Geneva and Casablanca: two approaches to globalized urban development

For his PhD thesis at EPFL, Kamil Hajji compared urban development projects in two major cities – each a business and financial hub, but in countries with very different societies and political systems. He found that democracy can significantly influence how globalization plays out at the local level.
Casablanca, economic capital of Morocco, and its Twin Center. © 2020 Istock

Geneva and Casablanca loom large in people’s imaginations, but for vastly different reasons. Geneva sits on the tranquil shores of Lake Geneva; it’s known as the birthplace of Calvinism and is the archetypal international city. Casablanca, the “White City,” faces the unbridled Atlantic Ocean and was immortalized in Michael Curtiz’s eponymous movie. But there’s one thing these two cities have in common: they’ve both been shaped by the forces of globalization, which have been gaining momentum since the late 20th century. In a landscape marked by neoliberalism, competition between metropolises, and the cross-border flow of people, goods and capital, both Geneva and Casablanca can be called globalized cities, and both are vying to increase their appeal through major urban development projects.Kamil Hajji grew up in Casablanca and moved to Switzerland to attend university. He holds an architecture degree from EPFL and completed his PhD at EPFL’s Urban Sociology Laboratory (LaSUR). After seeing first-hand the rapid transformation of Casablanca and then later Geneva, he decided to focus his thesis research on a comparison of their development patterns. He looked in particular at how their urban development projects are being informed by market forces and local resistance. His thesis public defense took place on October 29.

«Globalization is a fascinating phenomenon. I saw it transform Casablanca completely, and as I began visiting other world cities, I saw a lot of similarities among them. I wanted to know what was behind that.»      Kamil Hajji

An exhaustive study

Hajji examined the development projects for the new Casa Anfa and Casa Marina neighborhoods in Casablanca, and for the new  Praille Acacias Vernets (PAV) and O'Vives districts in Geneva. His aim was to understand exactly how each one has been influenced by globalization. “Globalization means adopting essentially the same public policies and strategies in cities around the world. Capital is moving more freely and local governments are seeking to attract it and keep it local. So they are implementing strategies with very similar fundamentals. You can see that in their buildings – high-rises and other urban structures designed to bring people in,” says Hajji.

He performed an exhaustive study of each project, conducting interviews with policymakers, investors, local groups, and people who were removed from their homes to make way for the development work. He also read through the minutes of neighborhood meetings and searched carefully through city archives. “I wanted to trace the projects back to the very beginning and see exactly how the process unfolded,” says Hajji, who undoubtedly drew on journalistic skills inherited from his father. “I also wanted to see whether the neighborhoods would turn into gated communities where people of a certain social class close themselves off from the outside world,” he adds. “In Morocco I saw the adverse social effects of globalization – that’s an issue I care about and wanted to understand better.”

Local resistance 

By comparing these two globalized, dynamic cities with very different political systems, Hajji gained unique insight into the underlying mechanisms of globalization. In Switzerland, he saw a semi-direct democracy where local resistance can block profit-driven initiatives. In Morocco, where the constitutional monarchy was reformed to introduce greater democracy after the Arab Spring protests in 2011, he saw how local resistance movements are able to take shape, and how much leverage they have with local governments and investors. In both countries, Hajji assessed how much power is held by municipalities – the lowest rung of democracy.

The CFC First Tower, 122 meters, in the heart of Casablanca's Casa Anfa business district. © skyscrapercity

In the PAV project in Geneva, Hajji found that Switzerland’s local resistance system led to lengthy negotiations and a series of concessions that resulted in a final development plan considerably different from the initial proposal. However, in Casablanca, the more top-down approach results in plans “that are closer to the developer’s initial, globalized vision. That’s because local resistance is not organized enough and isn’t sufficiently represented in the political sphere to have much of an impact,” says Hajji. 

With his PhD under his belt, Hajji is now completing a post-doc at LaSUR and works for Mobil’homme, an EPFL spin-off. Based on his research, he believes that democracy can change how globalization is implemented locally. “In more democratic countries, the image of a neoliberal, globalized city changes shape as local considerations are taken into account,” he says. “These environments also tend to produce cities with greater social cohesion.”