June 4, 2008

On Global Cities

The following appeared in ShanghaiDaily.com. Read the article first; I have some comments down below.

Is there anything negative about a global city?

Sassen: Global cities are two-edged swords. They bring economic dynamics - and that means jobs, life on the streets at night, vibrant restaurants, and so on.

But they do create 20 percent of the population which is extremely prosperous and a risk that they will take over key areas of the city with luxury office buildings, luxury housing and consumption spaces. This displaces smaller shopkeepers, the old modest middle classes. They lose.

My research suggests that ultimately cities are better off being dynamic (and hence global cities) but they do need political and civic leadership to balance out the extreme outcomes that markets left to themselves can produce.

European cities are much better than US cities. New York, the ultimate market town, has the highest share of very rich people and very powerful firms in the US and the highest share (over 20 percent) of officially counted poor ... and, according to the most recent count, over 100,000 homeless. That shows something about matters left to markets.

Will a global city lose its historic identity?

There is a tendency for cities to lose their historical identities and cultural traditions as economic forces push them to become more important centers in the global arena.

Cities like Mumbai and Dubai are doing what Shanghai is doing. They are all in the same race, running in the same direction, and trying to get to the same destination.

In doing so, these cities tend to lose their distinctive features and identities as they tear down traditional neighborhoods to build modern skyscrapers.

Shanghai has already gone far down this road. But global cities don't have to lose their historical and cultural identities.

In fact, some of Shanghai's traditional features are resilient enough to survive and even thrive in the face of penetrating global economic and cultural forces.

Some of the research I and a Fudan University collaborator have done has demonstrated a mixed local consumer lifestyle that reflects an interesting blend of being conscious of global brands and traditional motives. This will be shown in my work ''Shanghai Rising'' which will be published in Spring 2009.

Saskia Sassen is the Lynd Professor of Sociology and member of The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University. Chen Xiangming is director of the Center for Urban and Global Studies and professor of Sociology and International Studies at Trinity College, Connecticut.

For most of my life I've lived in large cities (Phoenix, Arizona; Busan, South Korea, and Singapore) although, of the three, I think only Singapore classifies as a "global city." Both Phoenix and Busan try hard to be global cities, but neither succeeds, IMO, especially when compared to their larger neighbors, Los Angeles and Seoul, respectively.

Given the trade-off between vibrancy vs. pollution, I'd go with vibrancy any day. A town or city that cannot provide for its inhabitants economically is not worth living in. Pollution
can be a problem, although, ironically, the cities I've lived in didn't have pollution problems so much of their own making, but due to either natural causes or from someone else's making (the winter temperature inversion in Phoenix and the "yellow dust" in Busan, blown in from the Gobi desert; the "haze" in Singapore that blows in from the Sumatran forest fires, where the Indonesians continue to practice slash-and-burn farming; likewise, in Hong Kong, the air pollution that blows in from the Chinese factories in the Pearl River delta).

The problem of the homeless seems to be more of a problem due to high costs of living. Granted, I haven't been to a whole lot of countries, but those countries that I've been to with the worst homeless problems were Japan and the US, both of which have very high costs of living. In Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, where the costs of living are lower, homelessness isn't much of a problem. When Dr. Sassen said, "That shows something about matters left to markets," from my own observations, the problem of homelessness is primarily due to the markets. The markets have priced people out of homes. People aren't able to cope with the high demands made on them
by the markets, and they fall by the wayside. Those who think that the markets are the end all and be all, the panacea for every economic problem a society faces, are naive.

As for losing historic identities, I don't think this is much of a problem if local governments keep on top of the issue. Archaeology magazine had a recent article about how people in Beijing have been working to save the residential neighborhoods known as
hutongs ("alleyways" flanked by courtyard houses). However, in my three cities, maintaining historic identities hasn't been a problem. The business districts weren't expanding to the point where they threatened older neighborhoods (as in the case of Beijing). However, I do think communities need to balance between creating the best business, industrial and residential facilities available, preserving one's past as best one can, and maintaining the heartlands (as we call the residential neighborhoods here in S'pore) so that all can live affordably.

HT: Economist's View

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