Complex cities researchers suggest a set of topics for Complex cities graduations. These topics do not fully determine the scope of graduations; they just serve as initial guidelines for the definition of more dedicated proposals. A detailed description of topics can be found on the pages Inclusive cities in the Global South, Imagining (European) cities and Transforming Chinese cities.
The selection of topics was inspired by, among others, the knowledge that researchers at the section Spatial Planning & Strategy and the OTB Research Institute have about driving forces and conditions that shape urbanization in particular parts of the world, notably (1) the Global South/developing countries, (2) European regions/developed countries and (3) China. Below important forces and conditions are listed, to distinguish parts of the world and topics, for your inspiration. We note that boundaries between parts are soft and shifting over time; that there are countries that show a mix of characteristics as they develop and that there are exceptions: countries that fall within a part geographically but do not follow the development patterns of their peers at all. We also note that many Complex cities graduations take a comparative research perspective which requires an in-depth understanding of varieties, possibly across these parts of the world.

Driving forces and conditions that shape urbanization in the Global South

  1. PACE OF GROWTH: Uncoordinated rural to urban migration means cities are growing very fast. (Example: Addis Ababa)
  2. SCALE OF CHANGE: Countries are urbanising quickly, but many are still predominantly rural (e.g. 70% India, 80% Ethiopia). There is much room for urbanisation in the 21st The exception is Latin America, where urbanisation rates are already higher than 80%. In this region, the issue is the quality of the urbanisation that happened after WWII. (Sao Paulo, Bogota)
  3. WEAK INSTITUTIONAL ENVIRONMENTS: institutions in the Global South are generally weak in terms of capacity and power of implementation. Democracy is either young or defective (Nairobi). This applies to planning systems as well: while some countries may be technically equipped to produce good spatial plans, implementation is problematic.
  4. UNBALANCED GOVERNANCE ARRANGEMENTS and WEAK RULE OF LAW: (this is a bit different from institutional environments, but of course intimately related): While in Western Europe there are checks and balances for the actions of public sector, private sector and civil society, in the Global South these checks and balances are weak and there is a dominance of either private sector over city development (Latin America, South-East Asia) or public sector (China, some countries in Africa), with little opportunities for civil society to influence the process.
  5. RIGHTS DEFICIT: because of weak institutional capacity and defective democracies, there is a deficit of rights for citizens, especially the most vulnerable ones.
  6. ECONOMIC INEQUALITY (INEQUALITY OF ACCESS): cities in the Global South are characterised by abysmal income discrepancies, which has an impact on the built environment and in the access to services a d public goods (sanitation, mobility, education, health, green environments).
  7. SERIOUS ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARDS: thanks to all of the above, environmental hazards are simultaneously more frequent and more harmful, as many disadvantaged groups are unable to face them. Water quality, sanitation, air pollution, protection to green areas are all issues.
  8. STRONG PRESENCE OF INFORMAL URBANISATION PROCESSES: thanks to all of the above, there is a strong presence of self-help and illegal urbanisation processes, resulting in highly unsustainable urban environments and places where there is lack of access to basic services.
  9. STRONG ROLE OF INFORMAL INSTITUTIONS (OSTROM): corruption, paternalism, clientelism, and other “informal or illegal ways of doing things” play a bigger role in how cities develop.

Driving forces and conditions that shape urbanization in European regions/developed countries

  1. PACE OF GROWTH: Most countries are highly urbanized (> 70%); generally there is a relatively slow pace of urbanisation; large portions of (European) regions are affected by the aftermath of de-industrialisation, resulting in demographic change (aging) and outward migration. Few metropolitan areas – mainly capital cities – undergo rapid growth through processes of national and international (expats) migration, resulting in gentrification of specifically inner-city areas and social segregation across regions.
  2. SOCIAL MODEL: Although there are varieties, governments share similar values, notably democracy, individual rights, free collective bargaining, the market economy, the equality of opportunity for all, social welfare and solidarity.  They employ similar aims as there are reducing poverty and social exclusion, achieving a fairer distribution of income, providing social insurance and promoting equality of opportunity.
  3. DEMOCRATIC DECISION-MAKING: Political systems built up upon traditions in democratic decision-making, guaranteed by highly regulated (accountable) decision-making procedures (‘checks and balances’); resulting in a high degree of sensitivity of the public towards decisions and a high degree of participation in the political process; political decision-making often involves processes of bargaining.
  4. POLITICAL POLARISATION AND FRAGMENTATION: In recent years, national elections have shown tendencies of political polarisation and fragmentation, reflected in e.g. a stronger role of political parties at the far end of the left/right wing political spectrum, the rise of populist parties, the rise of new issue-oriented parties and a rising call for and engagement with direct democracy.
  5. INTERNATIONALISATION: Strongly involved in trans-national partnerships and supra-national governance arrangements (e.g. the European Union), resulting in, amongst others, intense policy transfer and the assimilation of policies across countries.
  6. GLOBALISATION: Strongly involved in global economic networks; often employing principles of the free market, market liberalism and neo-liberalism; some cities – especially those with historic cores – are under pressure of intense international and global tourism.
  7. COMPLEX INSTITUTIONAL SETTINGS: Multiple layers of government, intricately interwoven; a tendency towards fragmented (territorial) governance settings and forms of meta-governance; search for effective and legitimate forms of city-regional governance.
  8. SPATIAL PLANNING: Mature spatial planning systems, involving an intricate (often difficult to oversee)mix of statutory and non-statutory planning measures; there is an acknowledgement of a need for spatial planning although governance capacity is a challenge at regional levels.

Driving forces and conditions that shape urbanization in China

  1. PACE OF GROWTH: The pace of urban development in China is rapid and is also leading to loss of old city districts, their architecture, their urban character, and, more importantly, their way of life.
  2. SCALE OF GROWTH: The scale of growth is also massive. Between 1978 and 2008 China’s urbanization rose from 18 to 45%; 357 million farmers moved to cities or transformed their villages into towns; and the number of cities rose from 193 to 655.
  3. SOCIAL ISSUES: For those who can afford it, property has become an important way of sustaining them in their old age. In the meantime, many people have become ‘property-slaves’, forced to keep up heavy mortgage payments at the expense of other things.
  4. WEAK INSTITUTIONAL ENVIRONMENT: Institutions in China are weak in the face of a one-party government system, and also in the face of rampant redevelopment by property developers (who often have strong ties to the government).
  5. DEMOCRACY: Ironically, it is the privately-owned developments, particularly gated estates, that are beginning to see a grass-roots form of democracy in China. Usually triggered by a problem (or ‘trigger issue’) in the gated estate, could this develop into a more democratic decision-making processes in China in the future?
  6. RIGHTS TO THE CITY: China operates a hukou (household registration) system. The Chinese authorities have traditionally effected control of cities and citizens through registration (whereas the West does this through legislation, e.g. building regulations). The hukou is having an effect on the lives of rural immigrants to cities, who can sometimes find themselves discriminated against.
  7. ECONOMIC INEQUALITY: Many people in China simply cannot afford to get onto the property ladder. This is becoming an important issue in China’s cities.
  8. WOMEN’S RIGHTS: The Chinese Community Party made huge strides in ensuring the equality of men and women. However, with increasing numbers of female migrants, how are they coping in situations where there is little incentive to improve dismal temporary housing conditions, or when confronted with bad working conditions?
  9. THE ENVIRONMENT: China’s rapid industrialization has brought massive environmental challenges. The impact of urban household carbon emissions and industrial waste is taking its toll. Strategies are beginning to be introduced for ‘greening’ the city by evaluating the relationship between urban-planning principles and household carbon emissions, and by seeking to emulate developed countries who have already overcome their ‘environmental mountain’.

Information on urbanization processes is partially derived from UN 2014 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects.
Figures below: Percentage urban and urban agglomerations by size class in 2014 and 2013.

2014_City_Urban_high (1)



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