We are in the urban era. The majority of the world population has already left their rural homes to settle in cities that have gradually become pivotal to the decision process of all human activities, from economic to social and political issues. Since the urban population overpassed the rural one in 2007, metropolitan areas have grown at such a fast pace that in the thirty years 70% of the world population will probably be living in built-up areas.

Despite their limited extension (2% of the planetary surface), cities are “economic giant” that generate more than half of global GDP, but they are also responsible for over 70% of CO2 emissions and are thus at the centre of the international agenda on sustainable development.

This is the reason why there has been so much debate over the management of urban transformations and their spatial re-configuration. The problem is that decisions are often taken moving from assumptions that don’t reflect reality. Cities, regions and countries continue to be identified according to their institutional boundaries while more attention should be paid to the economic strategies and social relationships that go beyond conventional limits.

Neil Brenner, Professor of Urban Theory at GSD (Harvard Graduate School of Design), had focused his research on the dynamics that are relevant in the spatial reconfiguration of the world. In particular, Brenner dismantles the traditional concept of cities. He disagrees with the conventional separation between urban and rural, between what is inside as opposed to what is outside. He rather considers a “fluid” context where build-up areas and their operational landscape are connected to one another according to mutual transformations.

In this context, cities don’t exist anymore as the focal point of human activity, or as the uncontested centre of the economic and political activities. The operational landscapes, through their mutual transformation with build-up areas, are somehow redeemed from the secondary role they used to have. And the dynamics of asymmetric power where cities have become richer by taking out resources are now called into question through a re-definition of space and borders.

The development processes in the globalisation era produce different urban conditions that go beyond city limits. If what that wasn’t urban is now included in urban processes, then the meaning of urban requires a new definition. Taking a few big cities as an example like New York, London or Shanghai, it is evident how their spatial relations are not contained within their urban limits. From production chains, to migration fluxes, it is easy to assess how their extension is actually planetary.

Once the urban processes are seen in a different light, by looking at the mutual influences between build-up areas and their operational landscapes, the traditional dynamics of asymmetric power and inequalities become more and more visible. The uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources that feeds insatiable appetites for consumptions, while altering the balance of nature, is causing irreversible damages to the earth ecosystem.

A different approach that question the rural-urban divide could help to reconsider the controversial role of cities as CO2 emitters and GDP producers. It could drive to new strategic and operating initiatives among practitioners working on urban planning. Every decision should be analysed within an extended context where different dynamics converge so to avoid common mistakes that might trigger natural disasters or social exclusion through gentrification.