Meta-metropolis: The new urban reality

Most people think of geography as the study of planet Earth, but Edward Soja, an American professor, goes beyond that to examine the discipline through space and time. «We usually put the emphasis on time, on history,» Soja explained in an interview with Kathimerini. «We see everything from the historical viewpoint, the familiar approach. What I try to do as a geographer is to boost the spatial parameter so that space and time work together and influence each other.» Soja uses the term «meta-metropolis» in his work on new urban spatiality and the influx of migrants into some 400 post-metropolises on the planet. One such city is Thessaloniki, of which he warns: «If Thessaloniki does not develop close relations with neighboring countries, Istanbul will take the lead in the Balkans.» «If we understand the geography of the planet, the potential for a better world will improve,» Soja said. That is why he supports the new postgraduate department at the Haropeio School, as «the first major progressive geography department in Greece.» Soja is optimistic about peaceful coexistence. «There are always opportunities for improvement,» he said. «Sometimes it is difficult to see them, but we have to find them. And for that to happen we must have more urban planning awareness and planning at a regional level, from the bottom to the top.» What does «crowded urban development» mean for the planet? Where do the notions of «city» and «metropolis» fit in with massively growing cities? Urban space is more dominant than ever, yet the prevailing new model is very different from the notion of a metropolis. In that case, the Greek word «meta,» which I use, is ideal to express the new form – namely meta-metropolis – because it has gone beyond the familiar characteristics of a metropolis. What are those characteristics? Densely populated urban peripheries. Cities with very large populations and a large influx of people from around the world. The regional metropolises of today are already more multi-centered. New urban centers grow around the old metropolis. A networked urban periphery develops some places very fast, as in Randstad in the Netherlands. In that case, most of the world’s population already live in meta-metropolises. Precisely. Around 3.3 billion people live in 400 urban peripheries of this type around the world, which have populations in excess of 1 million. Thessaloniki, with some 1.3 million inhabitants, has just become one of those 400 urban areas. The people who live in them are crowded into a small area. These are not peripheries in the old sense – isolated, green, open – around a lively heterogeneous center, but there is a phenomenon of peripheral urbanization. That is, the former suburbs are turning into cities, creating what seems paradoxical, the urbanization of suburban areas. The suburban area is evolving into something different from what we knew in relation to the old metropolis. And it is very hard to see where the city ends and where the suburb-city begins. Urban areas are becoming more suburban, and suburban areas more urban. The centers are either being downgraded or upgraded, according to the inflow of migrants, or they are turned into something like a museum. Economic migrants have changed the composition of large contemporary cities. What are the effects of and benefits for meta-metropolises? There are many potential influences, positive and negative. In some cases in Europe it has led to political polarization. The local population often clashes with migrants and that creates a new kind of politics with dangerous aspects, even in the most open and liberal of countries such as the Netherlands. When so many different people live together in a city, political conflicts from another part of the globe are transferred to the urban life of the city. In the city where I live, Los Angeles, if you’re a Turk you don’t say so. We have the largest population of Armenians in the world, with the result that the dispute between Turks and Armenians is played out in Los Angeles, in murders, violence and destruction. So the meta-metropolis multiplies political and social problems, but on the other hand there is hope for a positive mix, a hybridization, an interaction and peaceful coexistence of cultures in the future. So there are two sides to cities, the display of development and wealth on one side and poverty and dramatic events on the other. What can be done to tackle that phenomenon? One thing is absolutely clear. If there is no intervention, the problems will get worse. The role of the state in dealing with them is not enough. It demands joint national and supranational participation. In Europe there is hope that the EU will make a commitment to tackling these problems. For example, the successful model of Ireland raised the hopes of European peripheries. Apart from the part played by the state, organization from the grass roots is important – new forms of local coalitions that combine link unions and EU agencies – tribal, cultural and religious organizations. A heterogeneous mix that struggles for justice, equality and democracy. The great challenge is for these groups to join forces and… fight for broader urban peripheral democracy. What world issues concern you at the moment? Economic and political development, creativity, innovation. What bothers me and upsets me is the decline of the US. Life in the US has never been so unpleasant. Everyone bears responsibility for that, above all the leadership. A power based on ultra-right-wing, religious convictions has invaded politics in entirely new ways. So who manages space, politicians or people? We all play some part in the social creation of the spaces we live in. We participate collectively in this process; if we think the creation of policy is a natural process then we can’t change it. But if we realize that we shape our spaces, then we can work on improving them. The way in which the American government deals with geography, especially in relation to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, is based on the greediest, most selfish, crazy religious beliefs. Bush talks about major investment, but in reality he isn’t investing a cent in emergency aid for those affected, except through organizations that end up giving more aid to the rich. Congress has abolished environmental regulations for companies, so we aren’t talking about rehabilitation but boosting large firms to make more money. It is completely crazy for this to happen and the American people not to rebel.

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