Are Global Cities Important?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about mayors going global, attracting foreign investment for their cities without waiting for federal dollars to trickle down. It got me thinking about an idea a lot of people have: that cities are the most important financial and political units in today’s world. So I wondered, what do we know about cities in the global arena? It turns out there is a group that is tracking the globalization of cities.

Every two years, the journal Foreign Policy, management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs assess the extent to which the world’s largest cities are “global.” It’s called the Global Cities Index.

There are five metrics for measuring globalization: business activity, human capital, information exchange, cultural experience, and political engagement. For the past four years, New York, London, Paris and Tokyo have been rated the most global cities in the world. Today, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and Chicago are close behind. But beyond just rankings, the 2012 Global Cities Index gives some pretty interesting insights into the dynamics of big cities around the world.

The first is that power is shifting from west to east. Right now most of the top 20 cities are in Europe and the U.S. But the world is becoming more urban, this is most evident in Asia, and Asian cities are quickly increasing their global presence. Over time, they think this will mean that cities like Shanghai, Taipei, and Mumbai will be serious competitors for the rank of most global cities.

The second is that the major driver of globalization in BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) is business activity. These cities aren’t globalizing by attracting human capital or increasing their political presence. The GCI authors think it shouldn’t be long until cities in BRIC countries catch up on the other dimensions, but I’m not convinced there’s much of a guarantee. It should be interesting to see what happens, whether and how cities go about improving information exchange and cultural activities. This seems to be a type of Kuznets curve thinking: that if a city generates enough business activity, amenities and quality of life are soon to follow.

The third interesting point they make in the report is that, “the biggest gap between top and average cities comes in the political activity dimension, where just a few cities, chiefly — and not unsurprisingly — Washington, New York, and Brussels corral the majority of world action in international organizations, embassies, think tanks, and conferences.” A question becomes, how does a city increase its political activity dimension? I think climate change could be one way cities are increasing their political visibility. For example, Mexico City is really working to be a leader among cities in addressing climate change. This is small peanuts compared to being the seat of the European Parliament, but maybe a start?

Of course, you have to ask “so what?” So what if one city is more global than the other or if cities are where most people live. There are some interesting semi-answers to this question as well. Saskia Sassen writes a short column and says that, “our geo-political future…will be determined in good part through 20 or so strategic worldwide urban networks.” She argues that the future won’t be determined by decisions made by the U.S. and China, but by major urban centers in these and other countries. For example, she says that New York, Washington, and Chicago are becoming more important than the U.S. is as a country. It’s pretty interesting to think that the level of power the U.S. may have at a negotiating table is waning while the influence of New York in global financial markets is rising. So again — bring on the mayors!

Street in Boulder, a very un-global city

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One Response to Are Global Cities Important?

  1. melissa says:

    I like your last comment: “bring on the mayors,” but if Chicago can become more important than the US as a country, I am nervous about the implication that Rahm Emmanuel would have more power than Obama! It would be interesting too, to see how people engage in their local government versus national government and what this means in terms of global political activity.

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