The cities of Brussels and London are the symbols for two important processes in recent European history: London reflects the process of globalization, while Brussels is the epitome of European integration. In turn the role of both cities in these processes and the reciprocal effects upon the urban structure shall be presented. Finally, an overview of the changing role of place in Europe shall be given.
What role has London played in the processes of globalization and how has this, in turn, transformed the city?
The city of London had a significant role in the globalization process. Before illuminating the role of the British capital, it is however necessarily to briefly define the concept of globalization. The sociologist Anthony Giddens has conceived globalization as the “intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occuring [sic] many miles away and vice versa” (Giddens in Lachmund, Globalization and the emergence of “global cities”, lecture 15/01/08). Giddens holds that human relations, as a result of globalization, were no longer dependent on face-to-face contact but could be maintained over “large distances in space and time” (Giddens in Peters, 2006, p. 58). Henceforth, by new means of communication, the radius of human action was enlarged from the local sphere to a network encompassing the whole globe, a phenomenon which Giddens termed “time-space distanciation”. This had implications on the global economy, for instance. New communication technology allowed businesses to conduct their trade on a world-wide scale, thereby maximizing their own profits.
London’s significant role in the globalization process was mainly due to its established place in international trade. In the 19th century, the city “became the centre [sic] of a system of global payments” coming from the British colonies (Cain and Hopkins in Thrift, 1996, p. 236). When the British Empire collapsed with the end of the First World War, London was a stable financial center with a high presence of foreign banks (Thrift, 1996, p. 239). Globalization transformed this financial center into “global city”, according to Saskia Sassen (cf. Sassen in Lachmund, 15/01/08). In the process of globalization, London, Tokyo and New York accordingly became the central places of a worldwide economic network (Thrift, 1996, p. 232). Thrift holds that this network was “disembedded” from the local sphere: Time-space distanciation allowed business partners to conclude an accord from any given place in the world via modern communication systems (p. 230). Yet, there are two reasons why London, Tokyo and New York continued to serve as a non-virtual pillar for the disembedded world. Firstly, Thrift argues that they were places for the “re-embedding” of professional relationships: To build trust, business partners still relied on face-to-face encounters, which did not necessarily require the same degree of interpretation as virtual contact (p. 232). Secondly, Sassen holds that global cities were the only place where “certain kinds of work can get done” (Sassen in Lachmund, 15/01/08), because they offer a wide range of specialized workforce in close proximity. Thus, very complex working processes are solved more efficiently in the city, because the specialists they require can quickly be assembled in person.
The city of London thus had a significant impact upon the process of globalization by functioning as a central pillar of the global economy. In return, it has been shaped by globalization with regard to its international image, its political and its social structure. Firstly, the globalization catapulted London onto a new status level. Lachmund argues that the globalized world has cities on different “levels” of action, with locally connected communes building the bottom layer, while global cities with world-wide connections rest on the top layer (Lachmund, 15/01/08). Accordingly, in the age of time-space distanciation, London’s primary connection is not with geographically proximate cities of a lower level, but with the global cities of Tokyo and New York, far though they might be away in the geographical sense. Secondly, Thrift (1996) holds that London’s flourishing international business has strengthened the rule of private enterprise and undermined political power (p. 253). Since electronic communication allows information and money to flow over the world in a split second, British public opinion can be influenced instantaneously; likewise, dubious business accords can be made rapidly before the government has the possibility to intervene or to control the flows. Thirdly, globalization changed the social structure in that it led to an influx of foreign professionals and immigrants. These contributed to a high degree of ethnic heterogeneity and provided a pool of foreign workforce within the city itself (Thrift, 1996, p. 246, cf. Albrow, 1997, p. 45).
What role has Brussels played in the processes of
European integration and how has this, in turn, transformed the city?
More than London is a symbol for the process of globalization, the Belgian capital Brussels can be seen as an epitome for European integration. However, while London de facto shaped globalization as a result of its considerable financial output, Brussels’ role in European integration is more of a symbolic nature and concerned with the shaping of identity. This symbolic meaning of Brussels shall be examined with regard to three points: Brussels’ way to becoming the European capital, the symbolism of the European institutions and the meaning of its inner development for European identity.
The process through which Brussels became the capital of Europe sheds much light on the way in which European integration was conceived by the nation-states. Hein (2000) argues that the decision to make Brussels the capital of Europe was determined entirely by political bargain, not by independent experts of regional planning (p. 87-88). The politicians’ reluctance to transfer power to a supranational committee of experts very clearly underlined the national egoisms and the desire for a predominant role of the nation-states in Europe. A similar argument can be made for the choice of a threefold administration in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg. Hein argues that Luxembourg was chosen because “it had nothing of a ‘real capital’ about it”; Strasbourg became seat of the European Parliament mainly because it could provide non-national office space under the roof of the “Council of Europe” (p. 89). Brussels was then chosen as the provisional seat of the EEC and Euratom institutions but its choice was meant to be revised, once the EEC was firmly established. This political decision has two implications. On the one hand, the fact that no capital of a large nation-state became host of the European institution reflects the wish for a decentralized Europe. On the other hand, one might argue that only little European symbolism was effectively involved in the construction of the European cooperation system. Rather that for motives of reconciliation, the politicians chose the European cities on account of functional reasons.
The idea of a mere functional Europe is also reflected in the construction of the first political institutions in Brussels. When the Léopold Quarter in Brussels was designed the host of the European administration, the Brussels authorities stripped it of its former identity. Firstly, this occurred through the deconstruction of 150 year-old established housing complexes (Baeten, 2001, p. 117). Secondly, it was effectuated through the expulsion of thousands of local residents, who lost their private refuge so that an office landscape could be constructed (p. 118). The Brussels authorities effectively turned the former residential area into a “soulless, administrative district” without a sense of identity (Buckley in Shore, 2000, p. 157). It can be noted in addition that the European public was largely excluded from the planning of the Brussels institutions (Hein, 2000, p. 83). While Hein argues that the buildings of most national institutions carry national identity and result from a public debate, the construction of the European office district was “mainly left to the host nations and cities” (ibid). As a result of these aspects, it can be concluded that the European district did not carry any distinct symbolism for European integration.
European integration is finally mirrored in the inner development of the city of Brussels, which in turn was heavily influenced by the advent of the European institutions and their international employees. European integration transformed the city in many ways, of which two shall be presented in more depth: the impact upon the social structure of Brussels and its influence on the urban economy.
According to Baeten (2001), Brussels society rapidly internationalized as a result of European integration (p. 118). Baeten distinguishes between two kinds of foreigners who internationalized the city: Firstly, professional European employees from the European member states. Secondly, he sees an internationalization from below, engendered by the influx of low-skilled immigrants (p. 119). The increasing internationalization led to a polarization of the urban society. On the one hand, the Belgian middle-class was increasingly pressured by foreign influx from above and from below. The Flemish minority, for instance, saw its identity threatened by an increased use of English and French language in the city. (p. 118). On the other hand, ethnic minority groups remained marginalized due to the fact that they were not politically represented in the city (ibid). EU employees, finally, largely remained disconnected from the local population due to a twin process of engrenage and dépaysement, as Shore asserts (Shore, 2000, p. 164). He defines engrenage as a process which transforms European officials into a “cohesive ‘supranational’ elite that sees itself as distinctly and transcendentally ‘European’” as a result of their common devotion to the European cause (p. 148). Along with it, dépaysement describes the disconnection of the supranational elite from their national background (p. 163). The group of EU officials consequently became their primary source of identification, which led to a life in a supranational capsule without significant contact to the other social groups of the city.
European integration also heavily influenced the urban economy of the city. The EU institutions served as a pull-factor for international organizations and businesses. According to Baeten, “for each EU job, another two [were] created in EU-dependent and EU-related institutions. For every Euro spent by the EU, another three [were] spent by dependent and related organizations” (Baeten, 2001, p. 122). This meant a cut in the urban unemployment rate, since many low-skilled workers could be employed in EU-related hotels or catering services, as well as in the security and cleaning sector (p. 119).
In a nutshell, the process of European integration significantly influenced the city of Brussels, which in turn became an epitome for European integration to the rest of Europe. However, it is clear that this process was not only a story of success. It has been shown that the symbolism of the European capital is largely superficial. While cosmopolitan Brussels might be considered a forerunner for European identity by some politicians, the social polarization in the city is in fact striking. Behind the glorious façades of the EU-institutions, the destruction of the Léopold Quarter as a residential area is concealed. Brussels can therefore only be seen as a model for European integration at a very superficial glance.
What can we learn from these two cases about the role of place in contemporary Europe?
The processes of globalization and European integration have a significant influence on the shaping of individual identity. In a globalized and ever-changing world, human beings need something to which they can hold on. Many sociologists have therefore seen the role of place as an essential component in shaping identity in the contemporary world (Gieryn, 2000; Massey, 1993; Albrow, 1997; Rose, 1995). A definition of place has been given by Gieryn (2000) as a “unique spot in the universe” (p. 464). This particular place may give a particular identity, due to the fact that “part of how you define yourself is symbolized by certain qualities of that place” (Rose, 1995, p. 89). However, it is important to introduce another component to the idea of place: Place, according to Heidegger, is essentially defined by drawing a boundary around it (Heidegger in Massey, 1993, p. 64). The boundary functions as a social construct, it establishes a group of insiders who define themselves through their difference from those outside the boundary. This motive of “us against them” has been fundamental in European history and came into application in the distinction between an exotic Orient (“them”) and a counterposed Occident (“us”) (Said in Rose, 1995, p. 93).
It can also be viewed in the case of European border regions. Due to the influence of a neighboring country or the mere positioning on the rim of the nation-state, border regions can develop a particular identity which distinguishes its citizens from those in the “inner country”. The Spanish region of Galicia is such an example. Here, the motive of “us against them” is reflected through a regional dialect (Schrijver, 2005, p. 275). The dialect sets the Galicians apart from the Spanish and gives them a common identification with their region. The regional sense of place even had implications on the political level, where Galicia demanded more regional self-determination.
Confronted with the process of globalization, sociologists saw the need to redefine the concept of place. Time-space distanciation, the possibility to travel and to communicate around the globe in a very short space of time has led to a perceived shrinking of the world, a process which Harvey termed “time-space compression” (Harvey in Massey, 1993, p. 60). In the face of time-space compression, Augé developed a new concept for a place in opposition to what he termed a “non-place” (Augé, 1995, p. 78). A non-place, he asserted, was a place without a particular identity. As an example, Augé named a supermarket, a railway station or an airport. All these were conceived as transit places for everybody, where identity was shared by all customers or passengers alike (p. 101). In opposition, a place was filled with identity and essentially composed as the space where social relations are maintained (p. 81). Augé’s place was thus conceived as a repository of identity, a locally defined idyll opposed to a fast-paced transit world of non-places determined by time-space compression.
Augé’s idea of place indeed does not sufficiently take time-space distanciation into consideration. The studies of Albrow and Massey may be most convincing in this respect. Massey (1993) abolishes the idea that a place essentially needs to be static (p. 66). Accordingly, a place is “conceptualized in terms of the social interactions” which it engenders and can change its face through these interactions (p. 66-7). Albrow develops her concept of place as a “focus of a distinct mixture [sic] of wider and more local social relations” (Massey, 1993, p. 68) further in introducing the idea of place as a “socioscape”. The suffix of scape indicating a state of fluency, Albrow’s socioscape is essentially characterized by the intermeshing of various “sociospheres” (Albrow, 1997, p. 51). A sociosphere describes the network of a person, be it locally bound or stretched out over the globe and maintained by time-space distanciation. Albrow uses the example of the London suburb of Tooting to explain that perception and emotional meaning of the place may differ, depending on the range of the respective sociosphere. For one person in Tooting, the local shops and the local church make up the entire sociosphere, thus accounting for much of the individual’s identity, while for a person in the same street this radius of action merely is a “useful point from which to enjoy the world” (p. 47). The place is therefore conceived by either of them merely as the “point where their sociosphere literally touches the earth” (p. 52). One factor belongs to either sense of place however. It is the acceptance that “individuals with very different lifestyles and social networks can live in close proximity without untoward interference with each” (p. 51). In short, the common denominator for both of them is that there is no common denominator.
Albrow’s concept of a place as socioscape very well fits into the context of both London and Brussels. As presented, both cities account for a high degree of social heterogeneity. This concerns ethnic heterogeneity on the one hand, and professional and socio-economic heterogeneity on the other. In Brussels, the distinction can be made between the EU officials and the lower socio-economic classes. The sociospheres of EU officials turn around European issues, are kept within the capsular world of a “supranational elite” and may involve regular weekend flights to the family in the member state. Simultaneously, a local Belgian citizen may primarily be concerned with finding a low-qualified job in the city. In London, the same distinction can be made between representatives of the powerful business elite and the locally bound citizen of Tooting.
To conclude, one can see that life in the cosmopolitan city has led to polarization and to an erosion of social contact between the socio-economic classes. As Albrow (1997) put it, the distinctions in the cosmopolitan cities of London and Brussels can no longer be made between those who were there before and those who arrived. They are “between locals and cosmopolitans” (p. 54).
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Baeten, G. (2001). The Europeanzation of Brussels and the urbanization of ‘Europe’. Hybridizing the City. Empowerment and disempowerment. European Urban and Regional Studies, 8(2).
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Massey, D. (1993). Power-geometry and a Progressive Sense of Place. In J. Bird, Mapping the Future. London: Routledge.
Peters, P. F. (2006). Time, Innovation and Mobilities. Travel in technological culture. Routledge: London, New York.
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