An article exploring a curious animal – the megacity – and ways in which cities offer solutions to future challenges they themselves created.
Skyscrapers, concrete, steel, smog, sewage, slums, traffic jams, crime, exclusion, broadband, wi-fi, gentrification, commuting, expats, fast-food, bio-markets, land-use planning, alienation, citizenship, identity. Sounds familiar? I am talking about complex interactions between convergent transnational social, economic and cultural networks. In a nutshell, global cities.
“In 2007 for the first time in history 50 percent of people on Earth are living in cities.” This was the huge graphic announcing the 2007 exhibition on Global Cities in London’s incredibly chick post-industrial turbines of Tate Modern. That figure is expected to grow to 70 percent by 2050. When I first read about the Future Challenges project, the first concept that came into my mind was my own living space. I’ve lived my life so far in places which the Globalization and World Cities Study Group and Network (GaWC) roster mysteriously names Beta World City +, Beta World City and even Alpha World City ++.
All this jargon stands for various indices policy makers and urban planners have come up within the last couple of years to help them grasp the fluid reality of surrounding global cities. Some believe the first to coin the term “global city” was sociologist Saskia Sassen – herself living and teaching in New York City, considered the world’s most prominent global metropolis. Back in 1991, in her book “The Global City” she was writing on how the globalization of economic activity – a reality which has shaped our lives in unprecedented ways – has left an empty room in terms of spatiality (both physical and conceptual). The global city then emerged as this perfect fit for the new conceptual architecture of economic globalization.
There are various parameters which define the so-called global character of a city. Almost simultaneously, numerous organizations compete for coining even more refined global cities indices. One such classification is done by the Globalization and World Cities Study Group and Network (GaWC). Another one is authored by the American journal “Foreign Policy”, in cooperation with consulting firm A.T. Kearney and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, taking into account performance in five key areas (business activity, human capital, information exchange, cultural experience and political engagement). The World City Survey published by real estate and consulting firm Knight Frank LLP assesses four parameters — economic activity, political power, knowledge and influence and quality of life. Needless to say, mayors, locals and businesses alike compete for climbing up the ladder in these more or less questionable international rankings.
What do all these so-called “global cities” have in common? Professor Benjamin Barber, author of the international bestseller “Jihad versus McWorld” was making some opening remarks about this at an evening panel dedicated to “Cities and Global Governance” hosted by the Berlin-based public policy institution Hertie School of Governance. According to Barber, a cab driver in Delhi might have more in common with a student in London than the student in London has in common with the grocery store owner in Brighton. Citizens of New York, London, Delhi, Cape Town, Paris, Singapore, Tokyo, Madrid, Brussels, Mumbai… they share more in common with each other when it comes to basic aspects of their daily lives and well being, despite enormous geographical distances between them, than they do with their co-nationals located just few miles away from their living room.
Like it or not, these similarities between global cities are future challenges, but also windows of opportunities for improved living.
Think of migration. Cities like Mumbai experience 42 people moving into the city per hour (Source: Future Agenda). Urbanization has shaped migration patterns all over the world and much of the infrastructure crisis of global cities – after all, where do you house 42 newcomers per second and how do you provide them with basic infrastructure facilities? – is due to large inflows of migrants. Migration in turn has led to the creation of a so-called urban underclass – located both in New York project houses and in Delhi slums. Poor sanitation, poor health conditions and social exclusion are direct consequences of this migration process. At the same time, under conditions of economic globalization (transnational corporations and their localization have been key drivers in the birth of global cities), ensuring jobs for all those hundreds and thousands of migrants is a real challenge. However, which global city in the world doesn’t need its trash collectors, its drivers, its mechanics and its plumbers?
Increasing pressure on infrastructure translates itself into a new global challenge which can be seen best in the global cities of the world, namely ensuring environmental sustainability. Urban transport, electricity, sewers and water systems need to be addressed in an environmentally responsible way. Cities contribute more than two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions (Source: Clinton Foundation). The positive news is that solutions come from cities themselves. Building retrofitting, smart waste management, energy efficiency initiatives in outdoor lightning and district heating – they are all pathways through which global cities can claim their fair share in the fight against climate change. Positive examples come from global city “grassroots” levels. For instance, new regulations in buildings have increased carbon savings from new developments in London from an average of 29 percent in 2006 to 34 percent in 2009 above basic building regulations (Source: Energy Efficiency News). To date, Congestion Charging in central London has cut traffic levels by 22 percent, cycling has increased by 83 percent and bus use has risen by 40 percent (Source: Whatgreencar.com) – emissions have subsequently decreased.
Are global cities governance structures though properly equipped to address these future challenges? It would seem that global city governance is a challenge in and by itself. Professor Allen Scott, proponent of the concept “global city-region”, argues that ever better consolidated urban regions are the motor of economic development, leading to an „accelerated debordering of national-space economies”. This in turn leads to an erosion of traditional national sovereignty – the customary framework for contemporary governance. Thus, new forms of political organization and regulatory experimentation on the subnational scale of urban regions are already being discovered and need to be explored further. Climate change is an area where experimentation and partnership building are occuring as we speak. In the June climate change international preparatory discussions in Bonn, regional government leaders have already warned that regional governments will work together with businesses to deploy low-carbon technologies even in the absence of a global pact on cutting greenhouse gas emissions (Source: Euractiv.com). On 10 February 2009, over 350 European cities committed to becoming frontrunners in the EU’s fight against climate change by signing the Covenant of Mayors, pledging to exceed the Union’s climate targets for 2020 (Source: Euractiv.com). And the story goes on… Bottom line is that a governance gap does exist in global city governance, yet informal alliances and partnerships are being forged by cities themselves to address existing challenges and fill in the gaps. Which is an optimism-generating development.
All in all, global cities seem to raise up the challenge of their Greek-named indices (Alpha, Betta, Gamma, Omega, etc.). They are the source of numerous global challenges. Yet, they might as well be the only origin of potential solutions. Are global cities the Alpha and Omega of future global challenges? Presumably so…