At the Chicago Forum on Global Cities: The future of global cities must contend with their past

As figures from politics, business and civil society gather for the annual Forum on Global Cities this week, Simon Curtis reflects upon how those discussions must be informed by a solid understanding of the historical emergence and unique characteristics of global cities.

A host of leading figures from politics, business and civil society will gather at the third annual Chicago Forum on Global Cities between June 7-9. The discussions will focus on the central role that major cities will be taking in the political, economic and social life of the twenty-first century.

It is increasingly recognized that global cities have the power and potential to play critical roles in many of the global challenges facing societies in the coming decades; challenges such as climate change and sustainability, inequality and poverty, food production and security. Many of the leaders attending the forum have been, or are, involved in the practical challenges of trying to shape urban life in ways that tackle these challenges.

Many of the discussions will focus upon pressing practical issues and possible future trajectories for contemporary cities. The Chicago Forum is playing an important role in catalyzing debates and focusing agendas. The event is not intended to be a mere talking shop. The Chicago Council is developing a 10 year programme of research into the critical challenges facing global cities.

But one thing that is often lacking from these debates is an appreciation of the historical drivers that led to the development of global cities.

It is important that decision makers across disciplines understand the historical context in which this form of city – the ‘global city’ – emerged if they are to situate their policies effectively. For it is perhaps underappreciated that the global city is a distinctive urban form, possessing different characteristics to cities of the past. It is critical to understand the historical drivers that produced global cities in order to understand their contemporary power and potential. It is also essential to an understanding of the limitations and intractable problems of global cities.

Having an appreciation of the nature of global cities, and the historical forces that shaped them, is necessary for those engaged in the practical politics and economics of shaping their future.

To give an example of the novelty of global cities, and, indeed, the unexpectedness of their appearance, we do not need to travel back very far into history to confront enormous pessimism about the future of the city – a contrast to the optimism and hope that attends the global cities discourse today. In the 1970s and 1980s, two of the world’s paradigmatic global cities, New York and London, faced seemingly intractable crisis and unrest. Flight to the suburbs, inner-city crime, and a dwindling tax base seemed perennial problems. New York City went bankrupt in 1975. Margaret Thatcher went so far as to abolish the Greater London Council in 1985.

And yet, in the intervening decades, the fortunes of these cities have been transformed, their decline reversed, as people and wealth have been drawn back into them on an unprecedented scale. And this reinvigoration and growth of the city has been a global phenomenon: over the past four decades cities around the world have been swelled by waves of migration to sizes unprecedented in the historical record. Many crumbling post-industrial cities in the developed world have been transformed into glittering global economic hubs, their skylines peppered with starchitecture. And the same logics

have also worked to generate global cities in the global south; in Shanghai, Johannesburg and Dubai, for example.

How do we explain this urban renaissance? The most obvious starting place (and one that many scholars have probed deeply) is that global cities are a product of the political project of globalization, even as they become its driving force. The restructuring of the world economic architecture in the 1970s, in response to the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, altered the environment in which cities operated. Cities became basing points for flows of global capital, and were themselves restructured to be more competitive in the global economy. The natural agglomeration economies that cities foster were supercharged by exposure to the forces of an emerging global market society. The global city is, then, in large part, a consequence of the unleashing of a more fully global capitalism.

Another critical aspect of these developments has been the recalibration of the relationship between the city and the state: cities have been, to some extent, freed from the constraints of the national territory to link together with other cities across state borders, in an increasing number and variety of political and economic networks. This is a profound shift in the nature of political order that we have yet to fully understand.

But functionalist economic arguments, though critical to any explanation of the global city phenomenon, do not probe the origins of global cities deeply enough. A number of other key drivers of global city formation are at play: the historical configuration of geopolitical power, an ongoing crisis of statist political ideology, and the development of new technologies. These drivers interacted contingently to produce the global cities we see today.

Global cities have become an integral element of a decentralized, self-organizing market society underpinned by US power at the international level to revitalize and expand global capitalism. A preponderance of geopolitical power enabled the United States to lead its allies in restructuring the institutions and architecture of the world market in the 1970s in ways that reflected its own political philosophy. It was this political act that created the environment in which global cities would expand.

A further critically important long-term political driver was the crisis of statist forms of political economy: forms of political life in which states have substantial centralized control over political and economic activities. The failures of “statism” in the twentieth-century – exhibited in the catastrophic performance of the Soviet Union, but also in the inability of the Keynesian Welfare State to sustain itself – helped to usher in the dominance of neoliberalism. This is a political philosophy that encourages a shift away from the state as the central coordinator of political and economic life, towards more devolution, decentralization and autonomy for other actors. With this shift, cities regained some of the historical autonomy that they lost during the rise of the nation state.

These political and economic trends also interacted with the development of digital information communications technology. Without this revolution in communication, the scope and scale of the global market could not have reached the levels it has over the past few decades. Global cities house the most advanced technological infrastructures on the planet. They are the critical nodes in a transnational socio-technical system of financial innovation and exchange.

The global city is, then, ultimately a contingent phenomenon: a product of the historical confluence of power, ideas, social practices, and technologies. The need to restructure

the failing global economic architecture of the third-quarter of the twentieth-century was central. But the interaction of this need with both US geopolitical power to shape international institutions, and with an emerging technological paradigm based on digital networks, also helped to give global cities their historically distinctive forms.

If we understand these features of the origins of global cities, then a number of implications flow from them for how we understand the potentials, possibilities, and limits of contemporary cities. For the path of historical development locks in certain trajectories, and closes off others. If the global city is a product of a new form of global capitalism, then to what extent is it shaped primarily by capitalist logics? Global cities tend to exhibit high levels of socio-economic polarization and inequality. Do we need to tame the forces of the market in order to create more just and sustainable global cities? Can this be done within the framework that has produced these global cities?

And can the technologies that have underpinned global city formation be applied to solutions for global challenges such as climate change? Already networks of global cities, such as the C40 Climate Leadership Initiative, are using the new capabilities that digital information technologies are providing them, as well as their greater autonomy from the state, to come together across borders. Promising developments coalesce around the marrying of new technologies with urban management. There is a growing emphasis on developing Smart Cities – the application of a combination of information communications technologies and ‘big data’ to urban management. These technologies promise an enhanced understanding of the patterns of urban life drawn by vast populations. Such developments signal a future in which greater control can be exercised over urban processes. Because the technologies involved draw upon logics of decentralization, dispersal, and bottom-up dynamics, they point away from the older model of statist top-down hierarchical control. In this sense, they fit nicely with the forms of networked authority that cities have always embodied.

Finally, we need to recognize that the global city is ultimately a disruptive phenomenon. It is disruptive to forms of political order based on the centrality of the nation-state that have characterized much of recent history. Global cities represent a renegotiation of the relationship between the city and the state. But how will this renegotiation play out? How will governance responsibilities and political authority be negotiated in the future? How much autonomy will cities be allowed? Will states begin to see emerging city authority and legitimacy in global challenges as a threat to their own sovereignty? Many global cities continue to be limited by the fetters of state policy – unable, for example, to fully utilize their own tax base. And beyond the question of the city-state relationship, there is now the question of the place of private actors, such as large corporations, in emerging governance structures. What role should private authority and profit play in shaping global cities? Who should drive policy, and towards what ends?

This is a conversation that is just beginning. Many of the discussions at this year’s Chicago Forum on Global Cities moved it forward in interesting ways. But in considering the possible futures open to global cities, decision makers must be guided by an understanding of how the past has shaped both the forms and potentialities of global cities.

Simon Curtis is a lecturer in international relations at the University of East, and a nonresident senior fellow on global cities at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. His latest book, Global Cities and Global Order, is published by the Oxford University Press.

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