New cities and the rise of the corporate urban identity
5 December 2023
When we think of migration trends we tend to focus on those that feature most prominently in the news cycle: the human drift northward from countries in Africa towards Europe, or the forced migration as a result of conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. But that is to overlook the single biggest migration trend currently occurring worldwide, and that is the relentless move from the rural environment to the urban. According to the United Nations, another 2.5 billion people are expected to migrate towards the world’s cities over the next 30 years to the point where 68% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050. Drawn by the promise of higher paid employment, better infrastructure and opportunities for upward social mobility (in some cases breaking free of what can be more conservative norms in rural areas) the city presents an enduring appeal for the aspirational and desperate alike.
As a result, plans for entirely new urban areas are proliferating around the world with some estimates suggesting that more than 120 new cities are currently being built in over 40 countries. African and Middle Eastern nations feature highly in that list, although arguably for slightly different reasons: the former as they grapple with a rapidly urbanising population, and the latter as they try to build out infrastructure, diversify their economies and attract talent to their shores. Examples span the region – from Duqm in Oman and Kuwait’s Silk City to Kenya’s Tatu City and Enyimba Economic City in the south-east of Nigeria.
New vs. old The appeal of building brand new conurbations extends beyond the purely practical. Starting afresh somehow seems easier than improving and redeveloping what are often already overcrowded and polluted cities. In Egypt nearly ten years ago, the idea of making space for a new administrative capital within the city limits of a congested Cairo quickly gave way to the prospect of a new capital city 65km away where infrastructure, security and housing could be planned from a blank canvas. New cities also offer up the opportunity for a government and a nation to do something novel, even groundbreaking – to project to the outside world an image that it would like to have, and not least to attract people and companies to move there. Hence we are becoming used to seeing computer-generated visions of futuristic cityscapes used as marketing – nowhere more so than in publicity for the otherworldly planned city in Saudi Arabia known as ‘The Line’, part of the wider Neom project.
As these city projects emerge, we are seeing a trend towards the treatment of each development as corporate entities and brands in their own right. This goes far beyond the tried and tested ‘Real Estate Company Name + District / Hills / Meadows / other’ combination that feature in so many new gated developments; each new city now comes with unique selling points, brand values and a corporate identity worthy of a multinational conglomerate. Cities must of course have a purpose and the way this is being communicated is via the language and currency of corporate organisations – each with a target market, value proposition and ideal customer persona. One of the first to adopt this approach to building a new urban offering was Masdar City within the emirate of Abu Dhabi which offered the promise of a fully sustainable city community powered by renewable energy and clean technology – as much an experimental publicity exercise as a product designed to appeal to an environmentally conscious subset of UAE residents. New cities elsewhere have followed suit by targeting specific sectors or brand ideas; Konza Technopolis, 65km south of Nairobi, has been designed to cater specifically to Kenya’s ICT industry, while Silk City in Kuwait wears its Chinese investment and influence on its sleeve – Chinese will even be one of the city’s officially recognised languages.
New administrative capital
Enyimba Economic City
City Limited? But does this idea of building a city in the mould of a corporate organisation really work beyond the level of branding and marketing? Companies tend to operate according to a top-down approach where the board or executive leadership will dictate a strategy, whereas some of the oldest cities in the world have grown organically, sometimes haphazardly, in reaction to events either natural or man-made. Conventionally companies exist to maximise shareholder value, but successful cities have thrived by maximising value for its citizens, whether that comes in the form of economic value or quality of life or both. New city corporations might argue that its residents are also shareholders in their new communities, and that may be the case for those who invest for the longer term by purchasing property, but the risk is that residents feel more like customers who have a purely transactional relationship with the city.
I recently stumbled upon one definition of a successful city cited by Herbert Lottman, author of How Cities are Saved, as a place where people go “more often than is functionally strictly necessary”. It attracts people beyond the need of having somewhere to live, to work, and to visit shops. It has its own life beyond the purely transactional. Perhaps we should not hold these fledgling cities to the same standards as we are used to with established cities like London, Istanbul or Amman – they will need time to develop into self-sustaining communities in their own right. And perhaps there is no better way of conceiving a new city than to adopt the language and structures of the corporate world. But with the urbanisation trend only set to continue for the coming decades, it is a model that we will become more and more familiar with.
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