When a City Becomes a State

Transforming relationship between cities and their nation as world’s growing population settles in urban centres

By: Fatima Syed, Staff Writer

Greater Shanghai has a population surpassing 20 million; Mexico City and Mumbai are home to approximately another 20 million each. These cities have become bigger than entire nations in the world and are continuing to grow at an astonishingly rapid rate. Functioning as the key economic centres of the world, and involved in serious national and international political debates, the rise of these cities is forcing a change, or the very least a question, in their relationship with the countries they are in.

Most great cities in the world today function separately from their nation-state in terms of economics; the main streams of international investment now occur between big cities rather than big nations: London to New York, New York to Tokyo, Tokyo to Singapore.


The root of this power is, of course, the expansion of infrastructure. Size matters in geography and great cities across the world have recognised this. They campaign for increasing shares of the national budget to build and develop a solid transport and housing structure to cater for a booming urban population.

In this, the city landscapes of today are reminiscent of the European tradition of city states like Rome, Athens, Sparta, and Babylon, which were centres of power, culture and trade.

Back then, the rise of cities forced the rise of agriculture and innovation. City centres became the root of prosperity and happy dwelling as more and more people were attracted towards them.

In the 18th century, 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. In the 19th century this increased to 14%. By 2007 this figure rose to 50% and is estimated to become 80% by 2050.

This rise of population naturally meant cities had to grow bigger and work better.

Today, the top 25 cities in the world account for more than half of the world’s wealth. The five largest cities in India and China now account for 50% of those countries’ wealth. Nagoya-Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe in Japan is expected to have a population of 60 million by 2015 and will be the effective powerhouse of Japan while a similar effect on an even larger scale is occurring in fast-growing urban areas such as that between Mumbai and Delhi.

In a Foreign Affairs article “The Next Big Thing: Neomedievalism,” Parag Khanna, Director of the Global Governance Initiative at the New America Foundation, argues that this sentiment needs to come back. “Today just 40 city-regions account for two-thirds of the world economy and 90 percent of its innovation,” he notes, adding that “The mighty Hanseatic constellation of well-armed North and Baltic Sea trading hubs in the late Middle Ages, will be reborn as cities such as Hamburg and Dubai form commercial alliances and operate “free zones” across Africa like the ones Dubai Ports World is building. Add in sovereign wealth funds and private military contractors, and you have the agile geopolitical units of a neomedieval world.”

In this respect, cities have remained the most pertinent governmental structure on earth and the most well-inhabited: Syria’s capital-city Damascus has been continuously occupied since 6300 BCE. Because of this consistency, growth, and the recent destabilisation and diminished effectiveness of federal governments after the global economic collapse, the focus on cities has increased even more. How to protect their burgeoning population and all the economics and politics that it requires, becomes a serious problem to resolve.

The argument stands that if national policies – a set of practices implemented for the betterment of the entire nation rather than a specific aspect of it – becomes a road-block for growing urban centres such as Toronto and Mumbai, then shouldn’t the same cities be allowed their independence?

  • Steve

    Good analysis there. It shows the significance of theory of devolution of power and control. I vouch for it, which will result in increasing number of independent cities. A decade down or two, we shall see an article titled ‘When a city becomes a country’

  • Areeba

    very interesting observations and a thoughtful read! :)

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