Size is not the Answer: The Changing Face of the Global City

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Civil Service College of Singapore

This is an exerpt from a new report published by Civil Service College of Singapore, authored by Joel Kotkin with contributions from Wendell Cox, Ali Modarres, and Aaron M. Renn.
Download the full report.

As the world urbanises and more megacities are created, some smaller, focused urban regions are becoming truly critical global hubs, unlike most larger cities, which are simply tied to their national economies. In a new ranking of global cities, CSC Senior Visiting Fellow Joel Kotkin argues that the truly global city is one that is uniquely situated to navigate the global transition to an information-based economy since the influence of industries such as media, culture or technology are the ones that will determine economic power in future. Kotkin also examines the fundamental challenge faced by cities as they achieve global status: the need to balance two identities, a global and a local one. "The world beckons, and must be accommodated, but a city must be more than a fancy theme park, or a collection of elite headquarters and expensive residential towers", he asserts.

In this urban age, much has been written and discussed about global cities.1 Yet, as the world urbanises and with more megacities (with populations of ten million or more) created, there is a growing need to re-evaluate which are truly significant global players and which are simply large places that are more tied to their national economies than critical global hubs. Similarly, it becomes more critical to consider the unique challenges faced by cities as they achieve world-wide status.

The term “world city” has been in use since the time of Patrick Geddes in 1915. In 1966, Peter Hall published his seminal work “The World Cities”. Hall’s world cities were all predominant cities in existing key nation-states. Later, the concept of “global cities”, based largely on concentrations of business service firms, emerged as the primary terminology describing such international centres.

Be it “world” or “global” cities, such cities have long based their pre-eminence on things such as cultural power, housing the world’s great universities, research laboratories, financial institutions, corporate headquarters, and existence of vast empires and their extended legacy. They also disproportionately attracted the rich, and served as centres of luxury shopping, dining, and entertainment. These world cities have exercised outsized global influence in a system dominated by nation-states.2

As a result, the discussion of global cities has focused primarily on megacities such as New York, Paris, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. This is not surprising, since the population of the world’s largest city has grown nearly six-fold since 1900 (London, in 1900, compared to Tokyo, in 2014). Smaller cities, such as Dubai, Houston, or the San Francisco Bay Area, have not been ranked as highly as they may have deserved.

Rethinking the Urban Hierarchy

We believe the traditional approach has underestimated the overarching importance of a region’s role in technology, media or its dominance over a key global industry.

This new appraisal also stems from the declining power of nation-states in a globalised economy. In 1900, the capitals of empire—London, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin and St. Petersburg—were also the largest cities, the predominant centres of world trade and the exchange of ideas. The exception was non-government anomaly, New York, which has remained North America’s premier city; in contrast, at least until recently, Washington was a relatively minor city.

Today, we are in a period like that of the Renaissance and early modern Europe, where global activity gravitates towards small, more trade-oriented cities, for example, Tyre, early Carthage, Athens, Venice, Antwerp, and Amsterdam and the cities of the Hanseatic League (each home to less than 175,000 people). These cities, for which trade was a necessity, were tiny compared not only to Constantinople (700,000 people), but also London and Paris (more than twice as the trading cities). Similarly, the early trade hubs of Asia were often not larger imperial capitals—such as Kaifeng and later Beijing in China— but smaller cities such as Cambay (India), Melaka (Malaysia) and Zaitun (now Quanzhou in China).

We are seeing smaller, focused urban regions that are achieving more than most larger cities. Compared to many of their larger counterparts, new and dynamic global cities, such as Singapore, Dubai, Houston and the San Francisco Bay Area, have become more influential in the world economy, as measured by critical factors like technology, media, culture, diversity, transportation access and degree of economic integration in the world economy. This “archipelago of technologically high developed city regions”, notes urban geographer Paul Knox, are replacing nation-states as emerging avenues of economic power and influence.

These new global hubs thrive not primarily due to their size, but as a result of their greater efficiencies. This can be seen in the location of foreign subsidiaries. For example, compared to Tokyo, Singapore now has more than twice as many regional headquarters; Singapore and Hong Kong also perform far better in this respect than Asia’s numerous, much larger but less affluent megacities. Global hubs are helped by their facility with English—the world’s primary language of finance, culture, and, most critically, technology. English dominates the global economic system from New York and London to Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai. This linguistic, digital and cultural2 congruence poses concerns for major competing cities, including those Russia and mainland China.

Download the full report.