Emergent Cities

The planet’s urban population is projected to double by mid-century to seven billion, equal to its total population now, as urban land cover triples in sprawl. Most of this unprecedented growth will emerge from the developing world, where booming megacities receive millions of rural migrants each year.

These cities are hopelessly ill equipped to fully absorb new city dwellers into the formal economy of property rights, public services, documented wages, and taxes. It is imperative to build resilience in face of cities’ lack of capacity to support social cohesionprovide housing, transportation, health care, and other public servicesand facilitate jobs and economic opportunity. Meanwhile, in the developed world, urban migrants, particularly the undocumented, are regularly denied access to formal employment and public services, forcing them to fall back on informal networks. The flow of migrants brings challenges, but also opportunities to transplant some of the innovative policies that have emerged in developing countries.

The Emergent Cities Project, housed at the World Policy Institute, will develop a framework to improve policy responses to the global surge of urban informal systems, in order to increase cities’ capacity to provide essential services, enhance the resilience of city institutions and communities, promote social cohesion, and encourage innovation and job creation. We will identify best practices that can double as policy levers, and facilitate multidisciplinary engagement by government officials, NGOs, experts, and thought leaders with the aim of testing and adopting these recommendations.


The Emergent City Project pilots new ways to activate and build resilience in the economically troubled and shrinking cities of the global Rust Belt by applying lessons from emergent developing world megacities characterized by high rates of migration and informality. In collaboration with NYC-based architecture firm Pilot Projects, “Motor City” draws on the informal practices of microenterprise, re-purposed and mixed-use spaces, and community building found in the slums of Lagos and Nairobi and the copycat pirate enclaves of Shenzhen to design a pilot for a micromanufacturing “incubator” in an underpopulated neighborhood of Detroit. Through innovative policy strategies such as regional visa and accreditation schemes, and planned suspension of zoning regulations, the incubator will enable the migration of entrepreneurial individuals who can creatively activate frozen space; engage the underutilized skill sets of local residents and arriving homesteaders; navigate regulatory requirements on behalf of makers; embed local manufacturing activities into global supply chains and consumption networks; and integrate new arrivals with existing communities through shared social, cultural, and economic space. Emergent Cities, with its initial focus on Motor City, is ultimately a resilience project that proposes to strengthen a whole community through an innovative and holistic model of community and economic development.

Project Leaders

Kavitha Rajagopalan (@kxraja)
Senior Fellow, World Policy Institute
Co-director, Emergent Cities Project

Kavitha Rajagopalan is the author of Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West, a narrative nonfiction exploration of integration and identity formation in the urban Muslim diaspora. Her projects include research and advocacy on the causes and consequences of undocumented migration, urban informality, and minority access to mainstream financial systems. She writes widely on global migration and diversity and has taught related courses at NYU's Center for Global Affairs. (Full bio here)

Greg Lindsay (@Greg_Lindsay)
Senior Fellow, World Policy Institute
Co-director, Emergent Cities Project

Greg Lindsay is a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute, where he specializes in urban trade, migration, and governance. He is also a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. His work with Studio Gang Architects exploring mixed-use development and rezoning in suburban immigrant neighborhoods was displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as part of 2012’s Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, and he is a two-time Jeopardy! champion (and the only human to go undefeated against IBM’s Watson). (Full bio here)

Scott Francisco
Founder and Director, Pilot Projects Design Collective

Scott Francisco is the founder of Pilot Projects Design Collective in New York City. He is a hands-on designer, strategist, and educator whose work offers a humane antidote to today’s over-reliance on data and quantification. Pilot Projects is founded on the belief that small infrastructural interventions can catalyze big changes in our streets, cities and culture. Scott also teaches at the Parsons The New School for Design, and the Do School, and speaks regularly on the collaborative workplace, organizational culture and sustainability. He holds degrees in Architecture from the University of Toronto and MIT. Past and present clients include Google, Princeton University, Charity Water, The Bowery Mission, ABC News, Revolution Rickshaws, and the Lower East Side Business Improvement District.


What Can Detroit Learn From Nairobi? World Policy Institute launches Motor City Commitment to Action at CGI America

New York, NY (June 24, 2014) – At the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative America meeting this week, the World Policy Institute announced The Motor City Project, a two-year pilot project to repopulate and revitalize Detroit using lessons learned from thriving communities in developing world megacities.

“Detroit is the poster child of urban decline and mismanagement,” says Greg Lindsay, World Policy Institute Senior Fellow and co-director of the Motor City Project. “Detroit needs jobs. Jobs need people to create them.”

Detroit has lost more than half of its population since its post-war peak in 1950, and a third of the roughly 700,000 who remain are impoverished. Attracting new urban migrants and providing the space they need to live, work, and create jobs in the community requires resources that don’t exist through formal channels. READ THE FULL RELEASE HERE.

Motor City In the News

Detroit Free Press, World Policy Institute offers ideas for attracting immigrants to Detroit by Rick Snyder reports on WPI’s two-year project proposal to repopulate and revitalize Detroit using lessons learned from studying developing global megacities such as Nairobi, Kenya and Lagos, Nigeria. (6/24/2014)

Crain’s Detroit Business, Groups announce economic redevelopment project for Detroit neighborhood (ASSOCIATED PRESS) highlights The Motor City Project, a plan to spur economic growth in a northwest Detroit neighborhood, announced Tuesday during the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative meeting in Denver. WPI Senior Fellow Greg Lindsay stated that this project will help new arrivals work through city codes and other red tape to operate home-and-neighborhood based businesses. This two-year project, a pop-up community center, is still in the design and development phase and is starting with in-kind contributions. (6/25/2014)

The Lansing State Journal, New York groups announce small business-focused economic redevelopment project for Detroit (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The Sacramento Bee, Groups announce economic redevelopment project (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The State, Groups announce economic redevelopment project (ASSOCIATED PRESS)


Making the Emergent City: A Panel Discussion at The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. Monday, May 12, 2014.  The panel addressed questions such as what urban agriculture, informal manufacturing (i.e. “maker” culture), homesteading, and “lean urbanism” can teach us about the challenges facing cities and solutions proposed by citizens themselves.

Extrastatecraft: A Salon with Keller Easterling Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Yale architect Keller Easterling charts the rise of this “infrastructure space” and demonstrates how it creates new forms of power beyond the reach of governments.

When Computers Take Over the City Thursday, January 30, 2014. As technology giants, entrepreneurs, mayors, and an emerging vanguard of civic hackers are trying to shape the new urban frontier, urbanist Anthony Townsend considers the motivations, aspirations, and shortcomings of all who are building the future one click at a time.

The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla: A Political Salon with David Kilcullen Wednesday, October 2, 2013. Veteran military strategist David Kilcullen’s new book departs from the remote, rural guerrilla warfare of Afghanistan and focuses on the new hotspots of global strife in an increasingly crowded, urban, coastal, connected, and dangerous new world.

Invention or Destruction? Making Sense of the “Grey” Economy: A Political Salon with Richard Tyson Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Faster, cheaper, more local, and more resilient than the top-down systems, informality creates incentives for creativity and efficiency, but also terrorism, black markets, cartels, human trafficking, and shadow banking. Join design strategist Richard Tyson of the MakerBot Foundation and Greg Lindsay of WPI’s Emergent Cities Project for a Political Salon exploring the greyest elements of the grey sector.


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