This Research Bulletin has been published in Urban Studies, 48 (14), (2011), 2953-2973, under the title 'Finding the Global City: An Analytical Journey through the "Invisible College"'.
Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.
The phrase “global city” has a deeper resonance than might appear at first sight. Similar to the fate of the expression “cosmopolitan” this term has been abused by many inexpert users as a buzzword on which public relations campaigns have been mounted. Its original role as analytical construct, as firstly brought to worldwide fame by Saskia Sassen’s homonym research of the early 1990s, has evolved in a complex, often tacit, relation with other urban, economic and social students that deal with these pivotal elements of the global architecture. These authors could be metaphorically grouped within what John Friedmann (1995, p.28) described as the “invisible college of world city researchers,” which has been constantly expanding from hypothesis to paradigm. If the college has a ‘resident’ faculty that explicitly engages in world city research, many are the visiting scholars and the external associates that contribute to this analytical focus, rendering the world city narrative one of the most multidisciplinary among the social sciences.
In light of this eclectic tradition, the global city is therefore described here in its various theoretical guises, in a chronological account from its early-1900s roots to present-day formulations, in order to establish a working definition that could speak beyond the invisible college, to the variegated realm populated by students of world politics. Recalling the fundamental significance of these concepts for the realm of international relations is the task of this research note, in order to offer a conceptual framework for the subsequent elaboration of a wide-reaching definition. In a nutshell, this essay describes “global city” as an inherently transitory phenomenon, a status ofconnectedness to the global that is attained by world cities, and rests upon an urban entrepreneurial spirit.
The origins: Studying the city as “social milieu”
The city has always been there. Ever since the dawn of civilization urbanity has been part of the human experience, and the historical examples of urban-related narrative are certainly countless: Thucydides narrated the History of The Peloponnesian War as an epic clash between two classic city-states; Augustine illustrated moral fallacies and decay of a 5 th century post-imperial Rome in The City of God; Thomas More depicted the ideal political community of Utopia in 1516; Italo Calvino chronicled the habits of humankind in the allegorical novels of The Invisible Cities at the beginning of the Seventies. This list is possibly endless. Yet we don’t need to turn too far to find the modern roots of what we might call ‘world city literature’ within the social sciences. Precisely, we can look back to the early 20 th century Chicago, with its sprawling urban structure and social contrast, when several academics from various local universities developed the study of the metropolis in a systematic sociological framework, as prompted by Robert Park’s 1915 paper “The City” (Park et al, 1925). Building upon earlier planning studies such as Dana Bartlett’s The Better City, or the classic Cities in Evolution by Patrick Geddes, the group of sociologists that would have later become known as ‘Chicago School’ focused on the Western metropolis to delineate a “human ecology” and offer conceptualization of the effects created by rising urbanism. Scholars that included, amongst others, Ernest Burgess, Roderick McKenzie and Louis Wirth described the city as the “cradle of civilization” and, as the epochal shift from rural to urban was progressively defining human relations, selected the “platform of urbanism” to underline the problems of the modern society (Wirth, 1940 p.744).
The crucial ‘urban’ lesson that these early theorists can teach us is their understanding of the city beyond materialistic structures, as a social milieu, and of urbanization beyond migration, as a social revolution. Wirth justly noted: “as long as we identify urbanism with the physical entity of the city […] we are not likely to arrive at any adequate conception of urbanism as a mode of life” (1938 p.4). Urbanism, he pointed out, has effects that transcend the mere rural-to-city migration: it defines lifestyle and social relations of contemporary humanity, and it sets the metropolis as “the initiating and controlling center of economic, political and cultural life” (Ibid, p.2). Thus, quite similar to what Doreen Massey (1993) has more recently described as “relational nature” of place resulting from the intersection of physical and social, the authors of the Chicago School – and Wirth in primis – present us with the image of the city as a social entity. Lewis Mumford, another of the forefathers of urban studies, reiterated such a concept a few years after and, recalling Geddes’s study, wrote: “The central and significant fact about the city is that [it] functions as the specialized organ of social transmission” (Mumford, 1940 p.5). Hence the urban, Mumford says, combines its individuality and localness, which derive from its own social texture and history, with greater “marks of the civilization” it contributes to constitute, characterized by the “heritage of larger units, national, racial, religious, human” (Ibid, p.6).
The city, consequently, can be interpreted a socially-constructed transformative milieu that integrates forces originating both from within and without. Such pulls are not necessarily opposites, but rather lures and draws of various kinds, either negative as the spread of urban violence and the threat of climate change, or positive as the availability of a very scarce resource or the global flow of tourists. Nonetheless, they act simultaneously on the social entity that is the city. To put it in contemporary terms, urbanity synthesizes local and global, certainly as a medium, but possibly even as an actor in world affairs. This helps us develop a “geographical imagination” that, as Massey (1999, p.166) put it, is capable of looking “both within and beyond the city and hold the two things in tension.” Likewise, it also leaves room for further speculation: if a city is to be ‘global’ then it necessarily needs to strike a balance between such forces and avoid succumbing to global fluxes or local degenerations, achieving only in few instances what Peter Hall (1998) called “urban order” or “golden ages.”
Yet, both Geddes and Mumford were missing the ‘big picture’ that only later authors such as Hall, Friedmann and Sassen, would have addressed. To this extent, the globalizing urban society of the last hundred years needed a more dynamic understanding of its multi-scalar, contradictory and ever-changing trends. Nevertheless, some form of theory, albeit often neglected, was already sketched a little after Mumford’s major publication. Urban geographer Edward Ullman had, in fact, attempted to develop a “theory of location for cities” as early as 1941, building upon earlier economic studies undertaken by Robert Murray Haig (1926) on the basis of urban concentration and Charles Horton Cooley (1894) on the effects of transportation networks. The investigation framework developed by Ullman (1941) described the orderly spacing and re-organization of urban settlements, seen as service centres, according to a “central-place theory” that is not static, but “changes to fit changes in the underlying conditions.” Thus, according to his original formulation, three categories can be identified to describe the “factors of urban causation” underlying the development of cities as “focal points in occupation and utilization of the earth” by humankind:
Situating the “world city” in an urbanizing landscape
The understanding of the city posited by the Chicago School evolved during the following decades with a marked focus on functionality and a widening analytical viewpoint. Moving from the human relations within the metropolitan setting, and their related problems, urbanists from various disciplines followed the examples set by Cooley, Wirth and Ullman, and engaged “world-organization” and the social issues raised by it. Progenitor of this macrosociological shift in the study of the city was Chicago sociologist Roderick McKenzie, who developed as early as 1927 a concept of a global network of cities. By describing the spatial reorganization caused by transportation and communication technologies, he highlighted how urban settlements aligned within hierarchies of dominance and subordination, with an inner locus of activity and an outer periphery. Hence, McKenzie (1927, p.42) laid out a theory where new centres of dominance are “often quite at variance with the existing political structure,” since the “world’s centers of gravity are always in process of change.” This progressive sense of the world city, perhaps the single most forward-looking anticipation of contemporary debates along with Geddes’s 1915 book, would have required two long decades between the 1970s and the 1980s to re-emerge into coherent urban studies form. Yet, this evidence testifies, once again, the need for a contingent and performance-oriented understanding of the city’s centrality in world affairs.
While this systemic perspective remained in hibernation, a milestone text for urban studies was published in 1966: Peter Hall’s The World Cities. Taking up Geddes’s sketch of the nodal settlements within international economy, the author designed a theoretical framework concerned with the growth, and consequent problems, associated with the “metropolitan explosion” of seven urban regions. In the introductory section of this book, Hall outlined the profile of these cities in their defining features that distinguish them from megalopolises and business centres. Accordingly, “world cities” are:
While describing these functions, the English urbanist importantly underscored how the elevated number of urban inhabitants could be a feature, but not a necessary determinant, of what John Friedmann (1986) would later denominate “world city status.” This latter, pointed out Hall, is a function of all the abovementioned characteristics. Giant urban complexes that did not satisfy the five criteria, such as Osaka-Kobe or Chicago at the time, might have regional – but not international – significance. Conversely, small centres such as the Dutch Randstad, could “play a world role” despite the limited urban population. Overall, Hall’s focus throughout the volume remained on the ‘planning’ and ‘development’ side of the analysis, offering an account of how pivotal cities such as Tokyo, Paris or New York evolved to their present prominence, and how this rise is necessarily accompanied by enormous problems of transportation, urban renewal and local governance.
In this central epoch of urban studies, the crucial step towards a global analysis of the city did not only come from purely urbanist authors. Rather, epitomizing the multidisciplinary nature of the world city literature, a number of social scientists turned to Marxist and critical analyses to illustrate the phenomenon anticipated by McKenzie. Critical contributions came from three recurrent voices of this field, namely David Harvey, Manuel Castells and Henri Lefebvre. Profoundly influential for urban theory were, for instance, the latter’s 1968 Le Drot à la Ville (“The Right to the City”), 1970 La Révolution Urbaine (The Urban Revolution) and 1974 La Production de l’Espace (“The production of space”). In the first two controversial publications, Lefebvre described the central relationship between urbanization and capitalism, which rested upon the production of the ‘metropolitan’ to perpetrate its suppressive structure and obliterate the rural/urban distinction, and called for a right for the common man to regain command of the social and material urban forces with city (Kofman and Lebas, 1996). These thoughts were instrumental in shaping the subsequent writings by English sociologist David Harvey, who has carried forward such approach to the present day (Harvey, 2008). Although this take on the city is a central theme of the contemporary approach to urbanization, the third volume cited here is perhaps the one that contains the most essential element for a contemporary redefinition of the global metropolis. In his 1974 book, the French philosopher described the complexity of the urbanizing and globalizing capitalist environment by referring to its spatial alignments of superimposed geographical scales. Lefebvre’s interpretation is here crucial to let us ‘localize’ the whereabouts of world cities: manifold social spheres constitute the universal context in which human relationships take place, where these permeable spheres are superimposed and interpenetrate each other, into a multiscalar dynamic that constitute the social space. Individuals, institutions, communities and objects interact in such socially-produced milieu which can easily recall the multilayered portrayal described by Brian Hocking’s (1999) concept of “catalytic” diplomacy, or the contradictory globalizing processes delineated by Jan Scholte and Zygmunt Bauman (Scholte 2000; Bauman 1998), as well as Fernand Braudel’s image of world economy as a “jigshaw puzzle” (Braudel, 1984). In this light, Manuel Castells’s seminal work La Question Urbaine (“The Urban Question”) was embedded on a analogous terminology, and inspired by a very similar Marxist stance. Castells sought to step beyond geographical location and territorial role of the city, highlighting instead their functional role and social content, attempting to define this spatial unit “in terms of its social function” (Brenner, 2000 p.363).
Yet, the French author’s contribution goes even beyond a theorization of that relational concept of space we have frequently reiterated thus far. The idea of scale can help us situating the global city as a spatial unit that transcends its geographical context, and reaches out into the highly transformative social space created by a globalized context. This appreciation offers a relational topology that, similarly to John Allen’s and Doreen Massey’s interpretations, considers scales of activity and sets proximity as a function of social relations as much as morphological distances (Allen, 2003 p.192). Lefebvre (1991, pp.86-88) himself reminds this in relation to the contemporary world: “the worldwide does not abolish the local [which] is never absorbed by the regional or even worldwide level as […] all these spaces, meanwhile, are traversed by myriad currents.” As Saskia Sassen will note many years after Lefebvre, analysing the “global” city requires an understanding of the politics of scale and a deeper level of generalization – as well as historical specificity – than the one demanded by the study of the networks among world cities. To this extent, in order to understand the urban as a matter of the global architecture, the appreciation of this metropolitan scale must be introduced into those disciplines that deal with issues of power and social relations, as these latter are key determinants in the reproduction and reconfiguration of space.
Fundamental, at this stage, was the contribution of Immanuel Wallerstein, the father of “world-system theory.” Influenced by the complex exploitation structures illustrated by Karl Marx, and at the same time bearer of Fernand Braudel’s historical approach pinpointed in the longue dureé of competitive social processes, Wallerstein collected a landmark historical sociology treatise on the emergence of the modern world-system in three volumes between 1974 and 1989. Among the most important contributions of this opus is the description of terms such as “periphery and core” or “unequal exchange” that entered the common jargon of international studies. However, despite the key significance of this formulation, Wallerstein’s perspective that could make an essential contribution to the contemporary definition of global city is a less celebrated one: “A world-system – highlighted the author – is a social system” (Wallerstein, 1974 p.229). With Wallerstein, therefore, we move from a materialistic understanding of such system, to a political representation of the power hierarchies created by capitalism and supported by technological advance.Independently from Wallerstein, in 1972, another author had sketched a preliminary scheme of what world city analysis would have looked like in the years to come. Canadian economist Stephen Hymer, certainly much more credited for his studies on direct foreign investment, published a research note that anticipated contemporary ‘urban network’ theories. On the basis of investment ownership and business flows, he described an “urban hierarchy” within the world system of cities, cutting across the traditional geopolitical divisions of international affairs (Alderson and Beckfield, 2004 pp.814-18). Hymer’s view, however, lacked the dynamic element that will characterize the successes of subsequent formulations: the system envisaged by this author, in fact, was static and pinpointed on the same traditional dominant powers to which political studies referred at that time.
The world city hypothesis and the urban hierarchy
At the outset of the 1980s, building on the conceptualizations developed by Hymer and benefiting from more than a decade of world city analysis by Hall, Robert B. Cohen (1981) took the world-system interpretation of global business sites a step further. Grounding the linkage between the organizational structure of multinational corporations and the networks among cities in a comparative empirical analysis, he described a truly global system and its internal pecking order. To this extent, Cohen’s study quickly became a landmark in urban theory, as it sought to develop one of the first “urban hierarchies” that enlarged its traditional western-centric boundaries. Cities like Singapore and Hong Kong appeared in this formulation, as the author described the articulation of this hierarchical system, and its possible trends for the years to come. Anticipating much of the research that will later be developed by scholars such as Peter Taylor or Michael Timberlake, Cohen made a two-fold progress: he kick-started the urbanist movement concerned with building a hierarchical taxonomy of metropolitan centres of world economy, while also marking a definitive shift from the local (micro) viewpoint, to the global (macro) study of cities.
Cohen’s methodological advance was followed shortly after by another systematic contribution by American world-system theorist Christopher Chase-Dunn. This latter published in 1985 a cross-national quantitative study on the system of cities where the “central places” were seen as “centers of capital accumulation and geopolitical power,” constituting a single worldwide structure which has continued to operate ever since the early days of history, involving no dramatic changes but rather trends and cycles.1 Chase-Dunn’s and Cohen pieces were therefore instrumental in highlighting the systemic qualities of world cities, and in providing a legacy of empirical baggage to those urban theorist that were at that moment venturing in the complexities of global networks, which will then be largely theorized by Manuel Castells in his 1996 The Network Society, designed by building upon his earlier The Informational City (1989). This text was the first of a trilogy dedicated by the Spanish sociologist to the rise of what he called “information age”, where networks constitute the new social morphology of human society. Castells’s focus is on the “space of flows” that characterize social relations in the contemporary epoch, deeply affected by the rise of the world-wide-web and the new technologies, will fundamentally shape the study of the world system of cities in the years to come.
It was John Friedmann, however, who provided the first crucial analytical formulation for the study of the city in the present context. Recalling an initial research project designed in 1982 with Goetz Wolff, destined to become “an instant classic” (Keil, 2006 p.57), this urban planning pundit conceptualized the “world city hypothesis” in a 1986 article targeted to inspire a systematic study of this phenomenon. The heuristic article, intended as a framework of research, followed the aforementioned tradition of analysts concerned with the spatial organization of the new division of labour set in motion by the rise of the capitalist class and sustained by the underlying forces of globalization. To this extent, Friedmann listed seven interrelated theses on the nature and role of world cities:
Friedmann’s interpretation was rooted in an understanding of the city as defined in economic terms and, as the author would underline in a later discussion on world city research, the cities referred here are “spatially organized socio-economic systems” that represent “places and sites rather than actors” (Friedmann, 1995 p.22). Relations and structure were described as flexible, depicting a dynamic hierarchy that was in notable contrast with Hymer’s earlier formulation. This formulation made extensive usage of a terminology developed thus far by world-system theorists, classifying metropolises in core and peripheral countries, underlying how the scales of spatial polarization (global, regional, metropolitan) all inevitably rested upon class polarization, and describing their position as organizing nodes of global economics. In this view, Friedmann laid out a map of the system arranged around three distinct geographical subsystems – Asian. American and West European – linked together on an East-West axis by the relation of the primary cities within these: Tokyo, Los Angeles, Chicago, London and Paris.
Figure 1: The World City Hierarchy
(Friedmann, 1986 p.71)
The “world city hypothesis” created an unprecedented plethora of followers that engaged in the systematic and empirical classification of such system, broadening both the breath of urban settlements considered, as well as the types of ‘world city functions’ scrutinized.
The “global city” model and the early-1990s
Shortly after the publication of Friedmann’s thesis, researchers interested in urban studies clustered around this novel trend in systemic research. Geographers, sociologists and urbanists from all over the academic landscape took up the complex task of ‘mapping’ such variable and hierarchical metropolitan structure: scholars like Michael Timberlake, Peter Taylor, Jonathan Beaverstock and Richard Smith became authoritative voices that are now regarded as the highest experts in this field, alongside those evergreen pundits such as Hall and Harvey. Yet, as often happens in social sciences, this mainstream approach soon met the emergence of a comparable but contrasting formulation: the “global city model” elaborated by Saskia Sassen at the outset of the 1990s. Coming from a multicultural education strongly tied to Latin America and Europe, this American sociologist developed her landmark dissertation The Global City on the basis set by her previous studies on social stratification and mobility of capitals. Notably, these approaches even featured in the early stages of Friedmann’s hypothesis, as he referenced Sassen’s theories on the role of the management elite as a privileged class within the restructuring of core world cities (Sassen-Koob, 1986).
These links notwithstanding, Sassen’s thesis was markedly divergent with the mainstream hypothesis, and not just in semantics. As she would have recalled much later, the choice of “global” rather than “world” as an epithet for the key metropolises was meant to “capture the specific articulation of the world economy […] today, thereby allowing for the possibility that cities that are not historically world cities could nonetheless be global” (Sassen, 2006 p.ix). In contrast with this understanding, Peter Marcuse and Ronald van Kempen (2000) introduced the term “globalizing city” in order to underscore that globalization is not a characteristic of those “global cities” alone, but a more pervasive process present in all urban spaces. For the purposes of our investigation, however, I favor here Sassen’s terminology as I do not believe the author implied such conjecture in her original thesis, rather highlighting the particular connection between certain key metropolises and the broader processes of globalization. Consequently: “global city is not a descriptive term [but] an analytic construct that allows one to detect the global as it is filtered through the specifics of a place, its institutional orders, and its sociospatial fragmentations” (Sassen, 2006 p.x). Not all world cities necessarily represent global cities, and not all global cities are to be seen ‘global’ in the same way.
Sassen’s formulation allowed for variations in the nature of the different cities, which in turn epitomized not only nodal points as Friedmann originally conceived them, but also central places of advanced production, whose particular output – responsible for their global status – is principally represented by services. Thus, in order to capture this specificity, she focused her study on the practice of global control as performed in these strategic sites (Sassen, 1991). These particular localities, of which New York, London and Tokyo symbolized the apex, are characterized by the agglomeration of central command functions (legal, economic, managerial, planning, executive etc.) necessary to corporate organizations in order to operate across multiple global locations. Hence, in contrast with Castells’s understanding of power as dislocated and decentralized through networks, Sassen illustrates how such networks are the means of power, which is on the contrary seen as concentrated by those group who take advantage of command-and-control functions embedded in specific central places (Allen, 1999 p.202). To this extent, global cities are not merely the result of flows, but also their primary origin, and would not otherwise exist if not as a part of global networks of strategic sites. In this sense, Peter Taylor has argued for an empirically-based reworking of Sassen’s definition, and suggested the following: “global cities” should be characterized as those leading world cities that occupy the top echelons of the hierarchical patterns that describe the global urban system, dividing those “functionally comprehensive” sites such as Paris and London, from so-called “global niche-cities” offering specialized contributions, such as in the case of Hong Kong or (interestingly) Tokyo. Subsequently, “world cities” should be considered at the two lower tiers, respectively represented by “sub-net articulatory cities” and “cities with world-wide contributions [only] in particular spheres of activity” (Taylor 2005, p.1605).
This focus on the practice, the heterogeneous nature, the activity and the multiplicity of functions between key metropolises is certainly the greatest contribution offered by Sassen to the theorization of the city in world affairs. Moreover, this approach brings us to another key definition: that of “entrepreneurial city.” Despite its present liberal connotations, this notion was originally developed in David Harvey’s Marxist analysis of capitalism, as affected by the role of contemporary urbanization. Harvey was well aware of the mutually constitutive relations between the political sphere and the urban processes throughout time, and how incoherently the study of the former had become separated from the socio-geographical inquiries into the latter. As a response to this scholarly sectoralism, he described how “managerial” approaches to urban governance so typical of the 1960s were, at the end of the 1980s, giving way to “entrepreneurial forms of action” born out of the spirit of capitalism, and capable of reorienting urban governance towards novel forms of performance and prompting urbanities to ‘take the initiative’ in the economic realm (Harvey, 1989). Drawing upon an earlier work by John Mollenpkof (1983), Harvey outlined the evolution of the city’s conduct towards a postindustial “urban entrepreneurialism” that, at the time of his analysis, was yet to be completed. The scholarly analysis into this new type of urban politics slowly developed in the following years, introducing analyses of the city’s economic development, place marketing, independent growth and integration into global networks, and setting the scene for the liberal conceptualizations of the entrepreneurial city as theorized by Tim Hall and Phil Hubbard (1996 and 1998), as well as by Bob Jessop (1997). In other words, entrepreneurial cities are those who purposefully undertake political and economic activities, rather than simply reacting to the features of their surrounding environment. In this sense, we can describe world and global cities as actors with a scope and a set of related policies, which are carried out on a global level by engaging other components of the international system.
However, while the world city literature was developing in the ‘invisible college’ led by Friedmann and Sassen, another less celebrated but crucial publication saw the light in 1992: The 100 Mile City, written by architect and designer Deyan Sudjic. Distant from most of the debates highlighted thus far, Sudjic’s contribution was a rather unique one. Instead of issues of networks, systemic analyses and economic relations, the author narrated the processes of city-building and mutation of the urban landscape, providing the ‘world-city audience’ with a powerful reminder: let us not forget the physical existence of the metropolis, which could easily be lost among academic quarrels upon questions of place, flows, social relations and globalization. In this enterprise, Sudjic is ushered by another key author, Anthony King, who shares with him the interest in the physical city, although in a more historical perspective, and published a few years earlier the book Global Cities on the internationalization of London (King, 1990a). In a time of abstraction and empirical dismantling of the metropolis as an aggregate of functions, they bring us back to the bricks, highways and metallic skeleton of the city itself, represented through Sudjic’s metaphor of a non-linear electric force field powered by the often unpredictable and sudden energy of mobility (Sudjic, 1992).
To this extent, The 100 Mile City and Global Cities are necessary building blocks of our multidisciplinary endeavour, as they call for the material element of the global city not to be forgotten among scholarly abstractions, considering the physical essence of urbanity as a source of symbolic power. This form of power, as Pierre Bourdieu (1989, p.20) described it, is a linguistic ability that rests on the capacity of imposing visions of legitimate social divisions on other subjects, thus defining social space to one’s one advantage, in a process of “world-making” which is typical of negotiations among individuals. To this extent, the material nature of the city has social reflexes on the world of diplomacy, since it convenes symbolic images that construct the political dialogue with (and within) the city. To put it simply, in the words of another key architectural historian of this period – Joseph Rykwert – the urban can be shaped through “metaphoric projections” that give meaning to the “apparently neutral grid of an [urban] plan” (Rykwert, 2000 p.221). Hence, if the “world city” scholarship has to speak to world politics, then its material component must not be left out of sight, since it contributes to construct social relations and political interactions.
Albeit Sassen’s milestone marked this period of urban scholarship, there also are two other ‘urbanist’ contributions from the early-1990s that set the course for the contemporary scholarship. Firstly, Edward Soja’s (1989) reinterpretation of geography, according to a critical social theory, begun to take form in this period, through his writings on the interplay between imagined and real places, and the collection of essays titled Postmodern Geographies. Soja, as noted earlier in this note, represents nowadays one of the greatest experts of Lefebvre’s thought, and a crucial voice in the debate on the urban century. Secondly, the debate on the “dual city” as theorized by David Harvey and then by Saskia Sassen, achieved the well-deserved attention with John Mollenkopff and Manuel Castells’s edited volume Dual City: Restructuring New York. In this key book, the Big Apple was presented as “two cities, not separated and distinct but rather deeply intertwined products of the same underlying processes” (Mollenkopff and Castells, 1992 p.11). Social polarization, created by the capitalist society and the expanding reach of global networks, was splitting the city in two halves, between a small elite at the top, and a large underclass. Inequality, the authors underlined, was the major feature defining postindustrial urbanities, and the greatest challenge of the contemporary global cities. It goes without saying that this contradiction of the urban age shall be a key theme of a political analysis of the 21 st century’s urbanity.
The contemporary scholarship: consolidation and alternatives
At the dawn of the third millennium, after nearly eighty years of world city scholarship, the literature on this bewildering phenomenon had come a long way from the early days of Geddes’s pioneering work. After the establishment of key hypotheses on the nature, function and internal changes of the central places of world affairs, it seemed time for consolidation and development with an eye to the upcoming century. It was this spirit that pervaded the contributions of the key authorities within this field: Friedmann (1995) looked with confidence at the world city ‘paradigm’ that, in his view, was robust enough to prompt the scholarly analyses of the years ahead; Peter Hall (1995) moved “towards a general urban theory” by describing location, interplay and problems of a hierarchical urban system dominated by global cities and regional centres; Taylor, in collaboration with urban geographer Paul L. Knox, edited a landmark book for systemic analysis, gathering almost all the gurus of the discipline in the volume World Cities in a World System (Knox and Taylor 1995); Castells (1998) completed his trilogy on the informational society, and Sassen (1996 and 2001) revisited her thesis with an updated commentary on New York, London and Tokyo, while also moving towards a systematic analysis of flows, sovereignty and territoriality.
Nonetheless, the ‘invisible college’ of world city scholars continued to grow in heterogeneity and multidisciplinarity. British geographer Peter Taylor, along with some of the ‘new’ voices in this field such as Jon Beaverstock, responded to the many calls for a systematic study of the world city system, and established the Globalization and World City Group and Network (GaWC) shortly after launching a related pilot project at the Global Observatory of Loughborough University. Underscoring that this field seemed “to have drawn the short straw when it comes to rigorous research,” Taylor (1997) endeavoured in establishing a monitoring group devoted to the study of “hierarchical tendencies amongst world cities.” To date, the GaWC has probably produced the most impressive collection of data on the global city phenomenon available at large, maintaining an updated ranking of the urban hierarchy. To this extent, the founders of this project even contravened to Friedmann’s original formulation, according to which compiling a precise hierarchy would have been a futile enterprise due to the extreme variability of status with the system. Disregarding such advice, Taylor and his team set out to rank metropolises – on the basis of their “world cityness” – in four different tiers: alpha cities at the top tier, beta cities, gamma cities and then the vast group of those cities where there was a well-founded evidence of world city formation.
Not surprisingly, the GaWC found the usual suspects (Tokyo, London, Paris and New York) as scoring the highest marks (Taylor et al, 1999). This taxonomy has been articulated through various refinements, introducing a crucial distinction in 2005 between various levels of “world city-ness” and thus compiling a ranking of alpha, beta and gamma world cities (Beaverstock, 1999). This listing was originally intended as an analytical device to set out a map of global networks and inter-city linkages, calculating a city’s status on the basis of the presence of advanced producer service firms. However, as much as with Friedmann’s 1986 hypothesis, the study became a ‘must’ among the members of the invisible college. The GaWC – and Taylor in particular – has then recently returned on this early ranking trend, revising and improving the data collection and clarifying the top echelons of “alpha” global cities. Reworking the previous urban hierarchy through this novel classification, the GaWC has identified a constant “leading duo” at the top, constituted by London and New York (“NYLON”). Nonetheless, as Taylor has himself admitted: “The GaWC method of measuring the world city network produces theoretically informed, empirically robust assessments of cities in globalization. But it measures just one process in city development: the servicing of global capital” (Taylor et al, 2008). Needless to say, this research note advocates a widening in such approach.
The GaWC, for many years the only reference available to scholars seeking datasets on the world city phenomenon, has also been trailed by the publication of a “Global Cities Index” by Foreign Policy Magazine in collaboration with AT Kearney and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (FP, 2008). The authors of this novel ranking have thus followed a more classic template, regularly employed by the same periodical to compile a hierarchy of globalization among states, and registered the record of 60 world cities according to 24 metrics, organized in five dimensions: business activity, human capital, information exchange, cultural experience and political engagement. The latest results of this endeavour have so far offered little surprises, with the ‘leading duo’ solidly at the top of the list.
As datasets and analytical eclecticism offered by these contemporary urban theorists were growing exponentially, so was the availability of case-specific (or region-specific) studies. Geographers and urbanists across the globe contributed to the sprawl of literature on the global network of cities. Numerous new ‘classics’ joined the Friedmann’s ‘invisible college’ with prominent studies, while the centre of the attention gradually shifted towards East Asia and its rising metropolises such as Singapore and Shanghai. To this extent, experts in the field like Michael Timberlake and Bob Jessop turned their attention towards East, following the orientation that had characterized Peter Hall’s first work on the world city. Yet, Asia is not the only target of this analytical widening. As demonstrated by the excellent collection of essays Relocating Global Cities, published in 2006, there is now a resonant group of scholars engaged in studying and theorizing the ‘periphery’ and the processes of world city formation taking place within this. Likewise, there is also a growing number of academics that present alternative views on the global city. Allen Scott’s (2001) edited volume Global City Regions, for instance, epitomizes the difficulty of drawing definitional boundaries and setting quantitative limits to world cities, which often represent flexible and protean social entities. In this perspective, Scott proposes the “city-region” rather than the metropolitan area, as object of analysis for the urban age. Similarly, Michael Peter Smith put forward the idea of “transnational urbanism” underlining how the “global city” is nothing but a social construct that has been wrongly reified, thus providing little advancement on the increasingly pressing issues rose by the global urban condition, and reiterating the economicism that biases this paradigm. “The quest for a fixed urban hierarchy – he writes – should be abandoned […] because of the multiple and often contradictory composition of the [global] flows” (Smith, 2001 pp.54-58), and because of the erroneous unavoidability of social polarization that the global city thesis inspires. Urban studies, suggests Smith, should be reformed in a transnational sense, stepping beyond economic-centric explanations and offering a real response to the challenges of the 21 st century.
On an analogous note, Doreen Massey has returned to a direct engagement with the study of the city as central place in her critical account of London’s deleterious search for global status, fittingly titled World City (2007). In this book, the English geographer underscores how the British capital has indiscriminately been supported in its quest for primacy as a world city by those who think it represents a golden goose and, blindfolded by such image, are unable to see the deleterious effect of such pursue on the rest of England. Massey, continuing her tradition of relational understanding of place, consequently promotes an ideal of place interlinked with identity-formation and ethical responsibility, which currently represents an almost unique stance in the world city scholarship, possibly only coupled with another one-of-a-kind text - Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums (2006). Both certainly offer us with crucial insights on the ‘dark sides’ of the global city narrative.
Finally, two perspectives should be mentioned in this brief account of the present-day world city literature, as they constitute foundational viewpoints for a political inquiry into the global. Firstly, Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift’s Cities: Reimagining the Urban (2002), representative of the two authors’ unconventional scholarship, is a remarkable account of the contemporary nature of the metropolis in international affairs, as shaped by its global city functions. Moreover, Cities is also one of the very few accounts of the issue of power as shaped and mastered by these central places, offering various propositions for further research that will be developed in the next chapter. Overall, Amin and Thrift’s questioning of both the state-centrism typical of IR and the economicism pervasive in world city analysis offers one of the closest viewpoints to this thesis currently available. In a similar fashion, the monumental The Endless City embodies the markedly multidisciplinary nature that inquires in the global city presently need. Product of the new dynamic project “The Urban Age” set up at the London School of Economics by British urbanist Ricky Burdett, this collection of pundits from different fields such as architecture, sociology, human geography and design, certainly traces the entrepreneurial path required appreciate the multifaceted nature of the 21 st century urbanity, charged with social contradictions and challenges (Burdett and Sudjic, 2008). In fact, as Deyan Sudjic, co-editor of the volume with Burdett, pointed out in his earlier publication The 100 Mile City: “to accept that the city has a dark side, of menace and greed, does not diminish its vitality and strength. In the last analysis, it reflects man and all his potential” (Sudjic, 1992 p.309).
Localizing the global city: recomposing a multidisciplinary puzzle
Having journeyed through the hundred years of world city scholarship that took us to the contemporary context of the urban age, it is now time to look back and sketch a working definition of the global city on the basis of the lessons learnt thus far, in order to achieve an eclectic definition that can speak outside of the ‘invisible college’ and, more directly, to world politics students and practitioners. Many insights from the previous literature review are essential pieces of an analytical puzzle that, once pieced together, should be understandable for a multidisciplinary audience formed by urbanists, sociologists, political theorists and architects alike. Let us proceed orderly, summing up the core contributions hitherto retrieved.
We started with the Chicago School’s important recognition of the city as a social entity that transcends a simply aggregate understanding of urban relations. Within –and across – the metropolis social interactions are not solely summed up, but also changed in a mutually-constitutive ‘dialogue’ between the individual and the urban. The global city, in this light, becomes a transformative milieu. Taking a step further, we can recall Geddes’s and Hall’s specification: not all cities are the same, and some cities have tighter ties with the rest of the globe. These strategic urbanities represent the echelon of “world cities.” This reasoning, however, does not imply an exclusive category, since “all cities are world cities” to some extent (King, 1990b). Some form of ‘world urban system’ has always existed since the early days of civilization, and the world status that can be attributed to a city is not an absolute novelty of the urban society. A metropolis’s location, as firstly reminded by authors such as Ullman, is a result of the functions it performs. To this extent, world cities act as central places, gateways for global and regional flows, and sources of specialized services for the wider public, beyond their own locales. Consequently, by connecting this conjecture to McKenzie’s description of dominance in world organization, and its later form represented by Sassen’s “global control” capabilities, we can portray world cities as sites of global coordination. Yet, as both Sassen and McKenzie ackowledge, and as Castells reminds us, these cities’ control power is a function of their connection with those global networks they exercise control through, therefore making city and system (seen in its social nature as underscored by Wallerstein) interdependent and reciprocally supportive: the city’s influence would not exist without the thick web or social and material relations within which it is embedded, but this latter would not exist either if not for its units’ social action prompted by entrepreneurial slants. As a direct consequence, it is possible to identify an order of urban settlements within such a system, since world cities carry out different functions and different degrees of relations, thus aligning in a world ‘urban hierarchy’ which – due to its mobile basis – is in constant flux. However, we encounter here the first divergence with the classical literature on this phenomenon. Contrarily to what Friedmann postulated in his hypothesis, namely that cities are to be analysed as “places and sites” rather than actors, the narrative of the world city depicted thus far seem to indicate the opposite. Admitting that certain cities (if not all cities) perform functions and retain degrees of control implies, in my view, a logical corollary: global cities, due to their presence as loci of purposive action within the global system, are not only places but also entrepreneurial participants in world politics.
The scholarship and context analysed so far all point in this direction. Power, control, dominance, activity (through “functions”) and entrepreneurship are all features that denote the participation of world cities in human relations. It might as yet be too early to postulate that global cities are “actors” within world politics, but all evidence certainly confirms that these urbanities are legitimately definable as entities or, as Bruno Latour put it, actants: social entities that are not “actors” (who act actively) nor “systems” (which behave passively), but rather “autonomous figures,” be them conscious beings, material constructs or institutions (Latour, 2005, p.55). The global city is consequently posited here as an entity with, as Hedley Bull (2002, p.222) would say, “room for manoeuvre in world politics” given both by its presence and activity.
In order to appreciate this, however, a conceptual shift is hereby needed. As Lefebvre pointed out, scale matters when dealing with urbanity. So that the cities’ agency can be unraveled, the focus of a political research into the urban must be refined to understand the difference between “global” and “world” cities, which I interpret here, following Sassen’s orientation, as a matter of deeper analytical inquiry and lesser degree of generalization. As hinted at by, among others, Peter Taylor (2005), “global cities” are nothing but “world cities” with more specific characteristics. Hence, global city is a type of world city that exists not solely as articulatory site of the world city system, but also as a functional entity of the “global” as defined by Harvey, Scholte and Held. To this extent, global is a qualificatory parameter that describes the presence of a world city in the globality of human relations, while also describing its historical specificity and contingency as ‘product’ and ‘producer’ of globalization. The global city’s agency, just like its status, is a “precarious, contingent effect, achieved only by continuous performance and only for the duration of that performance” (Bingham, 1996 p.647). Cities, to put it simply, are global actors as long as they act globally, otherwise simply representing nodes in a worldwide web of social relations.
If such globality is an extremely abstract and ephemeral where time and space compress resulting in often-contradictory effects, we attempt here to filter it, as Sassen suggested, through the specifics (culture, political structures, economic functions, history and so forth) of those central places where it is articulated. In the end, we seek here to ‘translate’ Saskia Sassen’s model of the global city into an analytical construct that speaks to an even wider audience than the socio-economic public targeted with the global city formulation, introducing politics into the frame.
Nonetheless, as noted above, we need not to lose the ground on which we stand. If abstraction and theorization are needed to tell the political role of the global city, description and planning are equally fundamental to convene the material element that makes the urbanity the most tangible among social structures. We follow here the path introduced by Sudjic, and more recently Burdett, as we set out to describe the role of cities not only through the metropolis’s economic, social and political functions, but also in its symbolic power as conveyed through its physical structures built of concrete, glass and metal. Likewise, as Sudjic himself emphasizes reiterating the “dual city” thesis, and as Mike Davis’s inflammatory scholarship stresses with powerful images, we also need to pay attention to the social contradictions created by the urban age. To this extent two final considerations are compulsory. Firstly, the definition “global city” does not have a necessarily positive quality: being “global” entails both pay-offs and high prices to be paid by those who compose the metropolitan community. Hence, global cities are equally sites of opportunities and relegation, ridden by social inequality as much as open to extreme mobility, characterized by billionaire elites and wretched ghettos, whose “right to the city” is systematically denied (Harvey, 2008).
In this view, the last – but crucial – element of a global city that can be drawn from the scholarship reviewed so far is that of “urban order” as narrated by Peter Hall in his Cities in Civilization. Those flourishing metropolises that the British urbanist described in their “golden ages” all had – and ideed have – a common determinant: they stroke a balance between ‘external’ and superimposed forces that were connecting the city with the world, and their ‘internal’ context filled with contradictions and planning quandaries.2 If a metropolis in the present age has to influence the global, and compete on the highly variable urban hierarchy, it needs to maintain the delicate interplay between local and global at a manageable level. If a city succumbs to the global, such as in the case of those urbanities that are mere transit platforms for worldwide flows, or those cities that collapse under the insatiable demands of the international markets, then its influence will be little more than a passive and subjugated presence. If urbanity implodes because of internal cracks, caused by mismanagement, poor infrastructures, sprawling shantytowns, urban criminality, as well as social conflict, then no possible active agency will be exercised on a global scale, because no concrete urbanity will sustain it from the foundations. Therefore, to achieve global status, world cities will require as much handling of social polarization, sustainable urbanization and environment management, as of their world city functions.
In light of these preliminary conclusions, a multidisciplinary model as described throughout this paper will rest on five essential features. Accordingly, a global city can be characterized as a social (urban) entity that:
This typology implies that every global city is a world city (but not vice-versa), and that the articulatory role typical of the latter is performed by the former on a global scale.3 Consequently, global cities are characterized as more than just national or regional gateways, as they are connected to the widest possible tier of human interactions. Moreover, the flows indicated here are not solely limited to economic, financial and commercial goods, but rather extended to their broadest interpretation, including global circulations of information and people. These can originate in the city, or ‘traverse’ it, as the urban becomes a facilitator for other entities to reach global significance.
Hence, albeit the definition “multiple and significant functions” might, at first sight, appear vague and non-quantifiable, this ambiguity is an intentional analytical device. Not all global cities will carry out the same set of activities, and not all functions will bear the same weight in providing global influence to the various urbanities. Consequently, the global city status will be attained through the capacity of controlling a significant amount of these, and their application through global networks. Recalling the descriptions offered by Hall, Ullman, Friedmann, Sassen, Thrift and Taylor, “global city functions” will mainly include roles as:
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1. The title of the paper epitomizes this historicist world-system perspective: “The System of World Cities, A.D. 800-1975” (Chase-Dunn, 1985).
2. The centrality of urban orders has also been echoed in the analysis of John Rennie Short (2000, p.25).
3. In this feature I diverge from Sassen’s consideration that certain urban agglomerates might be “global cities” but not “world cities” on the grounds that the former necessarily require articulation functions (of services, capitals, information, people or goods) in order to exercise global control. Sassen (2001, pp. 348-9).
4. I owe a note of recognition to --------- for this expression.
Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Urban Studies, 48 (14), (2011), 2953-2973