Roosevelt House has presented a wide-ranging conversation exploring what the city of the future will be like, co-sponsored with the World Policy Institute. This special event featured a distinguished panel of experts at the forefront of understanding – and shaping – the global changes now underway.

If the 21st century belongs to the city, very few will look like New York – wildly prosperous and growing slowly but steadily. The majority of cities will veer toward one of two extremes – the explosive megalopolis and the shrinking austerity city. For wildly differing reasons, in both Lagos and Detroit the formal sector has proven unable to house, transport, and employ residents. So what role can the informal sector play in building more inclusive and resilient cities? What can urban agriculture, informal manufacturing (i.e. “maker” culture), homesteading, and “lean urbanism” teach us about the challenges facing cities and solutions proposed by citizens themselves?

Speakers: Jill S. Gross, Associate Professor, Hunter College Urban Affairs and Planning; Marc Norman, Director, UPSTATE: Center for Design, Research, and Real Estate; and Emeka Okafor, Co-founder and curator, Maker Faire Africa. The panel was moderated by Kavitha Rajagopalan, Senior Fellow and Co-director, Emergent Cities Project at the World Policy Institute and author of Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West. The discussion was introduced by Dr. Jonathan Fanton, Franklin D. Roosevelt Visiting Fellow and Interim Director, Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.



Emeka Okafor  

Emeka Okafor (@emeka_okafor) is an entrepreneur and a “venture catalyst.” He is the co-founder and curator of Maker Faire Africa and was the director for TED Global 2007. He is currently an advisor to TED Fellows, which he helped found. His interests include sustainable technologies in the developing world and paradigm breaking technologies. His blog Timbuktu Chronicles seeks to spur dialogue in areas of entrepreneurship, technology, and the scientific method as it impacts Africa.

Jill S. Gross  

Jill S. Gross is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, and has taught at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York University, Queens College, and Brooklyn College. She serves on the governing board of the Urban Affairs Association, where she chairs the committee on International Urban Linkages. She teaches and conducts research in comparative urban politics and development in Western European and North American cities, with an emphasis on issues of equity, participation, and inclusion. She holds a PhD in Political Science from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and an MSc in British Government from the London School of Economics. In 2012, she was awarded a Fulbright Shuman Award to research the Governance of Migrant Political Integration in European Cities. She co-authored Governing Cities in a Global Era, and is currently completing her next book project on the topic of  Ireland, Migrants, and the Fiscal Crisis. She is co-editor of two special journal volumes on Chinese Urban Governance forthcoming in Cities and the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Marc Norman  

Marc Norman (@upstatesyr) is the Director of UPSTATE: Center for Design, Research, and Real Estate. He is trained as an urban planner and has worked in the field of community development and finance for over 15 years. With degrees in Political Economics (U.C. Berkeley, B.A. 1989) and Urban Planning (UCLA, M.A. 1992) he has developed and financed over 2,000 units totaling more than $400 million in total development costs. He has worked for for-profit and non-profit organizations, committed to community development and affordable housing. He has taught courses on real estate and housing policy in the School of Architecture and implements initiatives at UPSTATE: in collaboration with City, State, and University partners.

Moderator: Kavitha Rajagopalan  

Kavitha Rajagopalan (@kxraja) is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and director of the Emergent Cities Project, which seeks to activate resilient urban spaces in the economically troubled and shrinking cities of the West using lessons from emergent cities in the developing world. She is the author of Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West, a narrative nonfiction exploration of integration and identity formation in the urban Muslim diaspora. Her projects include research and advocacy on the causes and consequences of undocumented migration, urban informality, and minority access to mainstream financial systems. She writes widely on global migration and diversity and has taught related courses at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.

EVENT SUMMARY – The Economics of an Emerging City

For the first time in human history, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities. As more people populate urban centers, cities from Lagos to Detroit are rapidly changing– economically, politically, and socially. Even established cities, previously defined by critical infrastructural elements, are in flux and in need of maintenance. In the heart of New York City, World Policy Institute and the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute hosted the event, “Making the Emergent City,” a panel discussion on the changing nature of urban centers. The event began to answer important questions such as: What role does the informal economy play in the urban landscape, and what role will it play in the near future?

Kavitha Rajagopalan, co-director of the World Policy Institute Emerging Cities program, led the discussion which featured Jill Simone Gross, associate professor of political science in the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, Marc Norman, director of UPSTATE: Center for Design, Research, and Real Estate, and Emeka Okafor, co-founder and curator of Make Faire Africa. The panelists argued that city governments need to embrace informal sectors in order to sustain their growing populations.

Rajagopalan opened the discussion by asking the panelists to define the role of the informal economy in their respective cities of research. Informal economies, or economies that exist outside of government or official regulation, tend to be overlooked, noted Okafor. Nollywood, in Lagos, Nigeria, is the second largest filmmaking center in the world, second only to Bollywood. However, as Okafor points out, Nollywood is part of the informal economy. It began without institutional support and blossomed into the fastest producing cinema hub in the world. On average, it takes about ten days from production to market. And as of 2013, Nollywood was valued at approximately $5 billion.

Senior Fellow at World Policy Institute, Kavitha Rajagopalan along with the panel: Jill S. Gross, Marc Norman, and Emeka Okafor.

As a result of Nollywood’s high rate of return, the Nigerian government has begun to embrace Nollywood as part of the formal economy. In doing so, the government has reconfigured its GDP to reflect the inclusion of Nollywood, making Nigeria the biggest African economy today.

The informal economy offers many opportunities– not only throughout Africa, but across the world. And yet, politicians, business leaders, and experts, to the detriment of many cities, are only now starting to pay it proper attention.

Gross explained that while Nollywood has become the informal sector success story, not all economies have fared as well with local government. In London, where demand for housing exceeds availability, rents have become unaffordable– particularly for migrant populations. To survive, many people have moved into abandoned or rundown houses, transforming them into squatting facilities. However, such arrangements are illegal. Recently, the government has taken action against squatters, forcing them onto the street or imprisoning them.

England is not the only country struggling to embrace informal sectors of housing and employment. Many of its European neighbors struggle with the same issue, despite the fact that 20 to 30 percent of their economies are funded by informal financial practices. Okafor argued that to rectify this division, government bodies will need to acknowledge the critical importance the informal sector plays in the development of the city center (much like Nigeria did in its accounting of Nollywood).

Gross also explained that in the past, “the ultimate paradigm for cities was growth.” In other words, the goal of cities was to continually expand its borders and horizons. However, the panelists agreed that growth without sustainable infrastructure is truly problematic. They argued that policymakers need to reconsider growth as the end game and begin considering sustainable development through a union of formal and informal partnerships.

Norman noted that cities in upstate New York were one example of how these partnerships are being put into practice. After a decline in manufacturing jobs across upstate New York, local governments decided on a plan to reinvigorate their struggling economies. Building a series of prison facilities from Utica to Rochester, they hoped the money tied to prisoner upkeep would soon follow. While it provided short term economic relief, it was not a long term solution. Today, cities in upstate New York are beginning to explore more permanent solutions that take into account the opportunities readily available in the informal sectors.

To conclude the discussion, Gross noted that while in the past, the informal and formal sectors were considered at odds with one another, that dichotomy no longer exists. The only solution to sustainable economic growth will be an integration of both financial platforms.


[Photos courtesy of Marguerite Ward]

Sarah Lipkis is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal, where a version of this piece originally appeared.  Special thanks to Michele Wucker, Kate Maloff and Yaffa Fredrick for their work on this program.

Making the Emergent City: A Panel Discussion | Posted on April 22nd, 2014 | Faculty Public Programs, Public Programs