Cities and Globalization

Cities and Globalization

My daily commute takes me from one edge of New York City to another edge. While sitting in traffic, it’s hard not to think about urban sprawl, congestion pricing, and so on. But, as recent news reports and scholarship have re-emphasized, the evolution of cities should be thought of not only as a purely local matter, but rather one that is intertwined with transnational issues.

Popular discussions on urbanization often focus the urban sprawl of lesser developed countries, the growth of slums, and how disaffected urban poor lead to social instability and political violence. (See, however, this recent World Bank study arguing that the ratio of urban to rural poor has been overestimated and that urbanization may actually help decrease poverty.) However, besides the growth of sprawl, as a recent issue of Forbes magazine has highlighted (hat tip: Futurismic), another problem in need of attention is the withering away of cities into “ghost cities.” Forbes explains:

It’s hard to predict, of course, but factors as diverse as climate change and aging populations mean that even as the global urban population continues to grow, some cities are shrinking. It’s not just small towns, although in wealthy nations, small communities may face the most extreme effects. In Japan, many rural hamlets, left with only a few elderly residents, are in danger of total disappearance. In the U.S., towns in Kansas and the Dakotas face extinction mainly because of an exodus of young people. Some Kansas towns are fighting back by giving away free land, with mixed results.

But some bigger centers also face the risk of annihilation. Urban planners across Europe and North America are already grappling with what to do with “shrinking cities.” After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, millions of residents of what had been East Germany moved west. More than a million apartments were simply abandoned.

In response, the German government sponsored the Shrinking Cities Project to study what is now a global phenomenon. The project has an exhibit on tour that examines shrinkage in Russia’s Ivanovo, Leipzig in Germany, Manchester and Liverpool in Britain and Detroit in the U.S.

The twin stresses of the growth of mega-cities and the evaporation of ghost cities are both tied to the broader policy question of how to regulate urbanization that increasingly has international implications. Certian cities are centers of regional or global finance and their health has a direct impact on international financial stability. Cities also increasingly straddle borders—consider the San Diego/Tijuana sprawl. Even when cities are not geographically close, they can be closely related. Keith Aoki of the University of Oregon made the point at a recent law and geography conference that financial elites in Wall Street may have closer ties to their counterparts on the other side of the planet in Tokyo, than with other New Yorkers in the Bronx. The virtual connection of cities—or of parts of cities—thus plays an important role in understanding the formation of transnational networks.

Moreover, local governments themselves are accessing international institutions and regimes as part of their governance strategies. David Barron and Gerald Frug of Harvard recently published a piece entitled “International Local Government Law” examining how cities act internationally and how local government law (and international law) needs to react to this development.

As the old saw goes, all politcs is local. But now we see that local politics are increasingly global.

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Peter Spiro
Peter Spiro

Chris, Interesting post. Another key academic working along these lines is the sociologist Saskia Sassen, who may have coined the term “global cities.”