Cities in Transition: Growth, Change and Governance in Six Metropolitan Areas

By Sancton, Andrew | Canadian Public Administration, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Cities in Transition: Growth, Change and Governance in Six Metropolitan Areas


Sancton, Andrew, Canadian Public Administration


Cities in Transition: Growth, Change and Governance in Six Metropolitan Areas By NIRMALA RAO. London and New York: Routledge. 2007. Pp. xi, 193, bibliographical references, index.

Cities in Transition is a fine book by an urban scholar who has written extensively about urban government in England, especially London. In her latest book, Nirmala Rao single-handedly takes on six quite distinct city-regions: London, Tokyo, Toronto, Berlin, Hyderabad, and Atlanta. Her prose is clear and readily accessible to academic and practitioner alike.

In some ways, Rao's book reminds me of H.V. Savitch and Paul Kantor's Cities in the International Marketplace (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002). Savitch and Kantor focused their attention on ten different cities in five countries. Interestingly for Canadians, Toronto is the only case common to both books. Both books share a common problem, which I will outline below. Unlike Savitch and Kantor, Rao produces no confusing three-dimensional figures in which cities are slotted into various cubes. Rao's readers must rely on the narrative and appreciate her ability to describe and analyse relatively subtle distinctions between one city and another.

Both books are concerned with linking government and politics at the local level to wider issues about the role of global cities in a global economy. In my view, neither is completely successful in establishing this link, but I will focus on Rao's for the simple reason that hers is the subject of this review.

On the first page, Rao states that "[t]his book is about how six cities are coping with ... pressures of growth and change, adapting their structures and processes and endeavouring to position themselves in the league tables of world cities." These "league tables" clearly derive from the literature on global cities, because immediately after this statement Rao uses three pages to describe the literature on the subject, complete with the expected references to concentrations of corporate headquarters and high-level financial services and to "polarising changes in labour markets." These are all very real phenomena.

The question is the extent to which they are determined by local government and politics. Rao must assume that they are, because that is what she writes about in each of her case studies. But we really learn very little, if anything at all, about what governments at any level have done, say, to maintain and enhance London's position as a centre for world banking, or to promote Toronto's position in North American banking. Nor do we learn much about the labour and immigration legislation--or its enforcement--which must surely be connected to how labour markets work.

The reason we don't read about such things is because this book is really about the traditional concerns of local government: infrastructure and land-use planning and the creation of institutions to make policy for these matters over the wider territory of the city-region. Of course, financial institutions need locations for their office buildings, and their employees need to have affordable housing in a clean environment and to be able to get to and from work efficiently. But such concerns were the focus of local government long before anyone was concerned with global cities.

Cities in Transition is for the connoisseur of the fine points of city governance, not for the student of global cities. As someone who aspires to be one of the former, I learned a great deal from this book. The discussion of Hyderabad was especially valuable because it was my first exposure to the politics and government of a major city in India.

I must admit, however, to paying special attention to the chapter on Toronto. I really wanted to know what a cosmopolitan Londoner had to say about the city that occupies the attention of so many Canadians.

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