GaWC Research Bulletin 376

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This Research Bulletin has been published in Local Environment, 17 (4), (2012), 495-508.


Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Transition Towns and World Cities: Towards Green Networks of Cities

P.J. Taylor *


The Transition Initiative is a highly successful movement promoting localisation of economic processes. The basic question that this essay considers is how to relate this movement's favoured units of practice, transition towns with populations of around 5,000, to the contemporary world of large cities, so-called world cities, global cities and mega-cities. My means to achieve this end is to interrogate the concept of ‘local' to make it more strategically amenable to analysing multiple-scale living, and concomitantly, to recognize and understand the importance of non-local spheres of behaviour. The latter is derived from Jane Jacobs work on the city in which the balance between local production and imported (non-local) production is crucial. Her import replacement argument is used to show compatibility between economic change and sustainability. This leads to the concept of green networks of cities which I begin to explore.

Key words: City growth, green networks, import replacement, localisation, Transition Initiative, world city networks


 ‘Yet it is easy to show that this monster growth of the city, the complex outcome of a multiplicity of causes, is not altogether a morbid growth. If, on the one hand, it constitutes, in some of its incidents, a formidable fact for the moralist, it is, on the other hand, in its normal development, a sign of healthy and regular evolution. Where the cities increase, humanity is progressing; where they diminish, civilization itself is in danger.’ (Reclus 1895, 246)

I begin the essay with this quote from Élisée Reclus, the communard and influential anarchist-geographer, because while fellow anarchists were promoting small-scale rural living, he realised that any radical movement’s starting point has to be the contemporary situation, however unpalatable - in his case rise of great industrial cities. In the early twenty first century the latest ‘monster growth’ has produced world cities, global cities and mega-cities in a world where urban dwellers now constitute a majority of humanity. The importance of the urban in environmental policy making has been recognised at least since the UN conference in Rio in 1992 and this is my starting point for considering any programme advocating radical change today. But the urban imperative is often conflated with thinking local: as in Reclus’s time, radical agents of change still find living at a small-scale irresistibly attractive. There have been many recent proposals for moving towards more local economic activities (e.g. Hines 2000; Shuman 2000; Goldsmith and Mander 2001; Norberg-Hodge 2002; Woodin and Lucas 2004; Girardet 2008; Steel 2008) but in this essay I will focus upon one particular call for localisation – the work of Rob Hopkins (2008). He has successfully created an international movement, the Transition Initiative, which promotes small towns as prime units of transition to a sustainable future. I have chosen to focus on this example of  ‘urban’  localization because it seems to me that this movement, or something very like it, is a necessary proactive response to the challenges of the twenty first century. The purpose of this essay is explore ways in which this very successful initiative can be made compatible with a world of large cities. My job appears to be quite difficult - a squaring of the circle in terms of very different scales of settlement. My means to achieve this end is to interrogate the concept of ‘local’ to make it more strategically amenable to analysing multiple-scale living, and concomitantly, to recognize and understand the importance of non-local spheres of behaviour.

A key characteristic of humanity is that people have mastered means of sustaining themselves by using non-local resources, products and services. This movement of goods, initially through border exchange but developed into commercial trade, is unique to our species; it is thus a key part of our identity as human beings and can be used to justify the designation homo geographicus (Taylor 2004a) But this is not necessarily something to celebrate:  it gives humans the unique capacity to keep growing economies and eventually destroy the Earth as the home of humanity. Only humans as animate agents can annihilate global ecology. Thus are economic growth and sustainability commonly seen as incompatible: the Earth is proving to be not big enough for homo geographicus! Hence the Brundtland Commission’s ‘sustainable development’ has come to be seen as an oxymoron: this optimistic Report has been overtaken by events, notably the threat of  ‘global warming’. In this new context I am trying to construct a rapprochement between the processes that generate economic growth and human sustainability and/or resilience in the wake of environmental change. The distinction between local and nonlocal is at the heart of this argument; my purpose is to plot a route to local futures while maintaining humanity’s non-local (cosmopolitan) quintessence.

The essay has a very simple structure with three parts. I begin by describing the Transition Initiative and subject it to a friendly critique. This movement promotes a privileging of the local in economic activities in a proactive programme to meet as the challenges of climatic change. In the second part I introduce and develop an approach to understanding cities that is reasonably compatible with transition principles. Specifically Jane Jacobs’ ideas on import replacement allow me to build a two-level local way of living. In a final discussion this dual localism is integrated with the non-local as a global vision of green networks of cities.

The Transition Initiative

The Transition Initiative is one of the most impressive and important social/community movements of the early twentieth first century. Starting in 2005 in Totnes, England – a small town of some 8,000 population – it has grown exponentially so that by early 2011 it comprised 714 separate initiatives in places across 31 countries ( (accessed 3/4/11)). Its success has been facilitated by a well-crafted ‘start-up manual’, The Transition Handbook (Hopkins 2008), that provides both a convincing rationale and a proactive programme of activities. The rationale is very clever in combining concern for oil dependency with climatic change; the former provides a narrative that speaks directly to current everyday life which is rendered transient by the ‘peak oil’ argument, and thereby demands actions that have direct resonance for the more abstract (temporarily remote) threats posed in climatic change narratives. But the key to the movement’s popularity is its very practical, bottom up approach to the threats identified. A very positive outlook is provided – something can still be done – through ‘a replicable strategy for harnessing the talents, vision, and goodwill of ordinary people’ (Heinberg 2008, 9).The challenge is for local communities to change their ways and create more resilient places for living. That so many have taken up the challenge in such a short time is testimony to both supply - the inspiration of the original thinking – and demand – a widespread feeling that we need to act now in the face of such daunting threats to humanity’s future.

The Transition approach does not pretend or claim to be the sole solution to the issues it raises. For instance, on the question of top-down or bottom-up, Hopkins (2008, 75) argues the need for a ‘combination of responses’ which he interprets in a conventional three-scale ordering: international, national and local with the former two identified as important for drawing up formal agreements and protocols which allow local actions to be meaningful. And it is at the local level that Transition Initiatives provide a way forward. In this section I develop a friendly critique of this approach and start by interrogating the way Hopkins (2008) uses the concept of the ‘local’.

Local: ‘Ideal Scale’ or Systems?

In the early development of the approach the Initiative was referred to as Transition Towns – Totnes was the first ‘Transition Town’ – but this was changed to Transition Initiatives when other types of places came on board: Hopkins (2008, 134) lists ‘transition cities, boroughs, valleys, peninsulas, postcodes, villages, hamlets and islands’. This variety of what is local is further discussed through the concept of ‘ideal scale’ where Hopkins reverts to the origins of the approach by identifying market towns with their surrounding hinterlands as the clear example of the ideal (p. 143). However he also mentions islands as ideal because they have clearly defined boundaries (p. 143). But the key point is that Hopkins is not prescriptive on the issue of scale:

‘I have come to think that the ideal scale for a Transition Initiative is one over which you feel you can have an influence. A town of 5,000 people, for example, is one that you can relate to; it is one with which you can become familiar.’ (p. 144)

Thus he argues ‘there is no magic formula for the question of scale’ (p. 144) and followers are invited to use their ‘instinct’ in designating places for transition.

This very practical approach relates to a theoretical discussion on ‘why small is inevitable’ that Hopkins (2008, 68) introduces through the process of relocalisation; here he refers to ‘region, county, city or even neighbourhood’.  But he does not relate this argument to an earlier, more fundamental, discussion on resilience where he argues that to understand the latter concept requires systems-thinking (pp. 54-6). Here the goal is ‘increased resilience and a stronger local economy’ with specific reference to ‘towns and cities’ (p. 55). The local appears here as smaller feedback loops that make the consequences of actions more obvious, being closer to home (p. 56). Perhaps the ‘familiarity’ and ‘instinct’ in choosing an ideal scale will equate with a local economic system but this is by no means certain. Rather there appears to be a lack of spatial congruence between ideal scale and system. More generally, the matter-of-fact flexibility in choosing scale has a price to pay by potentially divorcing the practise from the theory. There is a large literature on sub-national economic systems and the focus is on cities and city-regions: this will be introduced and its relevance discussed in the next section. But in Hopkins’ (2008) argument, cities per se are not systematically discussed; they most certainly do not appear as the ideal scale. The reason for this appears to lay, in part, in the vision behind the Transition Initiative.

A Limiting Vision: Where are the Cities?

Hopkins (2008) devotes a chapter to his ‘vision for 2030’ describing the fundamental changes made in the UK assuming a transition has successfully taken place. Although the UK is one of the most urbanised of countries, cities do not feature prominently in this vision. Commonly the phase used is ‘towns and cities’ thereby conflating, for instance, country towns like Totnes with great cities including London. (The need for separate considerations of towns and cities is a major theme of the next section.) In the vision, towns and cities feature under the headings ‘Food and farming’, ‘Economy’ and ‘Transport’. These deal with, respectively, ‘urban agriculture’ (p. 109), local currencies (p. 112), and the demise of car and air travel consequent on pedestrianised urban streets and commercial sail-power (p. 113). On the rare occasions where cities are mentioned without towns, a rather jaundiced view is fleetingly revealed: with urban agriculture as a ‘priority for urban planners’ we find that ‘cities have been redesigned as productive places’ (p. 109) hinting that only production from land counts; and cities have been transformed from ‘large, bland places with few “entertainment “ venues, into diverse places with gardens, ponds, artworks’(p. 113)  – has the author never been to London!  But to flesh out the position of cities in the transition vision we have to  glean further evidence from other chapters of the Handbook.

As was noted previously, cities were one of the places designated as transition candidates with the move beyond towns only. Transition Bristol was the first ‘city-scale initiative’ (p. 144). This works at two levels. At the city-wide level there appear to be two main functions: first ‘it seeks to inspire, train and enable, and to support emerging neighbourhood-scale initiatives’ (p. 144), and second it is producing ‘an Energy Descent Plan for the city as a whole’ (p. 208). The latter is interesting in admitting of a city-wide need but overall there appears to be more weight given to ‘village-scale’ (neighbourhood) initiatives (p. 208). Here we find a clue to the way cities are viewed as Bristol is interpreted as generic:

‘Bristol, like all cities, is formed from a collection of ‘villages’’ each area having a distinct identity and this feels like the ideal scale for much of this work.’ (p. 208)

This very ‘Balkanised’ vision of the city leaves little or no room for the idea of the city as an integrated urban economy. And yet there is a direct link to the urban economics literature through Hopkins’ (2008 p. 112) proposal for local currencies.

In the very first Transition Initiative, he describes an experiment with the ‘Totnes pound’ which he deems to be a successful endeavour in the sense of having a reasonable take-up among local businesses (pp. 197-200). The economic reason he gives for this local currency is to stop money pouring out of ‘the community in much the same way as water pours from a leaky bucket’ (p. 197). But this misses the critical purpose of a currency: if it is allowed to float, its changing value provides a feedback loop on how an economy is doing (Jacobs 1984). This only works with the economy designated as a system, and at the local level this means a city or city-region economy. In other words, if the transition approach is about ‘designing for economic renaissance, albeit a local one’ (p. 135), you will only know if a renaissance is happening if the currency is city-wide.

The relative neglect of cities in the Transition Initiative is unfortunate given that in the early twenty first century more than half of humanity now consists of urban dwellers and this proportion looks likely to increase towards three-quarters by mid-century. Cities with over a million population are becoming commonplace (for example, there are over 150 such cities in China) but these are particularly difficult to fit into the transition vision (Bristol’s population is just 400,000). However this is addressed on the Initiatives’ website with a Forum topic entitles ‘What strategies are working in big cities?’ This turns out to be an unproductive dialogue between Hamburg and Barcelona transition people that finds no way forward for cities with more than a million population ( (accessed 3/4/11)). Most of the latter are, in any case, in the three poorer continents and it is indicative that the world map of transition initiatives records only 3 in Latin America, 2 in Asia, and 1 in Africa ( (accessed 3/4/11)). The vision appears to be producing an international practice (31 countries) but hardly a global one.

What is the source of this vision that neglects cities and finds it difficult to become global? We get a hint of this when Hopkins (2008, 136-41) lays out the ‘philosophical underpinnings’ of the transition approach. He begins with the statement that ‘[o]ne of the principal foundations of the transition concept is permaculture’ (p. 136) but in fact this is the only topic broached as input into his philosophical positiont. Permaculture is essentially a comprehensive approach to rural land use - ‘Permanent Agriculture’ – that replaces conventional monoculture and annual cropping with ‘multi-layered systems making use of productive and useful trees and perennial plants’ (p. 137). These principles for sustainable food production have been extrapolated to ‘other elements that make up society – economics, building, energy and so on’ (p. 140). Thus Hopkins, a teacher of permaculture, uses ‘permaculture design principles’

‘... as the design “glue” and the ethical foundations we use to underpin Transition work, to stick together all the elements of a post-peak settlement’ (p. 137)

Once again this is systems thinking from ecology and highlights the need for small-scale, integration, diversity, maximising self-sufficiency, and creativity. But transferring these to social activities has to be within a systems framework. City and city-region economies are the obvious candidates.

Locating Diversity, Creativity and Self-Reliance

The Transition Handbook (Hopkins 2009) is clear on the needs for successful implementation of its approach: the book is imbued with concepts such as ‘sufficient creativity and imagination’ (p.53), ‘diversity of functions within our settlements’ (p. 55), ‘more opportunities for meeting and working with people’, and  ‘a self-reliant community’ (p. 69). There is, of course, a social science literature on all these ideas and it focuses on cities. In urban studies cities are identified as unique settlements at the centre of human civilizations. The following is a typical quote from this research:

“Cities are complex adaptive systems comprising multitudes of actors, firms, and other organisations forming diverse relationships and evolving together. Frequent face-to-face contact and other cooperative and competitive interactions enabled by proximity help to increase people’s knowledge and skills, to improve their capacity to respond creatively to economic challenges, and to develop new and improved products, processes and services. Other places cannot easily replicate these conditions…” (Turok 2009, 14)

In other words, cities are dynamic economies that are continually diversifying their activities through creativity consequent upon the density and size of the population. This does not mean that creativity is a monopoly of cities but it does strongly argue that this is where such behaviour is concentrated. Furthermore there is a long tradition of studies on basic/non basic economic activities that have shown the larger the urban place the more work is done supplying the local market. In other words large cities are invariably much more self-reliant than small towns.

Quite simply the evidence from social science is that if Hopkins (2009) values diversity, creativity and self-reliance – and surely he is right to do this – then he should pay much more attention to cities, especially large cities. Recently Edward Glaeser (2010, 1), the influential Harvard economist, has lauded ‘the magic of urban density’ for enabling people to achieve ‘amazing things’ pointing to the fact that ‘most of mankind’s cultural, economic, political, and social accomplishments have occurred in cities.’ Humanity has never been more in need of amazing changes than in the current century and therefore the magic of cities will prove to be indispensable.

The magic of cities

The previous section identified two key scales of ‘local’: a smaller ‘community scale’ for everyday mobilization and a larger city scale for systemic economic process. There is no contradiction in having two ‘locals’ because they relate to distinctive different functions. It is a mistake to conflate the functions into a single scale – towns are not cities – rather we need a flexible imagination to work with the two scales concurrently, integrating their key functions in a holistic local strategy. We can, perhaps, see this as implicit in the first city application, in the Bristol Transition described above. As the Transition Initiative grows, especially geographically, I would expect a two-scale local approach to become the norm.  Thus the time is ripe to see how our understanding of cities is compatible with transition principles.

This is not the place, nor is there the space, for a comprehensive review of the different ways the advantages of cities have been portrayed in urban studies. Instead I will concentrate on one urban theorist whose ideas seem closest to some transition principles. According to Paul Krugman (1995, 5), the Nobel laureate in Economics, Jane Jacobs has become ‘a patron saint of the new growth theory’; she has a key process named after her: Jacobs externalities. This derives from her classic text The Economy of Cities (Jacobs 1969) which will be my primary focus in this section.                 

Work, Old and New

We are used to treating economics in terms of national economies, as abstract entities that are relatively remote and therefore usually non-local. But for Jacobs (1984, 31) ‘nations are political and military entities’ and there is no reason to suppose that ‘they are also the basic, salient entities of economic life’. In fact ‘most nations are composed of collections or grab bags of very different economies, rich regions and poor ones within the same nation’ (p. 32). For Jacobs ‘looking at the real economic world’ she finds that ‘cities are unique in their abilities to shape and reshape the economies of other settlements’ (p. 32). Her basic argument is that:

‘Economic life develops by grace of innovation (and)...  by grace of import replacing. These two master economic processes are closely related, both being functions of city economies.’ (p. 39)

In fact the latter process, import replacing, defines what a city is: it is what distinguishes every city from other settlements including simpler towns (Taylor et al 2010). Thus cities are the basic units of economic life and they are local in the commuting sense: cities and city-regions are daily economic systems where people routinely sleep, work, and consume.

To understand cities, therefore, it is necessary to know what the process of import replacement entails. The best way to begin an explanation is to identify two types of work, each of which generates quite different types of economic growth. Old work is constituted by existing jobs that define the division of labour in a city economy at a given point in time. The relation to economic growth is as follows.  If a factory in the city doubles its production, resulting in doubling jobs in both the factory and with suppliers, the local city economy will have become larger. More overall production and more exports to the nonlocal outside world are measurable as quantitative economic expansion. But, for Jacobs (2000, 37), it does not qualify as economic development. This is because the diversity of jobs in the division of labour has not changed. For this to happen there has to be new work, not just additional jobs but additional different jobs. And this is where the ‘master economic processes’, innovation and import replacing, enter the story as the sources of new work.

Innovations create new work often derived from old work as spin- offs from existing production (Jacobs 1969, 53-5). In this way old work is important as the ‘parent work’ of new work derived from innovation (p. 59). Jacobs gives the example of brassiere manufacture, a New York innovation of the 1920s, whose parent (old) work was dressmaking (p. 51). Thus innovations are typically found in existing cities where there exists much potential parent  work, where it is commonplace for problems to arise that require solutions, where there are myriad existing services to support new work, and where the population concentration incorporates clusters of entrepreneurs. As Glaeser (2011, 8) tells it: ‘For centuries, innovations have spread from person to person across crowded city streets’.

Innovations are very important for economic development but by far the most common form of new work is copied work – imitation (Jacobs 1969, 63-8). This is often referred to as diffusion of innovations but the key point is that the process is import replacement. Jacobs uses the example of bicycle manufacture in late nineteenth century Tokyo (p. 63) where initial repair shops converted to new manufacturers who could undercut import prices and therefore replace bicycle imports. Jacobs (2000, 73-7) argues that this process is always more than just imitation; the key is improvisation whereby local entrepreneurs creatively customise production to local conditions.

The end result of both innovation and imitation is new work, which means addition of job categories to the urban division of labour. In other words, the city economy becomes more diverse. Vibrant cities experience these master processes and thereby diversity becomes the hallmark of their economies. For Jacobs (2000, 37) it is this increasing diversity of cities that defines economic development. She sees this as a qualitative difference; the very nature of the economy is changing. In this way Jacobs distinguishes between development creating more complex economic life and simple quantitative economic expansion of old work. Thus this argument has provided a theoretical basis of why we need cities within the Transition Initiative: we need to harness as much creativity and diversity as possible to face the severe challenges of the twenty first century and cities are much better than towns for doing this. But what about self-resilience?

Import Replacement as a Key Resilience Link Between Cities and the Transition Initiative

Innovation is fundamental to economic development – without it there could be no qualitative change – but it is the much more frequent import replacement that is crucial to the degree of change. To begin with, because imitation is far more common, it contributes much more to developmental complexity. But it is a specific mechanism that Jacobs has discovered within import replacement that has made this process so critical to understanding city economic development. It also relates directly to economic self-reliance.

Jacobs’ (1969) argument on how cities grow is firmly based on a distinction between the local economy and how it relates to the encompassing world economy defined as all non-local economic activity (i.e. from other cities and regions both within and outside the national economic jurisdiction containing the city). The basic local/non-local relation is that of imports and exports. Put simply, imports are ‘earned’ by exports that are consumed as raw materials by exporting firms and as commodities by city families. In a stable system, neither growing nor declining, imports and exports are equal. From this state of affairs, cities grow in two different ways. The simplest way is through increasing exports. Additional old work or new work from innovation increases local production for export to the outside world economy. The extra exports earn new imports, some are needed as additional raw materials for growing exporting firms, but the latter now have more jobs necessitating some of the new imports to provide additional goods and services for the new families. Hence a reciprocating system of expansion is generated through increased exports producing a larger local economy beyond just the extra export production. The resulting city growth is a relatively slow additive process.

In contrast, import replacement ‘is apt to cause cities to grow explosively’ (Jacobs 1969, 146). Import replacement means that the city’s exports can earn new imports in lieu of those being replaced. In other words, import replacement inevitably leads on to import shifting to a different array of imports earned by the exports. These new imports are for additional local consumption. Thus, Jacobs (1969, 161) argues

‘Just as export growth creates a multiplier effect, so do replacement of imports. But there is a vital difference between the two effects. ... the multiplier effect  from import replacing is far more potent  from the multiplier effect from the growth of exports, because all shifted imports go to swell the local economy. An equivalent amount of imports earned by export growth do not. (Part goes on raw materials for export production.) After a city has experienced an episode of import replacing and import shifting, its local economy is thus much larger than it was before the episode: not only larger absolutely but also larger in proportion to its exports and imports.’

It is for this reason that the larger the city (i.e. more import replacement episodes), the larger the local economy.

One final point: as the local economy grows by import replacement, the rest of the world economy is ‘neither diminished nor decreased’ (Jacobs 1969, 148). To be sure, the place previously exporting the commodities now replaced will be diminished, but this is compensated for in places exporting the new commodities that are the shifting imports to the city. Thus the world economy as a whole has expanded as it consists of a larger local economy plus nonlocal economy that maintains its size. For Jacobs (1969) this is ‘the chief cause’ of economic development (p. 167).

This brings me to an intriguing conclusion: economic development and local self-sufficiency are two sides of the same coin through the growth of cities. The resilience implications of this are the subject of the final section of the essay.

Modularity as a Key Resilience Link Between the Transition Initiative and World Cities

For Hopkins (2008, 55), modularity is identified as one of the features that makes systems resilient. By modularity he means a particular patchwork structure within a system rather than a tightly integrated system. He thinks this is a ‘key’ issue because:

‘A more modular structure means that the parts of the system can more effectively self-organise in the event of shock (so that) maximising modularity with more internal connections reduces vulnerability to any disruptions of wider networks.’ (p. 56)

It is here that Hopkins criticizes contemporary globalization using examples from finance and the food industry. He argues that:

‘... the globalised networks, often trumpeted as one of globalisation’s great strengths, can in fact also be one of its great weaknesses. The over-networked nature of modern, highly connected systems allow shock to travel rapidly through them, with potentially disastrous effects.’ (p. 56)

This is an important point but large networks do not have to be so integrated; in fact studies of the current world city networks, based upon Jacobs’ ideas, have indicated strong regional structures (Taylor 2004band Taylor et al 2011). Let us explore how wider networks are treated in Jacobs’ oeuvre.

According to Jacobs (1969, 35) cities do not develop singly: ‘A city seems always to have implied a group of cities, in trade with one another.’ Later, she argues that ‘backward cities need one another’ (Jacobs 1984, 135) suggesting that cities in poorer countries in general need to be insulated from wider networks that include richer cities through which they may be exploited. In other words she is advocating modular protection. But she has another new argument for advocating a more segmented network structure in national terms whereby cities not growing rapidly can be aided by those experiencing explosive growth:

‘Some places in the nation, such as stagnant regions or declining cities, may show no growth at all... Other places – cities with the most rapidly growing economies – have a much higher rate of economic growth... Of course the same cities are not continually and steadily doing most to raise the (national) net growth rate – only those growing explosively at the time. Not all cities of a rapidly expanding (national) economy are simultaneously replacing imports rapidly. The economy is a little like a corn popper in which not all the kernels are popping simultaneously; but all the time the corn is popping.’(Jacobs 1969, 167)

The lesson here is clear: if all kernels pop in unison a situation will arise when none is popping. In other words a network of simultaneously successful cities is especially vulnerable to cyclical economic change because one downturn could eliminate all the ‘urban sparks’ thereby nullifying an economic upturn. If today’s world city networks are tending towards such dynamic coincidence then this would be a clear route towards a very un-resilient global system.

Fortunately globalization is not always as global as it appears or as its advocates would have us believe. Finance and its recent global crisis are the counter case and there are moves to separate retail and wholesale banking functions to lessen the global network dangers. But in fact the effects of the financial crisis were anything but geographically homogeneous: some world regions were much more resilient than others. In general this marked a shift in financial power from West to East (Derudder et al 2011). This outcome appears to reflect the inherent regionality of world city networks despite their global scope. The globalization is uneven and diverse so that even in finance there is a complex variety in the geography of effects from the severe shock of 2008. Thus global financial networks appear more resilient than expected: after the initial shock and bail outs from the state public sector, it is now back to normal with banks continuing with their high profits and bonus culture leaving economic austerity behind in the public sector of, mainly, western states.

What specifically is this contemporary world city network modularity? It is based upon world regions and larger nation states. The former have many different historical trajectories to contemporary globalization and this produces a wide variety of ways in which cities are integrated into global networks –see regional concentrations of city processes for nine world regions  in Taylor et al (2011, 67, 81-2, 90, 100, 110, 130-1, 144, 163-4, 182). And within these big regions there are a small number of states whose economic jurisdictions are distinctive and important. Two in particular are critical: the USA and China. In world city network studies USA cities always appear as a distinctive block, an American exceptionalism wherein intra-nation links are unusually important relative to foreign links. There are recent indications that Chinese cities might be developing in the same way because of their country’s unique late and dramatic entry into globalization. In a recent survey of 525 cities worldwide, the ranking of cities for relative concentration of links within their own country featured only US and Chinese cities in the top 27 places (22 from the USA, 5 from China) (Taylor et al (2011, 208, 260, 334). This partly reflects the sizes of these two economic jurisdictions – they have more cities in their own country to link to – but the degree of difference between the cities of these two countries and the rest suggests rather deep national modularities are being created here.

Of course, these modularities, both regional and national, are not the same as Hopkins (2008) envisages in his transition approach. He argues for engaging ‘with the wider world but from an ethic of networking and information sharing rather than of mutual dependence’ (p. 56). The mutuality in world city networks encompasses this ethic but emphasizes ‘inter-dependence’ which suggests a more integrated network process than Hopkins suggests. Certainly there is no consistent patterning of modularity, rather in city networks it reflects contingent economic and political factors – cities in richer regions and in smaller states tend to have more and wider connections. Such historical serendipities may create modularities but not ones that are necessary for controlling shocks as Hopkins approach requires. A green network of world cities would have a specific modularity designed to maximise system resilience.

Discussion: green networks of cities

To connect Rob Hopkins (2008) with Jacobs’ oeuvre we need to focus on his economics, a topic he identifies as one of the ‘key challenges’ for his approach (p. 197). It appears in a table listing different elements of the Transition approach as ‘designing for economic renaissance, albeit a local one’ (p. 135). But there is no concentrated discussion of what this entails. We do know of the importance of localisation, and that he recognises there will be national and international activities (p.75). But what is supposed to happen at these other scales is never made clear. There seems to be something of a jump from local to global: his fourth ‘key assumption’ is:

‘That by unleashing the collective genius of those around us to creatively and proactively design our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching and that recognise the biological limits of our planet.’ (p. 134)

I would have thought that this must include economics beyond the local. And Hopkins makes this clear elsewhere in the Handbook:

‘Increased resilience and a stronger local economy does not mean that we put a fence up around our towns and cities and refuse to allow anything in or out. It is not a rejection of commerce or somehow a return to a rose-tinted version of some imagined past. What it does mean is being more prepared for a leaner future, more self-reliant, and prioritising the local over the imported.’ (p. 55)

Prioritising the local is fine as long as the non-local is recognised within the economics. But for Hopkins this ‘outside’ is seen largely as a threat, not as other scales for green thinking and practice. Thus, returning to the theme of network resilience, the non-local is to be avoided:

‘We aren’t looking to create “nothing in, nothing out” economy, but rather to close economic loops where possible and to produce locally what we can.’ (p. 68)

I argue the local alone does not encompass enough economics, even with the local as city, because cities come as multiples. But understanding the city forms a starting point because, as I have argued, ’city-ness’ is defined by relations with the non-local. In this final discussion, and building on the previous Hopkins/Jacobs comparisons, I will explore the non-local positively as green networks of cities.

One growing crisis of the twenty first century that is not sufficiently addressed in much environmental thinking, including the Transition Initiative, is the dearth of jobs especially that represented by youth unemployment. Two billion or so extra people, mostly in cities, requires generation of much additional work, both old and new. Hence the need for economic growth, but not necessarity of the conventional, ‘Earth-destroying, kind. Jacobs’ economics is distinctive and not just for its city-centrism. As we have seen, this approach locates cities as potentially part of the solution to environmental threats rather than part of the problem. Such arguments have become common in recent years through the idea that demographic compactness is energy efficient: for instance, in his book Green Metropolis, David Owen (2009, 2) identifies New York City as ‘the greenest community in the USA’. Stuart Brand (2010, 33) goes as far as saying that ‘the secret to creating a more environmentally sustainable society is making our cities bigger’. But such arguments about green or sustainable or resilient cities tend to analyse cities as singular entities, evaluating one city at a time. In contrast Jacobs’ approach is essentially relational. Thus her analysis is founded on inter-city relations, hence my suggestion that we move our topic from green city to green networks of cities. And let us be clear what this means. Traditionally inter-urban relations have been encompassed by central place theory as a hierarchy of urban hinterlands. This is not what Jacobs’ analysis is about and she is explicit on this: ‘A city does not grow by trading only with a rural hinterland’ (Jacobs 1969, 35). The latter is ‘local’, inter-city relations are much broader – I have coined the term ‘hinterworld’ to make this distinction (Taylor 2004b) – and, as we have learned from Jacobs,  it is non-local relations that define ‘city-ness’ (Taylor et al 2010).

But there is another element of Jacobs’ economics that has relevance for Hopkins’ (2008, 135) search for ‘economic renaissance’. The latter is not defined but Hopkins does contrast it with ‘conventional environmentalism’ and its ‘Belief that economic growth is still possible, albeit greener growth’ (p. 135). Although Jacobs’ analysis focuses on economic growth, it is not treated in an orthodox economic way. At the centre of Jacobs’ economics we find that markets are replaced by work – people have always been attracted to cities because they offer a better livelihood, either through existing jobs or the opportunity of making jobs (seeking out a living). Thus the invisible hand of the market is replaced by the very visible complexity of the city. Markets can play an important role in her thinking as firms compete, of course, but these are not the only agents that make the complexity. Here is Jacobs (1969, 54-5) on the new work deriving from old (i.e. parent) work:

‘Nor is the process by which one thing leads to another confined to profit-making enterprises. A hospital outpatient department is starting a home care service; a library is starting a program of art exhibits; an art museum is starting a library. Nor is it...confined to useful, legal or innocuous work.... police sometimes add burglarizing to their work of patrolling, and other divisions of labour to dispose of the goods.... of course nothing precludes a society from suppressing certain kinds of new activities while permitting and encouraging others. Indeed, a society must do that or else risk nurturing activities and organizations that will devote themselves to outright destruction of useful activities and also to preventing or hampering the emergence of new and useful goods and services.‘

In this part of her argument Jacobs is largely concerned with illegal activities in the city (as well as the one I have included above, she provides eight other examples of illegal new work) but, of course, it is not only illegal activities that hamper the growth of socially useful goods and services. Nearly half a century on we understand that green goods and services cannot be expected to derive from existing work simply through market processes, ‘society’, as Jacobs puts it, has to ‘encourage’ this change. But in this change we have to maintain cities with all their creativity: cities continue to grow through new work but the destructiveness of profit-led growth (currently largely legal) is curtailed. It seems to me that this might be the ‘economic renaissance’ that Hopkins is seeking.

This alternative economics will have much of the new work of cities derived from green innovations and green imitations; most will be from the latter as import replacements of green goods and services through best-practice initiatives. Following Castells (1996) seminal work on network society, this new green network of cities can be analysed at two key levels: infrastructural and social. The former is the technical basis of the network, the equipment and organization that enables work to be networked. Here Castells emphasizes the electronic revolution for movement of information but it also includes necessary movements of people and goods: inter-city airline networks are most researched in this respect. Policy pertaining to this level is largely about technological improvements in energy consumption. But this is problematic without full consideration of the social level of networks. Technical improvements do not necessarily lead to less consumption: cheapening supply is likely to enhance demand. The obvious example is more fuel efficient car engines leading US consumers to buy larger cars thus maintaining their energy consumption. I will concentrate on Castells’ social network level in the remainder of this discussion.

Castells (1996) uses Sassen’s (1991) work on The Global City as illustrating work in cities in his network society. Sassen identifies advanced producer services (customised financial, professional and creative work) as new work in leading cities in globalization. I have generalised this into a world city network through which global capital is serviced (Taylor 2004b). An interlocking network model is used in which the service firms ‘interlock’ cities through their work; they are the agents of change, the networkers. This model has been extended to non-market agents who also use cities in their work; for example, networking agents such as large Non-Governmental Organizations that operate through multiple offices worldwide (Taylor 2005). This is equivalent to Jacobs going beyond markets but the non-market sector at the global scale is minute compared to global capital. It is to be expected that NGOs diffusing green ideas will expand but we cannot envisage that they will grow to rival and simply supplant contemporary corporations offering financial services, accountancy, advertising, commercial legal services and numerous consultancy offerings. Thus green networks of cities will not be current NGO networks writ large, rather they will have to be based on a greening of existing services: green financial, green accountancy, green advertising, etc.. This is where ‘society’ should be ‘encouraging change’, in contemporary network economics. But what does this mean? I’m not sure but it must engage with current world city network agents beyond the latest oppositional critique. Girardet (2008, 269) addresses precisely this point in discussion of his generic sustainable city, EcoPolis, but it is not clear how to generate such new practices beyond his exhortations (p. 261, 294). Put simply there is a critical research and practice agenda that is necessary and urgent to go beyond government-sponsored ‘eco-towns,’ or even ‘a truly green city’ (p. 289) such as China’s Dongtan, and seriously consider how a green network of cities might function and how we can make them come to pass.

As will by now be appreciated this essay does not have a conclusion. It consists of some initial thoughts about linking transition towns/places to the wider world via cities and their networks. I will finish with a short extension of part of my earlier argument to suggest the beginnings of a new research agenda. This is to do with measurement levels. The Jacobs model of important replacement and shifting provides a minimal geography, a nominal scale of inside/outside. The concept of non-local is crucial to the model of change but is less suitable for considerations of sustainability and resilience. Network agents in Shanghai replacing imports from Beijing and Osaka are very different from them replacing imports from Paris and Chicago. Although this difference has no effect on Shanghai’s immediate growth there are huge differential impacts here in terms commodity-miles to generate this city change. Commodity-miles are measured at an interval scale and this is central to their interpretation: not all non-local interaction is environmentally equal. But it seems to me that we should be thinking between the nominal and the interval and use an ordinal scale (ranking). We are not banishing the global scale: long-distance, non-local trade may be necessary depending on the geographies of input into production (specific raw materials, customised equipment, specialist labour). This is because networks, and with them homo geographicus, cannot exist within a world of same or very similar settlements. City niches, and therefore trade, are necessary and should be subject to a strict intervening opportunities metric whereby the theoretical non-local is interpreted practically as the nearest nonlocal. Beyond thinking of reducing a city’s ecological footprint, focussing on green networks of cities means reducing cities’ ecological netprints.


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* Peter J. Taylor, School of the Built and Natural Environment, Northumbria University, UK; email:


Edited and posted on the web on 13th May 2011

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Local Environment, 17 (4), (2012), 495-508