go together.

Both the city users and the metropolitan businessmen are a product of the service industry. One little explored aspect of the service industry is the fact that while secondary type industries shift goods, services in large part require the shifting of population. In fact, shifting population around has become one major part of the service industry. Despite a growing portion of services that can be delivered telematically, most of the services need face-to-face contact, even when the partners are not terminal consumers, as in the important area of services to firms. Consulting, public relations, marketing, etc. all require intense and repeated face-to-face interaction (16).

The growth of the fourth population, the metropolitan businessmen, signals another very important phenomenon, namely the internationalization or globalization of metropolitan centers (17). The fourth population increasingly constitutes what I would call a transnational middle-class living not in a city, but in cities, or better, between cities (18), and it affects the morphology and functions of all large urban centers. This social group is still fairly varied, but it is increasingly identifiable (19). Managers of multiloci enterprises, both private and public, such as the large number of international organizations - UNO, ILO, UNESCO, OECD, FAO, WHO - and the growing family of European governmental bodies, businessmen, international consultants, academics, performers, sportsmen, etc., require fairly similar services all over the world: hotels, offices and meeting places, restaurants, shopping centers and so on. The result is already visible in large sectors of several world cities. Among the postcards that the traveller can buy in any airport news stand, there is one that can be bought the world over, reproducing the local skyline. Increasingly these skylines, as well as the urban areas they depict, tend to look alike. This is not surprising because increasingly these areas are not the product of national economies, but a segmental unit of a larger entity (20). Hotels, offices and commercial centers built by the same companies in many cities, go together with the standardization of local shops interested in catering to an increasingly homogeneous transnational population of urban travellers.

In Europe this trend has been slowed down, to a degree, by the strength of national urban cultures. For centuries the top ranking cities of European urban systems embodied the specificity of local culture and traditions. Nineteenth century European national and regional capitals symbolised the climax of this dynamic: Vienna, Paris, London, Berlin, Milan and Florence offered themselves to the learned traveller each as a distinct world, with languages, architecture, cultural institutions and social mores proudly displaying the best of their respective national or regional character. The facade of this identity is still standing, despite World War II destruction and post-war destructive reconstruction, but the homogenization is at work. The London skyline displays vividly the superimposition of the old and new architectural patterns (21). The fight against fast-food shops in several European capitals, Rome and Paris in particular, far from being a marginal episode, is a nodal indicator of the conflict between the traditional national identity, which included the culinary culture, and one of the most aggressive modern multinationals whose commercial success is precisely based on an extremely strong imposition of product and labour force standardisation. The recent crisis of Eurodisney is a not irrelevant sign of the resistances that are met by the diffusion of the new type of metropolis in a situation like the European one where traditional urbanization is still firmly settled on the territory.

Reference to fast-food is also more than anecdotal. In fact as the city users population increases, fast-food and catering in general, become a growing strategic economic urban function in metropolitan centers, adding a new angle to the emerging class structure. Catering and related industries are actually the portion of the labour market that overwhelmingly attracts another growing segment of the new metropolitan population: namely low paid foreign workers from developing countries. The services required by city users (22) and metropolitan businessmen are largely manned by marginal workers. It would be preposterous to extend the argument to the point of seeing here a new class conflict reproducing the traditional one between the factory owner and the factory worker, but there is no doubt, to my mind, that the incipient class polarisation noted by several studies, is largely connected with the impact of the new populations of metropolitan users as opposed to dwellers or workers. Saskia Sassen has shown very clearly that there is a relation between the economy of the global city, and the "vast supply of low-wage jobs required by high-income gentrification in both its residential and commercial sectors" (23).

One last important remark, in the competition among these several populations, and related urban functions, it seems quite clear that the residential function and the urban inhabitants tend to be on the losing side. But the entire philosophy of local government is based on various degrees of self-government by the city dwellers. If this population is going to become increasingly irrelevant from the numerical and economic points of view, one serious and far-reaching consequence - which I believe is already behind many manifestations of the urban crisis - is what I would call de facto disenfranchising of the urban dweller. Local governments are elected by residents, but the economic interests of the metropolis are increasingly dependent on populations which are not politically accountable from the point of view of the city itself. The well-known debate of the 1960s on economic and service spillovers, captured in fact only one aspect of this process which will require much deeper investigation than has been conducted so far.

To complete the classification, we can call this new metropolis, that is still emerging under the impact of metropolitan businessmen, the third generation (or late) metropolis. But I do not want to push the taxonomic argument too far. I am satisfied to state that the new emerging metropolis is at least a different breed from the commuters' one, as this was in turn different from the traditional industrial town.

The above analysis receives additional insights in the frame of Giddens' concept of "disembedding" as a constituent trait of what he calls "radical modernity", a concept that I found more illuminating and analytically powerful than the current cult term of post-modernity (24). One of the leads suggested by the concept of "disembedding" points to the analysis of the social consequences of the new communication technologies. This is a theme that deserves more than a substantial chapter to itself, but to which I would like now to turn briefly, solely to point out some possible conceptual consequences of the analysis of the impact of new technologies.

6. New communication technologies and urban life

The discussion of new technologies and their effects on the urban system has been biased by sweeping generalisations and unsupported anticipations. Many will remember that in the early 1980s there was a widespread circulation of popular images of the 'telematic society' and of 'cabled cities'. These images included the electronic cottage and the computerised home or robohouse. Many speculations proposed the vision of a new city blinking with the soft lights of computer screens but empty of people and soul. A further increase in alienation and isolation was easily prophesied. Typical of this trend was part of the discussion on the telework or telecommuting, especially in visions like Toffler's electronic cottage that led so much of the media to imagine a future of citizens working from their cottages in the redwoods to the soft sound of chamber music (25). What all these images, for which we are largely indebted to the sophisticated marketing techniques of the electronic industry, have in common with the cities we live in, still choked by ground transportation and teeming with ghettos, can be assessed by touring any large city of the world.

Yet these technologies do exist and are rapidly developing, even if their outcome will probably not be very close to the one predicted by popular (and sometimes scientific) magazines during recent years. As scholars we have to take into account these changes keeping a cool head when assessing a technology that from many points of view has some extremely fascinating aspects. The main point is that today, large cities the world over are compressed in the superimposition of two great technological cycles: the one based on material transportation and the one on information transmission. The succession of these two cycles can be conceptualized not in terms of straight substitution, as many erroneous evaluations hinted in the past, but in terms of competing functions. Up to now it can be said that the cost of any transported unit has tendentially decreased. From now on this is probably not true anymore, if real costs with externalities are taken into account. It is fairly certain that the cost of any information unit transmitted will rapidly decrease, and will probably continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Hence, we can expect a future re-adaptation of many social and economic activities, the depth of which cannot be underrated, but the quality of which still has to be evaluated (26).

However, as has happened in many historical cases of long cycles overlapping, often waning technology showed unexpected bursts of productivity while the competing new one was already underway. The longbow was produced and technologically perfected for close to a century after the powder gun was already in use. Some of the fastest and most perfect sail ships were built when steamboats were already crossing the ocean and mnemonic techniques (palazzi della memoria) experienced an explosive diffusion in the baroque era, more than a century after the invention of the printed page that was due to render them obsolete. It is likely that something of the kind is taking place today as epitomised by the familiar view on Southern Californian Highways of executives stuck in traffic jams using the cellular phone to conduct business.

Many good sociological reasons explain this apparent paradox, suggesting that the service economy still requires a great (and maybe even increasing) deal of personal contacts, as it requires the delivery of a large quantity of small parcels (27). Thus the trade-off between transportation and communication is far less trivial and mechanical than many assumed in the early 1980s. However the debate on increased isolation and alienation in the 'telematic society', albeit until now largely fiction-oriented in character, raises a serious theoretical issue for sociologists. Urban sociology - and sociology in general - developed around the key concept of community (Gemeinschaft). Beginning with the classical period, community has been interpreted as mainly based on primary (face-to-face) group relations (28), and the many applications and reinterpretations of this concept in urban studies never abandoned the late-romantic assumptions which assigned, sometimes in an uncritical way, positive connotations to territorially based face-to-face relations.

Now it is possible to explore, experimentally and theoretically, a different type of community with potential theoretical revisions of this concept still largely unforseeable. I refer to the French experiments of télésociabilité and to the first studies (29) conducted on these experiments. In short these experiments deal with the multiple telephone links attempted by the French PTT, first in the rural department of Lozère and later on in the urban areas of Montpellier and Marseilles. Users can hook into these networks or chat-lines anonymously and freely from any point of the telephone net. One of the interesting outcomes of sociological research into these experiments is that this initiative has not had a great success in the rural areas for which it was originally planned in order to reduce isolation due to physical distances. Above all it did not develop in any particularly different form from a normal telephone chat, albeit with more than one partner. However, the same experiments in urban areas gave rise to surprising results.

First of all there was the quantitative success, with peaks of 10.000 calls made daily in a small city like Montpellier, but, more importantly, those engaging in the experiments were not the isolated and marginal individuals expected who became marginal even in the telephone network. Thus, the opening of a technical channel of communication is not sufficient in itself to remedy personality or social traits of marginality. The users of télésociabilité seem to be centrally located strong actors in society for whom this new tool adds to the occasions for regular exchange. Thus, the new technologies do not substitute but reinforce and complement "normal" or spatially bound social relations to the point that in the larger Minitel experiment, télésociabilité has become an important support structure not only for the exchange of love messages, as the media have been quick to note, but also to provide communication for friendship groups and voluntary and political associations. Far from increasing anonymity and isolation, the new communication tools seem to be able to foster at least certain types of social ties.

But the second, and even more relevant aspect, is that this aspatial community, largely composed of anonymous actors - and therefore missing some of the constituent characters of Gemeinschaft - appeared to the researchers to be regulated by the same social norms and sociological structures that characterize all primary groups according to the traditional group theories. It fosters norms of behaviour on its members, creates leaders and deviants, reacts to perceivable social inequalities like the sexual one (obviously but not exclusively) and, lastly, gives rise to identity and exclusion mechanisms creating a specific normative culture in the aspatial or immaterial group composed of telephone users.

It is an experiment still too limited to give more than suggestions, but these are powerful and stimulating, both because many commonplaces about the new technologies are put to a severe and critical test, and because it opens up theoretical possibilities to be explored seriously by urban scholars. Moreover, because these experiments and reflections upon them can give very interesting indications on possible developments even in areas that have so far been presented to public opinion in the most trivial way (30), such as happened with the popular discussion on the use of new technology for local government or the political process in general, the so-called issue of 'teledemocracy'.

It goes without saying that these cursory remarks do not even marginally cover the vast issue of the relations between technology and urban processes. Here I have simply sampled a few aspects that seem of crucial importance for sociological theory.

7. Conclusions

The main conclusions may be the renewed assertion that urban systems in advanced economies are undergoing a deep change, not dissimilar in scope and consequences from the one that led to the formation of the industrial town. If this is not simply a rhetorical statement, or one biased by an historical trompe l'oeil due to the desire of each generation to place itself at crucial pivots of social change, we are faced with the challenging task of radically redefining the object of our field and its conceptual representation.

On a quieter note, we can say that there are at least three urban formations intermeshed in the territorial reality, particularly in regions with millenary urban history such as Europe. The traditional town (with all its historical variations) can be defined as an entity in which the commune, or its institutional and physical morphology, coincides with a community, a sociological entity defined by interactions among individuals, groups, classes and organizations. The mid-twentieth century metropolis embodied in the idea of metropolitan area, an entity less easily definable than the traditional city, but still fairly interpretable by a functional system, large, but limited in area (albeit with uncertain borders) and dominated by a center(core), periphery(fringes) and morphology is Jean Gottman's Megalopolis. And finally, a new entity that is still difficult to grasp and that has been variously defined as a World City, Global City, Exopolis (31), an open network with no central places, or with a plurality of "nodes", not necessarily arranged in a clear hierarchical order.

The abundance of definitions and terms, rather than their scarcity, is another indication of the deep transformation under way in urban areas the world over. In periods of rapid change it is first of all the conceptual order that is shaken: old terms lose significance, while new ones, often proposed with evocative instead of analytical purposes, add rather than subtract to the terminological complexity. This latter entity is also more difficult to define on the territory, and its borders may vary by many orders of magnitude, depending on the particular "net" to which we decide to make reference.

No matter what exact definitions we accept for the new urban form, many of the social problems of contemporary metropolitan societies depend on the coexistence and superimposition of these three "urban layers". The first generation metropolis has not totally substituted the traditional towns and the network city, or second generation metropolis, still contains towns and metropolitan areas. The new urban form is characterised by the "specious continuity with pre-existing social orders" that Giddens attributes to cities (32) and is affected by a major universal dynamic, namely the processes of change in which we are all deeply involved. Fundamentally, these changes involve modifications in the economy that are largely based on innovations in the technosystems of communications and transportation. The greater mobility, not only of capital and commodities, but also of individuals, messages and images, is at the same time a mover of this change, and part of the new economic system emerging from it. Moving people around has become an industry in itself, and a very important one with many facets: tourism, the combination of business and leisure typical of metropolitan businessmen (who live between cities as well as in cities) but also migrations of workers and would-be workers. Equally important, it has become the industry of moving images and messages, particularly because the relation between the shifting messages and local cultural identity is increasingly crucial.

Globalization, transnationalization and internationalization are the terms used in the literature, but further clarification will be needed because they are not totally synonymous. Globalization is more encompassing, while internationalization has more to do with processes involving nations and their relations. In any case, this process, or processes, can be studied per se, from the point of view of their effects on society at large or for their effects on cities, or system of cities. The analysis of the processes of globalization can be conducted on a fairly autonomous plane, and in a sense in a non spatial way, although there are latent contradictions in this statement that a finer analysis should point out. The general meaning is, however, simply that the globalization processes can be analyzed in their general aspects without necessarily referring to spatial effects or consequences. For instance, changes in the labour force composition due to increased use of telemathic tools is not in itself a spatial phenomenon, having to do with abstract systems of norms and behaviour which we call "roles" or "work contents". It is clear, however, that in the end a different organization of work, generally based on telemathics, will have far-reaching spatial effects.

Nor do these changes consist exclusively of economic processes. Modifications at the geopolitical level are of crucial importance. In particular, changes introduced by the process of European integration, as well as those taking place in the post-socialist societies, are to be taken into consideration. However, by and large the globalization process can be seen as a "spontaneous" dynamic. Not in the sense of being totally free from the intentional actions of important actors, but in the sense of dynamics produced as the aggregate effect of a plurality of actors. This process can be studied in itself, as well as in the effects it produces. Of course, the distinction is analytic, because the effects are part of the process, but it is a legitimate one.

There is a fairly general consensus about the notion that the major, and more universally damaging, effect of the globalization process at the urban level is an increase of social polarisation and in a growing crisis of the redistributive policies that have so far governed the social conflicts in urban areas. Classes formed in the industrial urbanism had to find some kind of institutional compromise, which was generally based on municipal welfare systems of some sort, in turn rooted in a fiscal political pact. Suburbanites of the first generation metropolis evaded this pact by commuting to outside residential areas, creating the fiscal crises of the sixties and seventies. City users of the second generation metropolis are further unbound from the traditional fiscal municipal policies, and from political accountability. Thus the metropolis of tomorrow will have to base itself on a radically diverse fiscal structure.

A great deal of the governance problems of the new metropolis can be approached more aptly by acknowledging this intertwining of morphologies, rather than by trying to reduce one to the other. In countries like Italy where there has not been, at the proper time, an institutional solution to the governance of the traditional metropolitan areas (the typical form of second generation metropolises) things are now more difficult.

The issue of governance of these new entities then becomes crucial both for the comprehension of current dynamics and for the action to be taken to influence the future social morphology, if this is at all possible. The issue can be stated as follows. Globalization trends tend to homogenise cities the world over. However, this general trend does not necessarily mean that localities have lost their relevance. On the contrary, as David Harvey points out, the process of "social (re)construction of places" is complementary to the globalization of capital (33). Precisely because global competition is becoming so generalised, localities need to offer some particular item, both in terms of symbolic identity of places and products (Beaubourg, risotto alla milanese, bacalao, or the juvenile hideout of Mark Twain, etc.) and in terms of actual services and consistency of the local economy, as it is the case of areas such as those in Cataluna or in the Silicon Valley and Orange County.

However, since the administrative borders of the traditional centers (cities, communes, and sometimes even regions) have often become obsolete in the course of the current urban dynamics, the analytical and actual definition of the entity that serves as the basis for the territorial support of such competition becomes crucial. At the same time the definition of this entity is also crucial for the identification of actors and actions in the democratic process. So far, local democracy has been largely understood in terms of some variation of the original idea of political community or Gemeinschaft but now, as we have seen, the validity of this concept is increasingly submitted to erosion by the emerging social and physical morphology of the city.

This leads to the final concluding remarks. The new social morphology of the contemporary metropolis can be understood better if one makes an effort to move from the limiting straight-jacket of traditional social ecology and class analysis that is better equipped to study the industrial city and the early metropolis, both largely based on the spatial distribution of inhabitants and commuters and of their stratification patterns. Today, large metropolitan centers and their economic functions are increasingly affected by growing populations of city users. Rather than cities for the inhabitants these are increasingly cities for guests and visitors. The political consequences of these developments, that bring with them a de facto disenfranchising of the dweller population should be more carefully investigated. "The New American City and the End of Public Space", is the subtitle of one of the best books describing the emerging urban entity (34). Malls are in fact one type of "public space", not very different, in commercial terms, from the Agora, the Forum, the medieval market place or the souk, but stripped of the political meaning and function of the Agora, because they are fora exclusively open to guests and visitors. The new city is a hospitable city, but we are afraid of this hospitality, because behind it we perceive the not so invisible hands of the "Science of Malling", rather than the pluralistic forces of the traditional urban market place.

These developments pose a larger problem to the scientific community, even in countries where metropolitan area statistics are currently available. Useful as they might be - and as indeed they are - they now seem inadequate to describe properly the urban phenomenon of today. I hope to have shown that the observation tools provided by official statistics, largely based on punctual plotting of individuals and organizations on space, fail to account for a wide range of components of the new urban phenomenon. They show us the social composition of the dormant city, with glimpses of that of the working city, but nothing or very little on the social aspects of the generally active city. Metaphorically, this condition is tantamount to the condition contemporary astronomers would find themselves in if their observations were still restricted to the use of visible light-band optics, thus missing a great deal of the events now known to populate the universe. From this point of view urban scholars have an important task ahead, in intellectually influencing the way in which official statistics are planned and collected. This is a crucial step toward the achievement of knowledge that we all believe is an important prerequisite for the solution of issues of governance.


1) See INSOR, L'Italia rurale (A cura di Corrado BARBERIS), Ministero dell'Agricoltura e delle foreste, Lasterza, Roma-Bari 1988, pp. 8-10 passim. In the Italian debate the term counterurbanization, probably the most correct used in international jargon, has found scarce diffusion.

2) For what concerns Italy, I have critically analysed in detail the empirical foundations of the current trends, but similar analyses can be performed on other national data. See Enrico ERCOLE and Guido MARTINOTTI "Le aree metropolitane", Amministrare, xvii, 1, April, 1987 pp. 111-155 and "Le aree metropolitane: la regione metropolitana lombarda", Amministrare, xviii, 1, Aprile 1988, pp. 141-193. Later on partially republished in G.MARTINOTTI, Metropoli. Nuova morfologia sociale della citta,' Il Mulino, Bologna 1993.

3) I am talking here of social ecology in the broad sense, which encompasses a family of explanations including the studies of the social ecological school in the proper sense and all urban analyses that in Durkheim's teminology would be classified as part of the « morphologie sociale ».

4) Despite the failure to formulate a theory of the urban crisis on social movements, these have become persistent actors in most urban areas. See Mark GOTTDIENER, Cities in stress. A new look at the Urban Crisis, Sage, Newbury Park, 1986, pp. 8 ff.

5) Cities have always been thought of, to a degree, as fairly self-contained units. In antiquity in the form of city-states, and in more recent times as urban or metropolitan communities within a national structure, chunks of societies, so to say, that could be experimentally isolated from the remaining parts of the social system for the sake of analysis. Even urban system analysis has dealt primarily, although not exclusively, with national or regional urban systems. Such is the case, for instance, of Zipf's Law or all other models based on rank order assessments. The so called Zipf's Law or "rank size distribution" states that in an urban [national] system there is a relation between the size of a city center and its position in the rank order of size. Today it has become increasingly difficult to maintain this analytical fiction, especially, but not only, in geopolitical areas such as the European one in which the establishment of supranational institutions frees to a considerable degree individual cities from national ties, and forces them to compete increasingly for global resources. This can be witnessed by the growing number of city clubs and lobbies mushrooming in these very years and by the acute interest in city marketing. These are, namely, the techniques being developed to promote, on the international arena, locational advantages offered by individual cities and that are generally based on the supply of some kind of urban amenities (see among others, the international conference "Marketing of Metropolitan Regions", 8-10 November 1990, at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam).

6) I am aware that this statement needs many qualifications in terms of more precise categorisation of certain types of cities, like caravan or market centers, and holy cities. It is, however valid for the generality of cities in the past.

7) In Italy, city walls were relinquished by military dominion in the late Nineteenth century, but city tolls (dazio) were paid until the tax reform of 1972. See the interesting seminar organized by the Istituto Gramsci and the University of Parma, Le mura della citta, November 1987.

8) See Elisabeth LICHTENBERGER "The Changing Nature of European Urbanization", in Brian J.L.BERRY (Ed), Urbanization and Counter-urbanization, Urban Affairs Annual Review, 11, Sage, Beverly Hills 1976, pp. 81-107, exp. p.97: "European city growth is deeply influenced by the specific administrative structure of the rural areas".

9) See Guido MARTINOTTI, "The Illusive Autonomy: Central Control and Decentralisation in the Italian Local Financial System", in L.J.SHARPE, (ed.), The Local Fiscal Crisis in Western Europe, Sage Publications, London 1981, pp. 63-124.

10) While the term is similar, the meaning of this label is different from the one in Myriam JANSEN-VERBECKE, "Inner City Leisure Resources" in Leisure studies, 4 (1985). pp 141-157. Actually the Dutch scholar refers to the consumption pattern behaviour of city residents. See also Elisabeth LICHTENBERGER, "The Changing Nature of European Urbanization", in Brian J.L. BERRY (Ed), Urbanization and Counter-urbanization, Urban Affairs Annual Review, 11, Sage, Beverly Hills 1976, pp. 81-107. An essay whose importance and insight I had earlier missed.

11) John R. LOGAN suggested to me that in the early days of what I call the first generation metropolis, the number of city users was in fact greater, because general stores were concentrated in the business center, and in that period there were few shopping malls on the outskirts.

12) Birgitta Nedelmann suggested the nice caption of city users and abusers.

13) East Berliners seem more organised: they have apparently created a corporation to sell chunks of Der Berliner Mauer but whether by sale or by theft, the result is the same. A dramatically important piece of the built environment is being used.

14) I translate to English from the Italian rendition: "Abbattuto dall'artiglieria pesante dei tenui prezzi delle merci". See Karl MARX and Friedrich ENGELS, "II manifesto del partito comunista", in Opere scelte (a cura di Luciano Gruppi), Editori Riuniti, Roma 1971, p.294.

15) According to the new ticketing rules you can more easily reserve a place at this theatre if you book by mail from another city. Milanese residents are penalised, and opera fans from Milan actually staged a protest in recent months.

16) Positing of these four populations does not imply that more traditional class relations and conflicts have disappeared, but there is little doubt that they undergo deep transformations which undermine some of the classical socio-ecological factors of urban class conflict. The strength of the industrial urban proletariat was to a large degree, as has been noted repeatedly since Marx, a function of its territorial organization. Working class districts reinforced and projected on the urban plane, so to say, and the class solidarity created in the factory, while the organization of traditional working class parties and movements relied heavily on the urban ecological niches in which subcultural factors created an extraordinary synergy of economic social and political interactions. Much of the lore about industrial cities and early metropolitan areas centered on these essential components of the urban landscape that tend to wane in the present-day metropolis. In purely numerical terms, the inhabitants are probably the most disfavoured of the four populations by the overall dynamics. But also commuters are probably shrinking in number, or better, changing to more peripheral trajectories - vs center-periphery ones- as even top level co-ordination functions tend to move to the fringes of large conurbations. All in all, then, traditional class cleavages and solidarities, while by all means still existing and perceivable, give way to new cleavages and group realignments.

17) On world city systems see among others, M.P.CONZEN (a cura di), L'evoluzione dei sistemi urbani del mondo, (trad.it.) Angeli, Milano 1989.

18) Thanks to Roy Drewett for this formulation. Easy for him, an outstanding member of this new population.

19) There is very little research conducted on this population, at least to my knowledge, and even less so by urban sociologists. See however an interesting book: Jane MARCEAU, A Family Business? The Making of An International Business Elite, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and 'Editions de la Maison des sciences de l'Homme', Paris, 1989.

20) On this point see John FRIEDMANN and Goetz WOLFF, "World City Formation: An Agenda for Research and Action", International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 6, no. 3, September 1982, pp. 339-344.

21) See "Whose Britain Is It?", Newsweek, November 20 1989 pp 54 ff.

22) With this term, I do not refer to the distinction between use value and exchange value of the city, such as adopted by John R. LOGAN and Harvey MOLOTCH, Urban Fortunes. The political Economy of Places, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1987, although a good deal of my reasoning seems to go in the same direction.

23) Saskia SASSEN, The Global City. London, New -York, Tokyo, Princeton, l991, p.9 .

24) See Anthony GIDDENS, The Consequences of Modernity, Stanford University Press. Stanford 1990.

25) For a thorough survey of the literature on telework see Ursula HUWS, Werner B. KORTE and Simon ROBINSON (for Empirica), Telework: towards the elusive office, John Willey and Sons, Chichester 1990, exp. p.-10.

26) See Franco MOMIGLIANO "Le tecnologie della informazione" in Antonio RUBERTI (a cura di), Tecnologia domani, SEAT-Laterza, Bari 1983 pp. 99-128.

27) See John Mc CARTHY, in an interview republished from Dialogue, 1983.

28) Despite attempts in different directions: see Talcott PARSONS "The Principal Structures of Community - Structures and Processes in Modern Societies", Free Press, Glance 1960, pp. 250-279.

29) See IDATE, 'Fragments des passions ordinaires', La Documentation Française, Paris 1987.

30) See Guido MARTINOTTI "Per una democrazia della discussione " in Biblioteca della liberta'. xxiii, (1988) germaio-marzo, n.l00, pp. 81-94 and G.MARTINOTTI and Giorgio DE MICHELS, "Sviluppo della democrazia locale e nouveau tecnologie dell'informazione" in Amministrare, a.XLX,n.1/2, aprile-agosto 1989, pp. 197-216.

31) See Edward S. SOJA, "Inside Exopolis: Scenes from Orange County" in Michael SORKIN (Ed), Variations on a Theme Park, Noonday Press, New York 1992, pp.94-122.

32) Anthony GIDDENS, The Consequences of Modernity, quot., p.6.

33) David Harvey,"From Space to Place And Back Again. Reflections on Post-Modernity", Lecture held on 17 April 1991 in Milan.

34) Michael SORKIN (Ed). Variations on a Theme Park, Noonday Press, New York 1992; Sharon ZUKIN, Landscapes of Power From Detroit to Disney World, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1992.

About the author

Guido Martinotti is a Professor of Urban Sociology at the Università degli studi in Milan, Italy, and is also a visiting Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, USA. He is chairman of the Social Sciences Committee of the European Science Foundation and a member of the Bureau of the European Science and Technicology Assembly: He has written various books, among the latest is Metropoli. La nuova morfologia sociale della citta (1993).

To MOST Clearing House Homepage

To see the document in English
Pour voir le document en
Para ver el documento en