Global cities exist. Like globalization itself, they’re new but real. And like globalization, they’re both enriching and impoverishing, good for those who know how to navigate these global waters, bad for those left in their wake.
What should we think about global cities? How does a city achieve this rank, and how big a price must it pay to join? How can they be shaped to benefit all the people who live within them? Do they compete or collaborate with other global cities? Are they still part of their nations, or do they have interests that national governments can’t meet? In short, is it time for global cities to have their own foreign policies?
Like global cities, these questions are new. Most of them don’t have answers, yet. The process of coming to terms with global cities is just beginning.
That process will take a big step forward this week with the inaugural Chicago Forum on Global Cities, three days of debate and discussion that should establish Chicago and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which has organized this with the Financial Times, as the center for thought and research on these cities.
It’s a gap that needs filling. There’s no shortage of studies on globalization these days: every economist and politician wrestles daily with its impact. And any number of organizations–the Brookings Institute and UN Habitat among them–are doing fine work on cities.
But it’s rare that the two–globalization and cities–are brought together into a study of global cities. Saskia Sassen wrote the seminal book–The Global City–on this in 1991 and, from her perch at Columbia University, is still the most original and insightful of global thinkers. (She will be at the Forum this week). In England, scholars based at the Global and World Cities program at Loughborough University have done the most organized scholarly work since 1998.
And that’s about it. It’s not enough. Globalization and cities are interacting in ways that transform both. This transformation has to become part of the public debate.
Mayors must understand the impact of globalization to grasp both the benefits it brings–foreign investment, the export of services and ideas, the upsides of immigration–and the problems–the sheer expense, the inequalities, the downsides of immigration. Businesses must appreciate that their every-day decisions shape the many cities where they do business. Scholars must leave the ivory tower and apply their knowledge to the real-life problems around them. Artists must see that their work informs societies around the world and can be a crucial bridge between cities.
In other words, it’s not just academic. Cities are intensely practical places: people must be fed, potholes filled, fires fought, children taught. Cities are where this new economy defines the lives of citizens.
This is what the Forum is all about. It will gather leading scholars and practitioners from around the world, and apply their global knowledge to everyday problems. Various programs will discuss how climate change is hitting cities, how cities are educating for the knowledge economy, how global cities can be “inclusive”–how they enable all their citizens, not just the favored few, to achieve a life of economy decency.
In truth, these problems affect all cities. But they hit global citizens first and hardest: being bigger and more central, they’re where global problems come to roost. The decisions these cities reach will guide cities everywhere. If globalization and global cities can’t co-exist, then modern society is in for a very rough ride.
Traditionally, cities look to their national governments to solve these problems. But these governments, overwhelmed and gridlocked, haven’t been much help in dealing with issues such as immigration, inequality, and climate change. Increasingly, global cities find they‘re on their own.
Or maybe not. Perhaps the solutions and powers they need reside not in national capitals but in other global cities on the other side of the world. Inequality wrenches Shanghai, London, and Chicago pretty much equally. Beijing and Los Angeles have their own, and related, water crises. Terrorists strike cities–think 9/11 or Charlie Hebdo–more than nations.
Should global cities have their own foreign policies? Should these cities, despairing of dysfunctional national governments, work together instead, swapping information and using their own considerable powers to meet the challenges of a globalizing society?
There’s no global government, and there isn’t going to be. But global cities can shape a sort of global governance more pertinent in this post-national world to the real problems they face.
This is on the Chicago Forum agenda, too–a closing panel on the foreign policy of cities. Even in the evolving world of global cities, this is news. Like thinking on global cities, the possibility that cities might have their own foreign policy is an evolving notion.
No one knows where this going, but The Chicago Council is along for the ride and, in one sense, is in the driver’s seat.
My new book , On Global Cities, has just been published by The Chicago Council in connection with the Forum. It’s available as an eBook from Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.