Metropolis - City Life in the Urban Age


On 23 May, 2007, the world was able to celebrate the beginning of the urban millennium. On that date, for the first time in history more of the world's population lived in a city than in a rural area: 3.3 billion people, on just three percent of the earth's surface. Metropolis – City Life in the Urban Age is the second part of a diptych which examines the consequence of this development, first for the countryside, and now for the city.

Urbanisation is nothing new, but never before has population growth in urban areas been as rapid as it has been in recent decades. It is a trend which, according to United Nations' demographers, will continue through the middle of this century. More than ever before the city has become the place where the culture and morality of mankind is being shaped – notions about life which, thanks to digitisation and globalisation, are being exported far beyond the cities themselves.

The modern city is also remarkable for its split personality. On one hand its growth is turbulent and aimless, on the other, cities are planned down to the tiniest detail. Ethnic groups and their cultures come together in cities, where they enrich one another's experience – and live in constant tension. In fast-growing economies the city has a magnetic attraction for people from rural areas, where they – successfully or not – seek a better life, while the West has seen what has been termed 'white flight' in the direction of suburbs spreading into the countryside. Cities are places that offer opportunities and take them away, that are a burden to the environment and relieve that pressure, where you are constantly under the eye of surveillance cameras, but at the same time can be totally anonymous.

The common denominator is the dynamism, vitality and cacophony of the big city. Whether in the slums or in a luxury condo complex , everyone is trying to exploit every square inch to create a home and a future for themselves there.


Historians tell us that the first serious urbanisation took place in Mesopotamia. Two thousand years before the time of Christ, the Sumerian city of Ur was the largest in the world, with about 65,000 inhabitants; at the beginning of the Christian era ancient Rome had around 650,000, and in the eighth century Baghdad was the first to pass the milestone of over a million residents. Militarily, cities were easier to defend than the countryside, but had the added advantage of being centres of commerce and administration. With advances in agricultural methods farmers could produce larger surpluses, creating the conditions for barter and trade, divisions of labour and specialisation – all stimuli to further urbanisation. Improved transportation, in the form of caravans and new sorts of ships, created flourishing centres of trade. In turn, urbanisation had a favourable effect on the quality and quantity of production. It brought resources and ideas together, so they could feed one another's growth.

Nevertheless, until the 19th century only a small proportion of the world's population lived in cities. Modern, large-scale urbanisation only arose with the Industrial Revolution. That required large masses of factory workers, and they were available because this same revolution was making agriculture less labour-intensive. In 1900 about 40% of Americans lived in cities; in 1990 all of 80%. Europe was not far behind. Asia, Latin America and Africa are now undergoing a similar, but even more feverish process of urbanisation. While in the West suburbanisation – the trek to the quieter and safer edges of the city – has already made its appearance, more than 90% of the urbanisation in the coming decades will take place in developing countries.

Good or bad?

The speed of urbanisation in the non-Western world is accompanied with growing pains. Asia and Africa will already have reached the point of having half or more of their population living in cities in 2023 and 2030, respectively – a rate that will make it difficult to absorb the new urbanites. That will help put the brakes on urbanisation, the French economist Philippe Bocquier predicts. Particularly in Africa urbanisation is sparked more by problems than opportunities. A considerable portion of the growth there consists of people fleeing from war, hunger, plague and drought, but chiefly from the limited possibilities rural areas offer to raise their standard of living above the minimum needed to survive. They end up in cities, where there is too little work or accommodation. De facto, therefore, what is happening is merely shifting the problems around.

Most mega-cities in developing countries have to face the problems of slums, violence, inadequate hygiene and a lawless underclass. The gap between the rich and poor is much more emphatically present than it is in rural areas. Immigrants may well have traded one situation without any prospects for another, but now they are without the safety net of traditional social bonds. Moreover, not everyone is cut out for functioning in the maelstrom of the city. For every one who thrives, another will go under. That is the fate which can overcome the inhabitant of any world-class city: to be reduced to being a nameless cog in an inhuman machine. This utilitarian approach to individuals certainly takes on its most poignant form in the recently built, interchangeable Chinese industrial cities, filled with their hundreds of thousands of nameless and faceless factory workers.

Should we be pessimistic then about urbanisation? It is important to keep in mind that no country whatsoever has ever made serious progress in economic, political and social development without urbanisation. Cities increase the access to education and health care, diminish the distance from the political process, cut the birthrate, decrease infant mortality, open the way to a wider range of careers, and shorten the digital and physical lines to the rest of the world. The importance of cities is demonstrated by the fact that almost half of the Gross National Product of Hungary and South Korea is generated by Budapest and Seoul, respectively. In concrete terms, that translates into prosperity and human well-being. Do the problems of the metropolis then outweigh the added value of the combined strengths?

Urbanisation is a particular cause for concern when the economic and social infrastructure is fragile or perverted, and administrators fail in their responsibilities because of disinterest, corruption, lack of knowledge or the crumbling of institutions. The situation in which many new urbanites find themselves is often not a consequence of urbanisation per se, but of a social attitude that places the interests of the state and the collective above those of the individual. Certainly in China agricultural labourers have also suffered deeply as a result of such ideas. But the division of the population into large land owners and landless farmers in South America has equally translated into compounds where the rich can live securely and favelas overflowing with a propertyless class.

Urbanisation is actually most damaging in its effects on rural areas, which are reduced a being suppliers and refuse tips. Rural flight is essentially a self-enhancing mechanism. Because it becomes more difficult to maintain services and facilities – if there were any there in the first place – as the population declines, still more people are induced to leave. Shrinkage stimulates further shrinkage.

At first sight, that looks like a bad thing for the environment – isn't the countryside cleaner than the city? The reality is more nuanced than that. In the Western world the ecological impact of a country-dweller is greater than that of a city-dweller, who, on the average, uses an automobile less often, lives more compactly, and shares facilities. In the third world urbanisation is accompanied by industrialisation and its pollution, but also by the reduction of the extremely damaging slash-and-burn techniques of the small farmers. Then again, cities are 'heat-islands', encourage deforestation and complicate the run-off of rainwater and its absorption into the soil, making flooding more frequent. Clear-cutting of primaeval forests for the production of soya and biofuels is largely caused by demand from the city. It is man who pollutes, and when the lion's share of mankind lives in cities, cities will contribute the most to pollution.

The United Nations Population Fund has spoken out in no uncertain terms against the notion that urbanisation is intrinsically a bad thing. Urbanisation is irreversible, and potentially a positive force, as long as governments and planners do not allow themselves to be overtaken by events. On the contrary, according the the Population funds, they should embrace the growth of cities, by preparing for it with new infrastructure and by working on urban applications for green technology.

The future of the city

Expectations are that in 2030 sixty percent of the world's population will live in cities. By mid-century that will even be seventy percent. But what will these cities look like?

The world already has nine mega-cities with more than 20 million residents: Tokyo, Guangzhou, Seoul, Delhi, Mumbai, Mexico City, New York, Sao Paulo and Manilla. Yet at present the greatest growth is taking place in cities with with up to a half a million residents. While the possibilities for expansion are nearly exhausted at the top, the number of medium-sized cities will grow explosively.

It is important to note that the digital revolution and globalisation have changed the role of the city. To an increasing extent the city is more than a physical place. It is a mentality, an exporter of cultural values, a cloud that envelopes the world. Strangely enough, we see two opposite movements: urban dwellers live more as individuals, and can shape their social lives around their own (sometimes idiosyncratic) interests. The common denominators fall away; the group atomises. At the same time, thanks to the internet and international trade, on the meta-level the city acts as a cultural equaliser. Cities around the world will begin to look increasingly alike, even as subcultures increasingly look less like each other.

The biggest change will be in the nature of the city. The German photographer Michael Najjar anticipates this with his liquid architecture, consisting of flexible forms that are constantly in motion. The boundary between architecture and cyberspace will blur, and the virtual domain become an extension of the city. This interweaving of the tangible and the intangible, of the local and the universal, leads to a hybrid world for hybrid people. These ideas are currently already taking shape in a number of what are called 'smart cities' in India, Malaysia, the Middle East and South Korea. These are cities that are chiefly oriented to communications technology and the knowledge and service economy which accompanies it. Those who can flourish in the hybrid world will, and for those who are left behind there awaits the disorientation of an incomprehensible Umwelt.

The question is whether this new media will ultimately make urbanisation less necessary. Will there be a counter-movement, back to the countryside? For now, there is little that would point to that. People continue to cluster together, even though distances are easier to bridge than they were in the past. The biggest question will not be whether urbanisation continues, but whether cities will remain or become manageable and liveable, socially, politically and especially as environments. Green technology and urban development focused on quality of life – including urban farming – will prove essential. Successes in those fields will in part determine if the city of the future will be a utopia or a dystopia.


The exhibition Metropolis – City Life in the Urban Age exposes the many faces of the modern Großstadt: from the squashed commuters in the Tokyo subway to the fire-prone slums of Dhaka, from the biggest buildings to the most intimate details of individual lives. In both form and content, Noorderlicht breaks new ground with this exhibition. The problems and possibilities of cities around the world are revealed in six chapters, each of which emphasises a specific element of urban living. In three of these chapters man is central, and the city is the backdrop. In the other three the city itself is the star, and man a detail. The appendix focuses on the question of how people can find their way in such a complex environment. One has one's own sense of this quest, the navigation, moving through the extensive series – becoming acquainted with the city, processing the impressions, the contemplation and investigating.

Photographers, like journalists, are inclined to focus on problems. That is logical: unless one becomes conscious of them, one will not easily face up to wrongs. Yet it is important to show that the city is more than its problems. Although, as befits Noorderlicht, all of these series have a social component, Metropolis is an interplay of various atmospheres, diverse points of view and new ways of looking. The exhibition and the catalogue are a reflection of the fragmentary nature of the modern city and modern life, without losing sight of the fact that the city must serve man, and not the city.

A city of images has been built from work that is sometimes purely documentary in character, and sometimes balances on the boundary of art and design. That city is created from the knowledge that urbanisation and its results is a process that concerns everyone, because the city is the place where the future for all of us is being made.