Over the course of the early twenty-first century, global economic and demographic trends have increased the relative importance of urban spaces, while cities themselves have organized collectively in the face of transnational challenges. But while urban populations, areas and economies expand, and mayors continue their move into the international arena, that arena itself has been shifting. China has arrived as a great power. Russia has opened anew old questions and challenged long-standing norms. Domestic politics in the United States and Europe have undermined long-standing relationships.

These two developments—the return of great power politics and continuing urbanization—are not separate phenomena. Cities have become the economic engines and sites of innovation for nation-states, as well as targets for surveillance and cyber-attacks for national governments. Successful powers in the twenty-first century will build stable and innovative cities at home while projecting influence, and at times military strength, in urban settings abroad.

However, most conversations about the return of great power politics ignore urban dynamics, dismissing references to urbanization or city-focused efforts as naively post-Westphalian. Meanwhile, most urban debates, focused as they are on urban dynamics such as planning, public space, and service delivery, proceed with little time for geopolitical trends at the nation-state level. International relations scholars and urbanists, as well as diplomats and mayors, still often operate in worlds apart.

The Great Powers and Urbanization Channel brought them together. A collaboration between the Diplomatic Courier and the Great Powers and Urbanization Project—a joint initiative of the University of Pennsylvania's Perry World House, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the University of Melbourne's Connected Cities Lab, the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, the Argentine Council for International Relations, and the African Centre for Cities—the Channel has offered a one stop shop for national security officials and urbanists alike trying to navigate global challenges in an urban world.  

Of course, great powers and hegemons have long sought to influence the shape and scale of cities far beyond their borders. The urban ruins of the Roman Empire stretch to Northern England and the Middle East. The infrastructure and drainage projects of the British Empire continue to give shape to New Delhi and Mumbai. The magistrales, metro-stops and massive housing projects of the Soviet Union continue to provide transportation and housing in the former Eastern Bloc. “Design was not a marginal aspect of the Cold War but central,” argued the art historian David Crowly and curator Jane Pavitt, “to the competition over the future.”

If the Cold War has not exactly returned, geopolitical tension most certainly has. Like global powers before it, China is influencing urban spaces beyond its borders. Just as the form of “global city” that developed in the late twentieth century was a product of a historically distinctive set of relations between international system, state, city, and market, so now does the emerging Belt and Road City have the potential to signal a very different set of these relations in the early to mid-twenty-first century.

The consequences of great power competition ripple far beyond the national and municipal borders of the powers themselves. The return of geopolitics—and with it shifts in patterns of globalization—have particular importance for nation-states such as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates that are highly dependent culturally and economically on the interconnectivity of their cities with the wider world.

The early twenty-first century has seen an explosion of “city-diplomacy” on the global stage. Cities are playing a role in shaping the foreign policies of some great powers and are building their international engagement capacities, pushing the boundaries of their legal authorities vis-à-vis national authorities, shifting the politics of compliance and enforcement of international law, taking new seats at the tables of global governance, and altering the structures of international institutional engagement.

Nonetheless, as international relations professor Simon Curtis put it bluntly in his award winning Global Cities and Global Order, “The re-emergence of the city from the long shadow of the state in the late twentieth century was facilitated by the state itself.” Though differing in their methodologies and analysis, the work of Paul Hirst, Charles Maier, Saskia Sassen, and Goran Therborn align with Curtis on a fundamental matter: the direction of the nation-state will be crucial to the direction of cities, and that includes the relations between nation-states.

The Channel and the Great Powers and Urbanization Project launched before COVID-19 pandemic and closed shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine that put cities squarely in the sights of great power aggression. Michel Foucault observed that a “whole history remains to be written of spaces—which would at the same time be a history of powers (both of these terms in the plural)—from the great strategies of geopolitics to the little tactics of the habitat.” That history is still being written, and to the degree that the little tactics of habitat and the great strategies of geopolitics are now overlapping, you will find that shared space explored by historians, urbanists, planners, economists, and practitioners here in this special anthology curated through the Channel.

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