On Global Cities

September 16th, 2015

By Richard C. Longworth, Distinguished Fellow, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Global cities run the world. Their banks and markets finance the global economy. Their corporate headquarters and global business services GlobalCitiesThumbwebsitemake the decisions that shape that economy. Their universities train the global citizens of the future, while their researchers imagine that future. Global communications radiate from global cities. These cities have the finest orchestras and museums, the best restaurants, the latest fads. Global culture throbs to the magnetic beat of global cities.

In short, global cities are where the action is.

It’s not a flat world out there. Rather, it’s a world of peaks and valleys. Global citizens stand on the peaks, talking with each other over the heads of everyone else below, in the rural hinterlands and post-industrial backwaters which the global economy has left behind. These peaks are called New York, Tokyo, London. They are the global cities.

If global cities monopolize global power, they also struggle disproportionately with the pathologies of a new economy. These pathologies—inequality, terrorism, pollution, climate change, traffic in drugs and human beings, the stresses of immigration — are felt first and hardest in global cities. Like giant magnets, these cities draw the best and the worst and stir them into an urban mix unprecedented in its complexity.

To understand the 21st century, we must understand global cities. If we live in a city that aspires to become or remain a global city, we must grasp what makes these cities global and what makes them different — who lives in them, how they live, how they nurture their own citizens and relate to other global cities. If the true measure of an economy is the well-being of the people who live within it, the evolution of global cities is the key issue of our time.

GlobalCitiesVideoThe global economy created global cities, and any discussion of a global city must focus on where that city fits into the global economy. But there is more to a city than its economy. A city and its global status rest on four pillars — economic, political, educational and cultural. Its commercial power and reach establish its global reputation. Its political and societal structure — city government, of course, but also its communities, its people, its think tanks, foundations, and other non-governmental players — decide how the city engages with the world. Its schools and universities enable the city to join the intellectual conversation that is shaping the century. The vigor of its culture not only defines the city for its citizens, but draws in the kind of creative and educated global citizens who can choose to live anywhere in the world.

This report will try to deal with these issues, drawing on the latest scholarship into global cities. It is necessarily a snapshot. Global cities are still evolving. The leaders of today’s global cities will shape that evolution.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is grateful to the Robert R. McCormick Foundation for its generous support of the Global Cities project.

This article was originally published on The Chicago Council on Global Affairs website, May 21, 2015 and has been reproduced  here with permission. 

Richard C. Longworth is a Distinguished Fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is an American author and journalist. He is the writer of Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, on the impact of globalization on the American Midwest.


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