Many of the current discourses on the role of cities in economic development have been dominated by the idea of city competition: in this perspective, one city's gains are another city's loss in a zero sum game. This new report by the Centre for Cities takes a welcome departure from the city competition literature. It shifts the focus to city collaboration and connections, both on a regional scale, with other cities in economically defined city-regions, and on the transnational scale, where it stresses the importance of links to key markets.
The report starts from the widely accepted premise that cities are becoming more important as engines of growth in a globalising economy. However, as it rightly points out, the impact of globalisation produces unequal outcomes: while some cities benefit, others lose out (not to speak of the internally differential impacts on different population groups). The call for ‘a realistic assessment of local strengths and assets' is therefore timely. Rather than aiming to become mini-Londons or mini- New Yorks , UK cities need to understand their position in the global urban network and identify and foster appropriate niches that reflect their economic base and specialisation.
The report follows the conventional assumption that ‘the strength of London benefits the whole of the UK' but fails to recognise that London's success as a global city may well be the reason for the relatively low global connectivities of other UK cities. Research by the Globalisation and World Cities (GaWC) Research Network based at Loughborough University has shown that while London took first place in terms of the global business connectivity of 315 cities worldwide in 2000, no other UK city made the Top 100. Germany on the other hand lacked a top 10 rank but seven of its cities were among the top 100, spreading global connections more widely.
While the overall focus of the report on inter-city co-operation and place-specific policy intervention is to be welcomed, its confidence in the potential of ‘levers' to significantly influence the economic trajectory of cities seems overly optimistic. Cities are inherently complex entities and the scope for intervention by city governments is very limited. The locational strategies of globally operating firms, for example, are usually driven more by market requirements and sectoral clustering than by incentives offered by the economic development units of cities. The current global economic crisis will impact much more on the economy of UK cities than any policy levers pulled by city authorities.
What the report implicitly highlights is how little we know empirically about the global (and national) connectivities of UK cities. A recent follow-up to the GaWC study indicates a rise in the global positions of UK provincial cities. We need more monitoring to determine the sustainability of this rise and to assist cities in identifying their niche in the global urban network.
Edited and posted on the web on 20th October 2008
Note: This Practitioner Brief has been published in Parliamentary Monitor (Issue 163, October 2008)