Global City Regions

Searching for Common Ground
Gary Hack, David Barkin, and Ann LeRoyer, Enero 1, 1996

Global investment, sophisticated communications, and widespread corporate and personal mobility are transforming city regions around the world. Those who focus on urban issues have been arguing for many years that we are seeing the emergence of a new kind of human settlement, with its own distinct social and economic structures and associated physical forms.

The Lincoln Institute’s 1995 Cambridge Conference in September focused on these global forces. The consortium was organized by three research investigators—David Barkin, Gary Hack and Roger Simmonds—to study 12 city regions spread across Europe, Asia and the Americas. While each city offers unique characteristics and exceptions to certain patterns, they all meet the following measurable criteria:

  • a large population, but not necessarily megacity stature;
  • a diversified market economy, rather than a command economy or one dominated by a single industry;
  • distinct patterns of growth and change since 1960; and
  • a record of attempts by their governments to shape regional form, whether successful or not.

12 Case Study Cities

  • Ankara, Turkey
  • Bangkok, Thailand
  • Jakarta, Indonesia
  • Lyon, France
  • Madrid, Spain
  • Randstad, The Netherlands
  • San Diego, USA
  • Santiago, Chile
  • Sao Paulo, Brazil
  • Taipei, Taiwan
  • Tokyo, Japan
  • Toronto, Canada

Using the 12 sites as case studies, the researchers outlined several levels of investigation to assemble a picture of what global city regions look like and why. First, they examined the effects of the global political economy on the growth and development of cities over time. For example, how have the loss of traditional agricultural or industrial economies and the introduction of new players with investment capital changed the ways cities work? How have cities attempted to position themselves in relation to these powerful external forces?

Another research goal was to understand the relationships between changing urban form and regional infrastructure investments, such as transportation systems and new technology centers. How have populations dispersed around new transportation networks and economic centers? How can regional planning efforts influence changes in spatial form and impacts on the environment?

Third, the researchers explored changes in the quality of urban life resulting from the dynamics of globalization. What social and economic problems do urban residents face today? How are their local and national governments attempting to manage these problems?

Prior to the conference, research teams in each of the city regions gathered data to chart the growth and movement of their populations, infrastructure changes, and economic and industrial development over the last three decades. To make the data comparable across national boundaries, they mapped the physical evolution of the 12 city regions in 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1990, and then linked these maps to changes in key economic and social indicators over the same period. Each team also prepared a report on what special issues its government is facing, and how policymakers are attempting to shape the region’s changing spatial form.

A Portrait of Global City Regions

The 12 city regions represented at the conference illustrate substantial variation, but also many common patterns of growth and change. They range in size from about 2 million in Lyon to more than 32 million in Tokyo, the world’s largest city and also one of the wealthiest.

In all of these cities, the predominant pattern of physical growth has been sprawling out from the historic center and adjacent inner ring of development into increasingly distant open space and agricultural land. This dispersal involves both residential and commercial development, though sometimes in different directions. It has been facilitated by sharp increases in the availability and use of automobiles throughout the world. The most dramatic example is Taipei, where the number of autos increased from about 11,000 in 1960 to over 1 million in 1990; the number of persons per auto decreased from 127 to 5 over that period. Ankara and Santiago, at 13 people per auto in 1990, have been the least affected by auto-mania to date.

Even as most cities are spreading out, some inner cores have become more densely populated as wealthier residents and service sector employment have migrated into newly thriving downtowns. Monumental stadiums, convention centers, luxury hotels and residential condominiums have helped to promote tourism and an active cultural life in these central cores. The flip side, however, is increased decay outside the center, as large numbers of poor people are dispersed into areas where public services are often lacking.

The disadvantaged inner cities and wealthy, low-density suburbs of the United States are notable exceptions to this pattern. Cities such as Bangkok and Taipei demonstrate more neighborhood integration of rich and poor than others, but the predominant pattern still shows segmented pockets of wealth and poverty becoming more clearly defined over time.

In the new era of globalization, ironically, patterns of residence are becoming less important than patterns of interaction, as people who participate in the global economy communicate more often with their peers in other cities or countries, electronically or in person, than with people living next door.

Changing demographic patterns have generally slowed urban growth rates to around 3 percent compared to 6 to 8 percent in the 1960s. Most cities have seen decreases in both birth rates and migration from rural areas within the country or immediate region. But political upheavals and changing employment opportunities are also triggering new waves of transnational migration. Many of these newer immigrants settle in their own sections of the city, apart from the indigenous low-income sector, and present a different set of social and economic problems for national and local governments. In San Diego, for example, immigrants from Mexico and Central America contribute to both population growth and increased segmentation within the region. Sao Paulo, on the other hand, has experienced net outmigration as Brazilian policies and programs now encourage decentralization to new communities throughout that vast country.

The composition of economic sectors is quite consistent across countries according to the 1990 data. It generally shows less than 5 percent of the workforce employed in agriculture and resource extraction, 20 to 30 percent in manufacturing and 65 to 75 percent in the service sector. Some interesting exceptions in employment trends are Jakarta, with an agriculture sector rate of almost 16 percent in 1990, and San Diego, with a current service sector share of 83 percent. Bangkok and Taipei show the largest decreases in agriculture, from around 20 percent in 1960 to less than 2 percent in 1990, and both cities remain relatively high in manufacturing in 1990 at 32 and 36 percent respectively.

Income distribution also shows similar patterns across regions, with the bottom 20 percent of the population generally receiving only 5 to 7 percent of total earned income while the top 20 percent of the population earned 40 to 50 percent of income. Santiago, Sao Paulo and Jakarta show the greatest concentrations of wealth at the upper levels, while Tokyo and Taipei, closely followed by Randstad and Madrid, have the least inequality across income levels. San Diego, while relatively high in per capita income, has a mid-range income distribution of 44 percent at the upper end but shows only 4 percent of income earned by the poorest 20 percent of its population.

Contradictions in the Changing Global Economy

Discussion at the conference revealed several new realities about the world in which we live. Perhaps the most important is the difficulty that local and national authorities face in designing effective policies for social and political action to modify the powerful economic forces that are shaping new productive structures in their regions.

A recurrent theme in the regional analyses was the contradiction between highly centralized private investment and sweeping changes resulting from the insertion of the city region into the international economy. In most regions, “elite corridors” of globalization contrast sharply with the disadvantaged “residual city.” These wealthy enclaves accommodate the investments of transnational corporations producing for world markets and are near the residential and shopping areas of those who participate in this economy. In these financial and commercial centers, burgeoning bureaucracies of skilled professionals manage global production and marketing to assure attractive returns to international investors, often ignoring crises in the local economy.

While overall population growth has declined, remunerative employment opportunities have also ceased to grow. Every one of the city regions reported an accelerated shift of its labor force toward poorly paid, part-time jobs in the service sector, with a concomitant imbalance of economic opportunities that condemns a growing proportion of the people to poverty.

This menace is accompanied by shifts in the agricultural sector. Substantial numbers of small-scale rural producers are unable to compete in international markets with large-scale farmers elsewhere who have access to capital for the latest technologies to increase their output. The inexorable process of global expansion is also driving small and medium-scale manufacturing plants from the marketplace.

Most participants at the conference accepted and heartily embraced the new dynamic of globalization. Their governments are working actively to reposition their regions to attract foreign enterprises and real estate developers that promise modernization. They hope to convert their cities into beacons, leading their nations in the worldwide process of integration. Most see their primary task as clearing away the web of regulatory and other obstacles of previous eras, facilitating private initiative by offering (sometimes for free) the land and infrastructure required for new installations.

Many of the cities are targeting their infrastructure investment strategies specifically to expand the service economy. Bangkok, Taipei and Tokyo are working hard to become financial centers for Asia, betting on the demise of Hong Kong as a key competitor. Bangkok in particular is investing in substantial transportation and communications networks and in the education of its labor force to keep pace. In Europe, Madrid is using its role as the world’s center of Spanish culture to enhance its communications services; Randstad is promoting its airport support facilities; and Lyon is becoming an innovative center for emerging technological industries.

Impacts on Regional Development

The case studies and discussions at the conference also identified numerous problems emerging from this enthusiasm for globalization. The complex and disturbing phenomenon of urban sprawl is becoming universal as increased automobile use distributes populations to satellite employment centers and generally reduces the density of regional cities. Two interesting exceptions are Tokyo, whose extensive mass transit system helps to keep economic activity centralized, and Taipei, where mountainous geography constrains outward development. In Randstad, on the other hand, development is rapidly filling in lowland gaps between formerly freestanding settlements, even though the overall growth rate has been quite slow.

Some of this decentralization has been promoted by government efforts to deal with high land prices, traffic congestion or environmental protection. New towns or “science cities” are being built on the outskirts of Santiago, Lyon, Randstad, Taipei, Tokyo and Jakarta, and in Bangkok intensive infrastructure development is creating a new port miles from the city center. In Sao Paulo, strict regulations to protect watershed areas are pushing new development to distant sites.

Generally infrastructure follows development rather than truly shaping it. Private investors are able to respond more quickly to planned growth intentions within their regions than are the public agencies responsible for implementing major infrastructure projects. Thus, private development puts pressure on the public sector to provide services to areas that are already undergoing urbanization. This process has serious implications for long-term regional planning if it continues to be development driven with government playing catch-up.

Another theme that emerged during the conference was an increased consciousness about environmental problems. The accumulation of wealth and the accompanying increase in consumption in most city regions, is creating intense pressures on the environment. With regional integration proceeding apace and deregulation of the economy the order of the day, transnational corporations have great freedom to operate as they wish in the international economy. The participants repeatedly raised the difficulties of confronting these challenges constructively in each of their city regions. Yet, concern for the environment was also seen as the primary motivating factor for undertaking strategic regional planning.

Quality of Life Issues

Globalization offers the promise of greater prosperity. Most cities represented at the conference reported a relative increase in several quality-of-life averages between 1960 and 1990: per capita income, life expectancy and education level. These rising incomes, combined with technological advances that enhance productivity and the wider dissemination of information about goods available in world markets, have allowed city dwellers everywhere to make new choices about their consumer needs. However, powerful global models of organization and production are also imposing new, homogenized consumption patterns that threaten to stifle the extraordinary variety of lifestyles that characterizes most urban regions.

Increased physical mobility, largely achieved through the private ownership of automobiles, has provided many people with more choices about where to live, shop and work. At the same time, commuting times average 45 minutes, ranging from less than 30 minutes in San Diego to more than one and a half hours in Bangkok.

Conference participants agreed that this increased mobility had undermined a previous sense of community, as individuals begin to identify with increasingly dispersed urban places or develop identities that are not based on place at all. The “McDonald’s-ization” of world culture, including music, clothing and architecture, as well as food, was noted by almost every city representative. As markets for consumer goods become global, individuals in many city regions are also beginning to rely on those markets to deliver what were once semipublic services, such as education and recreation.

Changes in the economic function of major cities from manufacturing and shipping to finance and tourism have also caused important losses. Many historic city centers have been commodified for cultural tourism. Buildings or streets originally constructed as factories or warehouses now house retail shops or museums. The original factory workers or longshoremen, who often lived near their jobs, have given way to visitors who travel by car or plane from outside the city or even from other countries to admire buildings that have been restored in form but completely transformed in function. New high-rise office buildings, convention centers, stadiums and luxury hotels are often imposed on the urban landscape, generally with little regard for their spatial and social context.

By some measures of material circumstance the globalization process is encouraging, especially when considering the contributions of medical science and certain basic aspects of education and sanitation that can be made available with relatively inexpensive public investments. The reality, however, is that living standards and employment opportunities are deteriorating for growing segments of the population throughout the world.

Most new urban workers enjoy less security, if also more freedom, than their parents may have experienced as subsistence farmers or plantation laborers. Global information technologies and financial techniques now allow firms to seek out the world’s lowest-cost sites and labor, if necessary shifting jobs from one country to another in a matter of weeks.

The same new information media and transportation options that enable consumers to choose from a wider array of goods, or workers to choose from a wider array of jobs, also let criminals choose from a wider array of potential targets. Some conference participants argued that the perceived decrease in physical security was more apparent than real, especially in the U.S. But the perception itself is clearly driving a worldwide demand for gated or secure housing.

The positive and negative effects of globalization on the quality of life are two sides of the same coin, rather than tradeoffs. The same information technologies and market organization that spread new consumer goods around the world within weeks also transmit new “bads,” such as AIDS. The same automobiles that provide increased access to recreational opportunities in the countryside for city dwellers also produce sprawling cities that parcel out that countryside into private yards rather than scenic vistas of farmland or forest.

Given these contradictions, we must search for alternative models of production and consumption—models that permit people to strengthen their communities and protect their environments, that offer the possibility of creating productive employment for the whole population, and that place limits on the accelerated process of polarization.

The Role of Governance

To what extent are voters in global city regions asking their local, metropolitan or national governments to find ways of eliminating the negative effects of globalization? Conference participants in San Diego, Ankara and Tokyo, for example, reported that local elections are now fought over who benefits from globalization. Those voters who identify more with the global than the local economy demand that governments make high-technology infrastructure investments, build convention centers or stadiums, and promote higher education to attract future jobs.

In contrast, most lower-skilled workers see globalization as more of a threat than an opportunity, and are more concerned with investing limited local resources in such public services as schools and neighborhood clinics. Yet governments that avoid unpopular political decisions by focusing on local services may only be postponing the inevitable impact of globalization, including its potentially long-term beneficial effects.

In the end, the capacity of governments at any level to manage global forces may be limited, however. There is an inherent mismatch between the global economy and government, not only in the spatial sense of local or fragmented governments struggling to master regional or global economic forces, but in the contrasting operating modes of markets and governments.

Globalization has made increasingly problematic the definition of both “the region” that should be planned and “the community” that should participate in those plans. Local governments and even most national governments are losing their capacity to shield local businesses from global competition. In almost every city region represented at the conference, specialized interest groups and nongovernmental organizations have multiplied, while all-purpose governments have begun to fragment and decentralize. Political devolution is most advanced in the United States, but has begun to take hold elsewhere as well.

The tendency of governments of global city regions is to dispense with elaborate spatial planning techniques and instead adjust to what one conference planner called these fundamentally “new rules of property and politics.” But this leaves many contradictions: between the opportunities of the elites and the poor; between the advocates of greater local autonomy and those committed to emerging regional patterns of interdependence; and between policies favoring growth as opposed to redistribution of resources. Without an effective system of governance, all of these dichotomies have the potential for escalating conflict.