Restructuring and Decentralization in a World City

By Godfrey, Brian J. | The Geographical Review, October 1995 | Go to article overview

Restructuring and Decentralization in a World City

Godfrey, Brian J., The Geographical Review

The emergence of giant cities brings an expanded scale, a heightened interdependence, and a pressing urgency to global problems. Twenty-two metropolises are projected to exceed 10 million inhabitants each by 2000. As human settlements reach such unprecedented size, the sprawling urban regions face the paradox of local fragmentation in the midst of global integration. With worldwide transactions synchronized by the logic of a unified market mechanism, urban centers react to the oscillations of distant economies and strain the resources of remote hinterlands. International economic integration and technological innovation also allow corporate operations to disperse from central locations, which makes cities vulnerable to sudden economic upheavals. Leading metropolises therefore compete nationally and internationally to attract profitable enterprises with promises of financial incentives and subsidies, low-cost labor, and modern infrastructures. The resulting decentralization of employment heightens inequitable spatial patterns of income distribution, social welfare, and public expenditure.

Uneven development increasingly characterizes North American cities. The traditional urban core has lost many of its long-standing manufacturing, shipping, wholesaling, and other blue-collar functions. They often have been replaced by tourism, entertainment, financial and corporate services, and various types of white-collar office work. As a result, pervasive inner-city decline contrasts both with selective areas of revitalization and with generalized growth on the metropolitan peripheries. Contemporary locational changes now polarize social space, especially in the central districts, as metropolitan areas become more internally fragmented. Drawing on world-city and city-of-realms theories, this article empirically examines the contemporary spatial reordering of the New York-northern New Jersey-Long Island-southern Connecticut consolidated metropolitan statistical area (CMSA).

Greater New York, the most populous metropolitan area in the United States, has experienced both deindustrialization and financial-managerial expansion. Because the postindustrial economic transformation has inescapable social effects, I refer to the broad process of socioeconomic restructuring. In addition, the movement of corporate and retail operations to peripheral locations shows metropolitan decentralization. Census data detail the emergence of a new polycentric spatial structure between 1970 and 1990 in demographic change, employment shifts, social and ethnic polarization, concentrations of wealth and poverty, and exurban growth pressures. In contrast to the former monocentric metropolis tightly focused on the central district, greater New York has fragmented into semiautonomous, competing urban realms. As the historic core of megalopolis, the urbanized northeastern corridor, the restructuring and decentralization of New York City portend socioeconomic changes that are likely to affect other large metropolitan areas.


Local patterns of urban growth and decline increasingly reflect global processes of socioeconomic restructuring. Although early scholarship on urban primacy analyzed the demographic rank-size distribution of cities in clearly bounded national systems (Jefferson 1939), comparative international dimensions became compelling after World War II. The growth of foreign trade and investment, the rise of transnational corporations, and the importance of international financial markets have favored well-positioned global centers at the expense of others. World cities emerged as international centers of political power, finance, insurance, trade, industry, transportation, communications, and cultural and educational institutions (Hall 1966). Recent research in urban political economy focuses on how a city's position in the global system affects its problems and prospects. Contemporary political-economy interpretations, informed by structuralist and world-systems theories, emphasize the global relations between the world core and the periphery as the guiding forces of urban and regional development. …

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