Alter-metropolisation: a citizen’s approach to the future of cities

Over the past 50 years, urban policies have focused on boosting the competitiveness and attractiveness of cities to support their economic growth. They’ve developed “smart cities” approaches that implement technological innovation to support creative and “smart” growth.

These models have transformed the way cities function. For example, the “uberisation” of cities pushed by multinational companies like Airbnb, Uber, Deliveroo or Lime has entirely changed the landscape of transportation within cities.

Many experts and international rankings, such as the Smart City Juniper Ranking, highlight positive outcomes from these urban policies. They measure the creation of businesses and jobs, improvement of the image of cities, or the urban regeneration of neighborhoods marked by industrial crises. But not all urban populations have enjoyed these positive impacts and many individuals remain on the margins of progress and modernity. For many urban outcasts, the competitive city is marked by discrimination, spatial and social inequalities, or decay.

Rather crafty cities

However, there is an urban phenomenon that demonstrates that there are other ways of crafting cities. It’s guided by collaborative, inclusive, ecological and non-market imperatives and it’s called “alter-metropolisation”. This is a process of urbanisation and development based on social rather than technological innovation. This does not mean that alter-metropolisation is opposed to metropolisation. On the contrary, it is complementary to it, and involves by experimenting with new solutions to problems that public authorities and private actors cannot solve alone.

The key to alter-metropolisation is that it is citizen-led. This means that citizens get to focus on topics that they directly care about, such as the climate emergency or circular and social economies. Participation through direct democracy and crowd-sourcing is highly emphasised. It stems from citizen movements motivated to change urban organisation through concrete and applied initiatives.

An alter-Airbnb

The Fairbnb Project is a good example. It is a response to the negative impacts of Airbnb’s success, including gentrification and the pressure of mass tourism observed in old tourist centres. Fairbnb provides an alternative to Airbnb for digitally booking tourist accommodations. The difference lies in the fact that all the profits generated by the bookings are reinvested in social and solidarity projects within the city – aimed to limit the negative effects of digital booking platforms.

On the tech side, some European cities are implementing policies designed to put citizens back at the heart of smart city projects. One way is by allowing citizens themselves to control the data they produce every day, rather than letting it be processed by companies that use it for commercial purposes. These smart city policies also encourage citizen political participation, using new information and communication technologies as an instrument to boost local democracy.

At the micro-local level, the explosion in the number of FabLabs around the world help make the process of producing technological innovation accessible to every citizen. This is regardless of his or her standard of living, political opinions, gender, or origins. FabLabs are collaborative technological workshops that are availably publicly to citizens to explore creative ideas.

European cities on the map

Elsewhere, cities like Rome and Naples, or the self-proclaimed “freetown” of Christiania in Copenhagen, are experimenting with urban commons. This is the legal protection of cultural places and public spaces. Barcelona has even turned these initiatives into a political project that has been running in the city for two terms with the “Barcelona en comù” programme.

In Marseille, the TELEMMe laboratory and Aix-Marseille University have developed a geographic information system that allows us to identify, geolocate and measure the impact of these alter-metropolitan initiatives, as illustrated in the map below.

The different types of experiments and alter-metropolitan places in Marseille

Solutions for all and by all

At a time when health, climate and identity crises are calling into question development models, alter-metropolisation offers another way forward in terms of urban planning and land use. The city is no longer part of the problem but can instead be part of the solution.

This “bottom up” solution, carried out by citizens and collectives, demonstrates how urban and metropolitan populations have stepped up at a time when democracies are in crisis. Alter-metropolisation shows us that the current urban crises are not inevitable and that there are ways to include all people in the transformation of cities.

French version available here.

Read more here: OECD work on cities

+ posts

Alexandre Grondeau est docteur en géographie, aménagement et urbanisme, maître de conférences, habilité à diriger les recherches, au laboratoire TELEMMe d’Aix-Marseille Université.

Il est l’organisateur des colloques "Une autre manière de fabriquer la ville", le fondateur de l’Observatoire du développement local PACA et le coauteur de l’ouvrage Géographie Urbaine, réédité chez Hachette Supérieur en 2020. 

Il est l'auteur de nombreux articles universitaires traitant des villes dans la mondialisation, des milieux et des territoires alternatifs. Il travaille en particulier à la conceptualisation et à la définition de l’altermétropolisation en mobilisant les notions d’innovation sociale, de biens communs, de responsive city, de nouveau droit à la ville, d’économie sociale et solidaire, d’hétérotopie, d’économie circulaire, de street art, de chrono urbanisme et de slow urbanism...

Alexandre Grondeau vient de publier "Altermétropolisation : une autre vi(ll)e est possible" consultable librement ici :