It’s the Geography, Stupid! Planetary Urbanization Revealed

Covid-19 spread so rapidly because urbanization is now planetary: connecting disparate territories through flows of goods and people.

Public Books and the French magazine La Vie des Idées have partnered to exchange a series of essays about the COVID-19 pandemic. Today’s essay was originally published in LVdI on May 12, 2020, and in its English-language mirror website, Books and Ideas, on June 1, 2020.

During spring 2020, a large share of humanity was affected by the government lockdowns enforced to contain the spread of COVID-19. On all continents, governments have brutally disrupted the flows of trade, crippled the economic machine, and destabilized societies. They have also severely restricted public freedoms. That these political decisions were made almost simultaneously is exceptional. So too is the fact that the outcome will be a recession on a scale unprecedented since the 1930s.

Limiting lockdown to where the outbreaks occurred might have been preferable. A few countries (such as China and Italy) initially attempted to do so. Yet, as of last spring, the vast majority of lockdowns did concern full countries. Why did nationwide lockdown measures—which have high economic and social costs—appear worldwide as the only solution?

The answer is only partly because of the virus itself. Yes, the virus infects hosts from whom it can spread imperceptibly.1 But this biological mechanism has allowed the virus to take advantage of another, social mechanism: planetary urbanization. Because of the interconnected urban spaces spread out across the globe, the virus bypassed the usual “local” measures (such as the establishment of containment zones and quarantines in infected areas). In this way, economic rule—as the overriding issue in public policies—has come up against a new geographic reality, one that economics, in fact, has largely created.


The Urban Is Out of the City

What is urban? Traditionally, the definition of “urban” is contrasted with rural, where there is a juxtaposition of relatively autonomous groups. There is interaction among villages, but they can survive (almost) independently. In the urban world, on the contrary, every part of the territory makes a contribution to the functioning of the whole. Every urban neighborhood depends on the contributions of others for its survival. In this way, the big city, with its different neighborhoods and districts, traditionally embodies the urban.

Today, however, the urban has ramified spatially. The so-called “global” city is deeply embedded in international flows of goods, people, materials, and capital: for example, the head office of a company may be in Paris, but its factories and customer-service centers will likely not be in the Parisian suburbs, but rather in Wuhan or Rabat.

Big cities are also linked to holiday resorts, as we saw when their residents migrated at the onset of the lockdown. These areas are often considered to be the countryside. Yet they, too, are very urban. In fact, seaside villages and ski resorts are as urban as big cities, because they function, above all, in relation to other quite distant places: where second homeowners and, more generally, holidaymakers live. These places, which are dedicated to leisure, also have an essential urban quality: a mix of populations that includes seasonal workers, permanent residents, and visitors who, in some cases, may come from all over the world.

On a more limited scale, if we consider the spaces that people may travel through daily on their way to work, major cities depend directly on areas located well beyond their designated perimeters. Rural areas are home to the working and lower-middle classes. Their role, as we have seen with the Yellow Vest movement in France, is to stoke—that is, support and power—the metropolitan economies. The residents of an average French city may employ the local plumber, but, at the same time, they eat meat from animals fed on Latin American soybean, watch television on Korean screens, or use Algerian petrol. In other words, the metabolism of a place links it to the entire planet.

This exemplifies the concept of “planetary urbanization,”2 which is intrinsically linked to the globalization of capitalism. Basically, the spread of planetary urbanization involves four inextricably connected processes: (1) the disappearance of “wild” zones, (2) the global interconnectedness of territories, (3) the blurred division between town and country, and (4) the globalization of urban inequalities.


A Virus at the Heart of Planetary Urbanization

First: human diseases of animal origin, including zoonoses, represent 60 percent of infectious diseases globally and three-quarters of the new pathogenic agents detected in recent decades. These diseases generally come from “wild” zones. They may emerge on livestock farms, but in such case the virus usually develops through contamination by wild animals. Therefore, zoonotic diseases are connected to the disappearance of the “wild,” which itself is linked to planetary urbanization.

Throughout the world, the areas considered “wild” are being transformed and degraded by the advance of urbanization in all its forms, whether through mining deposits, planting rubber, or constructing new cities. These advances upset ecosystems and establish new contacts between fauna, flora, and humans.3 As if we still needed proof, the emergence of COVID-19 demonstrates the permeability of the supposed boundary between nature and culture. This permeability is increasing constantly as a result of planetary urbanization.

Second: another key feature of the hypothesis of planetary urbanization is the emergence of “urban galaxies,” whose different elements interact with the entire planet almost simultaneously. The acceleration of planetary urbanization has clearly been underestimated, which has meant that governments were even more ill prepared for the emergence of the coronavirus.

The urban has ramified spatially. The so-called “global” city is deeply embedded in international flows of goods, people, materials, and capital.

Eight centuries ago, the Black Death took 15 years to travel the Silk Road to reach Europe. The recent major epidemics spread faster, but not nearly as fast as COVID-19. In 2003, four months after the emergence of SARS-CoV, there were 1,600 recorded cases of contamination in the world, compared to 900,000 for SARS-CoV-2 after the same length of time, which is five hundred times faster. Yet less than two decades ago, globalization was nothing like what it is now: in 2018, the estimated number of passengers traveling by plane was 4.2 billion, almost three times higher than in 2003. And Wuhan airport, one of China’s main hubs, played a key role in this dynamic. Thus, the virus was dispersed outside China at a speed that few people had genuinely anticipated.

Everybody knows that many goods are imported from China. But many people tend to imagine factories that manufacture a plethora of objects at low cost, which allows Western working classes to carry on being part of the consumer society. Yet we are a long way from a simple exchange of low-cost goods for high-value-added products. The flows are much more complex and multiform, because of delocalizations and the globalization of manufacturing chains.

Thus, in Wuhan, there are a hundred French businesses, including some national champions, notably car manufacturers Renault and the PSA Group. Their factories produce hundreds of thousands of vehicles, far from the cheap products associated with China, and are banking on the globalization of the Western lifestyle. These economic relations go hand in hand with intense human flows of executives, engineers, and sales representatives, along with those who manage the logistical flows. With COVID-19, Europe has learned—to its cost—that China is an integral part of its world, or, rather, that Europe is no more than one element in a vast network in which Chinese territories are also key elements.

Third: another central element of the planetary-urbanization hypothesis is that a metropolis can no longer be reduced to a dense vertical city. Obviously, the halls of economic power (notably, financial power) are manifest in the business districts that bristle with towers. However, that density is merely an emblem of metropolitanization (and even of the city itself). The contemporary metropolis is by no means just a historic center with a business district. It should be considered, rather, as an array of interlacing networks, which provide day-to-day links with places that have very diverse forms, sizes, and functions.


Pandemic Syllabus

By David Barnes et al.

With the first European clusters, the virus revealed the role of metropolitan fringes in the globalization of industrial value chains.4 Indeed, the flows do not just concern the business quarters in major cities: they are also woven between sites of production. For example, the intensity of the links between the textile factories in the Val Seriana and China explains why this peri-urban territory located northeast of Bergamo became the site of one of the first Italian outbreaks. In Germany, the infection was first identified in Starnberg, a municipality of 23,000 inhabitants situated 26 kilometers from Munich, but connected to the rest of the world through its automobile-parts manufacturing plant.

Of course, major city centers have become epicenters of the epidemic (New York being the best example), so much so that people are calling into question what has been perceived as major cities’ main economic advantage until now: their potential for dense and intense exchanges. But the fact remains that the first European outbreaks were not identified in metropolitan centers.

Let us sum up the main points so far, before diving into the most pressing point. Given the fuzzy urban boundaries, the spread of networks formed by cores of urbanization, and the intensity of the population flows that travel along these networks, isolating individual clusters of the virus was impossible. The only limits to containment zones that could be established were the good old national borders. Yet, these borders often remained quite permeable because, as we’ve seen, international supply chains could not be interrupted and cross-border workers were indispensable.


The Planetarization of Urban Inequalities

A fourth key element that characterises planetary urbanization: the reconfiguration of the spatial dimension of inequalities. And inequalities play an important role in terms of the impact of COVID-19 on our societies. Pandemics occur, above all, in times when social disparities increase. Peter Turchin observes a historic correlation between the level of inequalities, the intensity of links between distant places, and the virulence of pandemics. Indeed, the more a class asserts its wealth, the more it spends on conspicuous consumption, often in the form of luxury products from faraway places.

Viruses travel primarily with long-distance trade. This is not a new phenomenon: the almost-simultaneous collapse of the Chinese and Roman Empires in the first few centuries AD can partly be explained by the virulent epidemics that spread along the trade routes. However, mobility then was incommensurate with mobility today. In terms of global human flows, the difference is particularly striking among the upper classes. Their sociability has always been international—indeed, cosmopolitan. But their mobility has taken on a new dimension with the impact of globalization and planetary urbanization.

how can tracking be conducted without impinging on fundamental freedoms?

Consequently, in the face of a new, extremely social virus that is difficult to detect, the upper classes had become, collectively, a potential super-spreader. Their role in the winter of 2020 proved to be just that.

When we reconsider the chronology of the different outbreaks around the world, the prominence of places frequented by the upper classes is striking. In Brazil, the epidemic spread from a Rio beach club—in fact, the most select in the country. In Hong Kong, the first outbreaks were in upscale hotels (as with SARS). In Egypt, some passengers (mostly of European or North American origin) were infected on a Nile cruise, along with the Egyptian crew. In Australia, a cruise was also at issue: the virus spread after infected passengers, who disembarked from an ocean liner, were scattered across the country. In Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, the spread of COVID-19 was linked to the return of holidaymakers from ski resorts in the Alps, notably Ischgl. In Eastern Europe, skiing was also implicated: the virus spread to Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus from fashionable clubs and restaurants in Courchevel. Even South Africa was contaminated via the Alps: the first official report of the virus was linked to a holidaymaker returning from a few days skiing in Italy. In Mexico and the United States, transmission chains have also been traced back to the slopes in Colorado. One last example: in Uruguay, cases multiplied following a high-society wedding, which was attended by a fashion designer just back from holiday in Spain.

The impression that international contagion was elitist may have been strengthened by the fact that getting a hold of tests was difficult. (This reflects another form of inequality in the face of the pandemic.) Nonetheless, unlike tuberculosis or cholera, which kill primarily in poor countries and slums, the new epidemic did not initially hit dense working-class districts. It spread, rather, through upper-class networks built on practices that involve intense, ephemeral sociability in multiple locations.5

Therefore, the groups that reap the most benefits from planetary urbanization were the first to be hit by the virus. It spread thanks to their mobility. That is why Europe rapidly surpassed China as the main disseminator of the virus.6

The European hue of the virus in the first stages of its transmission outside East Asia also explains why the neologism “coronization” has spread in Africa and India. The virus’s initial association with the upper classes explains why a governor in Mexico publicly claimed that poor people were immune to COVID-19. Similarly, in predominantly Black districts in the United States, COVID-19 was perceived as a “rich, white” disease for a while.


From the Flows of Globalization to Poor Areas

The idea that this was primarily an elite disease quickly petered out. Over time, the virus spread more broadly, both spatially and socially. Here again, the hypothesis of planetary urbanization helps understand how.

First of all, globalization has its stokers.7 Singapore is a case in point: the virus was also carried by people referred to as “migrants” rather than “expatriates,” albeit at a much slower rate than in the wealthy categories. Their living conditions in overcrowded dormitories accelerated the rate of transmission, where it was harder to control than in the condominiums in wealthy districts. In general, social distancing is difficult in shantytowns and slums. Yet they are a major feature of planetary urbanization and provide shelter to a substantial proportion of the population in megacities in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.8

The virus also spread along the networks that make up the metropolitan systems. The migration that followed the lockdowns revealed the full extent and diversity of territorial interdependences, which go far beyond the suburbs and the peri-urban rings. This migration was prevented in some countries, such as China and Norway. However, in India and several African countries (including Madagascar, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo), we saw a huge number of migrants, living precariously in the heart of the megacities, for whom returning to the country was a matter of survival. In rich countries where migration was not prohibited before lockdown enforcement, such as the United States and France, students went back to their parents’ homes if they could, and the better-off left the major cities for more comfortable residences.9

The pandemic’s trajectory has highlighted the spatial nature of inequalities. Indeed, for those at the bottom of the social ladder, teleworking was often impossible and daily mobility continued, especially into dense zones where activities are concentrated. During lockdown, it was primarily the residents in working-class districts who had to keep going to their workplace and having contact with others. (Obviously, wealthier categories such as doctors still traveled to work, but there are fewer of them proportionally.) Added to the working classes’ greater dependence on public transport, this mobility significantly helped spread the virus among them. It explains why there is a higher concentration of cases and more deaths in working-class areas.

In the first outbreak reported in the United States, at a retirement home in Kirkland, in the suburbs of Seattle, the employees, mostly women, helped spread the virus. They were reluctant to mention that they were contaminated, not because of social stigma (as in some affluent circles at the start of the pandemic), but quite simply because they were afraid of losing their jobs and did not have sick leave. In addition, such employees often have several precarious jobs, perhaps including one in the restaurant sector, whose role in the spread of the virus is well known.

Montpellier, late March 2020: a queue outside a supermarket. Photograph by Max Rousseau

In this way, COVID-19 highlights the new territorial inequalities that are a product of planetary urbanization. Although worldwide links usually benefit the wealthy classes,10 working-class areas, above all, have become epicenters despite being some distance from the initial outbreaks. For example, in Europe and the United States, the main outbreaks occurred at ski resorts, but Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest department in France, and Detroit, one of the most impoverished big cities in the United States, quickly became epicenters. In New Orleans, the spread of the pandemic was boosted by Mardi Gras, when the infection was imported by tourists and revelers, some even having the good taste to dress up as a virus. The city’s poor districts have been paying one of the heaviest tolls in the entire United States.11

Research must refine the general outline provided here, but the overall picture is clear. COVID-19 reveals the magnitude of the inequalities associated with planetary urbanization: on the one hand are members of the upper class who, in their travels for work or pleasure, have carried the virus all over the world; and on the other hand are the far more sedentary working classes, who often work in their service. The latter will pay the highest price for the pandemic.


A Government of Planetary Urbanization?

It is obviously important to avoid jumping to conclusions. The pandemic’s impact will depend particularly on its duration. If it is curbed rapidly for some reason, we can expect a return to normal. However, if the virus sticks around, social relationships and the economy will be severely disrupted.

Therefore, the COVID-19 crisis, which is partly the outcome of planetary urbanization, could affect it profoundly in return. In particular, the virus could modify the established hierarchies between the types of urban spaces. Notwithstanding the locations of the first phases of the pandemic’s spread, a fear of dense cities is likely to resurface. In fact, once the epidemic was established, the virus spread much faster in large and dense urban centers and their suburbs.

The lines will shift slowly, but a new cycle may develop that would be less favorable to density. Although this projection is currently up for debate, a resurfaced fear of cities among the wealthier classes could reduce the real-estate pressure on the major metropolitan centers and make them slightly more accessible to the menial workers who stoke the metropolitan economies. Undoubtedly, this would also mean that more political consideration would be given to peri-urban and rural areas. However, such a shift would increase pressure on environmental resources in these areas (due to competition between agricultural and residential uses of land, an increase of pollution generated by private car use, and so forth).

COVID-19 reveals the magnitude of the inequalities associated with planetary urbanization.

These changes highlight the need to democratize and expand the scale of urban governance and government, which are currently too focused on central areas. Current and future disputes over land use—environmental preservation, housing distribution, and agricultural and industrial relocation—can only be discussed and mediated effectively in the broader context of vast metropolitan regions.

On another scale, COVID-19 also underscores how the planet is governed. With planetary urbanization, the interdependency among places, territories, and areas has largely overcome national borders. In addition, international exchanges have become more complex and multi-scalar, in the sense that it is not France that has come into contact with China. Instead, the Contamines-Montjoie ski resort (one of the main initial clusters of the virus in France) found itself connected to a forest in Hubei via an English tourist returning from a conference in Singapore, where he had met other Chinese executives, one of whom may have dined with a doctor friend, who works in a hospital in Wuhan.

How can links like this be governed? This brings us back to the beginning of the article. We can put forward the hypothesis that a measure as brutal and blind as a lockdown was imposed on billions of individuals because of the impossibility of weaning us abruptly off the flows borne by planetary urbanization, combined with the failure to control them.

Governing flows of people is the focus of current discussions around tracking and monitoring the contacts of people who are potentially ill. The problem here is that the specter of tighter control and surveillance looms, as Foucault observed when the plague struck. Many people fear that efforts to control population flows will involve disciplinary measures or even constitute a threat to freedom. All the more so because multinational companies who supply security and electronic-surveillance systems are keen to market their products to states aiming to strengthen their capacity to protect their citizens.


Working in China in the COVID-19 Era

By Gilles Guiheux et al.

In this context, how can tracking be conducted without impinging on fundamental freedoms? This type of question, which is almost impossible to answer positively, has forced most governments to conclude that the virus will be difficult to eliminate. Indeed, a country that implements the necessary measures would severely restrict its relationships with its neighbors. New Zealand, a country where the virus seems to have virtually disappeared, has imposed stringent border controls since March 2020, including a quarantine for at least 14 days on all its nationals returning from abroad, and a simple banning of foreigners, with few exceptions. Can this continue for much longer when the virus is still on the country’s doorstep?

Given that COVID-19’s morbidity, unlike SARS’s, does not seem totally unacceptable to many people, striving to live with the disease has seemed to be the “least bad” solution. Thus, numerous countries have stopped trying to eliminate the virus and instead are striving to control the spread by social distancing (of which lockdown is an extreme version). They are betting that with a treatment, a vaccine, or group immunity, the pandemic will end up becoming as banal as the flu.

This wager has already brought a first, devastating lockdown, with no guarantee that others will be ruled out. Indeed, as we write, most governments are struggling to find solutions in order to avoid new lockdowns. If the virus continues to disrupt social and economic exchanges, a growing number of people will be asking whether planetary urbanization is really worth it after all.


The authors would like to thank Philippe Genestier, Maxime Decout, Pascal Séverac and the editorial staff of La Vie des Idées for their critical comments after reading the first draft of this article.


Translated from the French by Isis Olivier, with the support of the CIRAD and of the ANR project GELULE. icon

  1. The characteristics specific to the virus obviously play a role. Clearly, sacrificing the economy and social life for physical health is not directly due to the virus’s mortality rate: estimated at between 0.4 and 1.3 percent, it is much lower than that of recent epidemics, notably SARS (11 percent) and MERS (34 percent). In addition, COVID-19 is not particularly contagious, with a reproductive rate (or R zero) not very different from that of SARS, a disease whose spread was contained. However, COVID-19 has specific characteristics that make its spread particularly difficult to control. It spreads quite rapidly and is hard to detect, because many people show no apparent symptoms but are contagious nonetheless.
  2. A recent discussion described these changes precisely. It was triggered when the concept of “planetary urbanization” was revised on the basis of earlier proposals by Henri Lefebvre (about the extension of urban society and urban fabric toward “complete urbanization”). In a work published in 2014, Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid advocate a complete overhaul of the traditional categories of analysis, starting with the distinction between town and country. The ambitious theories presented in this work sparked intense discussions, but struggled to win approval, because of the lack of convincing empirical evidence. However, since the outbreak and spread of COVID-19, and in the wake of the public response to the health crisis and its economic and social repercussions, many recent events can be read and better understood through the prism of planetary urbanization. As a result, this crisis provides a crucial empirical boost to Brenner and Schmid’s hypothesis.
  3. The geographers who have conducted research on recent pandemics, particularly SARS, have shown that the advance of urbanization plays a key role in the emergence of new infectious agents. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the major new viruses have emerged in territories (China, West Africa, the Middle East) where the advance of urbanization is unbridled in the extreme, multiplying new contacts between human societies and the wildest remaining regions.
  4. Discourses on the geography of globalization often contrast connected metropolitan centers with outlying and remote territories. Yet the spread of the virus reveals that the geography of globalization is far more complex. In France, the first clusters were identified in Méry-sur-Oise (a municipality with roughly 10,000 inhabitants, situated on the edge of the Parisian suburbs), Les Contamines-Montjoie (an alpine ski resort), La Balme-de-Sillingy (a village in the peri-urban area near Annecy, a small city), and an evangelical church in Mulhouse, a shrinking city. Such places are a long way from France’s major metropolitan centers. In Italy, the first clusters were also villages or small towns (Codogno or Vo’), rather than the central districts of Milan or Venice.
  5. Singapore is a good example of how the virus spread along social classes. The first confirmed case goes back to  January 23. It concerns a Chinese man from Wuhan who went to an upmarket resort. The first nonimported infections were reported on February 4, in a shop frequented by Chinese tourists. It was not until April, two months later, that the epidemic affected more modest social groups, when an outbreak was reported in a dormitory of migrant workers. Given the dynamics of the epidemic, this time lapse is considerable.
  6. Indeed, this is confirmed by phylogenetic data: the spread of the virus in Africa came essentially from Europe. Even in India, although the initial cases were linked to China, the first outbreaks were linked to Europe. During the second phase of the pandemic, other routes of globalization became key, characterized by the flows between the European hub and recently infected countries.
  7. See Armelle Choplin and Olivier Pliez, La Mondialisation des pauvres: Loin de Wall Street et de Davos (Seuil, 2018).
  8. See Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (Verso, 2017).
  9. The analysis by the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Research shows that 11 percent of Parisian residents left the city. When the better-off departed to their second homes, it left a strong impression in the media: new spatial inequalities became apparent in France and the United States. It appeared that these inequalities operate at much larger scales than those usually considered, such as when city centers are contrasted with their working-class suburbs or distant peri-urban rings. The urban exodus to second homes fueled a strong resentment among residents in the host territories, which will be hard to reabsorb.
  10. Branko Milanović, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (Harvard University Press, 2016).
  11. These inequalities are effectively doubled by the virus’s extreme selectivity. Apart from the elderly, the virus targets individuals presenting comorbid factors (such as diabetes and heart problems). Obviously, these conditions are not equally distributed in society and in space.
Featured image: Urbanziation (Kolkata, India) (2017). Photograph by Abhijit Kar Gupta / Flickr