The Global Transurban System: Forms It Takes and New Challenges[1][1] I would like to thank Paulina Cepeda for her contribution to and comments on the first version of this article. In the Royal Spanish Academy’s Spanish Dictionary, there is no word for «Transurban»; however, it is a term composed of the prefix «trans,» which means: cross, pass and surpass, and «urban»: belonging to or relating to the city. That is, it takes place through various cities.


Fernando Carrión Mena

Oct, 2020
COVID-19 has become a fundamentally urban disease: social interaction, so characteristic of cities, has put cities at the epicenter of the pandemic. In recent months, we have witnessed emergency and preventative measures isolating entire cities, demonstrating their essential purpose of connecting space. This purpose, on the other hand, is almost always obscured when cities operate under normal conditions, giving the false sensation that the city is an autarkic space.

If originally cities grew along the coastlines, rivers or natural pathways so as to access the countryside as well as regional spaces of production and consumption, today, cities relate above all to other cities, with ways and forms of communication produced socially. This transformation is marked by factors including planetary accumulation, city to city migration, the scientific-technological revolution, networks of ports and airports, and the construction of an integrationist political will; the latter stems from civil society and the local public policies themselves. In other words, we have gone from a logic of urban hierarchy, to one of a global urban system, where interurban and transurban relationships give rise to unprecedented trends of urbanization. These trends ultimately can also accelerate the spread of viral infection, which can escalate into a pandemic in a question of weeks.

In regional terms, Latin America is the most urbanized continent in the world, but at the same time has the most inequality; this is a dangerous combination when containing a disease. About 82% of the population of this continent lives in cities, which totals 8.8% of the world population, and despite the precariousness of its COVID-19 monitoring systems, the official level of diagnosed cases and deaths reach 29% and 33% of the world totals, respectively. This is almost four times higher than in the rest of the world.

Photo_ eosmaia_ fragment of Tomás Saraceno’s piece_ CC BY 4.0

While facing this pandemic, with some vaccines already becoming available and an urgency for their quick production and distribution, it is important to review some of the processes that gave rise to the current configuration of the global transurban system, as well as the forms it takes, with a special focus on Latin America. Although we still recognize their deep colonial roots, it is also true that Latin American municipalities embarked on this century empowered by transfers of economic resources as well as expanded jurisdiction, and above all, as an entity of local societal representation. This municipal empowerment has brought about the territorialization of national and international politics, and arises from autonomy, understood as: the «faculty or power of a territorial entity, which forms part of a superior entity, to govern itself according to its own laws and agencies.» [2][2] Translation from the Spanish Oxford Dictionary. This implies integration via territorial pacts, rather than through the national imposing hierarchies on the local. At the same time, it also means the inter-city unification of various political wills simultaneously strengthens individual cities as well as the system of cities.

What follows is a description of this local integration process, identifying the main assemblies that form part of the Global Urban Network. All of this seeks to achieve the closest thing to this idea, looking to improve an integration process undertaken by the state apparatus with the closet proximity to society: the city. But this is also an attempt to provide solutions to global problems—today, pandemics—both from and for the citizens.

1. The assembly of interurban and transurban urbanization

The process of urbanization in Latin America has been characterized by two great moments, or junctures, since the beginning of the past century. The first, understood as the urban explosion (1900-1980), experienced its first great wave in rural to urban migration, which increased the number of cities as well as their size. This took place in a highly unequal manner, termed urban primacy. [3][3] Cuervo, L.M. (2004). Desarrollo económico y primacía urbana en América Latina: Una visión histórico-comparativa. In El rostro urbano de América Latina. This is a sort of «urban macrocephaly,» which consolidated the urbanization pattern of city, territory and nation. This period was marked by an absence of networks and interurban relationships, as the city’s links with the immediate surrounding territory, regardless of whether regional or rural, were privileged in terms of contiguity (as a nuclear city or central place).

The second period, from 1980 to the present, is understood as an urban transition. [4][4] UN Habitat. (2012). The state of cities in Latin America and the Caribbean 2012: Towards a new urban transition. United Nations Human Settlements Programme. In this period, an interurban system and a transurban structure were established, which broke with the previous period’s urban hierarchy (based on extent and size). [5][5] A place can be clearly defined as a point of fixed space within which an agent or thing is situated, «has its place,» or exists. Bourdieu, P. (1999). La miseria del Mundo [The misery of the world]. Akal. On the one hand, this was a result of a change in the direction of migration, as the cycle of rural to urban mobility ended, and that of international urban to urban migration began. On the other hand, it came about due to a new economy with an urban and global base, which linked spaces and sectors in a dispersed system of economic activities, with centralized management and operations. This required an integrated infrastructure of ports, airports, highways and, above all, new communication technologies. Moreover, it necessitated unprecedented urban centrality, operating via an integration logic based on: «the north of southern cities connecting with the northern cities.» [6][6] Sassen, S. (1999). La ciudad global: Nueva York, Londres, Tokio [The Global City], Ed. Eudeba, Buenos Aires.

A plurality of urbanization patterns is established (see Figure 1), where interurban and transurban relationships take shape. For example, in a region of several municipalities, there are clusters of several medium and small cities, which form around private mono-production in a region of several municipalities (for example, the salmon cluster in Chile or El Bajío in Mexico based in auto production). Additionally, there are bordering cities that are integrated into one urban unit, despite the divides of nationalism caused by physical borders (Ciudad Juárez-El Paso; Foz Do Iguazú- Puerto Iguazú-Ciudad del Este). Furthermore, there is regional urbanization consisting of multiple cities, with local and regional governments forming part of a highly diverse territorial unit (Buenos Aires City, Mexico City). Then there is imagined urbanization, taking place at the level of globalization. In these cases, multi-scaled territories and multilevel governments operate.

Figure 1_ Urbanization patterns and institutional governance frameworks in Latin America

This new form of territorial organization engenders a search for new institutional frameworks that go beyond the strictly local; there is a juxtaposition of bodies from the horizontal (municipal), vertical (provinces, regions, states), national (intrastate) and international (interstate).

In the context of these new urbanization patterns and institutions attempting to adapt to this unprecedented territorial reality, decentralization becomes a principle of multilateral cooperation, generated through interurban networks and associations.

In the context of these new urbanization patterns and institutions attempting to adapt to this unprecedented territorial reality, decentralization becomes a principle of multilateral cooperation, generated through interurban networks and associations.

2. The assembly of networks

The assembly of city networks is a relatively recent phenomenon, and is growing rapidly. These networks maintain stable, integrated relationships via common objectives, developed through four components: i) spatial scales; ii) thematic groupings; iii) methodological affinities; and iv) institutional integration.

Spatial scales refer to the geography within which networks are deployed, ranging from local to regional, national and international. They have varying territorial scope, in some cases cumulative, from the local to transnational level. It can also be vice versa, with a decentralized approach going from a world organization to regional representations. In turn, thematic groupings are characterized by specialized areas and specific problem solving, from infrastructure, public services and the environment, to social and demographic matters. Spatial scales and thematic groupings mutually influence each other, both in relation to the size of the city (a town versus a metropolis) and the spheres of government (local or regional), as well as with regards to particular areas of the city; for example, historical centers or popular establishments. [7][7] Soja, E. (2014). En busca de la justicia espacial [In search of spatial justice]. Tirant Humanidades.

Methodological affinities, the third unifying element, characterize these city networks as a platform for research, discussion, policy debate and dissemination, an interchange of actions, a positioning, or as the methodologies themselves. The fourth element, institutional integration, has diverse actors, be they public, private or civil society initiatives. For example, the Latin American Federation of Cities (FLACMA) or the Latin American and Caribbean Organization of Border Cities (OLACCIF) are local initiatives. [8][8] Quintero, R. (2006). Asociativismo municipal: Gobiernos locales y sociedad civil [Muncipal associativism: Local governments and civil society]. ABDYAYALA-FLACMA. In the case of Ecuador, my country of origin, the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing is a national initiative. In turn, the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), are bilateral international initiatives; the United Nations Organization or the Inter-American Development Bank are international multilateral cooperation initiatives. IBM, with its «Smart Cities» program, the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation, represent private and non-governmental initiatives. Finally, the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) or the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLASCO), also represent group initiatives as academic entities. The CIVITIC Urban studies network does as well, bringing together 22 Ecuadorian universities that specialize in urban studies.

Ultimately, these four elements allow for discussing the problems urban inhabitants face, as well as solutions to these problems. They contribute to cities working as strategic allies with similar interests and challenges. In short, these networks have served to enhance collaboration that extends beyond the local, facilitating horizontal cooperation with strategic allies, and enhancing social movements. [9][9] Borja, J.& Castells, M. (1998). Local y Global, la gestión de las ciudades en la era global [Local and global: Management of Cities in the Information Age]. Taurus, Madrid.

3. The assembly of associations

Formally, associativism is the process of constituting organizations that represent groups of cities or local governments sharing common interests. They can take three forms: associations, commonwealths, and twin cities.

In Latin America, municipal association as a general phenomenon began with local governments agreeing on policies with national governments, as part of the decentralization processes in the 1980s. At first, this movement had a fundamentally corporatist vision, defending its own interests, especially with regards to the transfers of economic resources.

Subsequently, due to globalization processes, state reform, and new urbanization patterns, associativism transformed with the strengthening, democratization, modernization and autonomy of cities, and as a result, their interurban reach, at both the regional and global levels.

Currently, the new challenge is achieving true platforms of interurban integration, on a global scale. It is important to build capacity to influence global agendas. This need is abundantly clear, and is markedly absent in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda (NUA). [10][10] Carrión, F. (2016). La «Agenda Oculta» de Habitat III en Quito [The «Hidden Agenda» of Habitat III in Quito]. Diario El País.

Commonwealths are a voluntary association of autonomous territorial entities on a horizontal level, such as municipal or regional organizations, to carry out one or more administrative capacities or objectives together. It is not so much creating a supra-municipal institution, but rather consists of a confluence of common interests operating at a national level, and in many cases binationally and internationally, across state borders.

Another manner of interurban agreement is so-called twin cities. They have evolved from a simple instrument of friendship and cultural exchange, to become a powerful tool for horizontal cooperation in building joint capacities, in order to promote economic and social development, as well as to advance culture, sports and political activity. These twin cities can become, as in fact has occurred, an international movement of sister cities (Sister Cities International), in which many cities come together through their local governments.

4. Multilateralism: from the national to the local

After the Second World War, the urgent need to promote cooperation between countries in order to achieve common security and economic objectives gave rise to the concept of multilateralism. This took on an organized form with member nations—represented by their governments—in an integrated, international institution, the most noteworthy examples of which are the United Nations and the World Bank.

Despite its importance, there has been a profound crisis of multilateralism in recent years. Main reasons for this crisis include the decline of the state and acquisition of power by global corporations, as well as an emerging political trend of municipalism, which still lacks synergies. These three global players—states, corporations and municipalities—often dispute and defend their own interests, acting in opposition rather than building common networks. [11][11] Sassen, S. (2003). The participation of States and Citizens in Global Governance. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 10(1), 5-28.

There has been a profound crisis of multilateralism in recent years. Main reasons for this crisis include the decline of the state and acquisition of power by global corporations, as well as an emerging political trend of municipalism, which still lacks synergies.

More specifically, traditional international integration organizations have been weakened by specific agendas and interests, and by the dismantling of national governments. The general wear and tear of politics and rise in populism puts existing multilateral structures in check. At the same time, private, global corporations engage in their own logic of economic integration via highly centralized holding companies (Amazon, Alibaba, Google) that connect multiple and dispersed territories through outsourcing. This implements and feeds a pattern of capitalist accumulation, transcending almost any frontier. Finally, cities and governments begin to carry increasing weight with regards to urban integration. The largest proportional population, wealth, and power in the world is concentrated in cities, making these cities inarguable protagonists. The new capitalist model is based in cities, in what are considered strategic locations and sectors, according to a logic of capital and administrative concentration. Cities have thus managed to connect through transurban dynamics, via new ways of cooperation and solidarity, exhibited in institutions like FLACMA and OLACCIF, among others.

These three types of coalitions between global actors involve profound and specific forms of integration within globalization, which interconnect to produce unprecedented assemblies of the local, national, and above all global. This substantially modifies the original meaning of multilateralism, creating a new world order from below (hybrid multilateralism).

The local-global link allows us to understand the current power of cities, even in their relationships with nation states. [12][12] Brenner, N. & Theodore, N. (Eds). (2003). Spaces of Neoliberalism. Blackwell. Consequently, the new challenges of globalization necessitate a redefinition of multilateralism: decentralization. In addition, it requires recognition that the world has become urban, entailing a transurban institutional framework.

5. The pandemic, public space, and platforms

The connectivity afforded by the transurban has facilitated a viral outbreak in Wuhan, China, transforming into a global pandemic in a matter of weeks. Beyond the urban patterns that currently shape our cities, inequality is an ingrained and profound issue in Latin America, and the crisis of multilateralism represents a more recent phenomenon that compounds the urgent situation.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), 45% of the Latin American population does not have living conditions that meet the requirements for a healthy, safe and minimally comfortable life. These conditions are exacerbated with the pressures of the pandemic, in the absence of adequate space for confinement. The COVID-19 pandemic has mainly affected the working class and public spaces. These public spaces act as an extension of domestic space, and are the most frequented sites of social interaction. Homes without refrigerators, rooms overflowing with inhabitants, economic precariousness and long commutes are just some of the factors involved in the overlap between domestic space and public space.

In other words, in these instances, public space is understood as an extension of the domestic space, or is at least a space that one attempts to domesticate, as well as one is obliged to frequent. And yet, in accordance with this new, expanding capitalism, public space is increasingly given private meaning. Companies like Uber, AirBnB, Amazon and others have converted cities into platforms, bringing out an entirely different logic of public space, via the euphemism of a sharing economy. These platforms become active simulations of public space, although as private infrastructures, they end up appropriating both the public and domestic spheres. [13][13] Carrión, F. & Cepeda, P. (2020). Ciudades de plataforma: ¿Hacia un nuevo paradigma urbano? [Platform cities: towards a new urban paradigm?] Revista Foro No. 101.

However, as a result of the pandemic, what remains of the public space as a concept and place has been transformed into a kind of «cursed» space, almost ghostly, as the very social interactions that take place in it ultimately act as vectors of infection that spread to the domestic space. This phenomenon has produced a true agoraphobia, and instruments of political cooperation have not been able to offer much more than «stay at home» campaigns, while large corporations continue to accumulate data and information on the global population. No effort is made to craft more heterogeneous policies, adapted to local situations.

Photo_ Jean-Pierre Dalbéra_ fragment of Tomás Saraceno’s piece_ CC BY 4.0

On the other hand, citizen debates on urban infrastructures and city models have surged: discussions about sustainable mobility, the city-neighborhood, the housing crisis and the role of technology in public services and daily life. It would not be radical to assert that this could act as a precursor to true, multilevel cooperation, with the potential to deal with these supposedly sharing economy platforms, which in reality conduct surveillance and influence individual social, cultural and political behaviors.

A relatively recent phenomenon, these «platform» cities are the consequence of a capitalist model, functioning without sufficient regulation. Now, with the addition of an unexpected pandemic, a series of effects are taking place with an unpredictable impact: exacerbated precarity, work relocation, outsourcing of work expenses, the transformation of home into a place of work, and the worrying phenomenon of workers being completely disconnected from the territory, whether city or country.

In confronting this crisis, proposals have taken the form of homogeneous policies for all, in all countries. Moreover, in the case of Latin America, heterogeneity is accentuated by economic and legal inequality, as well as asymmetrical access to service and technology.

6. The challenge of decentralization

It is clear that today’s Latin American city, with its differing urbanization trends, has become very demographically and economically important, given its highly concentrated population—which can reach up to 82%—as well as the increased influence of its economy in the region. This has come about in two ways. On the one hand, regional cities can hold their own weight (Mexico City, São Paulo, Buenos Aires), or are strategically located in the world market (Medellín, Monterrey, Rio de Janeiro or Panama). On the other, there is a novelty in the city system’s connections, with its institutional framework constituted in different forms, demanding more space on a global level.

Cities bring a great deal to the table in terms of the economy, culture, politics and society of countries, regions, and the planet. At the same time, they continue to be the epicenter of the pandemic, while still not participating in the world’s most important decision-making processes. Not only do they not participate, but a sort of ventriloquism takes place, in that it is others who decide for the city and its authorities. Moreover, in the cities’ global summits, again their participation is marginal, as international cooperation functions globally, with national governments making the commitments while municipalities only act locally. At this level, municipal autonomy crumbles.

Pandemic measures have made the implications of this dynamic very clear. In countries like Brazil, we have witnessed conflicts between the President of the Republic and his denialism of the pandemic, versus the management strategy of state governors and mayors. Even the more unitary governments like those of Ecuador and Colombia have not avoided tension between the national government and local authorities. In the general public opinion, approval for municipal authorities is on the rise, while presidents have witnessed their popularity plummet.

It is also necessary to revive urban planning. The neoliberal city is only directed towards an urban planning of projects, where large companies push for deregulation processes in order to bring capital to those sections of the city with most value.

It is necessary to resume a process of decentralization that is consistent with the structure of the global transurban system, linked to the local level of everyday citizen life. Cities, in addition to being absent from truly overarching decisions, suffer from the pressures of traditional international cooperation policies and from hegemonic centers of power. The latter seek to direct urban policies through an «urbanism of words,» often sponsored by large, international corporations. Thus, the smart city, the educational city, the inclusive city, the resilient city, the historic city, and a multitude of other concepts, become part of an international ranking system that causes competition and not cooperation, based on criteria precisely designed to encourage competition. [14][14] Carrión, F. (2016). La Agenda Oculta de Habitat III en Quito [The Hidden Agenda in Habitat III in Quito. El País. In other words, we seek to promote competitiveness between cities, when what should be taking place is increased coordination and cooperation between them, for the collective benefit.

In addition to the above, it is also necessary to revive urban planning. The neoliberal city is only directed towards an urban planning of projects, where large companies push for deregulation processes in order to bring capital to those sections of the city with most value. This valued space is the public space, and Latin America provides very clear examples. The local governments’ challenge in a post-pandemic reality is not only to renegotiate their competencies with national governments, but also to find formulas for local policy in a scene dominated by private, transnational platforms.

In this scenario, one concept that is often presented is promoting interurban relations, yet according to an imprecise principle: paradiplomacy. The etymology of paradiplomacy speaks to the relationships between cities, and establishing international policies, rather than interurban, which are subordinate to national policies and allow for influencing global processes. [15][15] Enríquez, F. (2019). Paradiplomacia y desarrollo territorial [Paradiplomacy and territorial development]. Congope. It should be noted that in practice, this becomes a contradiction, in that paradiplomacy does not recognize the current traits of the urbanization process (interurban) and the autonomous nature of municipal governments. Cities cannot engage in international relations because they are simply not nations; rather, the relationship must be interurban, as they are cities. In this vein, policies regarding the relationship between cities, enacted by local governments as autonomous entities, must be autonomous and transurban. This is not a banal feint at differentiation, but a distinction between two distinct things: international relations and interurban relations.

Recognizing the inter- and transurban logic means exploring an unchaperoned horizontal cooperation, and a modification of the city-state relationship, both nationally and internationally. In short, it is a search for a balance that modifies the centrality of power on its multiple levels, but also changes the map of political structures.

As such, we are experiencing a process of strategic alliance between cities and municipal governments. These alliances are meant to establish a broad spectrum of horizontal, interurban cooperation, where hierarchical relationships dissolve at both national and interstate levels. This is why assemblages of the global, urban network transform perspective, and position, as cities achieve prominence throughout the world. It is noteworthy how mounting advocacy in cities has been strengthened due to urban networks. This creates opportunities for participation in increasingly global, more specialized, and more effective spaces. At the same time, the pandemic has illustrated that there is still a long way to go.