[iDC] Continent City

franck ancel franck.ancel at wanadoo.fr
Thu Sep 28 12:26:37 EDT 2006

Please find here an interesting article/view from last Domus 896 October 
2006 by Yona Friedman.

Nobody has ever “built” a city. Cities arise through a particular 
process of slow spontaneity that might take several generations. In the 
Middle East, Alexander the Great established about a thousand townships 
which he named Alexandria. Only one of the settlements became a 
metropolis. We do not make cities as they are; we accept them passively.

City and region
Region could be defined most easily as the “city extended”, the city 
with its hinterland. Or, referring to history, as the present equivalent 
to what in the past were called “city-states”. Speaking about 
sustainable development, urban or regional, we frequently have to refer 
to the city-state. It is a social entity first of all, consisting in 
groups that are complementary to each other: it is an economic entity 
wherein production, labour and consumption are balanced. This 
equilibrium of the city-state is self-regulated by, among other factors, 
free immigration and emigration. I believe that the city-state – a 
self-sufficient and self-contained social organisation – can be 
considered as the building block for sustainable development.

Cities are self-contained entities. A city-dweller leaves his city only 
on relatively rare occasions and for short periods. A city-dweller 
practically draws his entire livelihood – material or otherwise – from 
the “reservoir” that the city represents for him. From an economic point 
of view, activities in the city create added value: values of goods and 
services entering the city are less than those put on the market in and 
from the city. The urban population lives on the value difference thus 
created. Economic crisis in a city, involving unemployment, 
deterioration of services and quality of life, occur when the range of 
that difference decreases brutally. When that happens, an exodus starts 
from the city and continues until the necessary per capita value 
difference becomes positive again. There are two roads: the city’s value 
production can be increased or values entering the city can be 
decreased. In the first case the market for goods and services produced 
in the city must be extended. In the second one the city must be as 
self-sufficient as possible. Generally, the second kind of policy is 
easier to implement, particularly in poor countries. A great number of 
cities in the Third World are effectively self-sufficient. On the other 
hand, cities in industrial countries might be constrained to 
self-sufficiency in other fields than those of the developing world. 
They are characterised by what I call the “quaternary sector” – by 
“self-service”. Quaternary activities are those performed by people for 
themselves without being paid: housewives, for example.

The city and its hinterland
Cities throughout history have consisted of the city “intra muros” and 
of its resource area “extra muros”. These expressions express an 
important reality: a city without its region, without its hinterland, 
cannot continue to exist. But this concept of hinterland first began to 
change with the appearance of colonies in the Roman period. Colonies are 
hinterland situated at great distance from the city. After World War II 
this concept changed again: colonial empires became “de-colonised”. 
Cities developed a network of towns that were mutually each other’s 
hinterland. This is a trend towards a continent-city, a network of 
interconnected cities with near “nothingness” within the mesh of that 
net. The continent-city is not a megalopolis. In Los Angeles, for 
example, the built-up mesh of the network is quite continuous and the 
commuter doesn’t leave the city when going from one place to another. In 
the continent-city, instead, there are only “centres” – the nodes of the 
network – and relative emptiness around. Observation of existing trends 
gives us the hope that megalopolis development can be avoided. Indeed, 
we discover a new kind of settlement pattern: a close-knit rapid transit 
system linking existing large or medium-large urban centres which are 
surrounded by predominantly agrarian hinterland. Europe is an example of 
a continent-city: a result of a railway system more than a century old. 
It consists of about 150 cities with populations of 300,000 to 3 million 
inhabitants linked by an efficient transportation system.

The European Union: a “continent-city”
The present or future European Union is perhaps the largest 
continent-city in history. An important feature of this system comes 
from its containing not more than 3 megapoles (London, the Ruhr and 
Holland). The cities forming the nodes in the European network are 
relatively modest in size, rarely more than 3 million inhabitants. Their 
hinterlands are rather small and homogenous. Another particularity of 
the European continent-city stems from a reasonably large overall 
habitation density, which is lower than in certain parts of Asia and 
significantly higher than that of North America. As a result we find a 
relatively uniform urban tissue in the emerging continent-city. We could 
visualise the continent-city as a regional pattern enlarged to the 
continental scale. The character of the city is a consequence of how the 
urban nuclei are connected, not only as a material structure, but also – 
or even more – through the economic and social links between those 
nuclei. We could state that the urban nuclei of the continent-city 
mutually play the role of hinterland to each other. At the same time 
this physical network corresponds to a non-material network with the 
same structure. An inhabitant of a continent-city thus draws his 
livelihood not only from his own nucleus, but from all the nuclei 
together. Another feature is its facilitation of temporary migration. In 
Europe, for example, the northern rim of the Mediterranean Sea draws a 
guest population every summer of about 60 million people.

The carrying capacity of the continent-city “Europe”
One of the most important features of the continent-city is that it is 
essentially a cluster of what we could call “city-states”. This concept 
in itself is not new; in the past it referred to the sovereignty of a 
city, which also included its hinterland. But, both in the past as in 
the present, the fundamental richness produced in a city comes from the 
re-evaluation of the land it contains. For example, the global land 
value of New York City is a very high multiple of all the interior 
produce of the city’s economy. This example shows that the term 
“carrying capacity” of the city area is not interpreted in the sense 
that physiocrats lent to it, but rather as the privileged area where 
economic operations take place. The second main source is the “global 
knowledge” of its inhabitants. Cities have always been the homestead of 
people with a certain know-how, and this is still the case; only the 
content of the know-how has changed. The privileged status of the city 
area, as the scene of economic operations and the store of the know-how, 
was what produced the particular value of city land and what generated 
the characteristic land speculation. Land value in cities is continually 
increased by artificial means. The continent-city can also lead to a new 
kind of political entity – a structure that I would call the “loose-knit 
union”. The present European Union can be cited as an example of this 
kind of organisation.

Earth’s surface as a resource
Cities became what they are (at least partly) because the earth’s 
surface – an indispensable resource – is of limited size and, even 
worse, is not of homogenous quality. Let us consider what might be the 
per capita land area for mankind to survive in acceptable conditions. 
According to FAO’s data, about 600 square metres per capita would be 
sufficient for all a human’s needs, including food cultivation, water 
catchment, energy production, individual shelter, public space, traffic 
areas and land for industrial production. This means that a surface of 
600,000 square kilometres could comfortably sustain a population of 
1,000,000,000. Many cities today are beyond this density. The 
pessimistic forecast by international agencies for the world’s 
population is 10 billion people by the year 2050. According to this 
estimate, 6 million square kilometres would be sufficient to support 
this population, a surface area roughly corresponding to 60% of the area 
of Europe. Intelligent disposition of that area would therefore not only 
support the entire human population, but also leave a natural reserve of 
about 30% of the continent, leaving all the other continents empty. 
Obviously, these figures are cited only for comparison and to give an 
idea about how we waste our fundamental resource: the surface of good 
old Earth.

Yona Friedman
Born in 1923 in Budapest, where he studied architecture, he graduated 
from the University of Haifa in 1948. In 1957 he settled in Paris, 
founding the Groupe d’Etude d’Architecture Mobile and drawing up its 
manifesto L’Architecture mobile. Thereafter, he dedicated himself to 
developing theories on light infrastructures and the “non-static city”: 
systems of multi-level grid-spaces to be superimposed over the 
historical patterns of cities such as London, New York and Tunis.

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