Whatever we might say is right or wrong with cities of the 21st century, they are indisputably a defining feature of our age. As much as we are post-modern, post-gender or post-colonial, we are also post-rural.

Our existence, for an increasing majority, is urban. Even more than that, our aspirations are urban. This is visible almost everywhere. In the US, people with advance education are clustering in a dozen or so, mostly coastal, cities (Florida 2010). In Afghanistan, refugees returning from Pakistan and Iran move to big cities, rather than moving back the villages from which they fled decades ago. In Nigeria, Lagos alone adds 77 people every hour to its burgeoning city boundaries (Myers 2016). If people voted with their feet, cities would certainly be the winners.

However, in the case of the citizens who live in them, it often does not look like they are winning. Most people live in cities which are crowded but disconnected, with scarcity of jobs, housing, and, consequently, opportunity. If cities that work well can increase prosperity, this can coincide with increased inequality. The same networks which increase productivity also provide new avenues of dissent and discovery. Being urban both amplifies the voices of the distressed and allows them to access new networks of common thinkers.

The effect of networks

Think about Tahrir Square: would that have been the stage of revolutionary change if the network of dissent from Cairo and surrounding areas did not exist? The digital and personal connections necessary for such change would not have been so strong had the square been in the Sahara – for the city is “a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet”, as sociologist Richard Sennett (2017) once wrote.

Often, these networks are dominated by the young. Last year, Sudan’s Khartoum, where the majority of citizens are under 20, was the site of protests which transcend the traditional networks of ethnicity and religious conservatism. However, when existing networks break down in cities, new ones may not always be as progressive as seen in Khartoum. For example, in Karachi, Pakistan, diverging ethnic identities have been mobilised to form networks of solidarity and of opposition, often with deadly results (Verkaaik 2016).

Fulfilling the promise of opportunity

The urban age exists in the three-way intersection of the promise of opportunity, the amplification of voice, and the emergence of new, more powerful, networks of solidarity. Each of these has important implications for public policy. How does a government fulfil the promise of opportunity represented by cities? One way is by working with its residents to develop a right to the city, and to meet expectations of jobs, housing, sanitation, and clean air. This is especially important when there is an exponential growth of inhabitants. It is hard to imagine how Lagos will be governed in 2050, when its population is expected to have 10 million more residents, particularly in regard to the challenges presented by climate change and technology (Harrington 2018).

Perhaps navigating such an age requires coming to grips with radical uncertainty – the idea that we do not know what is going to happen, and in the present we are not even able to fully imagine it. Try telling someone in 1991 that in two decades, protesters in Cairo will break down power structures by supplementing offline networks with those formed online over a social network, amplified by 24/7 television channels.

The need for experimentation

Under radical uncertainty, making urban policy will require unprecedented responsive experimentation. Context is king: what works in another city might not work in yours; what worked in your city a few years ago might not work today. Cities need policy structures which not only get the known fundamentals right, but are flexible enough to change according to context. An example of flexibility would be the ability to merge local governments together when inhabitants spread beyond the local jurisdiction. This balance is hard to strike, but possible, and it could be key to navigating the urban age.

Cities need to be empowered

Most cities, however, are yet to get the basics right. Many cities are still disempowered because power is concentrated at higher spatial scales. Nigerian cities, for example, do not have control over design standards and building regulation, which are prescribed at a national level (Onwuanyi 2019). Britain has only recently started to transfer power over transport to cities (UK Government Office for Science 2019). Due to the very interaction based on which the urban age exists, cities are controlled by political networks which can sometimes be opposed to national ones. The result is a vertical struggle, which can lead to more control taken away from cities. Cities are being set to fail.

But what about rural areas?

Conversely, there are questions of spatial justice across urban and rural areas that do require a national perspective. Blossoming cities exist alongside areas left behind, as cities hoard the benefits of proximity and productivity. London has been described by some as “shackled to a corpse” when referring to provincial England (Ganesh 2017). Kampala generates two-thirds of Uganda’s national economic activity (World Bank 2018). The young, rather than returning to the provinces to set up rural homes, are now residing in cities for longer. Is there a role for policy in guaranteeing interspatial justice, ensuring that cities like Kampala and London do not run away and devour all opportunities for urban and rural counterparts? Due to their complexity, cities need decentralised authority to make good policy decisions, without restricting the ability of national governments to distribute economic gains to those places left behind. If this does not happen, it will not be the case of cities being “shackled to a corpse” but, as Paul Collier puts it, their rural counterparts being “chained to a shark”.

Editor's note: Originally published in the Oxford Government Review / Number 4 here.


Florida, R (2010), “Where are the smart people going”, The Atlantic.

Ganesh, J (2017), “Europe could see more Catalonias”, The Financial Times.  

Harrington, R (2018), “These will be the world’s 10 biggest cities in 2050”, The Independent.

Myers, J (2016), “These are Africa’s fastest-growing cities”, World Economic Forum.

Onwuanyi, N (2019), “Why buildings keep collapsing in Lagos and what can be done about it”, The Conversation.

Sennett, R (2017), “The public realm”, in eds. Hall, S and R Burdett, The SAGE handbook of the 21st century city, SAGE Publications.

Verkaaik, O (2016), “Violence and ethnic identity politics in Karachi and Hyderabad”, Journal of South Asian Studies, 39(4): 841-854.

UK Government Office for Science (2019), “The future of mobility”.

World Bank (2017), “Coordinating investments across Greater Kampala would boos growth for Uganda”, World Bank Report.