La ville moderne : Enjeux sociaux et politiques (M1 EEI)


Fernand Léger, La Ville (1919)

Today, 55 % of the world’s population live in a city or in an urban area, a figure that some studies predict will go as high as two thirds by 2050. Cities also concentrate 80% of the world’s GDP, as well as 70 % of the world’s greenhouse gas emission (source: The World Bank). If the New York metropolitan area were a nation, it would be the fifteenth richest country in the world. While the demographic and economic prominence of cities is a relatively recent feature of human history, a by-product of industrialization and rural exodus, cities have always had political and cultural significance. The building of giant cities dates back from several millennia before our era, as men strove to build a new kind of political order that would transcend the tribal and clan relationships that had dominated social life before then. City-States like Athens or Rome have long predated our modern Nation State. While cities have evolved greatly in-between the Antiquity and our modern, post-industrial, age, and while they also differ from one place to another, they nevertheless share common features. As Fernand Braudel put it: “A town is always a town, wherever it is located, in time as well as space.” Today, some observers argue that in an increasingly globalized world, in which national governments obey to the logics of free markets, cities and urban areas could emerge as sites of counterpower and political leaderships.

The purpose of this course is to offer a multidisciplinary – historical, political, social, economic and cultural – perspective on the modern city and on the many challenges it has to face in an increasingly globalized world. How did/do cities try to solve their internal social and economic problems and how did/do they emerge as political forces, along and at times against regional and national powers, in order to weigh on global issues? What are/were the political motives of the people (architects, urban planners and politicians) who helped redesign the modern city and, sometimes, build new ones? Why do/did city leaders try to associate their towns with worldwide events? How did they come up with the idea that acting at the local level could help convey universal values? What sort of political and cultural values do the architectural and social structures of the modern city carry? Of course, the course will not settle all of these questions but by drawing on a number of case studies, it will hopefully help the students reflect on all of these.

More concretely, the course will operate in two steps. During the first two sessions, I will offer a general introduction to the topic, providing a short history of the city from Antiquity to the modern times. In doing so, I will also introduce a number of political and social questions which will be addressed in the subsequent sessions. Then, from the third session onwards, the course will resemble a reading seminar. Each session will cover one specific theme regarding the modern city through several texts (academic papers and book chapters) which the students will have to read prior to the class. Students will write a short (one-page) essay for each session in which they will summarize what they learned and try to engage with the material under scrutiny. One group of students will expose the texts in order to start the conversation, to which I will bring additional content. In addition to class participation and weekly (short) essays, there will be one final exam – students will write a longer essay dealing with one or several aspects addressed during the course.

References (general):

Deckker, Thomas. The Modern City Revisited. London, New York: Routledge, 2013.

Kotkin, Joel. The City: A Global History. New York: Modern Library, 2006.

Therborn, Göran. Cities of Power: The Urban, the National, the Social, the Global, London: Verso, 2017.

Barber, Benjamin R. If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. Yale University Press, 2014.

Session 3 (theme 1) – The Politics of the Modern City’s Architecture

This session will discuss the attempts by architects and urban planners to solve some of the problems brought by capitalism and industrialization by creating new forms of collective housing and, by extension, new neighborhoods. It will focus on Le Corbusier’s work, which is associated with the modern architecture dominating most of modern cities’ housing projects and also inspired Brasilia, Brazil’s capital city designed by Oscar Niemeyer et Lúcio Costa. Through Le Corbusier’s vision also aimed at building a new order in order to improve the living conditions of citizens and reduce inequalities, its functionalist aesthetics, bordering brutalism, and its association with authoritarian and totalitarian ideologies have sparked controversy.

Required reading:

McLeod, Mary. “Architecture or Revolution: Taylorism, Technocracy, and Social Change.” Art Journal, Vol. 43, No. 2, Revising Modernist History: The Architecture of the1920s and 1930s (Summer, 1983), pp. 132-147

Rabaça, Armando. “Le Corbusier, The City and the Modern Utopia of Dwelling.” Journal of Architecture and Urbanism 40, no. 2 (June 16, 2016): 110–20.

Deckker Thomas, “Brasilia: City vs. Landscape”, in Deckker, Thomas (ed.), op. cit., 2013, 167-94.

Further Reading:

Dunnett, James. “Le Corbusier and the City Without Streets”, in Deckler, Thomas (ed.), op. cit., 2013, 56-79.

Brott, Simone. “The Ghost in the City Industrial Complex: Le Corbusier and the Fascist Theory of Urbanisme.” Journal of Architecture and Urbanism 40, no. 2 (June 16, 2016): 131–42.

Session 4 (theme 2) – The Concrete Utopia of France’s Villes Nouvelles

France, in the first decades following WWII, is seen as a very centralized country, Paris concentrating most of the attraction. The construction of housing projects to lodge Parisian workers in the French suburbs created a lot of inequalities between the capital and its periphery as well as deficiencies regarding roads structure and public utilities.  In 1965, five cities are created in order to counterbalance this evolution: Marne-La-Vallée, Melun-Sénart, Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Évry and Cergy-Pontoise. The goal was to create a multipolar Parisian metropolis, to decentralize job creation and offer a higher quality of life in the Parisian suburbs. The session will discuss this project’s achievements and failures.

Required reading:

Tuppen, J N. “The Development of French New Towns: An Assessment of Progress,” Urban Studies 20 (1983): 11-30.

Desponds, Didier, and Elizabeth Auclair. “The New Towns around Paris 40 Years Later: New Dynamic Centralities or Suburbs Facing Risk of Marginalisation?” Urban Studies 54, no. 4 (March 2017): 862–77.

Further reading (in French).

Saint-Pierre, Caroline de. “Créer de la localité en ville nouvelle : l’exemple de Cergy.” Ethnologie française 33, no. 1 (2003): 81-90.

Merlin, Pierre. Les Villes Nouvelles en France. Paris : PUF, 1991.

Session 5 (theme 3) – Feminism and the Place of Women in the Modern City

For the past forty years or so, feminist scholars have observed that cities have been built by men and for men. For instance, the modern American city seems to be organized in order to favor gender segregation. Downtowns, with their many skyscrapers and emphasis on business activities, seem to exhibit the attributes of masculinity, whereas suburban areas, with their single-family houses and shopping malls, seem to have been designed for the housewife. This structure makes it very hard for women to improve upon their situation and gain access to the labor market without making sacrifices in the private sphere, which men are not asked to do. How would a city that fosters gender equality look like? We will study the feminist critique of male-oriented urban planning and the concrete policies that aim to improve women’s life in the urban environment.

Required reading:

Hayden, Dolores. “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5, no. S3 (April 1980): S170–87.

Spain, Daphne. “Gender and Urban Space.” Annual Review of Sociology 40 (2014): 581–98.

Further readings on the web:

Wekerle, Gerda R. “Women in the Urban Environment.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5, no. S3 (April 1980): S188–214.

Di Méo, Guy. “Women and The City: For A Social Geogrpahy of Gender.” Annales de Géographie, Vol 684, n°2 (2012) 107-27.

Women’s Right to the city Manifesto:

Session 6 (theme 4) – Cities and Disasters: The Resilient City

Wars, terror attacks, natural disasters and economic crises have greatly affected cities. Following such events, some of them have lost a vast portion of their population, centuries-old buildings and other crucial elements of their cultural heritage. And yet, cities rarely disappear. A survey has determined that, between 1100 and 1800, only 42 cities worldwide have been abandoned as a result of destruction. In fact, as means of destruction seem to have multiplied over time, so did the rate of resilience. Most of the time, cities rebound and even when they fail to do so, they persist in a different mode, as sites of remembrance, tourism or education. Drawing on two case studies, Beirut after the Lebanese civil war and New York after 9/11, we will try to understand the mechanisms that allow for a city’s resilience.

Required reading:

Vale, Lawrence J, and Thomas J Campanella, eds.The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Session 7 (theme 5) – Cities and Neoliberalism

Since its development at the end of the 19th century, urban planning seems to have constituted a bulwark against the failures of free market. By building collective housing, controlling rents and managing public utilities, among other things, city administrators have striven to counterbalance the economic instability and trend towards social inequality that were allegedly attached to unregulated, free markets. Since the end of the 1970s decade, a neoliberal movement in public management has denounced the inefficiency of State intervention and proposed to subjugate it to entrepreneurial logics, favoring competition and private entrepreneurship over collective endeavors and common goods. This session will study how this has affected cities, whose public service missions have been increasingly delegated to private subcontractors as opposed to local administrations. Did cities merely endure neoliberalism or did they take an active part in it? Could they represent an alternative to the States’ submission to neoliberal reason?

Required reading:

Harvey, David. Neoliberalism and the City. Studies in Social Justice 1, n°1 (Winter 2007): 2-13.

Morel Journel, Christelle, and Gilles Pinson.  Debating the Neoliberal City. London, New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017 (Editors’ introduction and Chapter 7, Fulong Wu “State entrepreneurialism in urban China, A critique of the neoliberal city”).

Further reading (in English) :

Hackworth, Jason. The Neoliberal City. Governance, Ideology and Development in American Urbanism. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007.

Further reading (in French) :

Pinson, Gilles. La Ville Néolibérale. Paris: PUF, 2020.

Session 8 (theme 6) – The Charter City: A Local Solution for Global Development?

The American economist Paul Romer, recipient of the Nobel memorial prize in 2018 and former World Bank’s chief economist, has argued that charter cities could constitute a chance for economic development. Charter cities are governed according to the city’s own charter document rather than by the general law of the country/state in which they are located. In Romer’s view, a charter city could be created in a underdeveloped country by a guarantor from a more developed country. Charter cities would offer lower taxes, less regulations, and protection of property rights than the host country, therefore encouraging investment. The session will study the debate surrounding Romer’s proposition. Does this constitute a viable way to economic development or is it a mere display of neocolonial paternalism.

Required reading:

Romer, Paul. Technologies, Rules and Progress: the Case for Charter Cities. Working Ppaer, Center for Global Development (March 2010).

Mallaby, Sebastian. “The Politically Uncorrect Guide to Ending Poverty.“ The Atlantic (July/August 2010).

Further reading:

Chakrabortty, Aditya. “Paul Romer is a brilliant economist – but his idea for charter cities is bad.” The Guardian, 27 july 2010. Read online at:

Sagar, Rahul. “Are Charter Cities Legitimate?” The Journal of Political Philosophy 24, n° 4, 2016: 509–529.

Freiman, Christopher. “Cosmopolitanism Within Borders: On Behalf of Charter Cities: Cosmopolitanism within Borders.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 30, no. 1 (February 2013): 40–52.

Session 9  (theme 7) – Cities and Climate Chang

Cities are responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. They are also home to the majority of the planet’s inhabitants. As such, they are both the cause of climate change but also constitute some of the places where this change could have the greatest impact. How can cities reform to try to do their part in the fight against climate change and, if it is already too late, how can they at least try to limit its effects? Faced with powerless nations, do cities have a particular role to play, politically speaking?

Required reading:

Andersen, Inger. “Cities and Climate Change: An Urgent Agenda”, World Bank’s Report (December 2010)

Cohen, Joel E. “Cities and Climate Change: a Review Essay”. Population and Development Review, Vol. 45, No. 2 (June 2019)

Further reading:

Barber, Benjamin R. Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017.