Do major cities still have a future?

  • City


  • Olivier Estève

    Deputy CEO

    New window
  • Alexia Beaujeux

    Co-founder, Collectif La Traverse

    New window
  • Alexandre Labasse

    General Director, Atelier parisien d'urbanisme

    New window

Has the rural exodus given way to the urban exodus? In recent times, faced with the combined effects of confinement, rising living costs and the many effects of climate change, the attractiveness of large cities has been increasingly called into question. The disadvantages of city life (high rent prices, noise, pollution, heat) have taken on unprecedented proportions, to the point where many city dwellers are no longer hesitating to say goodbye to the major cities. Faced with this phenomenon, how can we rethink city life, and the city itself, to make it desirable once again? Is it still possible to imagine a city that is both vibrant and sustainable, where social ties are strengthened and carbon emissions are significantly reduced? Do major cities still have a future, and if so, what is it?

The major city, a force of attraction and repulsion

There is a reason why the countryside gradually gave way to cities throughout the twentieth century. The attractiveness of cities is historically due to their quality as a place of mixing and opportunity. Like black holes inexorably attracting all the light from the surrounding galaxies, large cities have never stopped growing and absorbing. “Over the last few decades, the watchword of regional planning policies has been metropolisation, the concentration of people and activities in ever larger cities,” explains Alexia Beaujeux, co-founder of Collectif La Traverse*. “It’s a metropolisation that’s being carried out in the name of economic growth, to the detriment of our impact on the living world, with cities spreading out and requiring ever more resources. It’s a vision of unlimited growth in a limited world.

But is the loss of love for major cities real? In reality, cities have always experienced departures. 130,000 inhabitants leave Paris every year, but the balance between those leaving and those arriving has not changed significantly over the last ten years. “What is new is that young people are arriving in Paris less and less“, notes Alexandre Labasse, General Director of the Apur (Parisian urban planning workshop)*. “If they are no longer coming, it’s not because of a lack of attractiveness, but by too much attractiveness which leads to a lack of housing. We may have created 56,000 new homes since 2014, but at the same time we’ve lost 13,000 primary residences.” With vacant homes, second homes and holiday homes: the city attracts more and more people, making it more difficult to live there.

Added to this phenomenon is a change in the narrative surrounding the city: the springboard city has become an ecocidal monster, accused of all evils, the figurehead of predatory capitalism that stops at nothing. Opposing it is the alternative of the small town at man’s level, the short circuit, solidarity as a banner, virtue against a backdrop of chirping birds. Olivier Estève, Covivio’s Deputy CEO, rejects these binary oppositions*: “The city is in fact perfectly adapted to societal and environmental challenges because it is infinitely adaptable and transformable. We need to design a calmer city that forges links, and build a city that serves all those who use it. This is the only credible scale for bringing about real transformations in our society.”

The city and climate change

Too hot, too concrete, unbreathable, energy-hungry – when it comes to the environment, the city isn’t exactly a superhero. But could it become one? “Adaptation and mitigation are the two pillars of climate action,” explains Alexia Beaujeux. “It’s not just a question of asking how we can live in a city at +4°C, but also of seeing how we can avoid reaching that situation. It’s not a case of everyone living in the city or everyone living in the countryside. On the contrary, we need to bet on a better urban/rural network and rethink the way we design our production systems and consumption channels.

However, while there is less and less debate about the urgency of climate change, solutions are struggling to get off the ground. But it’s not for lack of desire, according to Alexandre Labasse: “All the players are convinced of the need for change, but we have in one hand a brake at regulatory level, and in an other hand a gap between rhetoric and action. For the time being, this lack of correlation between shared ambitions and actual construction is preventing the necessary acceleration in the adaptation of cities.Olivier Estève, for his part, even talks of a disconnect: “We need to listen to the changes in society and the strong aspirations to see more virtuous models emerge. We’re lagging far behind in terms of standards and regulations: the kW/m² scale is totally inconsistent, for example, with the injunction to increase the intensity of use. We need tools that are better adapted to our ambitions, and better collaboration between private players and public authorities“.

While it would be utopian to swap one fantasy for another, to move without transition from the hegemony of the big city to the hymn of our countryside, we have to recognise that major cities have a future, but that it has yet to be defined. Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in cities; by 2050, this figure will have risen to 68%. The urban phenomenon is inevitable. It is in the city that people come to find work, to train, to mix, to exchange, to dream, to create the conditions for progress that reflect society and its ambitions. Of course, the city has its share of problems: it pollutes, it isolates, it destroys, it consumes, but alternatives exist to make it more human, sustainable and desirable. The city is a great laboratory, and without it there are few, if any, solutions. So if the solution is not to flee the city, we need to find ways of adapting it and proposing affordable dreams. The city must offer a place for everyone, otherwise it will no longer fulfil its historic function of welcoming and emancipating. It must be a model: the organic city, chaotic, teeming but responsible. It already exists. It’s up to us to invent a better future for it.

*Remarks made at a conference organised by Covivio and Usbek & Rica on 13 December 2023 at the real estate fare “Salon de l’Immobilier d’Entreprise (SIMI)”.