Cities in Europe

The European city concept derives from Max Weber and historians of the Middle Ages. In ‘‘The City,’’ Weber characterizes the medieval western city – in modern language, western European city – as having the following features: a fortification, a market, and a specifically urban economy of consumption, exchange, and production; a court of law and the ability to ordain a set of rules and laws; rules relating to landed property (since cities were not subject to the taxes and constraints of feudalism); and a structure based on associations (of guilds) and – at least partial – political autonomy, expressed in particular through the existence of an administrative body and the participation of the burghers in local government. This combination of political autonomy, religious culture, specifically urban economy, and differentiated social structure, all surrounded by a wall, made the western city an original sociological category and a structuring element in the Europe of the Middle Ages between 1000 and 1500. This golden age of urban Europe reached its high point at the end of the Middle Ages, when feudal structures were gradually fading, but before the states had established their domination everywhere (Tilly 1990).


The ‘‘western city’’ model elaborated by Weber defines an original set of analytical perspectives to analyze cities from a sociological perspective. Firstly, the ‘‘western city’’ is characterized as an ideal type by contrast to the Oriental city in particular. There is no general theory of urbanization and convergence of cities here, but rather the analysis of differences and complex causal mechanisms. Comparison over time and between regions of the world allows Weber to characterize a particular social structure and its evolution over time.

Secondly, the European city is analyzed as a political actor. Weber analyzes the mechanisms of aggregation and representation of interest and culture that bring together local social groups, associations, organized interests, private firms, and urban governments and also the competition between different powers such as bishops, lords, burghers, and sometimes the state, between the great families, or between cities themselves, i.e., in political and institutional terms. Indeed, the power of the burghers led to the creation of the communes. A commune was characterized by its own political rights, by autonomous courts and economic policy, and less frequently by international policy and a military force.

Thirdly, the western European city is analyzed as an original social structure dominated by a new social class, the burghers. The city is conceived as an integrated local society and as a complex social formation, sometimes a local society. Bagnasco stresses the fact that Weber analyzed cities as a group, equipped with an administrative apparatus and with a leader, regulating the economy. The creation of the city as collective actor came about through the formation of confederacies of burghers – a bourgeoisie as collective actor, which can take different forms.

The Europe of cities was not just the Europe of early capitalism and of merchants but also that of intellectuals, universities, and culture that launched the Renaissance. The medieval European city was the crucible of European societies, in which new cultural and political models developed by contrast and opposition to the principles of feudal societies. The city gave rise to new social relations and cultural and organizational innovations, which were furthered by interactions between the various populations living within it. The conditions of the city promoted mechanisms for learning a collective way of life, for innovation and spreading innovation, rapid accumulation, transformation of behaviors, interplay of competition and cooperation, and processes of social differentiation engendered by proximity. But medieval European cities were progressively integrated within nation states. The founding fathers of sociology were taken by the strength of the Industrial Revolution and the making of modern national societies. European cities were no longer original social structures but were absorbed in the making of national societies. Therefore, urban sociologists, Georg Simmel and his analysis of the metropolis, sociologists at the University of Chicago, or later writers in the Marxist political economy tradition did not follow that line of analysis. Instead they concentrated on both the rapid rise of industrial cities and the modern metropolis defined by contrast to the western city ideal type.

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Cities in Europe: A Distinctive Feature of European Societies

Cities in Europe include industrial cities of the nineteenth century, a small number of large metropolises, and a stable bulk of medium sized cities.

Over the twentieth century, the issue of the city in Europe was not an important one. Analysis of European societies, including cities, was exclusively focused upon the nation state framework. Differences of language, social structure, and culture were reinforced by the strengthening of the nation state and wars. This increased both differentiation between European societies and integration within each national society, i.e., the dual movement in which borders are strengthened and the inside is differentiated from the outside, while an internal order is organized and a national society gradually homogenizes despite international relations. Social relations, classes, and politics were defined not in urban terms but in national terms. These elements of national societies have been more or less in place since the late nineteenth century in most European countries. Cities were therefore analyzed within national categories as, for example, Swedish, Italian, or Dutch cities.

Urban sociologists were interested in the convergence of cities as industrial cities, or as modern metropolises with differentiated neighborhood and ever expanding suburbs. In the nineteenth century, the city became the site of capitalist industrial development. Concentration in great metropolises and large industrial areas lent a different dynamic to cities, changing them both socially and physically (Hohenberg & Hollen Lees 1985). Outside Great Britain, the greatest impact of industrialization was in creating the industrial cities of the German Ruhr, Wallonia, and Upper Silesia in Prussia, with a lesser effect on the ports and industrial areas of Scandinavia, Holland, and France. The impact of the Industrial Revolution was much more limited in Southern Europe (with the exception of Bilbao and the Asturias), and it was not until the end of the century that the impact of industrialization was seen in the northwest triangle of Italy (Turin, Genoa, Milan) and in Barcelona, Bilbao, Oporto, and Lisbon. As industrialization developed, it benefited the major cities that already existed.

By contrast, the rise in the nineteenth century of the modern metropolises of London, Berlin, Paris, and Vienna was associated with the making of nation states and their empires. Capital cities benefited from the consolidation of states, the shift of political life onto the national level, and their capacity for control, as well as from industrial development and colonization. They absorbed a large part of the flow of migration, thus providing sizable reserves of labor. They were the first beneficiaries of the transport revolution, from tram ways to road and rail networks. As university cities and cultural centers, they were the focus of unrest and the sites of the political and social revolts that punctuated the nineteenth century. The great metropolis became the site of consumption, of department stores and wide avenues, of hyperstimulation that changed the urban cultural experience. This led also to physical transformation with the ever increasing diffusion of urbanization around those large metropolises, hence the rise of suburbs, either working class suburbs such as the red belt in Paris, or bourgeois suburbs where the middle classes abandoned the center of English cities. The rise of the large metropolis then became an American phenomenon: New York and Chicago, and later Los Angeles, gradually replaced European cities in the urban imagination of the modernist metropolis.

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European Cities in the European Union

The issue of cities of Europe and of European cities experienced a resurgence in the 1980s, for two reasons. Firstly, the growing field of comparative empirical urban research stressed the growth and dynamism of middle size cities all over Europe. They were even booming in some cases, such as in France or Scandinavia. Secondly, it was related to the question of European societies that emerged because of the acceleration of the political project of European integration and increased interdependence between national societies, the rise of globalization, and the tensions within national societies. Searching for common ground to define European societies in comparison with the US or Japan, scholars such as Therborn (1985) identified European cities as a major distinctive feature of European societies. Following Therborn’s insights and building upon the work of historians, Bagnasco and Le Gale`s (2000; Le Gale`s 2002) developed the Weberian perspective to portray European cities as a particular type of social structure within the urban world. By contrast, a great deal of the urban socio logical research of the 1990s was once again examining convergence patterns between cities throughout the world, either the rise of ‘‘global cities’’ or the complete urbanization of the world following the Los Angeles model. However, empirical research in Europe showed different results.

Contemporary European cities are characterized by the following features. They are part of an old urban system, constituted in the Middle Ages, which has remained more or less stable – meta stability – over time. The industrial period appeared as a parenthesis in the making of urban Europe; it had a massive impact only in Britain and Germany. This long term stability is also visible: most cities are organized around the center, main squares, monuments, and buildings of power; in part the physical form of the center has kept its organization and symbolic meaning over time. Setting aside London, Paris, the Randstad, and the Rhine/ Ruhr region, Western Europe is made up mainly of medium sized cities with populations between 200,000 and 2 million. Even if one takes into account the larger metropolitan area, most European metropolitan areas are medium sized by contrast to the US and Japan, where large metropolises dominate the urban map. The form of the city, the existence of public spaces, and the mix of social groups all suggest the idea of a continuing sense of ‘‘urbanity’’ characterizing European cities (Zijderveld 1998). Despite sprawl, the resistance of the old city centers epitomizes their peculiarity. One can take the example of public collective transport together with pedestrian areas and cycle paths to demonstrate the strength of the idea of the European city.

Beyond this long term stability, and by sharp contrast to the literature on the urban crisis in the US and the UK or the rise of global cities, medium sized European cities have enjoyed considerable economic and often demographic growth and dynamism since the early 1980s (but not everywhere; growth has been less in Southern Europe in particular).

In order to explain this dynamism of medium sized European cities – with the notable exception of the UK – several points need to be noted. Firstly, European cities are characterized by a mix of public services and private firms, including a robust body of middle class and lower middle class public sector workers (about a third of the jobs on average), who constitute a firm pillar of the social structure. They are organized in trade unions and political parties, and support public investment in cities.

A second point worth mentioning is the fact that European cities, although they are gaining more autonomy, are still structured and organized within European states – in particular, welfare states. According to OECD figures, Western European state taxes represent over 45 percent of annual GDP, in contrast to 32 percent in the US. This huge gap then translates into jobs in social services, education, and so on, which are crucially concentrated in cities. The social structure of medium sized European cities is therefore a major element of continuous political support for investment in urban amenities, services, and utilities. Moreover, because of the ongoing decentralization trend in most European countries, except in the UK, an average of about 60 percent of public investment is now controlled by local authorities in Europe and more importantly in cities, hence there is a constant flow of investment in collective services in the cities, in particular in schools, hospitals, social services, housing, planning, transport, culture, and so on.

Thirdly, European cities are becoming more European, in the sense that the institutionalization of the European Union (EU) is creating rules, norms, procedures, repertoires, and public policies that have an impact on most, if not all, cities. The EU also is a powerful agent of legitimation. By designing urban public policies and agreeing (under the influence of city interests) to mention the idea of ‘‘a Europe of cities’’ as one of the components of the EU, it is giving a boost to cities to act and behave as actors within EU governance. Now part of an increasing number of transnational networks, European cities are being recognized as such.

Fourthly, the economy is becoming more urban and, beyond global cities, medium sized regional capitals – usually well equipped in research centers, universities, and diversified economic sectors – have benefited in terms of job growth. Last but not least, the continuing representation of the city as a whole, as well as the increased legitimacy of political elites in sustaining and reinventing the idea of European cities, has helped the making of modes of governance of European cities.

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European Cities as Incomplete Local Societies and Political Actors

Beyond the relevance of the category ‘‘European cities’’ (for a debate see Kazepov 2004), the updated Weberian perspective on studying cities suggests going beyond the fluidity of day to day interactions and encounters on the one hand and determinist globalization trends on the other (Marcuse & Van Kempen 2000). Cities may be more or less structured in their economic and cultural exchanges and their different actors may be related to each other in the same local context with long term strategies, investing their resources in a coordinated way and adding to the riches of the social capital. In this case, the urban society appears as well structured and visible, and one can detect forms of (relative) integration. If not, the city reveals itself as less structured and as such no longer a significant subject for study: somewhere where decisions are made externally by separate actors. This analysis suggests looking at the interplay and conflicts of social groups, interests, and institutions, and the way in which regulations have been put in place through conflicts and the logics of integration. Cities do not develop solely according to interactions and contingencies: groups, actors, and organizations oppose one another, enter into conflict, coordinate, produce representations in order to institutionalize collective forms of action, implement policies, structure inequalities, and defend their interests. This perspective on cities high lights the informal economy, the dynamism of localized family relations, the interplay of associations, reciprocity, culture and ways of life, the density of localized horizontal relations, and local social formations (Kazepov 2004).

European cities are not immune to common pressures in terms of immigration, rising inequalities, suburban sprawl, or network fragmentation. However, European cities remain strong within metropolitan areas in the making, governance issues are now more visible within European cities, as are the interdependence and interrelation between different actors and organizations – all things that used to be represented and made visible on the national and European scene. This new found visibility of interdependence gives opportunities to social and political actors to be involved in modes of urban governance or, by contrast, to increase the fragmentation and dislocation of European cities. European cities have not (yet?) been dislocated and they have considerable resources on which to draw in adapting to or resisting the new frame of constraints and opportunities.

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  1. Bagnasco, A. & Le Gales, P. (Eds.) (2000) Cities in Contemporary Europe. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  2. Crouch, C. (1999) Social Changes in Western Europe. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  3. Hohenberg, P. & Hollen Lees, L. (1985) The Making of Urban Europe. Harvard, Harvard University Press.
  4. Kazepov, Y. (Ed.) (2004) Cities of Europe: Changing Context, Local Arrangements, and the Challenge to Urban Cohesion. Blackwell, Oxford.
  5. Le Gale`s, P. (2002) European Cities, Social Conflicts, and Governance. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  6. Marcuse, P. & Van Kempen, M. (Eds.) (2000) Globalizing Cities: A New Spatial Order? Oxford, Blackwell.
  7. Pirenne, H. (1956) Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade. Doubleday Anchor, Garden City, NY.
  8. Therborn, G. (1985) European Modernity and Beyond. Sage, London.
  9. Tilly, C. (1990) Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990. Oxford, Blackwell.
  10. Tilly, C. & Blockmans, W. (Eds.) (1994) Cities and the Rise of States in Europe. Westview Press, Boulder, CO.
  11. Weber, M. (1978) Economy and Society. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  12. Zijderveld, A. C. (1998) A Theory of Urbanity. Transaction, New Brunswick, NJ.

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