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In 'global cities,' you get a view of the future

February 11, 2007|Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom | JEFFREY N. WASSERSTROM, a professor of history at UC Irvine, is the author of "China's Brave New World and Other Tales for Global Times," forthcoming from Indiana University Press.

WHAT does it take for an urban center to qualify as a "global city"? Size clearly matters. But it isn't enough. If it were, London -- which has lots of people but not as many as, say, Mumbai or Sao Paolo -- wouldn't be one of the cities most frequently trotted out as a poster child for the category.

So, what exactly separates what urban theorist John Rennie Short calls "wannabe global cities" from the genuine article?

These sorts of questions are high on the urban studies agenda these days in the globalization-obsessed world of academia. The concept of the "global city" was first developed in 1991 by urban theorist Saskia Sassen to describe the special role that cities such as New York, London and Tokyo play in the world's economy.

But it is not just a subject for scholars. Municipal authorities and civic boosters take the concept seriously too, here in the Southland and in Shanghai, the city I study. They assume, correctly, that where their cities stand in the global-city hierarchy can have practical consequences, including on their efforts to attract foreign investment and lure globetrotting tourists.

This helps explain why top-tier cities, feeling nervous about the rise of "wannabe global" neighbors, sometimes launch promotional campaigns. That's what Hong Kong did at the turn of the millennium, filling its streets with posters touting the metropolis as "Asia's World City," just as skyscrapers began to shoot up in Pudong (East Shanghai).

This also helps explain why (though nationalism also comes into play) city-versus-city bidding for the Olympics can get so intense. Hosting the Games is among the best things a rising metropolis can do to shed its "wannabe" status (as boosters of L.A. were trying to do in 1932, the year the Olympics first came to the Southland).

When social scientists grapple with the "is it global yet?" question, they generally focus on things that can be quantified. They tally up the number of headquarters of major transnational firms, the number of international flights that go in and out of the airport, the number of local companies that provide a managerial class with the amenities it demands, and so on. Measured this way, Shanghai is still rising, but is not there yet. L.A., by contrast, qualifies as a global city (although it is still seen as one notch below the big three of New York, London and Tokyo).

Is this really, though, the only -- or best -- way to approach the issue? I don't think so. Yes, global cities typically play central roles in the flow of capital, securities and members of the international managerial class. But we also need to factor in their role in what might be called the global imagination.

After all, though Los Angeles and Frankfurt may get roughly similar scores using standard social science metrics, the former definitely exerts a more powerful hold on the dreams of people who live far from both places. And that has to count for something. If Giorgio Armani, who is no urban theorist but definitely knows a thing or two about trends and fantasies, says that Shanghai is "the world's most talked-about city," there should be some way to factor this in.

We might try defining global cities this way: They are great centers of international trade and finance, and they are the kinds of cities that have a hold on the cultural imagination. They're the kind of cities people look to as portents of things to come; when you're in one, you feel connected to the world, and when you look on one from afar, you feel you're seeing the future.

Thus, one reason London and Paris stood out as two of the great global cities of the 19th century was that both seemed natural places to hold early World's Fairs. The 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition was held in England's capital, and the Universal Exposition of 1889, for which the Eiffel Tower was built, was held in Paris. In such events, both the world and the future were on display.

When New York joined the ranks of global cities during the first decades of the 1900s, its ascension was marked both by a famous World's Fair (in 1939) and by its appearance in films that portrayed both the fearful and attractive sides of technologically advanced urban futures. Movies of this sort also accompanied the rise of Tokyo (the setting for "Godzilla") and Hong Kong (the setting for "Ghost in the Shell") toward global-city status after World War II.

Works of popular culture were particularly important, of course, in the trajectory of L.A.'s rise late in the 20th century. Its role as a portent city was confirmed by commentaries on its alluringly or appallingly futuristic qualities. Neal Stephenson's breakthrough 1990s cyberpunk novel "Snow Crash;" "Blade Runner," the iconic urban nightmare film of the 1980s, and Steve Martin's "L.A. Story" are examples.

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