Urban America: U.S. Cities in the Global Era

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

This article considers the impact of globalization on American cities and how they will function and rank in a globalized economy. It argues that almost all American cities grew from an original economic raison d’ être, greatly impacted by the industrial era. The end of that era and the arrival of a new economy affect their utility, for better or worse. Secondly, most American cities are place-based, to take advantage of nearby raw materials and to serve trading routes and surrounding communities. Global cities will, by necessity, need to sever these geographical ties and find new places in a global Hanseatic League, less tied to their rural environs. American cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and, to a lesser extent, cities such as Boston, Houston and Atlanta are moving in this direction. A second category of regional capitals will remain more local than global, serving hinterlands, usually states: such cities include Indianapolis, Columbus, Portland, and the like. A third category includes once-powerful industrial cities such as Detroit or Cleveland who lack global connections but are not regional capitals either. Their future is problematic. A final section describes what these cities must do to cope in the future. The emphasis here is on global cities, which must find new ways to finance themselves as their old ties to state governments wither.

 The following is a condensed excerpt from the Journal of International Affairs spring/summer 2012 issue, “The Future of the City.”

“Put the city up; tear the city down;
 put it up again. Let us find a city.”
– Carl Sandburg[1]
This much we know for sure: cities are the future. Much was made of the recent demographic tipping point, when for the first time in history, cities and their suburbs accounted for more than half of humanity.[2] Cities are big and getting bigger. In the 21st century, cities will be where the action is, where business is done, where ideas and innovations spring up, where arts and sciences proliferate. For better or worse, our future is urban.[3]
But how exactly our urban future will take shape remains an open question. Clearly not all cities will grow equally. Which cities will grow and which will shrink, and why? Will urban patterns in the United States resemble those in Europe or, for that matter, in Asia and Africa? Will most cities remain as they have been in the past, centers of a limited geographic area, dependent on their physical environment? Or will globalization create a new class of cities, a sort of global Hanseatic League, increasingly divorced from their hinterlands, which may wither without them?[4]
What may be evolving is a new urban-rural divide between wealthy cities enrolled in this new global hierarchy, and the impoverished rest, mired in the lowlands of a supposedly flat world. If cities aspire to this new global eminence, they will need the services and amenities to provide for global citizens who, increasingly, can live anywhere.[5] But how will cities pay for these services and amenities? This may be the biggest question of all.
These questions apply to all cities, from London to Lagos to Los Angeles to Lahore. But globalization affects each of these places in different ways, and will assign each of them different roles—just as the old industrial era in the United States assigned different roles for Boston, Pittsburgh and Omaha, which developed in the same era but evolved very differently. Chongqing—booming, thrusting, raw, ambitious—calls itself the Chicago of China.[6] But the Chicago it resembles is the lusty industrial Chicago of the late 19th century, not the relatively sedate business center of the early 21st century, which has ceded industrial prominence to the Chongqings of the world to establish a new post-industrial niche in the global economy.[7]
As one urban size does not fit all, any attempt to squeeze New York and Nairobi into one grand theory is flawed from the start. Let us focus then on the futures of American cities, a more modest task made easier by the fact that those futures are already happening.
Almost all American cities, like cities throughout history, came into being to serve some economic purpose. Invariably, that purpose was place-bound. A port, a mine, or a river provided the raison d’ être for many cities.[8] Steel mills took root near raw materials. Auto plants grew up near steel mills. Stockyards depended on fields of grain to feed their livestock and on railroads to ship them. Oil cities relied on nearby oil fields, and trading posts had to lie astride trade routes. The economic needs that created cities in turn created jobs. People flocked to them, and where industries were lasting, the workers stayed to build places to live. In some cases these settlements produced small towns comprised of just a few houses, stores, a school and a church to serve local farmers or miners. In other cases, these economic epicenters spawned great cities, civilizations that grew to a million people or more, with museums, symphonies and universities, but all dependent on that original economic raison d’ être: the port, the steel industry, or the auto plants.[9]
Thus grew Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, Miami, Houston, San Francisco and Boston.[10] Not all great cities grew near water—Atlanta and Denver are certainly land-locked—but most lie on oceans, rivers or the Great Lakes, because trade traveled on water before it took to the rails and air. For all of these major urban centers, a place-based economic role brought them into being and defined their identity.[11]
But when the economic opportunities move elsewhere, how can these cities sustain themselves as civilizations? This is the question facing many American cities today. Born and reared in the industrial era, they find themselves cast adrift in the global era, forced to reinvent themselves or wither. Increasingly, modern global cities exist in the context of global networks overseeing vast supply chains, far-flung human resources and borderless capital flows. The old assets—iron, coal, water, oil—no longer justify their existence. The future of these cities depends on their ability to attract the creative and innovative people capable of succeeding in a 21st century knowledge economy.[12]
American cities, now and in the future, can be sorted into three categories: global cities, regional capitals and the rest. Global cities are the handful of metropolises that are intimately linked to the global economy and help guide that economy. Regional capitals are healthy cities, magnets for their immediate heartland, but weakly linked to the global economy. The rest are mostly the losers, neither healthy nor global, caught in a downward spiral that may be terminal.
Read the rest of this article in the Journal of International Affairs spring/summer 2012 issue, “The Future of the City,”also available for Kindle.

[1] Carl Sandburg, “The Windy City,” Slabs of the Sunburnt West (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1922).
[2] UN Population Fund, “2009 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects,” UNFPA news release, 25 March 2010, http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Documents/WUP2009_Press-Release_Final_Rev1.pdf.
[3] UNFPA, “Urbanization: A Majority in Cities,” May 2007, http://www.unfpa.org/pds/urbanization.htm.
[4] The Hanseatic League was founded by German merchants in the 13th century to protect their trading rights and goods. The League controlled much of Northern Europe’s international commercial activity into the 15th century. See Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, "Hanseatic League," accessed 1 February 2012, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/254543/Hanseatic-League.
[5] Richard C. Longworth, Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2008), 12­–13.
[6] See, for example, James Kynge, China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future—and the Challenge for America (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2007), 25.
[7] Longworth, Caught in the Middle; The University of Chicago Library, “Chicago in the 1890s,” 4 June 2010, http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/su/maps/chi1890/.
[8] Longworth, Caught in the Middle, 156–57.
[9] Longworth, Caught in the Middle.
[10] Though San Francisco’s rise was place-based, the Gold Rush, which initiated a population boom and an influx of migrants, made its urbanization trajectory unique. “The excitement and enthusiasm of Gold Washing still continues—increases,”California Star, 10 June 1848, http://www.sfmuseum.net/hist6/star.html.
[11] Longworth, Caught in the Middle, 156­–57.
[12] Adam Davidson, “Small Cities Feed the Knowledge Economy,” Wired magazine, 31 May 2011, http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/05/ff_jobsblockbyblock/; World Bank, “The Four Pillars of the Knowledge Economy,” accessed 6 February 2012, http://go.worldbank.org/5WOSIRFA70.