Over the past decade, the term ‘urban geopolitics’ has entered the policy as well as academic lexicon. In an op-ed piece published in the summer of 2012, Saskia Sassen prognosticated the emergence of a new sort of ‘urban geopolitics’, noting that from tackling environmental questions to countering the threat of terrorism, in the decades to come it would be urban actors and city networks that would become key geopolitical actors and sites of geopolitics. ‘Major cities will not replace any of the other geopolitical actors,’ she argued, ‘but they will play a role, both as actor and as the site for major challenges.’
In Sassen's work, just as in the writings of most other commentators deploying this term, the city becomes a geopolitical actor as/when it takes on what are considered the ‘hard’ geopolitical roles of the state: the defence of boundaries, the securing of territory, the management of flows of people and goods. And European cities are, indeed, increasingly doing all of these things: from the adoption of urban anti-terrorism strategies (e.g. London for the 2012 Olympic Games), to the roles that many cities have been forced to take in order to face sudden mass arrivals of migrants (e.g. Rome in the summer of 2015).
But geopolitics is not just about the management of space and populations. It is equally importantly about representing spaces and populations; about telling stories about what spaces are (and, even more importantly, what they should be), and about who belongs where. In that sense, the growing popularisation of the term ‘urban geopolitics’ only partially engages the various ways in which European cities today are, indeed, becoming geopolitical actors. Such discussions frequently fail to pay heed to the powerful ways in which cities have begun to craft distinct ‘geopolitical imaginations’ not just for themselves but also for their constituent states – and what this might mean for the refashioning of identitary narratives in today's Europe.
Geographers have long analysed such spatial imaginations, highlighting how they have been fundamental to sustaining, for instance, the visions of European colonial empires and their claims to territories in Africa or Asia, framing these latter as part of an extended motherland/patrie.