Who owns the city? asks Saskia Sassen

In a Guardian article entitled “Who owns our cities – and why this urban takeover should concern us all”, dated Tuesday 24 November 2015, Saskia Sassen, renowned academic and Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, addresses important issues that may have both direct and indirect consequences for the conduct of (good) urban governance, and the tools used for achieving it.

Chinese property investment in London
Chinese property investment in London. Illustration: Knight Frank.

Since 2008, foreign property investment has been booming.

… At the current scale of acquisitions, we are seeing a systemic transformation in the pattern of land ownership in cities: one that alters the historic meaning of the city. Such a transformation has deep and significant implications for equity, democracy and rights. [emphasis added]

She notes four main features, which are accentuations of former trends:

The sharp scale-up in the buying of buildings, even in cities that have long been the object of such investments, notably NY and London. For instance, the Chinese have most recently emerged as major buyers in cities such as London and New York. Today there are about 100 cities worldwide that have become significant destinations for such acquisitions – foreign corporate buying of properties from 2013 to 2014 grew by 248% in Amsterdam/Randstadt, 180% in Madrid and 475% in Nanjing. In contrast, the growth rate was relatively lower for the major cities in each region: 68.5% for New York, 37.6% for London, and 160.8% for Beijing.

The extent of new construction. The rapid-growth period of the 1980s and 90s was often about acquiring buildings – notably high-end Harrods in London, and Sachs Fifth Avenue and the Rockefeller Center in New York. In the post-2008 period, much buying of buildings is to destroy them and replace them with far taller, far more corporate and luxurious types of buildings – basically, luxury offices and luxury apartments.

The spread of mega-projects with vast footprints that inevitably kill much urban tissue: little streets and squares, density of street-level shops and modest offices, and so on. These megaprojects raise the density of the city, but they actually de-urbanise it – and thereby bring to the fore the fact, easily overlooked in much commentary about cities, that density is not enough to have a city.

The foreclosing on modest properties owned by modest-income households. This has reached catastrophic levels in the US, with Federal Reserve data showing that more than 14 million households have lost their homes from 2006 to 2014. One outcome is a significant amount of empty or under-occupied urban land, at least some of which is likely to be “re-developed”.

My reading is that anything that affects the real city inevitably shapes what happens and gets discussed in the virtual city. Sassen points out the important implications which massive property buy-up might have for local governance:

If the current buying continues, we will lose the type of making that has given our cities their cosmopolitanism… A large city is a frontier zone where actors from different worlds can have an encounter with no rules of engagement

Urban governance appears more than ever as “glocal” more than it is local.

The article also stands out as a major example of creating “research impact”. Research should reach out to the world in all possible forms and media. Broadcasting research evidence is one among many steps to moving the urban agenda forward in a progressive manner, one that actively promotes greater transparency and inclusiveness in urban affairs.


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