City-states and the Future of Urbanism

A popular view of Hong Kong. Atibordee Kongprepan/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0


The city is emerging as the dominant form of human organization. Migration to urban centers is on the rise, as the cities of East Africa, South Asia, and Latin America experience historic population booms. For the first time in history, more than half of humanity now lives in cities. The knowledge economy, smartphone revolution, and app economy are all dependent on cities as their Petri dish for experimentation and refinement. Urbanism, as a mainstream and not merely academic topic, has never been so popular. From the pages of Monocle to the Los Angeles Times, cities and urban life have been heralded as the ultimate form of human organization and a subject of intense focus.


The independence movements in Catalonia and Kurdistan can also be analyzed from this urbanist angle, albeit in different ways. Without the economic power that Barcelona exerts in Spain and beyond, would the Catalan regional government have come this far in its push for independence? Doubtful. Yet, the exact economic price of independence has been lost on the average Catalan. If independence is achieved, the newly established country would wake up on the outside of the European Union, without a currency and facing difficult World Trade Organisation negotiations that will wreak havoc on the economy. For the residents of Barcelona, some reporters have found, the idea of secession from Spain is much more complex than an exercise of simple jingoism.


Yet this has not stopped some from embracing the tantalising prospect of Barcelona as the capital city of the world’s youngest country. According to a recent survey, the Catalan capital is the fifth most attractive city in Europe for foreign investors, beating Frankfurt, Madrid and Dublin. It is also one of the most visited tourist destinations in Europe and the most popular in Spain, drawing more than 10m visitors a year. The city of Gaudi and Spanish resistance to Franco has also established itself as an international tech hub, attracting startups from across the world and playing host to the annual Mobile World Congress. Independence will come with a big price tag for Barcelona and, regardless of how the city will bounce back in decades to come, residents appear more concerned than their countryside competitors.


The city debate also features in Kurdish calculations for independence. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein more than a decade ago, the Kurds have made urbanism a core part of their push to create an independent country. As a result, Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdish Regional Government, has seen an influx of foreign direct investment mostly linked to the region’s oil industry.


Erbil’s airport has quickly became one of the busiest in Iraq, serving destinations from Europe to the Middle East and allowing the city to become a home base for international aid organizations, journalists, and construction companies. Although nowhere close to the role Barcelona plays in Catalonia, the rapid urbanization of Erbil over the last decade is a blueprint of how the Kurds could establish a viable state if independence is achieved.


While these two examples could not be more different, they point to the outsized role cities play in the global marketplace. This narrative has rekindled debates about the return of the city-state. Writing in the British journal Aeon, Jamie Bartlett argued that “the nation-state with its borders, centralized governments, common people, and sovereign authority is increasingly out of step with the world”. The widely shared article noted that nation-states will not collapse overnight but city-states with sovereignty such as Singapore are better positioned to handle our era’s unique challenges, such as migration and shifting understandings of identity.


The idea is attractive. City-states, after all, are a much older form of governance than the nation-state, which blends notions of shared identity and political sovereignty. Yet, the independence pushes in Catalonia and Kurdistan underline the need for centralized authority in the maintenance of successful cities – at least in this moment. Barcelona is able to grow, attract, and mature because of its place in a larger nation. While Singapore is a tempting example, the fact is that it is unique with few other places of scale like it.


There is, however, a happy medium and it can be found in Dubai. The city is often discussed in the same breath as Singapore and Hong Kong but its model is unique. It has limited sovereignty over its administration and financial systems, but it is also part of a larger country (thanks to the federated construction of the UAE). In this way Dubai operates more like a canton than a city-state.


The city has invested in infrastructure designed to connect it firmly with the rest of world. From a global airline to international shipping ports, Dubai’s evolution as a global city is one blueprint for how cities around the world will soon be interconnected and come to supersede national politics in favour of global concerns.


Without the tension associated with administering a nation-state, Dubai has focused on making itself a crossroads for the world. It is a place where the global middle class converges, trades, and exchanges ideas. This hybrid form of autonomy might well be the necessary ingredient for this period of transition from nation-states to city-states.


A version of this article first appeared in The National on October 22, 2017.