Global Cities: Our Best Hope for a Sustainable Future
– Discussion takes place using common “terms of art” such as “global cities.”
– Conclusions are reached and each person leaves the room knowing what was decided about actions to be taken and their roles and responsibilities.
– A week or so later, a number of the meeting’s participants are feeling angry or betrayed because while the “term of art” was agreed to for many, the meaning was subtly or substantively different.
In my varied career roles, I’ve been involved in a number of meetings about global cities. In each meeting, it is assumed that everybody shares a common understanding of what a global city is. No meeting has ever begun with the question, “What is a global city?”
As is the case with many things regarding sustainability, the more I examine the term, the less certain I feel I understand the fundamental truth of it all.
The term “global city” is peppered throughout reports and articles, discussed on the evening news and bandied across the board room table as a sort of prerequisite for any discussion involving trade. Numerous studies have defined such places on a variety of scales — population, economic transactions, points of intersection in a globalizing society, centers that influence global culture and many other characteristics. But a global city is not simply a very large city with an aggregation of attributes somewhere in the world. It is, in fact, what my teenage nephew would call “a thing.” What my nephew does not realize is that he is grasping the essential idea of transcendence that lies behind the term. A global city transcends its characteristics — its physical and financial artifacts — to become a key node in the network of global humanity.
A population of over 1 million is an entry-level criterion for consideration. But beyond that, the definition of a global city has more to do with influence and meaning than size.
In the 2012 Global Cities Index developed by A.T. Kearney and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, New York, London, Paris and Tokyo topped the list. The data used analyzes everything from business activity, human capital, and information exchange to cultural experience and political engagement. Indicators include the number of Fortune Global 500 company headquarters; the flow of goods through ports and airports; and tallies of the numbers of embassies, think tanks, political organizations and museums.
The 2012 Global Cities Index report concludes that the world today is more about cities than countries. Cities are hubs in complex, global production networks; those that can accumulate the greatest financial, political and intellectual power can rule the world.
One very small city, omitted from the Index, is in fact the best illustration of this concept. For the estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, Vatican City, population 840, is the global city. For the more than 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, Mecca is the global city. A key element of transcendence is the emotional and cultural bonds that exist between nonresidents with deep-seated cultural roots in the city. These defy any physical or financial boundaries we may attempt to describe on a map. For a city to truly be global, there must be psychological and emotional attachments that cause individuals to be concerned for the city’s success even if they are not residents.
In this sense, every city’s boundaries are artificial. They may have once been rational from the perspective of geography and resources, but in most instances, population growth has exceeded their original carrying capacity. They may be politically expedient but ecologically irrational, straining the government’s ability to grow economically while also meeting human needs. Boundaries may have legal meaning but be devoid of the economic judiciousness that a more metropolitan scale would offer. This understanding has enormous implications for sustainability. Can large, bounded unitary governments be as effective as globally linked metropolitan areas in addressing the fundamental problems of today and tomorrow? How do we draw a border around influence? It would have to be a very fluid border in very erasable ink. What is true today could be radically different tomorrow. What we can be sure of is that the city’s arbitrarily drawn boundary on a map, the lines that city government uses for allocating resources and making decisions, have very low utility in a modernizing and evermore resource-constrained world.
However we choose to characterize urban conurbations in the future, our perception of boundaries has to change if we are to engage our global cities in driving more sustainable outcomes for humanity. Rather than lines and rings, we would be better served by arrows indicating relationships and flows. It would be easier to make more sustainable decisions if a map showed that exports of coal from the Powder River Basin for use in coal-fired power plants in Shanghai and Beijing resulted in worsening air quality in Los Angeles and high mercury contamination of San Francisco Bay Area fish that are then exported to Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Berlin and Amsterdam.
The idea of the powerful global city will need to become instead the idea of collaborative metropolitan areas that become powerful due to the constant flows of ideas and shared commitments to optimizing conditions for human development throughout the world. A successful global city is one that has the capacity to attract, retain and generate a global flow of ideas, capital and people. The key function of a city is to enable that flow — to create the exchange, interaction and combination and recombination of people and ideas. To do that, a city must reach beyond its physical border and must create strategic alliances with other powerful cities with complementary roles. Thus, the political capital Beijing needs Shanghai’s financial center and both become more effective with access to Hong Kong’s global geo-political platform.
We are beginning to see these strategic alliances emerge. Saskia Sassen, the doyenne of the global city concept, observes that our geopolitical future will be determined by a handful of strategic worldwide urban networks. She identifies such collaborators as Washington, New York and Chicago; Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai; and São Pãolo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. I particularly take heart from her observation that one potential alliance may yet form between Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi. She believes these three cities have the critical mass of institutions dedicated to social justice and leadership potential in an emerging nation that may result in the creation of a global environmental and social agenda.
This large-scale thinking makes it easier to move sustainability issues higher up the city leadership agenda. The interrelationship between groups of powerful, influential cities can be the impetus for more sustainable practices on a much larger scale.
Gary Lawrence is chief sustainability officer and vice president of AECOM Technology Corp. You can follow Gary on Twitter @CSO_AECOM.
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