Gilbert Emont

From a City of Residents to Urban Territory: The Advancing Revolution

"Los Angeles cityscape" © My Photo Dump

Global urbanization is acutely disrupting our ways of life and our ways of understanding the world. We are experiencing an ontological crisis and remain clueless when we try to reflect upon it and to conceptualize it, seeking for answers but also for solutions to its challenges. It seems clear to all that there is no one absolute truth anymore and that we can only apprehend this phenomenon in fragments, by asking questions of professionals in each and every possible disciplinary field. Many initiatives proceed in that way, gathering and comparing the points of view of thinkers and researchers. In light of the research carried out by the Institut Palladio—one of the think tanks that is re-examining contemporary urban planning—, Gilbert Emont analyzes the factors of change that are bringing about a “society of urbanites”, a new condition at the junction of four material transformations: the increase in life expectancy, the urbanization of the planet, the importance of sustainable development, and the widespread use of digital technologies. In this new world organized around human activity, he describes the challenges which cities of tomorrow will face, up to and including continuous innovation, physical adaptability and flexibility of use.

Gilbert Emont is an economist and researcher at the Institut de l’Épargne Immobilière et Foncière (IEIF). He is the director of the Institut Palladio des Hautes Études sur l’Immobilier et la Cité.

The Fondation Palladio has sought to play a founding role by establishing an institute and inviting those involved in urban planning to come and discuss real estate and city planning issues. To this end, it organized a conference at the Senate at the end of 2010 that brought together over two hundred participants, including many leaders from companies in the fields most related to the conference’s theme. Michel Serres was invited to give the keynote speech and to put the debates in perspective.

Before a captivated audience, and with his inimitable talent, Serres laid out a potential area of focus. Cunningly placing the end of the Neolithic age in the middle of the 1970s, he made us realize that we should be focusing our attention on the emergence of a “Société des Urbains” (“Society of the Urban”), an expression of a new civilization dominated by urbanization, manifested by the creation of new types of virtualized spaces (“PaLoBru” for example, the large triangle that is Paris, London, and Brussels), whose urbanism must be reinvented.

Since then, the Fondation Palladio has dedicated its various annual events to the question of the future of this “Society of the Urban” in order to better understand nature, territories, and people, as well as customs and values that give society meaning and a collective dimension.






At the confluence of four revolutions

As Jean Viard pointed out, our descendants in the twenty-fourth century will look on the first fifty years of this century as a turning point in the history of the Earth. In fact, four revolutions will converge, causing a major shock that will impose a new world order different from the one we inherited.

First and foremost, longer life spans have changed the face of global demographics. While the demographic transition has meant that almost all countries are now seeing a declining birth rate, and, more importantly, a lower fertility rate, the decline in the mortality rate has allowed, in developed countries, four generations to share the same territory. Global population growth is now more due to this phenomenon than any issues relating to the birthrate, which has led to the emergence of a large population of seniors relative to that of young people who, in turn, face a revolution in the conditions according to which they replace their elders.

The second major focus relates to the urbanization of the planet, which will lead to a predicted population growth over the next fifty years equivalent to the level of predicted population growth in urban areas. This phenomenon is due both to the inability of rural civilization to absorb such growth, and conversely, to the ability of cities to create economic development and activity on the basis of the exchange and accumulation of knowledge. Pierre Veltz posits a post-industrial economy of proficiency and exchange which establishes the urban phenomenon as the engine of economic development to meet the forthcoming demographic challenge.

This is also why the third revolution that we face during this period is that of sustainable and responsible development. The global growth that is linked to higher life expectancy (notwithstanding major disasters) must be combined with a concentration in urban areas. The confrontation with natural resources, the mastery of an “urban metabolism” that is at risk of major destabilization, the optimized management of collective resources are all urgent issues along with a serious examination of the reckless and wasteful practices in relation to public goods. A more responsible development path is needed if we want to prevent urban growth from leading to catastrophe and chaos. Yet an urban solution, due to its density, is also perhaps the only answer to controlling global growth.

Lastly, the digital revolution, and in particular the dematerialization of the number of exchanges that it makes possible, has led to an accelerated disruption of individuals’ relationships to the physical and spatial dimension of their existence, but also in terms of the distance and therefore the time that is necessary for the exercise of their activities. The understanding of these new technologies and the importance of innovations that arise from them will transform the notion of “limits” and “territories” based on which previous generations were required to confine their exchanges. The redefinition of space-time, mobility, and the speed of exchanges, has exploded the notion of the city, which is physically defined due to its role as a place of exchange. It does not, however, generate a city “above ground,” but demands instead the redefinition of public space, of physical exchange, of a collective identity, and of a new urbanism.

A world organized by urbanism

As Michel Lussault has pointed out, in this context it is urban development that acts as a structuring element. It will define how well our developing global civilization functions, as well as the socio-economic dimensions that depend on it.


  • The value system itself, regardless of the region, will have to reassess spiritual frameworks or ways of thinking along with customs and practices that have mainly been developed and perfected in a rural society and that are always influenced by this origin, even if they have already experienced major changes. Knee-jerk reactions by communities should be understood as part of this evolution of groups rather than as conflicts between incompatible values and customs, even if this can sometimes be the case. In this sense, the generalization of the urban world appears to be act as a powerful integrator of a world in the process of unification and leads to new values that are synonymous with a new urbanism.

  • The global trade at the heart of this urban world brings to mind the visionary analyses of Fernand Braudel on “world-cities,” now seen as being driven by a phenomenon of paroxysmal metropolization. A global chain of large cities will form the backbone of the new Society, which will lead to the concentration of centers of research, production, and of more efficient financing. The emergence of megacities will therefore be driven more by the optimization of economic trade in order to create development rather than by a demographic migration experienced by groups driven out by poverty from areas that are not able to feed their original population.

  • Beyond those cities with global ambitions, the phenomenon of urbanism appears as the driving element of development and the benchmark of success, on the different scales of national territories. The analysis of the most recent crises (particularly the 2008 crisis) confirms this phenomenon which saw employment and GDP fare better in those territories that optimized trade with an increase in supply and demand. Beyond the “world-cities,” there is a territorial network of cities of different scales that is forming, relying on an increased intermobility and the sudden rise of areas of industry, housing, and commerce resulting from the possibility of dematerialized exchanges. In this sense, the space of urban dwellers appears to be made up of sometimes fragmented territories, where the dense city is only one of the components that combines memory, power, and knowledge, in the heart of an area whose borders are difficult to understand and whose forms are disparate.

  • As Jean Viard has pointed out, this is indeed the redefinition of space-time that characterizes the new urban areas where the choice of location—the center of gravity of households seeking to maximize their relationship to the services offered by the city—predominates. The boundary of the city is no longer perceived in a physical way by visible boundaries (from city gates in the past to the awful “shoeboxes” of city entrances from the end of the last century). It dissolves into the countryside of annexed and reinvented villages (as in the “transformed village” of Pascal Dibie); it is embodied in the ability to access the largest number of services, it replaces the door, the stone symbol of our ancestors, with a computer screen or a tablet that enables inhabitants to know both the full range of offers and the ways in which to take advantage of them.


The shift to the urban area from our ancestors’ cities is therefore based on the propensity of the former to offer inhabitants a maximum number of services, and a continual improvement of the means of access (mobility) and the ability to prevent exclusion due to spatial or financial limitations.

It is therefore based on principles :

  • Permanent innovation, mainly, but not only, due to the digital economy, enabling a constantly evolving lifestyle—especially in terms of meetings and exchanges—its control, indeed its management, but also the possibility of the “as for oneself” and of identity isolationism without losing contact with the collective offer.

  • Continually improved mobility, pushing the spatial boundaries of urban supply through the mass of information available in real time and the improvement of the modes of access: the development of a collective means to move around and, in particular, of new forms of private solidarity and sharing. In this, the city limits become apparent in the confinement or isolation of zones where mobility drops sharply, with the socio-political drift with which they are associated.

  • Flexibility in the use of buildings to accommodate different types of activities in order to optimize travel and to concentrate—in the nodes of the territorial framework—the most possible options according to the period to which they relate. The “rhythm” of the buildings and multi-usage of the sites then become the key to a more concentrated and lively public space, with a minimum amount of polluting transportation from residential premises. Even though it remains an important element in terms of the frequency and the recurrence of trips, the commute from home to work is therefore no longer the essential dimension in the structure of a territory.

To conclude this brief introduction on the subject, it is apparent that the city of tomorrow does not respond to a simple, spatially-restricted pattern of organization in order to house residents, to facilitate their relationship first to their work, then to public services, and, finally, to the central places of commerce.

The new ways to measure time have obliterated those of space, and the diversity of expected uses of the city may impose a proliferation of locations, making the dialogue more difficult with nature in territories where town and country are intertwined. This will lead to a need for the management of a complex and elusive universe. The choice of habitat becomes key in the consideration of a household whose aim is to control a multidimensional system where no one element is predominant (work, family life, leisure, consumption of public and private services, cultural events, for a start). In this constantly evolving universe, the temptation to control by standards and regulations is becoming more and more futile.

The urbanism of tomorrow must rely more on the regulation and management of the contiguity of its spaces, as advocated by François Jullien, and the permanent adaptability of the city to its own development. It must imagine, almost in real time, those solutions warranted by new technologies to meet the challenge of a generalized urbanism in a territory where urbanization cannot yet be seen.

(This article was published in Stream 03 in 2014.)