Requiem for the imperial city

In the early 19th century London was such an unhealthy place that it couldn’t sustain its population through indigenous births and had to rely upon net in-migration. Its death rate has long since declined to a more acceptable level, but today the capital relies as much as ever on in-migration. About 40% of its current population was born abroad. And foreign-born workers in London constitute more than a third of all foreign-born workers in the UK.

Those facts aren’t much, I realise, to build an entire hypothesis on, but I’m going to give it a go. Hell, there are people out there like Stewart Brand and Erle Ellis who’ve worked with less in trying to convince us that urbanisation is an unalloyed positive.

So here’s my alternative hypothesis to their narrative of joyful urbanisation: Some people want to live in the city and some people don’t, but most people want a secure livelihood. Historically, industrialisation and economic development have been associated with urbanism or urbanisation. Cities were job-creators, built around commerce and industry. So people, in search of that secure livelihood, have tended to go to them, temporarily or permanently. Cities were (and are) also resource sinks, drawing in food and other materials from much wider areas. They thus have an imperial aspect – gravitational centres, as it were, that orient their surroundings to themselves. In some cases, the imperialism is quite localised. In others – like London in its heyday, and apparently still today – it can be global in reach. But the nature of the livelihoods available in the post-industrial city seems to be changing. As I mentioned in a recent post, traditional urban sectors such as heavy industry and port functions are now much less labour intensive, and have also become too large to fit into traditional cities like London. In London, manufacturing is still important (mainly now of food products and clothing), but rising up the list are human and city services – domestic personnel, food retail, hospitality, security, transport, construction, landscape services and so on1.

In other words, cities concentrate people, thereby creating many employment opportunities for people to service other people. So there’s a kind of positive feedback loop of self-reinforcing urban concentration. Meanwhile, London as a so-called ‘world city’, with the benefit of political stability and ratcheting property prices, has increasingly become a playground for the global wealthy. At the same time, the possibilities for cheap accommodation in the city are dwindling – the generation-long onslaught on social housing symbolised most recently by the notorious bedroom tax, the curtailment of private renters’ and squatters’ rights, the closure of loopholes such as narrowboat moorages and heavier planning enforcement of ‘shedrooms’. So there’s a massive squeeze on the living conditions and standard of living of the traditional working class, and quite a squeeze too on the situation of relatively poorly paid middle class workers – teachers, social workers, nurses etc.

I have no idea how all this will play out in the future. But that high level of foreign-born workers is intriguing. It seems to me that cities like London are no longer operating in the way described by classical urban sociology – the slow (and often painful) assimilation of successive waves of migrants into the city’s stable demographic fabric (in London’s case, up to the 1970s, successively Jewish, Irish, Caribbean and South Asian for the most part). The present migrants seem a more provisional and footloose phenomenon than the migrants of the past. They are not necessarily there to stay, but there to earn while they can…largely by servicing the settled population, who rely on them even as they moan about them. On that latter point, there’s clearly a class dimension which is at issue in contemporary politics: the jobs done by migrants service wealthier people the most and tend to undercut the work or the work conditions of the traditional working class. Fortunately, here in the UK we have the political maturity to realise that this is due to structural economic and political factors, and can’t simply be blamed on the migrants themselves – oh, wait. Anyway, should London’s economic fortunes decline, or other cities in other places start to beckon harder, or opportunities in their homelands brighten, or today’s referendum propel Britain out of the EU, then perhaps we could expect London’s migrant population to decrease – with interesting consequences, I’d think, for the life of the city.

Meanwhile, I doubt this situation fosters economic resilience or stability for London. And since the population of Greater London constitutes around 16% of the whole UK population – a pretty high main city/total population ratio when set alongside comparable countries – I also doubt it fosters economic resilience or stability for the UK as a whole. But maybe that has some interesting implications. For one thing, although the UK (or at least England) is one of the more densely populated and heavily urbanised countries of the world, once you take London out of the picture, things start to look more spacious. The southwest region of England where I live has nearly 2 million hectares of farmland and a total population of 5.3 million, with only six cities in the region exceeding populations of 100,000 and only two exceeding 200,000 (Bristol is its largest city, and the tenth largest in the UK, with a population of 400,000). Population density here is 2.9 people per hectare of existing farmland – a contrast with London and the southeast, with 7.5 people per hectare of farmland in that region.

Of course, in reality you can’t just ‘take London out of the picture’. But when I advocate for a smaller scale and more localised agriculture I often come across the kind of objection that runs “Well, that all sounds lovely, but I live in London. How are you going to feed us?” As an ex-Londoner myself – and one, moreover, who has benefitted considerably from its overheated economy – I’m quite sympathetic to that question. Especially if it’s phrased open-endedly rather than as a challenge – less an aggressive ‘how are you going to feed us?’, and more a plaintive ‘how are you going to feed us?’ This is something I’m going to look at more closely in my upcoming posts.

Perhaps a more subversive implication of this line of thought would question London’s overdevelopment. Big (or biggish) cities undoubtedly have a role to play in concentrating various administrative, educational and commercial functions, although much of their old commercial-industrial raison d’être has now gone. But do we need a city of 8 million in a country of 63 million? How much of that population concentration has resulted from old patterns of development and the positive feedback loop I mentioned earlier? How many of those wealthy Londoners being serviced by not-so-wealthy migrants can a just and sustainable society afford? There are those who argue that by promoting ease of interaction, large cities display ‘super-linear power scaling with total population’2 – that is, they create economic activity disproportionate to their size. This hypothesis has been strongly disputed, even in its own terms empirically3, quite apart from the question of whether super-linear power scaling is such a great thing anyway when the case for degrowth is mounting. Indeed, others have argued that the fractal pattern of super-sized cities represents an instability in a complex system operating far from equilibrium4. I wonder if these competing perspectives are over-mathematizations. Perhaps in imputing some kind of ordained and intrinsic trajectory to city development they efface the way it emerges from the self-interested policies of states and their elites. Might it be time for policymakers to start thinking about ways of trimming back the hyperdevelopment of large cities like London in service of wider interests?

The situation is different in the growing megacities of the global south, though there are various similarities. One of them is the same basic imperialism that underlies their prodigious growth – a local imperialism of the city bleeding its rural hinterlands, and a global imperialism associated with institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, whose structural adjustment programs geared to opening markets for global free trade in agricultural commodities (allied with the utter hypocrisy of the US and the EU in continuing to subsidise their own agricultures) gave many peasants and rural poor people few other options. Despite the blandishments of Brand, Ellis and other urban advocates about the advantages of urban residence for poor people in the global south, I still haven’t seen any compelling evidence to suggest that it provides a solid route out of poverty for many, though I’m still open to persuasion. I suspect there may be a historical fallacy here: because urbanisation was associated with economic growth in various historic and contemporary cases (Europe, USA and, perhaps more problematically, China), it’s assumed that urbanisation is a necessary and sufficient condition for development. I’m not so sure. And I think there’s a road not taken here which is worth exploring – endogenous rural development.

But it’s hard to broach such possibilities because of our modernist romance with the idea of the city. In a Twitter exchange, Haroon Akram-Lodhi, whose work I greatly respect, pointed me to Katherine Boo’s amazing book about a Mumbai slum, Behind The Beautiful Forevers as an example of how ‘vibrant’ slum life is. The book certainly shows the ingenuity and tenacity that people in desperate circumstances display in getting by from day to day, which I suppose you could choose to call ‘vibrant’. But to me it also shows the violence, despair, corruption and systematic unfairness of slum life that makes it virtually impossible for all but a lucky few to escape. It’s not that the countryside is necessarily much different. Indeed, in most poor countries rural people are poorer on average than city people. But, leaving aside the question of how valid measures of poverty across the two settings are, it doesn’t follow that moving to the city will improve the lot of the rural poor. I’ve not yet seen convincing evidence for economic acceleration which is intrinsically related to urbanism per se.

Cities have a pretty impressive track record historically of achieving long-term imperialistic control. So I wouldn’t be surprised if places like London and Mumbai carry on their merry way long into the future, controlling the flows of people and resources over large distances, essentially in accordance with the whims of their established elites. But perhaps, if we listen hard, we might just catch a few strains of a requiem playing for them on the horizon of the future. Because what we really need is smaller, tighter cities that are more mutualistically geared to the needs of the wider society of which they form a part. And when it becomes clear, as I think it probably will, that the imperial mega-cities of the modern age are loading the dice against the displaced multitudes of their peripheries, who knows what kind of radical shakedowns of the country and the city might await?



2. West, G. and Bettencourt, L. 2011. Bigger Cities Do More with Less: New Science Reveals Why Cities Become More Productive and Efficient as They Grow. Scientific American. 305, 3: 44-45.

3. Shalizi, C. 2011. ‘Scaling and hierarchy in urban economies’. PNAS.

4. Orrell, D. 2012. Economyths, Icon, pp.93-4.


26 thoughts on “Requiem for the imperial city

  1. Very thought provoking post Chris…what happens to mega-cities, which are after all complex systems (or even systems of complex systems), when the overarching paradigm moves from non-monotonic affluence/growth to non-monotonic impoverishment/contraction? Clearly, we do not understand the underlying contributors to the mega-city dynamic well enough to predict.

    Something like ‘catastrophic bifurcation’ (as described by David Korowicz in the FEASTA ‘Tipping Point’ paper) seems plausible: “We are particularly interested in the class of transitions called catastrophic bifurcations where once the tipping point has been passed, a series of positive feedbacks drive the system to a contrasting state.”

    So what might constitute tipping points in the life of a mega-city? Well, you point explicitly to one: the change in flux of the underclass that serves the overclass. In fact, that could itself be the bifurcation.

    I suspect that the histories of the great cities of past empires would be a good place to mine for rhymes…

  2. Interesting, that FEASTA thinks of such bifurcations as “catastrophic”? Generally, in nature, when you get runaway positive feedback loops, it tends to be life-preserving to throw in negative feedback loops to force the system back toward some sort of equilibrium.

    Thinking about megacities gives me heartburn. Seeing their pictures, of concrete stretching from horizon to horizon, substitutes for a horror show. I try to avoid it.

    • Vera, I think ‘catastrophic’ implies simply a radical and disruptive change, without any connotations of negativity. And I agree that nature tends to have plenty of balancing feedback mechanisms to rein in the reinforcing ones, else I guess we might not be having this discussions!

      As I understand it, that’s one of the critiques of the NTE folks arguments – that they ignore the balancing mechanisms.

      And I also hear you on the horizon-to-horizon concrete thing – I lived in the heart of Tokyo for a while and that’s exactly that that experience was like…

      – Oz

    • Thanks for that Ruben. I just read the article and am now heading off to vote. Did it persuade me? Hmm, well I guess I’ll have to write a post next week when the dust has settled.

      • Even though I know I have no dog in this fight it feels as though the outcome is significant enough to me personally that I’ve been watching anxiously for the result. Then I run across this notion (from some other EU folk I suppose):

        Hug a Brit
        In recent weeks some Europeans have been carrying out a “hug a Brit” campaign, in an attempt to convince the U.K. to stay.

        One small problem: Not all Brits like to be hugged

        end quote

        So now a distant quibbler feels he has to ask – are you a hugging Brit, or a non-hugging Brit? Hope the eventual outcome suits you.

        • I’m a non-hugging Brit, I’m afraid – but online hugs are OK, so thanks for the sentiment. To be honest, neither outcome will really suit me. Guess I’m also an ornery Brit… I realise that a lot of non-Brits (and non-Europeans) who roughly share my leftish, localish, agrarian perspective favour Brexit, and have some good reasons for doing so. On the other hand, immersed in the local politics of it as I am here, I’m not sure those reasons will best be served in the long term by a Brexit vote now. Ah well, we’ll soon see how the cards lie…

          • Our local yellow press is running a front page picture of English upper class people burying their heads in their hands. And complaining about our stock market.
            And probably expecting someone to shed a tear – but who exactly?

          • “And probably expecting someone to shed a tear – but who exactly?”

            Well, quite – looks like we’re about to find out what it’s like being an insignificant little country in a big, bad world run by WTO rules. I predict some heads in hands among the Brexiters imminently.

  3. Detroit, Michigan is an interesting modern case of post-industrial decline; its population dropped from 1.8 million to about 700,000 in a couple of decades. A lot of effort goes into clearing away abandoned housing. Some of that land is returning to small scale farms. I haven’t found a good account of where all the former residents went.

  4. Ha, excellent – you’ve read my statement the other way round 🙂
    I still applaud the decision. Stating that one needs the EU because one can’t rely on one’s parliament (i.e. populus) to make adequate decisions in tough times is unbecoming of a British citizen.
    Those times are here anyway, and a City banker’s head in his hands to me is merely an image of a child who’s lost a toy, not of an adult concerned for the future of someone other than himself.

    Re WTO – that’s the last frontier, right?
    Shouldn’t someone start gnawing away at its duty-free-tax-free bones?

    • “Stating that one needs the EU because one can’t rely on one’s parliament (i.e. populus) to make adequate decisions in tough times is unbecoming of a British citizen.”

      Just to be clear – I don’t think that’s something I’ve said, if that’s your implication. What I’m saying is that you make your bed and lie in it. Though I’m not sure I accept the notion that anything in particular becomes a British citizen. And our parliament is scarcely a populus – but more on that in due course.

      Yes, someone should certainly start gnawing at the WTO’s bones – but I think the mistake a lot of anti-neoliberal, pro-Brexit folk are making is that Brexit somehow makes this more likely.

      Still, every cloud has a silver lining, and I do agree with you that there’s a certain grim satisfaction to be had from witnessing the horror of the business class.

  5. Please excuse my babbling; it is of course nothing that you said.
    Maybe it’s what’s left at this particular moment in time.
    There are a lot of voices on the far right attempting to hijack this moment, and I think ignoring the national pride that forced this result can only be dismissed at our peril.
    There are a lot of countries with a history of less established democratic institutions, less history of labour struggle than yours.
    I’ve always thought highly of the British in situations like the one unfolding – being forced to stare down an abyss, and taking it from there.
    Yes, the housing bubble shrapnel will be flying, but we knew that would happen.
    I’m not even sure whether Brexit is more than a free crash course a la Martenson, while the longer the rest of the industrialised world waits, the more expensive that course becomes.

  6. After learning of the result I’ve been wanting to find some way to offer condolences… or perhaps some silver lining salve. But the more I turn it over in my head the fewer bright things I find worth offering. A situation we would have referred to as a ‘tough row to hoe’ back in my youth.

    I had thought I would mention that on our side of the pond we have just recently lost a great agrarian in Gene Logsdon. And not that we are seeking applicants to replace him – your qualifications would certainly place you on the short list if we did. We also have a few nice hiking trails in the Blue Ridge mountains, Appalachians, Adirondacks, and if you’re willing to travel, I hear the Rockies are kinda steep. We do attempt a certain brand of English, but we drive on the right side of the road. But before I offer to search out a spot of ground you might like I will have to acknowledge that we have a head scratcher of an election in front of us in a few months too. No sense jumping from a frying pan into a fire.

    Perhaps the thing to do is stay put and think of funny things to say about the potential next PM. Boris is a great name, and I’m sure it will get knocked around a bit. After all, it was the Who was it not who had a song about Boris… Boris the Spider.

  7. A very interesting post, very thought-provoking. Accordingly, a few thoughts…

    In the spirit of evidence-light hypothesising, I imagine that the foreign-born people in London are just the more exotic element in a larger set of people who migrate in and out of the city – I count myself amongst their number, having settled there for a few years before moving on. You mention London’s lack of resilience, and I wonder if precarity is a useful way of thinking about town and city life more generally.

    Historically urban settlements were those that didn’t feed themselves. The inflow of food and other resources, together with urban markets, supported specialisation of productive activity, and as we know, ecologically speaking, specialists are more precarious and more vulnerable to change.

    Nowhere in this country really feeds itself now, not directly, but towns and cities are still the centres of specialisation, London being by far the most extreme example, hosting all sorts of specialist activities. Neoliberal labour market flexibility encourages this kind of urban precarity.

    An interesting observation on the referendum result was that those places with more experience of foreign-born immigration were less likely to vote leave. Migrants of all kinds are attracted to jobs, as you point out, and I wonder if the common experience of a more vibrant job market in places like London and Leeds, and the precarity that goes with it, encourages tolerance and acceptance. In contrast, places like Stoke, where the dominant pottery specialism has collapsed, are more vulnerable to less tolerant views of migrants, despite having less experience of them, because they symbolise that precarious lifestyle that the depressed city can’t support.

    In any case, towns should remain important as centres of resource collection and skill diversification, but trying to envision more resilient, less precarious towns and cities would, I think, require a different kind of urbanism, in which the inhabitants were not so dependent on filling specialist niches. Perhaps each inhabitant would need to be involved in several different productive activities, perhaps as a stakeholder in several cooperative-style enterprises: a more resilient interconnected urban ecosystem.There would be less turnover of population, less ‘vibrancy’ in modern terms, but also less need to fear the migrant, because towns would no longer be dependent on the creation of precarious job opportunities. This would only be possible if towns were more integrated with their hinterlands, as you suggest.

    • What you’re describing is of course a state whose elites are using immigration as a convenient means to keep labour costs low, all the while calling the influx of people displaced by the externalities of their previous economic and political decisions “enriching” and “vibrant”.
      And enriching it is.

  8. Thanks for the comments above. Andrew, good points about precarity and the need for more urban resilience. Having just voted to increase our precarity, could a positive longer-term outcome be a reconfiguration of urbanism towards that kind of resilience? No evidence that it’s even remotely on the agenda of the Brexiteers, but you never know…

    Interesting thoughts on British political culture, Michael. Maybe a bit like Runciman’s thinking on democracy in ‘The Confidence Trap’. I hope you’re right – by God, we’re going to need it.

    And thanks for your kind offer Clem. But I might just wait until after your election to see which of the two ships is sinking slowest. Ludicrously, there’s been talk of the UK joining NAFTA – in which case you might find me picking beans on a farm near you some time soon. British conservatives seem to like importing all of the USA’s worst ideas, and none of its best ones, so it’s tempting to cut out the middleman and relocate to your country. All I need is a sponsor…

    John – good article, that. You do get the sense that Bodge is beginning to wake up to what he’s done, and will be having some sleepless nights. He’s had a gaffe-strewn political career, but this one takes it to new levels…

  9. Thanks for the reply Chris. It’s all about the possibility of positive longer term outcomes now – got to stay hopeful somehow! I’m a little uncomfortable about hoping for right-wing chaos to prompt a change of direction, but needs must I suppose…

    Yes, I think working towards urban resilience would be very useful – something Transition Towns is of course already grappling with. But your critique of ‘vibrancy’ really got me thinking – a resilient town more connected to its hinterlands would not be vibrant in the sense often used positively of places like London, which, as I tried to suggest earlier, goes with the rapid turnover of population in readily available but precarious jobs. There needs to be an alteration in urban culture, a new sense of its worth, based on an appreciation of more stable skeins of interconnected activity, though still making room for the contribution of migrants, whether intra- or international. Maybe Michael’s concept of ‘enrichment’ gets at this, to be promoted over modernist ‘vibrancy’. All very much in the realm of ideas, of course – how does this all work out in practice?

  10. In light of recent events Simon Fairlies proposals in Meat for the future of agriculture seem very prescient

  11. Excellent post as usual. I think it’s worth emphasizing your observation about economic imperialism/SAPs giving “peasants and rural poor people few other options” besides urban migration; i.e. how much of urbanization is basically forced. This is starkly so in the Indian case, where land dispossession for industrial development is rampant. According to Ashish Kothari and Aseem Shrivastava (authors of a great book called Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India):
    “The number of physically displaced and project-affected people, as a consequence of ‘development’ projects in India, is estimated to be about 60 million
    since 1947. According to the Planning Commission, in an assessment of about 21 million of these displaced persons, over 40% are adivasis (tribal), even though adivasis constitute only 8% of India’s total population.”
    “There were 49,000 slums in Indian cities, according to NSS surveys done during 2008-09. A 2003 UN study shows that over half of India’s urban population lives in slums (including resettlement colonies).”
    (from a summary of their book here:

    More gruesome details on this process can be found in:
    Walker, K. (2009) ‘Neoliberalism on the Ground in Rural India: Predatory Growth, Agrarian Crisis, Internal Colonization, and the Intensification of Class Struggle’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 35(4), 557-620.

    As for China, official planning policy is apparently to move hundreds of millions of rural Chinese into urban areas over the next few decades.The goal is to fully integrate 70 percent of the country’s population, or roughly 900 million people, into city living by 2025, according to this:
    “China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities”, The New York Times (;
    “Pitfalls Abound in China’s Push From Farm to City”, The New York Times (

    As Mike Davis points out in his important book Planet of Slums, about 1 billion people now live in slums worldwide, and that number is expected to double by 2030.

    It seems then that not only isn’t urbanization a “solid route out of poverty for many”, but a certain route into it, or at least, a consequence of coerced poverty in the countryside.

  12. Sorry, one more. Can’t help also subscribing to your suspicion that “there may be a historical fallacy here: because urbanisation was associated with economic growth in various historic and contemporary cases (Europe, USA and, perhaps more problematically, China), it’s assumed that urbanisation is a necessary and sufficient condition for development.”

    I am reminded of something John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark wrote in their article ‘The Planetary Emergency’ (

    “The notion that the areas of the global South, including China and India, can easily incorporate the billions of people now engaged in small-scale agriculture into the overcrowded urban centers of the third world is the product of a development ideology according to which the rich countries of Western Europe are said to have rapidly absorbed their own rural populations within their emerging, industrialized cities. In reality there were huge waves of emigration of Europeans to the colonies taking the pressure off the cities…. Such an industrialization-urbanization pattern, relying on mass emigration, is clearly not feasible in today’s global South, which does not have the outlet of mass emigration on the scale now needed…. Nor does it have the favorable economic conditions—expansion into a whole “new” continent … under which the United States emerged as a world industrial power. What is happening instead in many countries is the huge growth of urban slums as people migrate from the countryside into cities that contain insufficient employment opportunities.”


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