Rice Seminar Public Lecture: Who Owns the City? by Saskia Sassen

Thursday, March 9, 2017

This presentation engages some of the commonly used markers to identify the city and its transformations. I argue that the familiar terms of gentrification and density are not quite useful in capturing what is happening today in a growing number of cities worldwide. To take just this past year, from mid-2014 to mid 2015, over a trillion US dollars was invested in buying (not building) properties in 100 major cities across the world; these numbers include only properties priced at over $5million and exclude investments in urban development/new construction. Gentrification does not quite capture this new phase, nor does it quite capture the fact that, for example, the Qatari Royals now own more of central London than does the British Queen. Nor does density quite work today as the identifier of cities it once was. The massive corporate buying and build up of pieces of our cities threatens the urbanity of a city: a vast concentration of high-rise buildings used to be a strong marker of a city. But today it may actually be signaling a vast privately controlled megaproject in the heart of a city. Thus density of this sort may actually have the effect of de-urbanizing cities even as it raises their density. Density by itself is no longer a good indicator of urbanity. The corporate buying of vast stretches of city centers along with the expanded footprint of privately controlled mega projects brings with it a de-urbanizing of the center of these cities. My concern is not with the issue of foreign versus national investments, nor is it with high-rise buildings per se, including a significant concentration of them. It is with something I call “cityness.” And one key element of cityness is precisely the sense that nobody can own it, that no matter how much private ownership of buildings and housing, the city is a complex but open system. The city as cityness belongs to all and to no one. In that sense then also, a second key marker for cityness in my work is that the city is a place where even those without power get to make a history, an economy, a culture. 

Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Chair, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University. She is the author of several books and the recipient of diverse awards and mentions, ranging from multiple doctor honoris causa to named lectures and being selected for various honors lists. Her recent book is Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. (Harvard University Press 2014). www.saskiasassen.com