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Definition: world city from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

A city widely recognized as a centre of economic and political power within the capitalist world economy. These cities are important financial and business centres and usually boast a high concentration of headquarters of multinational corporations. London (England), New York (USA), and Tokyo (Japan) are examples of world cities.

Summary Article: Global City from Encyclopedia of Urban Studies

Global cities are key urban nodes that concentrate command and control functions in the global economy. They are mechanisms through which global economic integration takes root because they play a generative economic role not just within their national borders but also within increasingly global networks of production and consumption. In addition, they usually exhibit a high degree of ethnic diversity and are marked by social and spatial fragmentation.

Evolution of the Concept

Building on Peter Hall's The World Cities (1966), the most recent popularization of the term derives from a series of seminal articles of the 1980s and 1990s. John Friedmann and Anthony King developed their concepts of world or global cities through empirically grounded research and engagement with the third world; King examined both the developed and developing world, and Friedmann mostly the latter. Starting in the 1990s, attention turned to the advanced capitalist world, driven largely by the work of Saskia Sassen. Her 1991 book, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, set forth a major research agenda on issues like the nature and workings of economic globalization, the role of cross-border finance in urban development, and social or class polarization, thereby shifting the focus toward rich and prosperous cities in democratic nations and inviting a larger debate.

Sassen's view of the global city as exemplified by a particular class of economic activities increasingly tied to high finance and advanced services is contested. Similarly, her explanation of social polarization in global cities has been qualified by proponents of dualization and fragmentation, while her initial marginalization and even disregard for the role of the state in shaping global cities has invited sustained criticism. Nevertheless, Sassen's research program propelled cities into a global context and onto the social science and policy agenda. It also contributed to a rising and heated debate over the nature and features of globalization and its impact on the urban realm. With the growing popularity of the global city paradigm, even the most conventional topics long studied by urbanists, ranging from suburbs and midtowns to real estate, architecture, and urban governance, are now examined in a global context.

Global cities are considered good cases for exploring the workings of economic globalization. The globalization of capital and labor affects both urban employment patterns and shifts in the sectoral character of the urban economy in many European and American cities. Global cities are those whose growth and character are determined by the generative economic role they play within their national borders and within global networks of production and consumption. Consequently, global cities are no longer to be seen as fetters on the national development of their host countries, as in the past with the dependent urbanization literature, but more likely to be conceptualized as the mechanisms through which global economic integration takes root and greater prosperity is achieved.

Emerging Analytical Perspectives

At least four main themes have emerged in this rapidly changing field: (1) a nuanced appreciation of scale as a means for overcoming relatively schematic accounts of the local-global relationship, (2) more detailed examination of the links between world networks and global cities as a strategy for describing both cities' embeddedness and the multi-scalar nature of globalization, (3) increased attention to the continuing relevance of the state and levels of development in analyzing global cities, and (4) efforts to describe and explain the role of historical trajectories, pathways, and path-dependence in global city formation.

Scaling the Global in Global Cities

Early approaches to the global city implicitly or explicitly adhered to a strong globalization thesis; namely, the unmediated and unilinearimpact of global forces over particular territories worldwide. The global city became as much a process as a place, and similarities between global cities were highlighted to the detriment of their specificities and differences. Many studies treated social and spatial polarization as a universal consequence of globalization and as a prominent feature of all global cities. Few scholars considered the multiplicity of interacting and changing spatial scales of globalization, and most worked under the assumption that globalization processes intertwined two clearly delineated conceptual categories—the “local” and the “global.” This framing posited the global as active and powerful and the local as passive and weak; it also omitted possible covariations with places larger than the city (or the city-region) yet smaller than the global level.

This schematic characterization of local against global has been overcome by integrating multiple spatial scales (local, regional, national) in the analysis. The new assumption is that regional and national states play a significant role in the reconfiguration of local processes, not only because they react to processes occurring at the global level but because they mobilize resources to actively link cities and nations with the global economy. The problem with the earlier local-global duality was that it confined cities to a politically irrelevant role in the face of globalization and reified spatial scales as self-contained units.

Networks and Global Cities

One approach to world cities focuses on the transnational networks in which cities are embedded and then analyzes the composition and character of these networks in a global context. This is quite compatible with the growing interest in the changing locations and economic roles that cities play in regional, national, or international hierarchies of urban places. It is also used to historically study cities embedded in colonial and imperial networks. With this approach, as much attention is paid to the transnational network itself as to the institutions or practices linking particular cities and mediating the development of the network.

A second, equally popular approach shares a concern with global networks but focuses on territorially bounded locations in these global networks. To use Manuel Castells's terminology, the concern is as much the “spaces of places” as the “spaces of flows.” Scholars who employ this perspective would argue that the globalization of capital and labor fuels the growth and economic successes of some cities (e.g., New York) while constraining others (e.g., Detroit), thereby exacerbating regional economic polarization.

A third approach is the regional approach but understood in transnational as much as intranational terms. This is a conceptual departure from the past when the notion of region referred to a spatial territory within a single nation-state. Scholars of Europe (and slightly less so East Asia) now study the urban effects of globally integrated (transnational) regionalism, perhaps because their home nations are caught up in these dynamics. Their concern is how globalization increases transnational economic integration so as to form mega-regions with their own supranational governing institutions; whether locales on the receiving end of global investments and labor flows assume greater political and economic significance; and the conditions under which globally integrated cities will bypass the nation-state and negotiate directly with each other in larger regional pacts.

These lines of research have implications for understanding the dynamics of cities as well as the global context in which they operate, if only because they underscore the ways that, in an increasingly globalized world, the nation-state or other subnational or supranational jurisdictions are challenged or remain the most politically relevant unit for mediating among cities, addressing intranational regional disparities, or coordinating new practices and institutions. Instead of having to choose between the local and the global view, the network approach posits a global entity that is continuously local, even as it builds on relational thinking.

Nation-State in the Production of Global Cities

Although the nation-state was a significant factor in the early literature on global cities, it fell to the sidelines in the initial heyday of global cities discourse, partly owing to the claims of globalization theorists that national governments had increasingly less control over flows of capital passing through their borders. Efforts to remove this blind spot are under way, even among those initially responsible for the oversight. Saskia Sassen now argues that the declining significance of the state in the global economy has been overemphasized and that it would be more accurate to say that globalization is transforming the state.

The unanswered question is whether the nation-state plays a different role in different cities/nations around the globe and whether and how time has changed that role. For example, do global cities in democratic, authoritarian, and communist societies develop similarly? How might established democracies differ from newer ones or from non-democracies? Such issues were once the source of critical debate in the third-world urban literature, and recent trends suggest they are relevant again, partly because postnational discourses are increasingly being questioned in the face of evidence that states continue to have the capacity to mold globalization processes and affect how global cities link to the world economy. Studies of the role of national financial institutions and how they implement new global rules are central in sustaining such propositions.

Despite the renewed emphasis on the state, particularly from scholars who study financial regulations and institutions, efforts to bring politics into the literature on global cities are still limited. Indeed, there is surprisingly little writing on social movements, civil society, and popular politics, especially in the advanced capitalist context. These points of entry are still more likely to be found in the general literature on economic globalization in the form of studies of antiglobalization protests. With very few exceptions, writings that focus on antiglobalization or transnational social movements have not been situated in the context of the city, and when they are, they appear as antiliberal-ization or antiglobalization movements rather than as urban movements. What remains to be studied is the extent to which globalization-fueled social movements emerge in opposition to formal urban politics or urban dynamics—global “city-ness,” as opposed to globalization itself.

Pathways and Path-Dependence in Global City Formation

A final line of research concerns pathways to global city formation and the interrelationship among path-dependence, multiscalar networks, and globalization. Much of the debate revolves around the asserted newness of globalization and whether patterns in the contemporary world build or depart from patterns of the past. Scholars who claim that globalization is a radically new process rarely examine past developments, while analysts who turn to history claim there is nothing new to current global processes. In an attempt to bridge this divide, scholars are bringing together historical macrosociology, world systems analysis, and global city research, and turning their attention to the path-dependence of current developments.

In addressing such concerns, a key point of departure is contemporary capitalism and its dynamics. So far, the hegemonic view holds that global cities concentrate most of the economic processes that are significantly changing the landscape of capitalism because certain cities are key nodes that remain centers of command and control for the main agents of global capital accumulation. This returns the field to the original claims of Saskia Sassen. Yet, it is still unclear as to whether contemporary global cities constitute a unique social formation in late capitalism because of their interactions with the global economy or whether they simply concentrate in a few critical locales the general and enduring processes that occur in many other cities.

Among those who are tackling this set of issues is British geographer Peter Taylor, director of the Globalization and World Cities (GaWC) Research Network. He acknowledges the fact that cities as international financial centers have steered the capitalist world economy for centuries; but he also builds on four overlapping and systematic accumulation cycles—globalization cycles—in the capitalist world economy, ranging from the Genoese/ Iberian cycle from the late fifteenth century through the Dutch and British cycles of the interim centuries and up to the American cycle of the late nineteenth century to the present. This leads Taylor to claim that current descriptions of recent, world economy restructuring are not unique, a proposition that is consistent with David Harvey's view of the historical transition from Fordism-Keynesianism to flexible accumulation, understood as the latest capital accumulation phase, another epoch of financial expansion, and the latest rebirth of capital. Taylor then concludes that because economic globalization has provided new outlets for capital, competitive intercity relations have given way to cooperation. The outcome is “a contemporary world city network” linked to global capitalist prosperity.

In short, the global city paradigm has evolved and matured since the 1980s. What started as an attempt to give shape to a concept and emergent field of study led to a the proliferation of new research questions and is now preoccupied with overcoming premature generalizations expressed in the initial formulations while also replacing them with more nuanced accounts of the spatial, temporal, and scalar contexts that influence the formation of global cities and urban outcomes worldwide.

Questions still remain. One is whether there is some implicit or unexplored assumption that global cities can exist only in economically vigorous nations or in those in transition to such status. This pivots on whether global cities generate national prosperity or national prosperity generates global cities. The evidence suggests, for already poor countries at least, that it might be the absence of global linkages that thwarts urban prosperity or another mediating factor independent of the linkage. There also are methodological concerns. Is it possible to pursue reliable theory building (let alone testing) about global cities if most research is focused on “like” or developed cases? How much of the shift in emphasis to the generative economic impact of the global city is owed to timing, including the fact that more scholars now are examining major cities in a post-Fordist period when the global economy itself may have transformed considerably, at least in comparison to the post-World War II period when cities were first examined in a global context?

See also

Globalization, Sassen, Saskia, Urban System, World City

Further Readings
  • Borja, J. and Castells, M. (1997). Local y global. La gestión de las ciudades en la era de la información (Local and Global: The Management of Cities in the Information Era). Madrid: Taurus.
  • Davis, Diane E. “Cities in a Global Context: A Brief Intellectual History.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29 ((1)) : 92-109., 2005.
  • King, A. (1990). Global Cities: Post-imperialism and the Internationalization of London. New York: Routledge.
  • Lo, F.-C. and Yeung, Y. (1998). Globalization and the World of Large Cities. New York: UN University Press.
  • Sassen, S. (2002). The Global City: New York, London, and Tokyo , Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Scott, A. J., ed. (2002). Global City-Regions: Trends, Theory, Policy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Short, J. R. and Kim, Y.-H. (1999). Globalization and the City. Harlow, UK: Longman.
  • Taylor, P. J. (2004). World City Network: A Global Urban Analysis. New York: Routledge.
  • Davis, Diane
    Santamaría, Gerardo del Cerro
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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