"We need more medium-sized cities"
Saskia Sassen will speak at Ouishare Fest 2021, an in-person festival that will take place in Paris from June 23-25 and will address the world’s biggest issues in the economic, technological and political fields through the lens concept of “time”. Interested ? More information on our website here !
Do you see cities as places of acceleration?
Cities are and have historically been places of acceleration. But most cities are small and sleepy, the cities driving acceleration are the megacities. They are the connective tissue in a globalized world.
I always like to mention Detroit. We think of it as a dead place, but it was a site for the making of cars, and it actually destroyed the city once cars started to be built all over the world. Cities have very long lives and they go through different temporalities and epochs.
As soon as we appeared in the world, cities appeared as well. When electronics entered the cities, some thought cities were finished, because inhabitants would be able to go anywhere at any time. But people still need local engagement and anchorage, and urban systems can offer that. It’s actually hard to get rid of a city.
How can we make sure inequalities don’t spiral out of control, between owners and non-owners?
This is a tough one. You are always going to have inequalities in complex systems. Even in a small village, some will be richer than others. A city is a place of inequality.
Still, massive concentration of wealth is not a natural phenomenon. It’s the result of political and economic systems and dynamics.There has been an extractive mode dominant for several decades. Real estate has become increasingly financialized. Buildings have been built because they represented asset-based securities. And some have actually never been inhabited!
How can we interpret the irruption of Covid-19 in our lives and cities?
I think of these events as curves. In the 1980s, SARS was a curve. It was a time when we started to experience new problems, invisible actors such as insects, viruses. Why? Because we had just destroyed so much. We have been grabbing more and more natural resources such as land and water. Some actions were taken to rectify this, such as planting more and more trees in cities. But the overall dynamic has remained the same.
How do you see the future of cities?
We need to build more medium-sized cities. The large mega-cities are to the advantage of the elites. They destroy the life of 50% of workers, and it’s unjust. The elites don’t understand, they do not see this reality that is not theirs. I did interviews where people would say “oh, they have to travel one hour and a half to come to work? I didn’t know”. They forget who pays the price of traffic jams, air pollution, etc.
Another advantage of medium-sized cities is that they are more walkable. We don’t need cars in these cities. That’s why I love the concept of the fifteen minute city, even though it’s a bit of a fantasy. It will take some work to achieve this ideal city but I think it’s a good objective.
Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and former Chair, Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University. Her books include Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Harvard University Press, 2014; translated into 12 languages); Cities in a World Economy, 5th fully updated edition (Sage); Losing Control: Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization, The Schoff Memorial Lectures, Columbia University Press 1995