The Financial Times
Published: December 29 2007

In came two mastiffs, and the mice had to scamper down and run off. “Good-bye, Cousin,” said the Country Mouse. “Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear.”

The 1970s was the decade of the country mouse. Population and industry fled urban areas for the suburbs and the country. New York City’s economy collapsed and everyone said cities were finished. But they didn’t die.

Instead, they mutated like cartoon superheroes into jargon-generating beasts: “mega-cities”, “mongrel” cities, “global” cities, “post-industrial” cities, “nodal” and “fractal” cities, “city-regions” and “post-metropoli”. Even the United Nations has had trouble keeping up. Faced with 228 countries defining “urban” by as many administrative, population and infrastructure criteria, it settled on “urban agglomeration”.

Today the world’s urban population is greater than its rural one, which – statistically speaking – must mean that most of us have chosen to be city mice. But our home towns are no longer what planners call the “traditional” or “medieval” city – the clump of spires and towers where that mouse fable took place, neatly separated from the surrounding countryside and from the trim suburbs of television and film.

Like the economic and communications networks that now dominate our lives, our new cities are now polycentric and “multi-nodal” or “fractal” – bunches of units with patterns repeated on every scale. (Think of florets on the head of a cauliflower.) They look more like land-eating Los Angeles than hemmed-in Hong Kong, with blended centres and peripheries and ragged boundaries between the natural world and built space. Any economic or moral divide between the “urban” commercial, political and social institutions and the “suburban” or “rural” residential world has disappeared and the resulting scatter of areas for living, work and pleasure creates complex and unpredictable traffic patterns.

German architect Thomas Sieverts, author of the book Cities without Cities, describes these places as “completely different urban environments [that are] diffuse and disorganised with individual islands of geometrically structured patterns”. They have “a structure without a clear centre but with … many more or less sharply functionally specialised areas, networks and nodes.”

Aided by the efficient compound-word feature of his native language, Sieverts invented another term to delight demographers and planners: zwischenstadt. Translating as “between-city” or “the city between”, it describes areas outside traditional urban centres but not dependent upon them as “suburbs”, “edge cities” and “sprawl” are.

Not surprisingly, residents of these areas are blissfully ignorant of the trends and terms swirling about. Ask someone from Lebanon, New Hampshire; North Lantau New Town, Hong Kong; or Padua, Italy, if they live in a city and most would probably say no. Yet, as parts of a “micropolis”, “aerotropolis” and “city-region” respectively, their home towns count as urban.

Lebanon, along with four other picture-postcard New England towns in the US east coast’s Upper Connecticut River Valley – Hanover and Enfield, New Hampshire, and Norwich and Hartford, Vermont – make up what the US Office of Management and Budget calls a “micropolitan statistical area”. With populations of between 10,000 and 49,999 and a centre – Hanover here – of at least 10,000 inhabitants, the towns are socially and economically integrated. Decisions and policies made in one might affect all the others. Residents of Norwich and Lebanon work in Hanover’s Dartmouth College and hospital and everyone shops in Lebanon’s strip malls. In essence, the five towns operate like an exploded traditional city, which residents move across in a variety of ways.

Since 2000, when the US Census Department added “micropolitan” to its “rural” and “metropolitan” descriptive categories, 565 such areas have been identified, including Bozeman, Montana, and Natchez, Mississippi. The country’s east coast has the most and the biggest – Torrington, Connecticut.

Another of today’s newly classified urban areas is the aerotropolis, a term John D. Kasarda of the University of North Carolina coined to describe the city-like commercial activity and housing that settles around airports. US examples can be found in Aurora County, Colorado – anchored by Denver International Airport – and Fairfax County, Virginia – with Dulles International Airport – both of which are among the fastest-growing regions in the country. Also notable is Cook County, Illinois, with Chicago’s O’Hare.

Aerotropoli are created when the communities surrounding an airport fuse economically and socially, if not administratively, changing the original dependent or satellite relationship with the big city served by the facility. So in the Chicago area, while residents of the northern suburbs still gravitate to its attractions for work and entertainment, those living around O’Hare, in places such as the former Hoffman Estates subdivision, commute to their own business parks, shop in their own malls, organise their own police forces and take college courses at their own branches of Illinois’ state university.

But the aerotropolis’s fullest expression will certainly be in Asia. The islands and reclaimed land that are home to Hong Kong International Airport, for example, now also contain North Lantau New Town, an “airport support community” that will eventually have apartments, houses and services for 330,000 people, in addition to obvious traveller-oriented hotels and shops. And outside Bangkok, Thailand’s National Economic and Social Development Board is planning a similar but even bigger airport “city”, which will cover 10,121 hectares and is expected to attract up to 1m inhabitants over two decades.

Though Europe has areas that could be classified as micropoli and aerotropoli, it has a different term for the new-style urban agglomeration: city-region. The Metrex Network of European Metropolitan Regions and Areas counts 120 such areas across the continent and says that between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of Europeans live in them. Examples include the Ruhr in Germany (linking Cologne, Düsseldorf and Essen); the UK’s Tees Valley (Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees and Redcar and Cleveland); Italy’s Veneto (Venice, Treviso and Padua); and Lac Leman in Switzerland (Geneva and Lausanne). The latter country takes its polycentrism seriously; between 1970 and 2000 the average number of municipalities in Swiss “urban” areas increased from 11.4 to 19.5 and the majority of its population now lives in them.

Meanwhile, in Italy, local activists are pushing for official recognition of and coherent planning for the Veneto city-region. Most important is improving direct transport links between its three cities since the nearby section of the Milan-Venice-Trieste autostrada is now paralysed not only by the long-distance traffic for which it was intended but also by locals commuting to the famed, small industries scattered through the region, weekenders queuing for access to beaches on the Venetian lagoon and shoppers on their way to the area’s new hypermarkets and multi-plexes.

Just as urban agglomerations everywhere share shapes and structures, they also share problems. More often than not they straddle municipal, regional and even international borders. This makes traffic and transport unusually difficult to manage and taxes inadequate infrastructure. O’Hare’s aerotropolis is, for example, in two counties and has the airport authority weighing in, while three nations and at least nine different government entities operate in the city-region around Basel, Switzerland. Multiple jurisdictions mean duplicated services and uneven finances. Problems afflicting one jurisdiction might originate in another that has neither the interest nor will to solve them. Polycentric cities also offer a new twist on social segregation. Instead of a “bad” or “poor” neighbourhood, a micropolis or city-region might have a “bad” or “poor” town, with lower property values and worse schools.

“City” and “civilization” are so closely connected that their forms and challenges have attracted programmatic thinkers from Le Corbusier to Prince Charles, many of whom want to impose the environment they believe will do us good from the top down. But the urban areas where we live today have grown from the bottom up, following neither ideological nor stylistic planning. As Sieverts says: “An existing road attracts a factory, which needs workers, who settle and need schools and shops, creating employment, institutions and ‘social richness’.” The result “give[s] an unplanned impression but it has arisen out of innumerable and – considered on their own – rational decisions.”

As a result, it would seem that we no longer have to make that big decision – whether to be suburban or urban, country mice or city mice. In these micropoli, aerotropoli, city-regions and zwischenstadt, we can have it both ways and eat our cakes and ale in peace.

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