Global Cities: Our Best Hope for a Sustainable Future

by | Jan 2, 2014

lawrence, gary, aecomEach of you has likely been involved in a meeting with the following characteristics:

–      Discussion takes place using common “terms of art” such as “global cities.”

–      Conclusions are reached and each person leaves the room knowing what was decided about actions to be taken and their roles and responsibilities.

–      A week or so later, a number of the meeting’s participants are feeling angry or betrayed because while the “term of art” was agreed to for many, the meaning was subtly or substantively different.

In my varied career roles, I’ve been involved in a number of meetings about global cities. In each meeting, it is assumed that everybody shares a common understanding of what a global city is. No meeting has ever begun with the question, “What is a global city?”

As is the case with many things regarding sustainability, the more I examine the term, the less certain I feel I understand the fundamental truth of it all.

The term “global city” is peppered throughout reports and articles, discussed on the evening news and bandied across the board room table as a sort of prerequisite for any discussion involving trade.  Numerous studies have defined such places on a variety of scales — population, economic transactions, points of intersection in a globalizing society, centers that influence global culture and many other characteristics.  But a global city is not simply a very large city with an aggregation of attributes somewhere in the world.  It is, in fact, what my teenage nephew would call “a thing.”  What my nephew does not realize is that he is grasping the essential idea of transcendence that lies behind the term.  A global city transcends its characteristics — its physical and financial artifacts — to become a key node in the network of global humanity.

A population of over 1 million is an entry-level criterion for consideration. But beyond that, the definition of a global city has more to do with influence and meaning than size.

In the 2012 Global Cities Index developed by A.T. Kearney and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, New York, London, Paris and Tokyo topped the list. The data used analyzes everything from business activity, human capital, and information exchange to cultural experience and political engagement. Indicators include the number of Fortune Global 500 company headquarters; the flow of goods through ports and airports; and tallies of the numbers of embassies, think tanks, political organizations and museums.

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