I want to argue that the scale of acquisitions of major buildings in the past several decades marks a systemic transformation in the pattern of land ownership and the spatial distribution of people (e.g. less mixity, more segregation of the rich, and so on). This could alter the historic meaning of the city. Such a transformation has deep and significant implications for equity, democracy, and rights.1
The question becomes, at what point does the sharp rise in inequality become unacceptable? One of the issues with the current wave of acquisitions and developments, and their inevitable expulsions of the modest working and the middle classes, is their trespassing of acceptable levels of inequality as seen by the larger population of a city. This level may vary enormously across cities. Thus my concern here is not with some romantic notion of equality for all. It is the challenge of understanding when that inequality becomes unacceptable to many and destructive of the complex system of differences that is a city.
Most buildings in a city tend to be privately owned. It has been so in modern times in most, though not all, countries. It continues to be so today, but with a difference: the sharp rise in corporate buying of properties in most major cities of the world after the 2008 crisis, with many of those buildings underused and functioning mostly as a storage space for capital. That stands in sharp contrast with another accelerating trend in those same cities: the escalating price of modest housing which is now also excluding more and more of the middle classes. This has become an issue in these cities due to a variety of reasons, notably the threat it poses for the working and middle classes to get housing, as well as the urban impacts brought on by the proliferation of megaprojects where before there were once streets, little parks, and public offices that served residents’ needs.
What Makes Today’s Corporate Buying of Urban Properties so Problematic for a City?
It is easy to explain the surge of post-2008 acquisitions as more of the same. After all, the late 1980s saw rapid growth of national and foreign buying of office buildings and hotels, especially in New York and London, including, a large share of buildings in the City of London.2 Financial firms from countries as diverse as Japan and the Netherlands found that a strong foothold in London’s financial center facilitated access to Continental European capital and markets.
But an examination of the current post-2008 surge in acquisitions shows some significant differences and points towards a whole new phase in the character and logics of foreign and national corporate acquisitions. Let me add that I do not see much of a difference in terms of the urban impact between national and foreign investment. The key fact here is that both are corporate and large scale: this is what is critical. A measured concentration of such buildings adds to the variety and excitement of a city, especially if it includes great architecture. But the dominant trend is marked rather by too many nondescript towers.
Six Features Stand Out
One is the sharp scale-up in the buying of buildings, even in cities that have long been the object of such investments, notably New York City and London. The Chinese have most recently emerged as major buyers in major Global North cities, and now increasingly in the Global South. Today there are about a hundred cities worldwide that have become significant destinations for such acquisitions. Indeed, the rates of growth are far higher in some of these than they are in London and New York, even if the absolute numbers are still far higher in the top-tier cities. For example, foreign corporate buying of properties from 2013 to 2014 grew by 248 percent in Amsterdam/Randstad, 180 percent in Madrid, and 475 percent in Nanjing. In contrast, the growth rate was relatively lower for the major cities in each region: 68.5 percent for New York, 37.6 percent for London, and 160.8 percent for Beijing.
The latest estimate of the global value of real estate assets according to Savills is US$217 trillion; to clarify, this refers mostly to real estate that has been financialized (e.g. made into an asset-backed security) so it can be bought and sold in diverse markets several times a day, so to speak. This includes all types of properties. Large corporations buying such properties might use them as they are, renovate them, let them stand empty as a way of storing capital, tear them down in order to build a more valuable type of building that can deliver higher profits, or simply let them stand empty and use as a financial instrument (e.g. asset-backed securities) that can be used in global markets.
Taking just the two most recent years, corporate buying of existing properties reached over US$600 billion from mid-2013 to mid-2014, in the top hundred recipient cities, and over a trillion US dollars from mid-2014 to mid-2015.3 These figures include only major acquisitions; in the case of New York City, for instance, this means properties with a minimum price of five million US dollars. Further, this list includes only the buying of property; it excludes large amounts spent on site development and new construction.4
The second feature that stands out is the extent of new construction. That first globalizing phase of the 1980s–1990s was marked by the acquiring of known buildings: notably high-end Harrods in London and Saks Fifth Ave in New York, and trophy buildings, such as Rockefeller Center. There were however also some massive new developments, notably in London and Tokyo. Much buying of these buildings was and is with the intention of destroying and replacing them with far taller and more corporate and luxury buildings.
A third emergent feature, for now confined to a limited number of countries, is a financial innovation dressed in the clothing of a home mortgage which has led to a vast majority of its buyers being foreclosed and losing everything. Over sixteen million “mortgage” contracts were signed over a short period of six years. Most were on modest properties and modest-income households. Foreclosures reached catastrophic levels in the US over a brief period of six to ten years after purchase. The Federal Reserve data show that over fourteen and a half million households lost their homes between 2005 and 2014); this included well over thirty million people. One outcome is a vast number of empty or under-occupied land. How this land might be used is unclear. What gives added weight to this pattern is that this instrument, invented in the US, is now also being used in several European countries and some Asian countries. For instance, Germany at one point had over a million households under foreclosure; this was not insignificant for a country where most households rent rather than buy housing.5
The instrument involved is perversely brilliant in that it allows investors to use these mortgages in order to build asset-backed securities; it persuades what are in fact mostly low-income households that they can buy a house, asks them just to sign the contract, and not to pay anything for years. All the brokers asked for was a signature, no money. The profits were there to be made and were made in vast amounts, by selling the financial instrument as an asset-backed security to the high-level investor world. The asset was a piece of material from the houses involved. Given the extremely low value of the asset, the instrument mixed it up with high-grade debt—not just any debt, but high-grade debt to camouflage the weakness of the asset.
One result has been an abundance of unused houses in fairly central urban land. How this newly emptied urban ground will be used is not certain. Corporate acquisitions and site development may well become the next step. The redeployment of urban land towards new uses has emerged as a major trend of the current period—and is, of course, part of a long history of urban rebuilding.
A fourth feature is the development of a specific and closed market for high-end housing. This is an invented market with a price threshold that functions in a limited number of top-tier cities, that also account for a whole range of key global markets. It represents yet another claim on urban land. Inevitably this escalating concentration of power and high prices has also enabled the inventing of that new, managed real estate market; it is an instance of what economists call “matching markets.” It enables this set of real estate firms to control a good portion of the high-end real estate market.
A fifth feature is the acquisition of whole blocks of underutilized or dead industrial land for site development. Here the prices paid by buyers can get very high. One example is the acquisition of a vast stretch of land in New York City (Atlantic Yards) by one of the largest Chinese building companies for five billion dollars. It was land occupied by a mix of modest factories and industrial services, modest neighborhoods, artists’ studios, and more. This very urban mix of occupants will be thrown out and replaced by fourteen formidable luxury towers for residences. Here we will see a sharp growth of density that actually has the effect of deurbanizing that space, which will be a sort of de facto “gated” space. It will not be the dense mix of uses and diversity of people we think of as an urban setting. Such types of developments are taking off in many cities, mostly with virtual walls, but sometimes also with real ones. I would argue that with this type of development the virtual and actual walls have similar impacts on deurbanizing pieces of a city.
This proliferating urban gigantism has been strengthened and enabled by the privatizations and deregulations that took off in the 1990s across much of the “western” world, and have continued since then with only a few interruptions. The overall effect has been fewer public housing and an escalation of large corporate private ownership. This brings with it a thinning in the texture and scale of diverse modest public spaces that matter a lot in the poorer housing areas. And these losses include, for example, government office buildings serving the public, or handling the regulations and oversight of this or that public economic sector, or addressing complaints from the local neighborhood. But now it might all have been replaced by a corporate headquarters, a luxury apartment building, or a mall… and all guarded and controlled.
This spread of megaprojects with vast footprints inevitably kills much urban tissue: the little streets and squares, density of street-level shops, and low-key offices. Megaprojects may raise the density of the city, but they actually deurbanize it. Thereby they bring to the fore the fact, easily overlooked in many commentaries about cities, that density is not enough to have a city.
Density Does Not a City Make
We might ask why all of this matters to a city. Are cities not about density and built-up terrain?
What the above patterns make visible is that not all densities are the same and that some actually deurbanize the city even as they add density—for instance, by turning whole sections of a city into office enclaves and luxury apartment towers. Density matters. Yet the key is that a city is a complex but incomplete system: in this mix lies the capacity of cities across histories and geographies to outlive far more powerful but fully formalized and closed systems, from large corporations to governments. Bangkok, Beijing, Cairo, Johannesburg, London, New York, to mention just a few, have all survived multiple types of rulers and multiple types of economies.
Complexity and incompleteness enable the incorporation of diverse people, logics, politics, built ground, and much more. A large mixed city is a space where actors from different worlds can have an encounter for which there are no established rules of engagement. It is also a space where the powerless and the powerful can actually meet.
Further, in this combination of complexity and incompleteness also lies the possibility for those without power to be able to assert that “We are here,” “this is also our city.” Or, as the legendary statement by the fighting poor in Latin American cities famously spoke to power, “Estamos Presentes”: We are present, we are not asking for money, we are just letting you know that this is also our city.
It is in cities to a large extent where the powerless have left their imprint—whether cultural, economic, or social—even if mostly in their neighborhoods; eventually each one of these can spread to a vaster urban zone as “ethnic” food, music, therapies, and more. All of this cannot happen in a privately controlled office park, where low-wage workers can work, but not make. Nor can they in our increasingly militarized plantations and mines, though in the past these were spaces where powerless workers could gain that complexity in their powerlessness by the sheer concentration of their numbers. Today it is in cities where that possibility of gaining complexity in one’s powerlessness and leaving a historic trace can take place.
The trends examined here show us how a whole new type of urban construction and buying was able to raise the prices of housing in what had been seen as a hopeless situation. It amounted to a systemic transformation in the pattern of land ownership in a growing number of cities. This pattern begins to alter the historic meaning of the city. Such a transformation has deep and significant implications for equity, democracy, and rights.
This is particularly so because what was small and/or public is becoming large and private. And even if this transformation comes with local government support, such shifts are privatizing urban space if only because of the typically vast footprint of these private projects. The trend is to move from small properties embedded in city areas that are crisscrossed by streets and small public squares to projects that erase much of this public tissue of streets and squares via megaprojects and their large footprints. This privatizes and deurbanizes city space, no matter the added density. It does not add to mixity and diversity. It implants a whole new formation in our cities—in the shape of a jungle of high-rise luxury buildings. These new implants contain a logic all their own, one that cannot be urbanized in the specific/idiosyncratic terms of a given city—that is, it cannot be tamed into becoming part of the logics of the city into which it inserts itself. Their logic retains its full autonomy while giving us, the community, back its fullest effects.
The new owners, often mostly part-time inhabitants, are very international but that does not mean that they represent many diverse cultures and traditions: they represent the new global culture of the successful. They are astoundingly homogeneous no matter how diverse their countries of birth and languages. The capacity to process so much difference via a complex global corporate project that can deliver the global successful subject is, in itself, an admirable one, if only it were put to better use. This is not quite the “urban subject” that our large, mixed cities have historically produced. This is above all a global “corporate” subject.
Across time much of urban change is almost inevitably predicated on expelling what was there. Since their beginnings, whether 3000 years old or a hundred, cities have kept reinventing themselves and that means there were both winners and losers. Urban histories are replete with accounts of those who were once poor and quasi-outsiders, or modest middle classes, and then gained ground—because cities have long accommodated extraordinary variety. We do not want to lose this capability.
When I ask myself where today’s frontier zone lies, my answer is: in our large cities. The frontier is a space where actors from different worlds have an encounter for which there are no established rules of engagement. In the old historic frontier, this led to either negotiation with Indigenous peoples or, mostly, to their persecution and oppression. The frontier space that is today’s large, mixed city offers far more options. Those with power to some extent do not want to be bothered by the poor, and the mode is often to abandon them to their own devices. In some cities (for instance in the US and in Brazilian cities) there is extreme and systemic police violence, and yet, this can often become a public issue, which is something, perhaps a first step in longer trajectories of gaining at least some rights. It is in cities where so many of these struggles for vindication have taken place and have, in the long run, partially succeeded.
This possibility of complexity in one’s powerlessness is also evident in the building of modest neighborhoods: how these can generate positive effects for its residents, including the making of a history, a culture, and so much more. All of this is today threatened by the surge in large-scale corporate redevelopment of this kind of neighborhood, where the big winners are more often than not those corporations. We want some spectacular buildings—it adds to the mix. But we do not want massive takeovers of urban space to build a jungle of towers whose main impact is displacement and privatization of what was once a street or a park.
Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and former Chair of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. Her books include Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (2014), Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (2008), A Sociology of Globalization (2007), Losing Control: Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization (1995), Cities in a World Economy (1994), The Global City (1991), and The Mobility of Labor and Capital (1988).