These cities are not necessarily the richest, nor are they part of the collective imagination across medias -such as cinema, music, painting – nor do they have to be the most populated. These cities are playing fields where the path of humanity is mapped out beyond only the global cities: Paris, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Hong Kong or New York.
Today, I propose to open a series of reflections on the cities that act as spearheads in the face of conflicts and challenges in which we live. The selection will of course be subjective- places that my work has taken me to, and that I have been able to explore with those working firsthand to improve them: from finance to culture to politics.
I have intentionally selected cities that exemplify a robust city-wide strategy across themes that do not stem solely from an external, or globally oriented, perspective. Rather, my selection focuses on the places where tensions and contradictions arise from local and global, and as such, a fusion of endogenous and exogenous transformative dynamics become visible in a concentrated way: migration, economic concentration, impacts of inclusion and exclusion, or public responses. Let’s get on the road.
I’ll start with Frankfurt.
Frankfurt is a contradictory city. The most important city in Hesse, seated along the Main river, at the core of a conurbation with more than two million inhabitants, is known as the financial centre of the European Union and home to the European Central Bank, Bundesbank, Frankfurt Stock Exchange, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, to name but a few. Moreover, Frankfurt Airport is one of the largest airports in the world.
The stereotypical image of Frankfurt is that of a business city transformed from the Second World War due to a destroyed and wartorn city core with subsequent lax urban regulations. This in turn has motivated an unusual landscape both in this capital, as well as among other European capitals, where historic buildings coexist; low-height buildings with dozens of skyscrapers that can exceed 250 metres (such as the Commerzbank Tower or the Messeturm building).
In addition, there are other key elements in today’s Frankfurt, which I will explain below.
Frankfurt is a city with a hectic real estate market characterised by the high profitability of offices. It is a place where restaurants have higher occupancy rates during the week due to the high concentration of employees. With the rise of telecommuting and the possible change in the geography of workplaces, the city faces the challenge to rethink its financial centre when an important part of daily activities could disappear. In recent months, the city has only been half alive.
There is an unexpected creative energy in Frankfurt. A constant feeling that the city makes things happen. In the shadow of the skyscrapers, a generation of people have grown up to love the city with critical optimism. James Ardinast is one of the architects of the reinvention of local hospitality and culture, from the restaurants Bar Shuka, where his Jewish roots blend with Palestinian cuisine, and Stanley, which focuses on local produce and is family run with his brother David Ardinast. His work extends to events, consulting and communication. For James, “Frankfurt has always been a creative city, even if it is known as a business city. But it lost its identity in the 1990s when the scene shifted to Berlin. Frankfurt is a big city, but small at the same time, a city of friction and contradictions, where people are open to change”. Reflecting on his business, he recalls that what was initially an obstacle has become a virtue, as “the people of Frankfurt have a love-hate relationship with the city, but at the same time are very grateful for the support of new proposals”. Moreover, the proximity between “subculture, culture and the business world” is something unique that creates unlikely connections.
More than half of Frankfurt’s citizens have a migration background – which means that either they were, or at least one parent was, born outside Germany. Three quarters of children under the age of 6 fall into this category. For Ubin Eoh, a communication expert of Korean descent who decided to take an increasingly common path, leaving behind the explosive German capital to develop in Frankfurt, “as a Berliner, I see that the focus in Frankfurt is different. Here people are tremendously professional, and the coexistence between origins generates a metropolitan environment where I can see a person of Asian origin working in finance”. It is an attractive place, “where real things are done without vanity.”
Anyone coming to the city for the first time, especially if arriving by train, will be surprised by the hundreds of homeless people, many of them drug addicts, concentrated on the streets of the city centre. It is not that there is a major problem with addictions in Frankfurt, but that it is particularly visible. While many cities have tried to hide the problem without solving it, in Frankfurt it is very explicit. In the 90s, a programme called the “Frankfurt Way” was developed, which opted for a multidisciplinary approach to deal with drugs beyond criminalisation. Today, this path needs to be rethought. The visibility of exclusion can be a starting point to develop progressive policies beyond hiding or repressing problems.
Frankfurt is also going through a period in which many of its protagonists are participating in the discussion about its future. Jonathan Speier, founder of S.O.U.P., a conference, festival and meeting space focused on thinking about this future, believes that “what makes cities strong is the interaction between people that provides opportunities for friction”, so they have created a platform “to decide the city together, from an intergenerational and intersectional space, to dream together and collectively build the future of the world from Frankfurt”.
*This is the 1st of more city reflections. More to come.
**A previous version of this article was originally published, in Spanish, at ValenciaPlaza.com. Many thanks to Anna Louise Bradley for proofreading and editing the English translation.