GaWC Research Bulletin 463

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Urbanization in Global Perspective

P.J. Taylor*


In the early twentieth first century it was first reported that a majority of human beings throughout the world were living in urban places. Furthermore this urbanization trend showed no signs of abating: sometime later in the twenty-first century urban dwellers are expected to constitute over 75% of humanity. Widely commented upon, this could be seen as merely an interesting new settlement geography – a spatial reorganization towards more concentration – or, more profoundly, as a critical change in the nature of the human condition. From the latter interpretation there came suggestions that historically we had entered the ‘first urban century’, and biologically that we are now an ‘urban species’ (Glaeser 2011). Given that this thinking coincided with two other epochal discourses relating to global-scale activities and planetary climate change, the twenty first century, our times, has been framed as a special period of unprecedented change. But how exactly does the urbanization fit into this complex human predicament? The prime purpose of this chapter is to explore how this question might be answered within the remit of global studies. Is urbanization somewhat less profound in its role in contemporary change than globalization and climate change? I will argue no, it should be viewed on a par with the other two epochal phenomena because all three are fundamentally interrelated.

This position is not widely appreciated, although there are some notable exceptions (e.g. Sassen 1991; Bulkeley 2013) the mainstream literatures in global studies and climate change studies will reveal. In textbooks and ‘Reader’ collections of papers, cities feature hardly at all. In the case of globalization, for instance, a very popular way of framing debates has been a typology of positions – ‘hyperglobalists’, ‘sceptics’ and ‘transformationalists’ - each of which is ultimately defined by how the contemporary state is changing: either being eroded, or being enhanced, or being restructured, respectively (Held et al 1999; Taylor 2000). There is little or no place for cities in such a state-centric way of thinking. It reflects a more general issue for understanding cities in social science research traditionally disciplined to search out social, economic and political processes of change, again framed nationally. This has been transfigured in contemporary social science into urbanization being treated as very much secondary to globalization. There is a precedent: in an earlier form of modernity involving the rise of unparalleled numbers of large cities in the nineteenth century, urbanization has been treated as secondary to industrialization. Of course, the ‘industrial revolution’ is today indicted for initiating anthropogenic climate change. And again, the study of the latter is led by research programmes that are explicitly framed by states: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (personnel are chosen by states) whose research feeds into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (for states to negotiate policy). Therefore in order to satisfy our prime purpose, there needs to be a corollary resolve to move discussion beyond an uncritical receipt of state-centrism in global and planetary studies.

The chapter is organized into four substantive sections. The first provides an historical context treating contemporary globalization as a third manifestation of such worldwide integration since the late nineteenth century in the sequence: imperial -> American -> corporate globalizations. The decisive role of a shifting but consistently rampant urbanization across all three globalizations is described. The second section focuses on today’s corporate globalization and illustrates how this is being produced and reproduced by a world city network. The focus is on the structure and dynamics of the latter underpinning contemporary globalization. The final two sections present more recent conceptualizations that locate urbanization in a planetary frame. This has been developed most fully as ‘planetary urbanization’, a way of thinking that treats contemporary urban process as inclusive across all parts of the Earth – land, sea and air. An extension of this idea historically links the urban with anthropocentric climate change on a much longer time-scale than conventionally considered. These two sections are unambiguously bringing cities to centre stage in global studies. However, in conclusion the argument is made that cities should not be portrayed as opposed to, or as alternative to, states, rather it is the interplay of city/state relations that matter. But before moving forward to the substantive sections this chapter begins with a short note on concepts and approaches to urban studies. This is to make clear to urban scholars the approach adopted in this essay and, more importantly, to clarify some key distinctions for the majority of readers who will not be city specialists.

A Note on Concepts in Urban Studies

Perhaps the reader might have noticed that in the first paragraph of this chapter I have used the terms urban/urbanization, whereas the concepts of city/cities were employed in the second paragraph. Although with distinctively different etymologies, in common practice city and urban are used interchangeably: I expect no reader to have experienced a problem of understanding due to my introducing cities in paragraph two. But it is also easy to see how they are different, notably through their opposites: urban contrasts with rural; city differs from town. Both these oppositions are about dissimilar places. In the case of urban the key difference is demographic: an urban place denotes a population concentration that generates a high population density compared to a rural place. In the case of the city the key difference is more functional: a city is a large, complex, busy place compared to a smaller, simpler, quieter town.

The images that form in our minds when using urban/rural and city/town support these binary pairings. However, in this chapter I will not focus on urban or city as simply places, both will be treated as processes. In other words they are not viewed as fixed entities, rather they depict incessant changing human relations whose outcome at any one point in time are the places we think of as urban and city. Using a process approach in this context is sometimes difficult to envisage because of the social science penchant, previously noted, to conceive human processes as being just one of socio-cultural, economic or political relations. Both urban and city are complex processes, a cacophony of practices that incorporate and transcend the standard three types of human relations. I consider the urban and city concepts each in turn.

The title of this chapter is ‘urbanization’ and this is has been long employed as a measurement in urban studies (Davis 1965), indeed just such a measure was used to begin this essay. Taking a given space or territory, usually a country, the degree of urbanization is the proportion of people living in cities and towns. As always, measurement is employed to engage in comparisons and this has taken two forms in this case. First, comparing measures at one point in time produces the familiar notion of differences between countries, essentially a focus on places, represented by variation in urbanization across bounded territories. Second, comparing measures over time in one country provides an indication of change, specifically an urban process usually increasing through time. It is this process form of urbanization that Harvey (1996, 2012) argues is to be preferred over the concept of cities, which he says, implies place rather than process. I will contest the latter below but before then the limitations of urbanization measures need rehearsing. As most commonly used they are actually measures about states, urban process within their territories. But such a bounded approach to urban process is anathema to the human relations and practices that generate urbanization (and cities). Whatever boundaries politicians or researchers impose, with respect to urban process the resulting containers are inherently porous. By curtailing the scope of the urban in urbanization measurement, the resulting state-centric measures are partial and therefore problematical. However, this is not the case with total measures of urbanization worldwide. Global measurement transcends political boundaries thereby avoiding the problematic: this will be discussed below as planetary globalization (Brenner 2014a)

Harvey’s view of cities as just places is not the only way to view them. Furthermore, having identified their opposite as ‘town’, which is also recognized as being urban, suggests urban process should be divided into two distinct processes: city-ness and town-ness. This separation has been made in terms of spatial relations of urban centres (Taylor et al 2010, Taylor 2013). The first set of relations is essentially local: the connections that each urban centre has with its hinterland. This is town-ness where the scale of the local may vary and is conventionally described as urban hierarchies. The second set of relations is non-local: the inter-connections between urban centres. This is city-ness where relations are more horizontal than vertical and are described as inter-city networks. The key point is that all urban centres encompass both processes; urban centres differ in the balance between their town-ness and their city-ness. In global studies focus has been on the latter process through discourses on global cities: this will be discussed below as world city network (Taylor and Derudder 2015).

One final point needs to be made concerning the question of reification. In arguments below there will be reference to cities doing practical things such as coordinating or enabling. This is a shorthand way of referring to cities as complex entities with the inherent capacity to make such practices collectively possible. Change is generated by the myriad agency of people and institutions that constitute the city-ness. I am not referring to the political actions of city governments, although the latter may be a relevant part of the wider capacity. 

Cities in Three Globalizations

Some definitions of globalization see it as a set of human relations that are worldwide in scope and integrated to create a specific material world or global economy. Viewed this way there have been three such processes creating distinctive global economies. In each case important cities have operated as local-global nexuses enabling and shaping variegated global practices. Providing this global capacity has set in motion a spiraling development process based upon historically unparalleled urbanization.

Imperial globalization. In 1904 the political geographer Halford Mackinder (1904) declared the world had reached global closure – there was no lands left to colonize. This was the culmination of European expansion, which, by the end of the nineteenth century, had created an integrated global economy whose structure was defined by imperial relations, both formal (colonies), informal (unequal treaties) and internal (frontiers), whereby the rest of the world provided European countries (and latterly USA and Japan) with agricultural commodities and raw materials. Different territories tended to specialize in one commodity creating severe economic dependency relations with distant markets. In effect this was a worldwide division of labour structured as one large functional region with global commodity flows from the periphery servicing a North Atlantic industrial core.

The resulting immense urban growth was famously recognized at the time by Adna Weber (1899); this has been more accurately corroborated by more recent historical demographers (Chandler 1987). Whereas historically cities of over a million have been very rare, there were 16 in 1900. There were three types of fast-growing cities: (a) the great imperial capitals in Europe – the largest being London, Paris and Berlin; (b) industrial cities in Europe – the largest being Manchester, Glasgow and Rhine-Ruhr; and (c) dependent cities beyond Europe dealing with the logistics of relaying products to Europe – the largest being Buenos Aires, Shanghai and Calcutta. Within this economic structure there was a USA replication where New York functioned as the business and commercial capital complemented by industrial cities in the Manufacturing Belt (Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit) and local supply cities in the West (Denver, San Francisco), and South (Atlanta, Dallas). Below these new large cities there was a vast array of smaller cities creating a first modern urban world in an integrated global economy.

American globalization. This second global economic integration grew in the first half of the 20th century out of the USA arrangements described above and became fully developed in mid-century when the US emerged from the Second World War with an expanded economy when all rivals had different degrees of severely war-damaged economies. This enabled American firms to dominate the world economy that included restoration of European and Japanese economies in the ‘post-war boom’. There were two main elements: (i) leading American firms became known as ‘multinational corporations’ through having production units located in different countries; and (ii) leading European firms emulated American management practices and technological advances. Despite the wave of decolonization and a challenge to this process by communist countries, the dissipation of the latter well before the end of the century created an intensified version of the old ‘core-periphery’ international division of labour.

Massive urbanization continued unabated so that by 1950 there were 67 cities with populations over one million. But the new globalization featured more than increasing and re-orientated urban growth; its key feature was a new landscape of consumption. While New York became the world’s financial centre, increased mass production was matched by the development of mass consumption. Increased productivity translated into higher wages so that levels of consumption soared in what J.K. Galbraith (1958) famously announced in the 1950s as the “affluent society.” Across US cities, suburbia became the primary landscape of this new world of consumption, epitomized by the decentralized metropolis of Los Angeles. Americanization is the term used to describe the diffusion of this way of living beyond the USA. It encompassed western Europe after 1950 in the “post-war boom”, and then diffused to middle classes across the world finally including the erstwhile communist countries late in the century. The shopping mall came to symbolize modern cities in the American mode worldwide.

Corporate globalization. This third global economic integration is an extension of Americanization as numerous non-US firms became multinational corporations, with Japanese and German firms in particular initially challenging American economic dominance. But this is much more than a diffusion of American practices as leading firms become ‘transnational corporations’ and later ‘global corporations’ through realizing the new organizational potential of the technology merger between the communication and computer industries in the 1970s: an electronic infrastructure provided firms with an enhanced global capacity. It enabled them to create a ‘new international division of labour’ (Frobel et al 1980) with industrial production moving to poorer regions of the world in a highly integrated global economy undergirding what Manuel Castells (1996) termed global network society. This production shift firmly established corporations with their global strategies as the dominant players, not just economically but also politically (e.g. through lobbying) and culturally (e.g. through sponsorships). Corporate globalization is our contemporary globalization, an ongoing process of worldwide integration involving corporations from countries across the world, now importantly including China.

As a cumulative product of previous two globalizations, corporate globalization has accelerated urbanization: there are currently more than 500 cities with populations above a million! What were exceptionally rare cities before the three globalizations have become commonplace today. The outcome is a much more complex and variegated global urbanization that has initially generated two quite distinct literatures. The mega-city literature focuses on the unique demographic sizes of contemporary cities and the many problems this entails. Initially defined by UN-Habitat as cities with over eight million people, the threshold currently used is ten million. The vast majority of these cities are in poorer parts of the world and the debates that ensue are concerned mainly with their travails generating both positive interpretations (e.g. Neuwirth’s (2006) ‘shadow cities’) and more despairing negative interpretations (e.g. Davis’ (2006) ‘planet of slums’). The global/world city literature focuses upon city functionalities and as such directly addresses corporate globalization. Because of this, I focus on researches within this approach first.

World City Network as Edifice of Corporate Globalization

The rise of multinational corporations was first linked to cities as new worldwide centres of economic power by Hymer (1973). Linking his precocious thesis to global economic decentralization (i.e. Frobel et al.’s (1980) new international division of labour), a new role for cities was discovered as ‘command and control centres’, the necessary organizational frame for the new global economy. There were two main theses offered. Friedmann (1986, Friedmann and Wolff 1982) postulated a ‘world city hierarchy’, an up-scaling of prior ‘national urban hierarchies’, now layered in three large world regions – Americas, Euro-Africa and Asia. New York, London and Tokyo were the leading world cities for each region, below which an array of other important cities were ranked. Sassen (1991, 1994) focused upon a selective group of cities with global capacity that she termed ‘global cities’ which were deemed to be unique to corporate globalization; New York, London and Tokyo were her working examples. Despite the understandable coincidence of both treating the same three cities as key cases, the two approaches were quite different. Friedmann provided the first popular representation of global urbanization as a hierarchy of important urban places; Sassen laid out a specific urban process, global city formation. It is her city-as-process that has been extended to constitute world city network as the critical urban frame of corporate globalization (Taylor 2001).

It has been noted that the emergence of corporate globalization derived from the new instantaneous global communication opportunities opening up in the 1970s. Initially, firms developed production strategies whereby they could take advantage of low-cost transport and cheap labour to forge global commodity chains for secondary sector production. This stimulated a globalization of tertiary activities by firms providing financial, professional and creative services for their globalizing corporate clients; in the 1980s they followed clients to new markets and thereby exported their services through new offices across the world. By the early 1990s service firms’ intranets criss-crossed the world as flows of expert knowledge to support corporate globalization. Very quickly these service firms moved on from being corporate followers to becoming corporate players in their own right: finding themselves in new markets they soon produced their own global office strategies. By the turn of the new century these knowledge flows in and through cities reached new levels of density and diversity; according to Castells (1996) an ‘informational world’ had replaced the ‘industrial world’ so that modernity now took the form of a global network society where these ‘advanced producer services’ had become part of a new ‘quaternary sector’ of the corporate global economy.

The firms providing advanced producer services – numerous financial and banking services, advertising, accountancy, various consultancies, real estate, law, etc. - are to be found in the internal agglomeration of major cities across the world, specifically located in their hallmark clusters of skyscrapers connected by roof-top satellite dishes in a vast global infrastructure network. The result is a dynamic world city network of global service centres enabling contemporary globalization. In Sassen’s global cities thesis service production and consumption come together: these cities are both markets for advanced producer services (corporate headquarters) and where financial, professional and creative services are produced. But since both users and providers of advanced producer services use the global capacities of cities to pursue their various global strategies, it is a vast network of cities – going far beyond Sassen’s specific ‘global cities’ - that constitute the spatial framework of the contemporary global economy.  Thus in what follows the focus is on service corporations and how they use cities in their everyday work. It should be noted that this choice of economic sector is based not on corporate size – except in financial services most service corporates are relatively modest in size – but on their strategic position. One way of looking at them is to interpret advanced producer services as the ‘indicator sector’ in the current global economy. By analogy with an ‘indicator species’ in ecological habitats, the success of this indicator sector in the today’s city-ness is a pointer to how the ‘global habitat’ is operating.

This global city-ness process will be illustrated using empirical results from an on-going research programme carried out under the auspices of the Globalization and World Cities (GaWC) Research Network ( since 1998. The subject of these studies is inter-city relations that highlight the worldwide roles of cities in contemporary globalization. The research is premised on an interlocking network model whereby advanced producer service firms ‘interlock’ cities through their work-flows (of ideas involving information, knowledge, professional knowhow, plans, strategies, direction, etc.) across worldwide office networks. Since data on this commercial work is impossible to access (for both confidentiality and sheer scale reasons) direct measurement of work-flows is impossible; the model enables indirect measurement of work-flows in the form of estimates of potential flows between individual offices within firms. These are simply based on the idea that more important offices generate more work-flows; there are more flows within a firm between two cities with important offices than between two cities with less important offices. Importance is measured by size and function of a firm’s office in a given city. The work-flows through a single firm’s office network are estimated; the aggregation of many firms’ flows constitute the world city network as estimates of gross flows between cities servicing corporations across the world (Taylor 2001).

Data on leading firms in financial services, accountancy, advertising, law and management consultancy have been collected since 2000 to monitor changes in the world city network. This reflects variations and fluctuations in the demand for advanced producer services and therefore indicates dynamics of an evolving corporate globalization. One hundred firms in 2000 were researched in 314 cities in 2000 and 175 firms were researched in 526 cities in 2013. From these data the aggregate of all potential work-flows of a city can be computed, which defines its ‘global network connectivity’. For ease of comparison, results for each city are presented as its percentage of the highest city score. Table 1 shows the top twenty cities in 2000 and 2013 and Table 2 shows the percentages changes across this time. These can be interpreted as showing cities in terms of their degrees of integration into the world city network (Table 1) and the changing worldwide geography of corporate globalization (Table 2).

Table 1 Top 20 cities in the world city network, 2000 and 2013

Table 2 Connectivity changes of top 20 cities, 2000-2013

Without concentrating on the details of these results there are many interesting and important processes in the global economy that can be noted. To begin with the world city network appears to be very resilient. Despite major movements in the world economy over the period in question ( bubble – rapid expansion – severe financial crisis – austerity), there are only five changes between the top twenties. This resilience is especially marked at the top of the ranking. London and New York remain by far the most connected cities, followed by Hong Kong and Paris in both lists. Note that it is Hong Kong as leading Asian city rather than Tokyo as originally identified by both Friedmann and Sassen. Cities from ‘emerging markets’ are among these leading cities: Sao Paulo and Mexico City appear in both lists and they are joined by Mumbai, Shanghai, Moscow and Beijing in 2013. The latter represent important changes that are occurring in the world city network: a ‘West’ to ‘East’ shift. This is especially shown in the changes (Table 2) with western European and US cities showing relative decline compared to Asian cities. The swapping of positions between Toronto and Sydney are part of this broader pattern. A key outcome of this shift is the remarkable position of Chinese cities in the top echelons of the network with three of the top 8 cities in 2013. In complete contrast there are two Pacific Asian cities that have the largest relative decline: Tokyo and Taipei. The former represents a divergence from the pioneering research by Friedmann and Sassen and reflects the Japanese economy’s opposite trajectory to that of China; the latter is a special case of a Chinese city politically separate from China and thereby suffering as a consequence. Finally mention should be made of Dubai that records by far the highest relative increase in global network connectivity. Partly due to a low starting point, this is nevertheless a remarkable trajectory that illustrates the additional need for more subtle interpretations of world city network analyses (see Bassens 2013; Taylor et al. 2014).

Before leaving the world city network there are two provisos that require airing. First, the evidence above is the tip of a very large iceberg with myriad cities across the world contributing to corporate globalization. Focusing on the leading cities indicates an important dynamic but this corporate globalization is present in every urban locale across the world. Second, the development of advanced producer services is just one process among a myriad of processes that constitute dynamic city-ness within corporate globalization. We move on now to an approach that provides a broader vista on the urbanization within corporate globalization.

Planetary Urbanization I: The Contemporary Thesis

Pioneered by Neil Brenner at the Urban Lab, Harvard and Christian Schmid at ETH Zurich, a fresh way of looking at contemporary urbanization is being developed that transcends the binary oppositions introduced in the opening pages of this chapter.  Taking particular exception to the concept of ‘the city’ with its implication of isolation, they embrace the concept of urbanization as a process to counter such supposed separateness. In this they compare with the analytics of the world city network with its emphasis on cities always in the plural (Jacobs 1969) but they take this position much further. This is an exciting development for three related reasons. First, it broadens the vision of being urban to encompass much that has traditionally been considered non-urban. Second, in this it shows potential for transcending the society/nature dichotomy that so much research on globalization appears to avoid. Therefore third, it is building a new urban language to engage with the twenty first century as special historical moment starting with the adjective ‘planetary’ rather than the more simple ‘worldwide’ or ‘global’: welcome to planetary urbanization (Brenner 2014a).

The planetary urbanization approach builds upon familiar recent researches and observations on how urbanization processes are changing. This change is much more than the mega-city emphasis on demographic size; the actual configuration of cities is altering away from the classic conceptualization of the concentric ordering of cities around its centre.  Large amorphous urban regions with variegated functionality have been ‘discovered’ across the world since Gottmann (1961) described ‘megalopolis’, the string of US east coast cities from Boston to Washington. Today, such urban forms are deemed to exist, or are in the process of formation, across all settled continents (Harrison and Hoyler 2015). But this transcending of traditional borders is not a simple case of decentralization, rather there is a complex mix of variations both centralizing (Glaeser 2011) while also turning cities inside out, described by Lang (2003) as ‘edgeless cities’. Brenner, Schmid and colleagues draw these concepts and ideas together as planetary urbanization using an untypical (i.e. overtly urban) Marxist analysis that brings urbanization to centre stage: Henri Lefebvre’s (1971) treatise on urban revolution.

In this hugely influential work Lefebvre places urbanization in the context of cycles of capitalist development that incessantly disrupts socio-spatial structures. Through this process urbanization massively expands and in turn changes the parameters of society. The limit of this process is the final elimination of the ‘non-urban’, annihilating ‘rural’ as something ‘outside’ the urban. Lefebvre termed this ‘complete urbanization’. What has subsequently been termed globalization Lefebvre interprets as the advent of this worldwide condition, which is planetary urbanization.

Lefebvre’s dialectic of ‘implosions/explosions’ is central to understanding planetary urbanization (Brenner 2014a). The myriad processes of mutating agglomerations that is conventionally considered as urbanization are coupled with the equally crucial transformation of ‘operational landscapes’ worldwide. And this is more than the relatively commonplace idea of the rural being constructed by the urban (see Cronon 1991 for the classic study); the mutuality between these spaces is paramount. Thus planetary urbanization is more than territorial as depicted on maps, it is oceanic, sub-aquatic, atmospheric and including the sub-terrain. This is explicit in all the various infrastructures that are integral to this urbanization process, as well as being equally evident in its effects on climate change and environmental pollution. Both communication satellites and concentrations of plastic in the Arctic Ocean are manifestations of planetary urbanization. These goes way beyond the elimination of the rural, planetary includes elimination of the ‘wild’, conventionally ‘untouched’ but now besmirched by urbanization everywhere. This is the uneven operationalization of an entire planet.

A particularly interesting empirical output from this approach focuses on visualization, attempting to transcend conventional cartographies that portray data territorially (i.e. neatly bounded). These studies employ a range of global depictions including Friedmann’s (1986) global urban hierarchy and results from world city network analysis but also include historical visualizations covering all three globalizations described above (Urban Theory Lab-GSD 2014). But this approach is not simply ‘global’ in its one-scale meaning. Countries famous for their stretches on ‘un-urban-ness’ are reinterpreted as essentially urban: Schmid (2014) convincingly illustrates ‘rural Switzerland’ to be a myth. More broadly using a collection of contemporary images – including nightlights, land cover, transport routes, human ecological footprints – Brenner (2014b) explores the notion of the Mediterranean being urban. 

Planetary urbanization is an invitation to rethink so much, conceptually, theoretically, epistemologically and methodologically. And given its radical provenance it engages with the politics of change that is neglected in the world city network approach. The latter describes a global urban world to understand it better with some pointers towards the need for a ‘network politics’ and trans-border policymaking to challenge bounded, territorial governance. In contrast planetary urbanization incorporates bottom up political action that is simultaneously local and global. Starting with Lefebvre’s (1971) ‘right to the city’, or better still Harvey’s (2006, 2013) right to change ourselves by changing the city, this is to develop what the ‘right to make planetary urbanization’ might mean.

Planetary Urbanization II: An Historical Thesis

Although differences between the two approaches to studying urbanization under conditions of contemporary globalization have been emphasized, they do share one important feature that is typical of much contemporary scholarship: treating the current condition of humanity as unprecedented. This essay started with expressions of the twenty first century as unique and the urban dimension of this claim is central to both world city networks and planetary urbanization. In the case of the former, worldwide instantaneous communication has created a new socio-spatial world – Castells (1996) network society incorporating Sassen’s (1991) global cities - that has no historical parallels. For planetary urbanization, the uniqueness claim is integral to the argument that today we are experiencing the limits of an urbanization process that is now ‘complete’. This is why the former section was entitled the ‘contemporary’ thesis; here it is complemented with an historical urban thesis that is similarly planetary.

Of course, using Lefebvre means incorporating a Marxist historiography into planetary urbanization – changing ‘cycles of capitalism since the industrial revolution’ – which accords with conventional historical thinking on anthropogenic climate change. The consensus is that the latter is about 200 years old; it is an artifact of industrialization, sometimes referred to as ‘carboniferous capitalism’. Such thinking again pushes urbanization to the margins, more a consequence than a cause of past planetary transformation. But cities are much older than this; urbanization is a process that is measured in millennia not centuries. Therefore, what pre-modern cities lack in demographic quantities, they can counterbalance with vast amounts of time. This line of reasoning has produced a new urban thesis on anthropogenic climate change in a two-step argument that entails combining two quite distinct literatures (Taylor 2016: Taylor et al. 2017).

The first step is William Ruddiman’s (2003, 2010, 2013) identification of two periods of human impact on climate change: a short, rapid ‘industrial effect’ and a long, slow ‘pre-industrial effect’. The first is familiar; the second is novel, and, Ruddiman argues, of comparable importance because of its longevity of eight millennia. His method is to focus on the two key greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, which he traces in the atmosphere by comparing the Holocene (i.e. the current inter-glacial period) with past inter-glacial periods. Deviations show a rise in carbon dioxide starting about 8,000 years ago and a rise in methane starting about 5,000 years ago. He attributes both to ‘agricultural revolutions’, for the former land clearances making way for dry-land cereals and for the latter the development of wetland cereal farming. Of course, the use of this familiar, indeed conventional, historiography of production ‘revolutions’ – agricultural coupled with industrial – for the two speeds of anthropogenic climate change omits urbanization.

The second step is to insert Jane Jacobs’ (1969) ‘cities first thesis’ into the argument. She posits that the invention of agriculture was an urban innovation, a solution to the escalating food demands of expanding cities. Therefore cities precede agriculture, a position that completely overturns conventional archaeological understanding of at least a century’s standing (Soja 2000; Taylor 2013). The ensuing debate revolves around definitions of cities and their deployment for identifying very early cities. The traditional archaeological focus on monumental architecture limits cities to the last 5,000 years long after the development of agriculture, but more functional definitions of cities, as used by Jacobs (1969), push cities, small but multiple, back to times compatible with agriculture (Taylor 2012, 2015; Smith et al. 2014). The basic difference between these two positions concerns the role of cities as either supply vehicle responding to agricultural surpluses as traditionally conceived (Childe 1950), or a demand mechanism generating agricultural necessities à la Jacobs. Taking the latter position, Ruddiman’s two contrasting periods of human effect on climate change can both be reinterpreted as the effects of urbanization, early and modern. Furthermore, the different timings for rises of the two greenhouse gases in the long, slow effect on climate change can be related to two phases of urban development: the initial cities equate with dry-land agriculture and the development of large riverine cities equates with wetland agriculture. In fact, Ruddiman’s overall historiography matches Soja’s (2000) three ‘urban revolutions’ (modern/industrial is the third) at 8,000, 5,000 and 200 years before the present (Taylor et al 2015). Beyond this synchronization research is required to link early land cover clearance (Kaplan et al. 2010) to the growing evidence from new airborne laser scanning technology showing new networks of ancient cities across the world from Amazonia to Cambodia.

If anthropogenic climate change is indeed a function of urban demand over many millennia it follows that there has been a planetary urbanization over this long period. The Holocene is like no other inter-glacial period; it has been altered by human beings through their urbanizations. Indeed this has been a time of mutually recursive relations: urbanization is instrumental in generating a uniquely long, relatively stable, climatic period that provided the environment for cities to prosper and expand. It is in this sense that a historical planetary urbanization can be postulated despite the lack of worldwide operational landscapes that are integral to contemporary planetary globalization. But the relatively stable climate as an urbanization effect appears to be coming to an abrupt end.

Being historical does not make historical planetary globalization only of historical interest. The designation of urban demand as the prime generator of anthropogenic climate change has critical resonance for contemporary climate science policy making. As noted previously, currently the research base is very state-centric feeding into inter-state negotiations at UN Climate Change Conferences: the result is a prevailing focus on energy supply, making policy to cut carbon emissions. The demand side - the huge consumption processes that have been so glaringly prominent since American globalization and have reached über proportions in the cities of corporate globalization - is sidelined in this global policymaking practice (Taylor 2016, Taylor et al. 2016). Urbanization in contemporary globalization is not only crucial for understanding human effects on climate change, it is critical for developing policies to mitigate and adapt to a changing planet.


This essay has shown that viewing globalization through urbanization has the potential to generate a deeper rethink of globalization than studies generated through social science disciplinary lenses. Instead of up-scaling conventional ideas and concepts by simply substituting ‘national’ by ‘global’ as in ‘global civil society’, ‘global governance’, ‘global economy’ and thereby reproducing old disciplinary separations, bringing cities into the argument promotes a more trans-disciplinary thinking. In this chapter a distinctive grounding of ideas is evidenced through linking the twenty first century’s three epochal changes identified in the introduction. Urbanization, globalization and anthropogenic climate change are intimately entwined and should be understood as such.

Such a large topic and so little space, this essay has perforce been treating complex subjects in a fleeting manner that is rather more assertive than nuanced. This conclusion will briefly introduce and discuss two caveats that require airing to make the overall argument a little more reputable.

First, a focus on cities prioritizes flows and routes over territories and places, which is entirely appropriate for studying globalization. But flows and places are complimentary, they exist together. Emphasis on the former should not be interpreted as dismissing the relevance of the latter. Thus this essay should not be interpreted as an addition to the literature implying an imminent ending of the state. There are examples where global cities are seen as replacements for states (Knight 1989) but this is not the position taken here. Rather cities and states represent different complexes of human activities premised upon flows and places respectively. Thus a key area of study is their interrelations (Taylor 2013). City/state relations vary immensely over time and space; today both are instrumental in enabling and reproducing global relations and planetary changes. The obvious example of the continuing importance of the state is China with its distinctive urbanization trajectory a consequence of changing state policy: in the 1960s China was the only country to experience a decline in urbanization, since the 1980s it has experienced the greatest rural-urban migration in human history.

Second, it has been pointed out that studies of cities in globalization elicit a huge bias towards larger cities, especially those in the richer parts of the world (Robinson 2006). This essay might be seen as an example of this tendency. However, the introduction of town-ness alongside city-ness, although not followed up in the subsequent arguments, does accept an urbanization that includes local and non-local and therefore urban places of all sizes. The key point is that a weakness of the ‘global city’ concept is that there is no such thing as an ‘un-global city’. Globalization is pervasive and elements of its cacophony of processes can be found in every urban place, and much further afield in the planetary urbanization thesis. Jacobs (1969) famously argued that all cities need other cities; it might be added that the latter be of many sizes. Contemporary globalization has its particular worldwide network of cities in an urban landscape that is planetary.


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* Peter J. Taylor, email:


Edited and posted on the web on 3rd February 2018