Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

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

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

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

Article excerpt

This article considers the impact of globalization on American cities and how these cities will function and compete in a global economy. It argues that almost all American cities grew from an original economic raison d'etre, greatly shaped 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, rooted in areas where they can take advantage of nearby raw materials and serve trade routes and surrounding communities. Global cities will, by necessity, need to sever these geographical ties and find new places in a global network less connected to their environs. American cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and to a lesser extent Boston, Houston and Atlanta, are moving in this direction. A second category of regional capitals will remain more local than global, like Indianapolis, Columbus, Portland and the like. A third category includes once-powerful industrial cities such as Detroit and Cleveland, which lack both global connections and prominent regional status. Their future will be problematic. The final section of the article describes what these cities must do to cope in the future. The emphasis here is on global cities that must find new ways to finance themselves as their old ties to state governments wither.

"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, the population of cities and their suburbs accounted for more than half of humanity. (2) Cities are big and getting bigger. In the twenty-first century, cities are and will continue to 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.

How exactly our urban future will take shape remains an open question. Clearly not all cities will grow equally. Which cities will grow, 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 surrounding hinterlands that may wither without them? (3)

What may be evolving is an urban-rural divide between wealthy cities participating in a new global hierarchy and the impoverished others, mired in the lowlands of a supposedly flat world. If cities aspire to global preeminence, they will need to provide the services and amenities for global citizens who, increasingly, can live anywhere. (4) 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. However, globalization affects each in different ways and will assign each of them different roles, just as the industrial era in the United States assigned different roles to Boston, Pittsburgh and Omaha, all of which developed in the same era bur evolved differently. Chongqing--booming, thrusting, raw, ambitious--calls itself the Chicago of China. (5) But the Chicago it resembles is the lusty industrial Chicago of the late nineteenth century, not the relatively sedate business center of the early twenty-first century, which has ceded industrial prominence to the Chongqings of the world to establish a new postindustrial niche in the global economy. (6)

One urban size does not fit all, and 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 their futures are beginning to be revealed. …

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