GaWC Research Bulletin 32

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This Research Bulletin has been published in RJ Johnston, PJ Taylor and MJ Watts (eds) (2002) Geographies of Global Change 2nd edition Oxford: Blackwell, 328-38.

Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


World Cities and the Organization of Global Space

P.L. Knox

Between 1980 and 2000, the number of city-dwellers worldwide rose by 1.1 billion. Cities now account for almost half the world's population. There are 372 metropolitan areas of a million or more people and 45 with over 5 million. Looking ahead, population projections for 2010 suggest that there will be around 475 cities with a population of a million or more, including about 55 of five million or more. Urbanization on this scale is a remarkable geographical phenomenon, the manifestation of one of the most important sets of processes shaping the world's landscapes. From small, market towns and fishing ports to megacities of millions of people, the urban areas of the world are the linchpins of human geographies. They have always been a crucial element in spatial organization and the evolution of societies, but today they are more important than ever.

Some cities, though, are more important than others. Ever since the evolution of a world-system in the sixteenth century, certain cities-world cities-have played key roles in organizing space beyond their own national boundaries. In the first stages of world-system growth, these key roles involved the organization of trade and the execution of colonial, imperial, and geopolitical strategies. The world cities of the seventeenth century were London, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Genoa, Lisbon, and Venice. In the eighteenth century, Paris, Rome, and Vienna also became world cities, while Antwerp and Genoa became less influential. In the nineteenth century, Berlin, Chicago, Manchester, New York, and St. Petersburg became world cities, while Venice became less influential. Today, with the globalization of the economy, the key roles of world cities are concerned less with the deployment of imperial power and the orchestration of trade and more with transnational corporate organization, international banking and finance, supranational government, and the work of international agencies. World cities have become the control centers for the flows of information, cultural products, and finance that collectively sustain the economic and cultural globalization of the world. World cities also provide an interface between the global and the local. They contain the economic, cultural, and institutional apparatus that channels national and provincial resources into the global economy and that transmits the impulses of globalization back to national and provincial centers.

Today's world cities are both cause and effect of economic, political and cultural globalization. They must be seen as the product of the combination of a new international division of labor, of the internationalization of finance, of the global strategies of networks of transnational corporations, and of the proliferation and increasing influence of international non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations (NGOs and IGOs)- all of which have been facilitated by new modes of regulation and by revolutionary process and circulation technologies. At the same time, world cities must be seen as the places and settings through which large regions of the world are articulated into the space of global capital accumulation: centers of economic, cultural, and political authority that give shape and direction to the interdependent forces of economic, political, and cultural globalization. The result is a "smaller" world, in which our lives are lived and shaped through the global metropolitanism of "larger" cities. These world cities - no more than a couple of dozen of them altogether - are not necessarily the largest in terms of population but they are the most capacious in terms of economic and cultural capital and innovation. Embedded within them are the nodal points of a "fast world" of flexible production systems and sophisticated consumption patterns. This fast world currently extends from the world's triadic economic core to its dependent theaters of accumulation in the megacities of semi-peripheral and peripheral world regions, and altogether involves about 900 million of the world's 6 billion population. Its corollary is the "slow world" of catatonic rural settings, declining manufacturing regions, and disadvantaged slums, all of which are increasingly disengaged from the culture and lifestyles of world cities. Yet these slow worlds are not altogether separate from the global metropolitanism of world cities. Both the internal and the external proletariat of world cities contribute capital (economic, human, and cultural) to the cause of global metropolitanism, and in so doing they are unavoidably inscribed into the economic and cultural landscapes of world cities.


As we have seen in earlier chapters, globalization is by no means a new phenomenon; nor is it novel that a few major cities play a key role in the capital-accumulation circuits of the world-system. A globalized infrastructure of unitary nation states, international agencies and institutions, global forms of communication, a standardized system of global time, international competitions and prizes, and shared notions of citizenship and human rights had all been established by the mid-nineteenth century, with roots stretching back to the sixteenth century. The recent acceleration of globalization and the emergence of a distinctive generation of world cities was grounded in the twentieth-century development of this legacy. What is distinctive about the globalization of the late twentieth century is, first, that there has been a decisive shift in the proportion of the world's economic activity that is transnational in scope (Sassen, 1997). At the same time, there has been a decisive shift in the nature and organization of transnational economic activity, with international trade in raw materials and manufactured goods being eclipsed by flows of goods, capital, and information that take place within and between transnational conglomerate corporations (Castells, 1996). A third distinctive feature, interdependent with the first two, is the articulation of new world views and cultural sensibilities - notably the ecological concern with global resources and environments and the postmodern condition of pluralistic, multicultural, non-hierarchical, and de-centered world society (Bauman, 1998). All this adds up to an intensification of global connectedness and the constitution of the world as one place - at least for that portion of the world's population that is in fact tied in to global systems of production and exchange and to global networks of communication and knowledge. For most residents of the fast world there has been a profound redefinition of their roles as producers and consumers, and an equally profound reordering of time and space in social life.

Much of this change has been transacted and mediated through world cities, the nodal points of the multiplicity of linkages and interconnections that sustain the contemporary world economy (Hall, 1996; Short and Kim, 1999). Yet world cities themselves have to be understood not only as the legacy of past phases of globalization and urbanization but also as the product of enabling technologies, of the strategies of transnational corporations, and of the responses of local, national, and supranational governments and institutions. In this context, we can draw on several aspects of the geoeconomic and geopolitical change described in Parts I and II of this volume:

1. The "New International Division of Labor" (see chapter 3), which has resulted in a locational hierarchy, the top of which is constituted by the concentration of high-level management functions, mostly in major cities of the world's core economies. It has been the expanded management, planning, and control operations of transnational corporations that have formed the nucleus of contemporary world-city formation.

2. New production technologies and advances in telematics that have made for a more variable geometry of economic activity, a faster-paced economic and social environment, and a compression of space and time around the world. The development of these technologies, however, has followed patterns of initial economic advantage and geopolitical influence. Three main circuits of traffic (the Americas, Europe/Middle East, and Asia/Oceania) have come to dominate the "space of flows" of the informational economy (Figure 1; see also Castells 1996; Sklair 1991). Cities with major concentrations of transnational corporate headquarters, of international news, information and entertainment services, and of international business services - world cities - have naturally succeeded to nodal positions in this framework.

3. The trend toward global neo-Fordism (chapter 3), which has required more sophisticated, internationalized financial and business services. This in turn has resulted in the renewed importance of major cities as sites not only for management and coordination but also for servicing, marketing, innovation, the raising and consolidation of investment capital, and the formation of an international property market (Sassen 1999). These trends have been reinforced by the corporate strategies of transnational companies, including joint ventures, alliances, and global networks.

4. A new mode of regulation has been created which features public-private cooperation, selective trade reforms, less restrictive labor laws, and heavy subsidies for telematics, high-tech infrastructure and science and technology with commercial potential. The ideology of competitiveness attached to this new mode of regulation has resulted in a distinctive geopolitics of "techno-nationalism" (Petrella 1991) whereby state policies in the leading countries have generally protected the interests of those involved in commercial innovation and corporate control, which has in turn fostered the development of world cities within the core of the world-system.

5. A proliferation of transnational, non-government organizations (NGOs) - partly as a result of global geopolitics (see chapter 7), and partly in response to economic globalization. Between 1973 and 2000, the total number of transnational NGOs tripled, from around 2,000 to more than 6,000. With this proliferation there has also been a consolidation and a localization of transnational NGOs in centers of international politics and mediation: London, Paris, New York, Brussels, Strasbourg, Geneva, Vienna, and Helsinki.

It must be acknowledged that these same changes have made for a great deal of economic decentralization: from core economies to semi-peripheral ones, from rustbelts to sunbelts, from metropolitan areas to smaller towns and cities, and from downtowns to suburbs and edge cities. World cities are not so much an exception to this decentralization as they are a consequence and shaper of it. As Amin and Thrift (1992) pointed out, centeredness is essential within a globalized world economy. First, centers - world cities - are needed for their authority: their knowledge structures and their ability to generate and disseminate discourses and collective beliefs relating to economic strategies and business climate. Second, they are needed for their ability to sustain settings of sociability, in which key actors can gather information, establish and maintain coalitions, and monitor implicit contracts. Third, they are needed for their ability to foster innovation: places where there are sufficient numbers with the specialized knowledge to identify gaps in markets, develop new uses for technologies, and produce innovations; where there is sufficient mass in the early states of innovation; and where social networks provide rapid reactions within a sophisticated market.


World cities, then, are nodal points that function as control centers for the interdependent skein of material, financial, and cultural flows which, together, support and sustain globalization. They also provide an interface between the global and the local, containing economic, sociocultural and institutional settings that facilitate the articulation of regional and metropolitan resources and impulses into globalizing processes while, conversely, mediating the impulses of globalization to local political economies. As such, there are several functional components of world cities:

  • They are the sites of most of the leading global markets for commodities, commodity futures, investment capital, foreign exchange, equities, and bonds;
  • They are the sites of clusters of specialized, high-order business services, especially those which are international in scope and which are attached to finance, accounting, advertising, property development, and law (Beaverstock, Smith, and Taylor, 1999; Leslie, 1995; Moulaert and Djellal, 1995; Warf, 1996);
  • They are the sites of concentrations of corporate headquarters - not just of transnational corporations but also of major national firms and of large foreign firms (Godfrey and Zhou, 1999);
  • They are the sites of concentrations of national and international headquarters of trade and professional associations;
  • They are the sites of most of the leading NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and IGOs (inter-governmental organizations) that are international in scope (e.g. the World Health Organization, UNESCO, ILO (International Labour Organization), the Commonwealth Lawyers' Association, the International Federation of Agricultural Producers); and
  • They are the sites of the most powerful and internationally influential media organizations (including newspapers, magazines, book publishing, satellite television), news and information services (including newswires and on-line information services), and culture industries (including art and design, fashion, film, and television).

There is a great deal of synergy in these various functional components. A city like New York, for example, attracts transnational corporations because it is a center of culture and communications. It attracts specialized business services because it is a center of corporate headquarters and of global markets; and so on. At the same time, different cities fulfill different functions within the world-system, making for different emphases and combinations of functional attributes (i.e. differences in the nature of world-city-ness), as well as for differences in their absolute and relative localization (i.e. differences in the degree of world-city-ness).

As Short et al. (1996) have noted, the difficulty of getting reliable comparative data makes it very difficult to undertake empirical research on these attributes of world cities. Nevertheless, world cities have come to be regarded as settings with distinctive attributes. John Friedmann (1986), writing largely in the context of the New International Division of Labor, hypothesized that world-city formation would result in metropolitan restructuring to accommodate not only the physical settings for concentrations of international activities and their supporting infrastructure, but also the new class fractions and the spatial and class polarization that is consequent upon evolving local labor and housing markets. The linkages between world cities, along with their relationships to processes of globalization, have been subject to rather less attention. World-system theory tends to portray world cities as the "cotter pins" that hold together the global hierarchy of core, semi-periphery, and periphery. This fits comfortably with the widely held notion of a global hierarchy of world cities (Friedmann 1994). Analyses of key world-city functions (international accountancy, advertising, banking, and legal services) in 122 cities by the University of Loughborough's Globalization and World Cities (GaWC) Research Group suggests a three-fold hierarchy (Figure 2). At the top of the hierarchy are ten 'alpha' world cities, each of global significance in all four service areas. Not surprisingly, the cities with the highest scores are London, Paris, New York, and Tokyo. A second tier of ten 'beta' world cities, headed by San Francisco, Sydney, Toronto, and Zürich, is of global significance in three of the four key world-city functions. Beneath these in the hierarchy are 35 'gamma' world cities, each of global significance in two of the four key world-city functions; these include Amsterdam, Berlin, Miami, Osaka, Rome, and Washington.


Throughout the urban system represented by this hierarchy, the "transnational practices" of the "transnational producer-service class" necessary to globalization have begun to generate new cultural structures and processes which echo and reverberate through the daily practices and spatial organization of the rest of the "fast" world. The global metropolitanism resulting from these transnational practices is not merely a state of interconnectedness and a shared, materialistic culture-ideology of consumerism (Sklair 1991). It also involves, at various levels, not only cultural homogenization and cultural synchronization but also cultural proliferation and cultural fragmentation. It involves both the universalization of particularism (i.e. dissolving the traditional boundaries of space and time, the relativism of postmodernity continuously propagating and redefining uniqueness, difference, and otherness) and the particularization of universalism (i.e. crystallizing transnational practices around specific regional, class, gender, and ethnic groups) (Robertson 1992).

This global metropolitanism is closely tied to the time-space compression of the world and the speeding up of production and consumption, of politics, and development. Yet globalization involves much more than the speeding up and spreading out of people's activities. While traditional links to family, neighborhood, region, and nationality are subverted by high-tech, high-speed networks and devices, quantitative changes - more decisions, more choices, more mobility, more interaction, more objects, more images - become qualitative - new lifestyles, new world views. In short, the global metropolitanism of world cities facilitates new processes affecting the construction of identity, new forms of meaning, and new movements that can take on material representations (King 1997; Oncu and Weyland, 1997).

Global metropolitanism is, of course, closely tied to the material culture promoted by transnational capitalism: designer products, services, and images targeted at transnational market niches, promoted through international advertising agencies, the motion picture industry, and television series. One common interpretation of this is that it represents the homogenization, universalization and "Americanization" of global culture through the economic and political hegemony of the United States and of US-based transnational corporations . But though the world may "dream itself" to be American, this means different things to different people, depending on the ways in which American imagery is appropriated and, more often than not, subverted by the mere fact of becoming iconic (Olalquiaga 1992). Furthermore, although American-based transnational capitalism and media may be the indisputable locus of pop-culture mythologies , it is clear that America has difficulty competing with Japanese cars, cameras, and hi-fi systems, Italian design, German engineering, French theory, and British TV comedy shows. Meanwhile, it is now clear that the recourse to Orientalism - the Western world view that developed as a repository for all the exotic differences and otherness repressed or cast out by the West as it sought to construct a coherent identity (Said 1978) - has had to yield to the plural histories, diverse modernities, and alternative moral orders uncovered by globalization.

Rather than suggesting cultural homogenization, then, global metropolitanism invokes a differential and contingent reach, through world cities, that embodies tensions and oppositions rather than convergence and uniformity. McGrew (1992) characterizes these oppositions as follows:

Universalism v. Particularism - although globalization tends to universalize many spheres of social life (e.g. the iconography of materialistic consumerism, the idea of citizenship, the ideology of the nation state), it also provokes a sociospatial dialectic in which the social construction of difference and uniqueness results in particularism (e.g. the resurgence of regional and ethnic identities);

Homogenization v. Differentiation - just as globalization fosters similarity in material culture, institutions, and lifestyles, the "differential of contemporaneity" means that "global" tendencies are articulated and imprinted differentially in response to varying local circumstances;

Integration v. Fragmentation - the functional integration of labor markets, consumer markets, political institutions and economic organizations that unites people across traditional political boundaries also gives rise to new cleavages. Labor, for example, has become fragmented along lines of race, gender, age, and region;

Centralization v. Decentralization - another aspect of the sociospatial dialectic provoked by globalization involves new movements (e.g. localized environmental movements and the "postmodernism of resistance" that seeks to deconstruct Modernism [Foster, 1985]) in opposition to concentrations of power, information, and knowledge; and

Juxtaposition v. Syncretization - Whereas time-space compression and global economic interdependence tend to juxtapose civilizations, lifestyles, and social practices, it can also fuel and reinforce sociocultural prejudices and sharpen sociospatial boundaries.

The global metropolitanism mediated and reproduced by world cities is thus complex, dynamic, and multi-dimensional. The most direct contribution of world cities to global metropolitanism stems from the critical mass of what Sklair (1991) dubbed the transnational producer-service class, with its "transnational practices" of work and consumption. These are the people who hold international conference calls, who send and receive international faxes and e-mail, who make decisions and transact investments that are transnational in scope, who edit the news, design and market the international products, and travel the world for business and pleasure. Theirs is a transcultural environment, one of entanglement, intermixing, and hybridity (Iyer, 2000; Welsch, 1999).

World cities not only represent their workplaces but are the proscenia for their materialistic, cosmopolitan lifestyles, the crucibles of their narratives, myths, and transnational sensibilities. These new sensibilities are, in turn, adopted by the mass-market consumers of the "fast" world. The lingua franca of this populist dimension of global metropolitanism is the patois of soap operas and comedy series; its dress code and world view are taken from music videos and the sports pages, its politics from cyberpunk magazines, and its lifestyle from promotional spots for Budweiser, Carlsberg, Levis, Pepsi, Nike, Sony, and Volkswagen.

Of course, the more this global pop culture draws from the hedonistic materialism of the transnational élite, the more the latter is driven toward innovative distinctiveness in its attitudes and material ensembles. The more self-consciously stylish the transnational bourgeoisie, the more tongue-in-chic the wannabees and the cyberpunks. As this dialectic has unfolded (via global networks in television and advertising), more people have come to see their lives through the prisms of others' lives, as presented by mass media. Consequently, fantasy has become a social practice characteristic of global metropolitanism. But these fantasies, too, become caught in the sociospatial dialectic of the fast world, the result being the further confusion of spatial and temporal boundaries and the collapse of many of the conventions that formerly distinguished fantasy from reality. The cognitive space of world cities, emptied of traditional referential signifiers, thus comes to be filled with simulations: iconographies borrowed from other times, other peoples, and other places (Olalquiaga 1992). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the large, set-piece developments that have come to characterize the built environment of world cities (and aspirant world cities): the "variations on a theme park" (Sorkin 1992) that constitute the landscapes of transnational power.

These, however, are but one dimension of the reorganization of space within and between world cities. The "space of flows" of the "informational economy" is made manifest through a series of sociocultural flows that both reflect and reproduce global metropolitanism. Though they are by no means isomorphic in structure, these flows may be conceptualized in categorical terms. Appadurai (1997) suggests that there are five principal categories:

Technoscapes, produced by flows of technology, software, and machinery disseminated by transnational corporations, supranational organizations, and government agencies;

Finanscapes, produced by rapid flows of capital, currency, and securities, and made visible not only through teleports and concentrations of financial service workers but also through the rapidly-changing geography of investment and disinvestment;

Ethnoscapes, produced by flows of business personnel, guestworkers, tourists, immigrants, refugees, etc.;

Mediascapes, produced by flows of images and information through print media, television, and film; and

Ideoscapes, produced by the diffusion of ideological constructs, mostly derived from Western world views - e.g. democracy, sovereignty, citizenship, welfare rights.

To these I would add a sixth category - "Commodityscapes" in Appadurai's terminology - produced by flows of high-end consumer products and services: the ensembles of clothes, interior design, food, and personal and household objects that are the signifiers of taste and distinction within the culture-ideology of consumption propagated by the transnational producer-service class. Taken together, these flows are just as important to the organization of global space and to core-periphery patterns as were the flows of raw materials and manufactured products to earlier phases of capital accumulation.


The geographical overlay of the economic, built, and social environments that creates a sense of place for both residents and visitors is inevitably ruptured by the need to restructure both metropolitan form and metropolitan labor markets in response to the imperatives of global capital accumulation. Just as inevitably, the ubiquity of transnational architectural styles, retail chains, fast-food chains, clothing styles, and music, together with the ubiquitous presence of transcontinental immigrants, business visitors and tourists, tends to propagate a sense of placelessness and dislocation (Augé, 1995; Iyer, 2000). Ethnographers have often stressed this in terms of deterritorialization: "As groups migrate, regroup in new locations, reconstruct their histories, and reconfigure their ethnic "projects" the ethno in ethnography takes on a slippery, nonlocalized quality. Groups are no longer tightly territorialized, spatially bounded, historically unselfconscious, or culturally homogeneous" (Appadurai 1991, p. 191).

Yet the common experiences engendered by globalization are still mediated by local reactions. The structures and flows of global metropolitanism are variously embraced, resisted, subverted, and exploited as they make contact with specific political economies and sociospatial settings. In the process, places are reconstructed rather than effaced. Often (and perhaps unexpectedly) it involves reterritorialization and a revaluation of place. Strassoldo puts it this way (1992, pp. 46-7):

Post-modern man/woman, just because he/she is so deeply embedded in global information flows, may feel the need to revive small enclaves of familiarity, intimacy, security, intelligibility, organic-sensory interaction in which to mirror him/herself. . . . The possibility of being exposed, through modern communication technology, to a near infinity of places, persons, things, ideas, makes it all the more necessary to have a center in which to cultivate one's self. The easy access of the whole world, with just a little time and money, now gives new meaning to a need for a subjective center - a home, a community, a locale - from which to move and to which to return and rest.

World cities have also come to be special kinds of cultural spaces, sites for the construction of new cultural and political identities, for new discourses, texts, and metaphors through which the struggle for place is enacted. One way of interpreting the outcomes of these processes is in terms of loyalty shifts (DiMuccio and Rosenau 1992). In terms of the organization of global space, the most significant of these are outward shifts, whereby loyalties are redirected toward entities (e.g. transnational employers), classes (e.g. Sklair's transnational producer-service class), supranational organizations (e.g. the European Union), or movements (e.g. global ecology, human rights).

But in terms of the organization of metropolitan space and the social construction of place the most significant loyalty shifts are inward. At one level, we can see these shifts in people's apparent need for stability, identity, and centeredness within the infinite relativism of postmodernity. This impulse has been articulated through housing markets (most strikingly through gentrification and through private master-planned communities), and commodified through neo-traditional urban design and the merchandising of local histories. Among the affluent within the fast world, reterritorialization thus results from colonizing or invading spaces that can be given both social meaning and spatial identity. But perhaps the most dramatic examples of reterritorialization are those deriving from the lived experience of low-income trans-national migrants, exiles, and refugees. Within world cities, such groups are able to establish new networks and new cultural practices that define new spaces for daily life. In addition to the transformation and adaptation of old neighborhoods and obsolete sociocultural spaces within consolidating ethnic enclaves, this involves the emergence of otherwise marginalized voices and alternate representations. These voices and representations can be carried over into the "host" society and carried back into the "homeland". The latter has the potential, at least, for a kind of "transnational grassroots politics" (Smith 1994). The former not only contributes to the cosmopolitanism of world cities but also has the potential (realized only in a few world cities - London, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sydney) to foster distinctive and innovative multicultural spaces - the latest phase in the sociospatial dialectic of global metropolitanism.


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Edited and posted on the web on 20th September 2000; last update 6th February 2002

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in RJ Johnston, PJ Taylor and MJ Watts (eds) (2002) Geographies of Global Change 2nd edition Oxford: Blackwell, 328-38