Urban Habitat in Global Cities

Dernière mise à jour le 15 June 2019

A New Habitat Model in a Globalized Society.

In his work “La condition urbaine, la ville à l’heure de la mondialisation” (The Urban Condition: The City in the Age of Globalization), Olivier Mongin defines in a provocative way the characteristics of urban habitat in a globalizing society.

We will first consider what he means by ‘global city,’ before turning to the specificities of urban habitat in global cities.

The Global City

The so-called global city is a new concept, coined by the geographer Saskia Sassen in her book The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, first published in 1991 and regularly revised since. The author explores the evolution of cities between 1980 and 1990, notably in the wake of the deregulation and liberalization of markets at a global level.

Since this period, a twofold phenomenon has been observed: first, the outsourcing of activities historically associated with so-called developed countries towards low-income countries, leading to successive crises in old European and American industrial centers; second, a heavy concentration of market command and leadership functions in a limited number of “global cities.” Unlike terms such as “megapolis” and “metropolis,” which refer to such purely quantitative issues as population size, wealth levels, and geographic area, “global city” refers to the important rank that a city occupies in the “command” of the global financial and commercial community.

Practically speaking, global cities possess a number of characteristics that make it possible to identify them: a heavy concentration of services, institutions for training future elites (university campuses and research centers), and the presence of stock exchanges and banking structures. They are, in short, the headquarters of multinational corporations, the activities of which are spread across the planet.

To read more on the concept of global cities, download the article by Saskia Sassen available at:

Urban Habitat in a Global City Compared to a Megapolis

In his book, Olivier Mongin identifies the type of habitat that is unique to so-called global cities. In terms of habitat, there is a radical difference, he maintains, between a megapolis and a global city. A megapolis is a city that is a world unto itself. It is limitless, extending into the infinite, welcoming into often precarious homes (i.e., slums) people from rural areas, as well as refugees and immigrants. On the other hand, a global city is one that continuously defines its limits—or that even has a tendency to contract, at least in terms of habitat.

Megapolises can be found throughout the world, even if they obey different models: they can be found in the urban sprawl of the United States (the expansion of urban habitat that accompanies the dismantling of industrial society), as well as the slums of Calcutta. Mongin argues that there exist other examples besides the extreme cases. The goal of a global city is not—as it once was—to establish urban boundaries and to integrate different populations and functions (offices, habitats, shopping). As an example, one could cite the fact that little effort is made to bring workplaces nearer to habitats and that the means of transportation available to the poorest inhabitants is often—deliberately?—deficient.

What Model of Urban Habitat Should Exist for Global Cities?

  • City centers are cohabited by two kinds of population, corresponding to two kinds of urban habitat: spaces inhabited by an underprivileged population that is attracted to transportation and services (train stations, subways, major retail stores, etc.) and those inhabited by a wealthy population who often congregate in high security areas (such as “gated communities,” where 8% of the US population resides). These well-off residents, living in “gentrified” centers, are citizens of the world more than of their cities. Most are business executives and intellectuals living on “global time.” Their urban habitat is “renovated” and “hip.”
  • Consequently, middle class populations are relegated to peri-urban spaces. They often live in houses. These inhabitants, who offered a solution to the challenges of the industrial city, are the main problem encountered by the global city. They must live along the periphery, which alone offer affordable housing, and spend their time shuttling back and forth their homes and urban centers. They fight to remain in these residential areas which are often divided into islands that are disconnected from one another, except for their shared connection to an urban center.
  • Finally, the most underprivileged populations often find themselves in public housing, poor neighborhoods, and slums. Often unemployed, these inhabitants are completely immobile and have no connection to urban centers. Their habitats have few local services.  Sassen describes them as “relegated.”


These thoughts help us to understand the consequences of globalization—specifically, the loss of integrating industrial cities—for urban habitats, but also to see the unmistakable connection between urban habitat and mobility. There is a clear connection between urban habitat and access to mobility, as well as urban habitat and the travel time required to access jobs and urban services. Urban habitat must thus be conceived in relation with other urban characteristics if we are to arrive at a better understanding of globalization in its current form.

By way of conclusion, we mention Sassen’s view that policy should no longer be based on the management of territories, but on a reinvention of space—spaces for living and spaces for existing, which make it possible both to (re)define the limit of urban areas and habitats and to allow inhabitants to (re)discover the bonds connecting them to the “local” world around them.

File translated by Michael C. Behrent – Assistant Professor – Department of History – Appalachian State University – Boone, NC  28608