Comparative Analysis of Global City Regions

Rosalind Greenstein, November 1, 1997

How have infrastructure investments shaped global city regions? What have been the effects on the residents? Do the effects differ among residents in different sections of the city? Is the process different by type of infrastructure, such as highways, mass transit, airports or seaports? What if high-technology telecommunications infrastructures are included among our considerations? When the forces of globalization and technological change interact, do cities fare differently? Do their residents experience these changes differently?

These were among the questions generated at the second meeting of the global city regions consortium coordinated in July by Roger Simmonds, senior lecturer of planning at Oxford Brookes University. Most of the participants at the first conference held at the Lincoln Institute in September 1995 reconvened in El Escorial, Spain, to present the results of their latest research on the relationship between the location and timing of infrastructure development and the spatial form of the region. Teams from 11 city regions made presentations: Ankara, Turkey; Bangkok, Thailand; Madrid, Spain; San Diego, California; Santiago, Chile; and Sao Paulo, Brazil; Seattle, Washington; Taipei, Taiwan; The Randstad, Holland; Tokyo, Japan; and West Midlands, England.

Commenting on the relationship between infrastructure, governance and regional planning, Pedro Ortiz Castano, director of planning for the municipal government of Madrid, described the municipality’s extensive infrastructure plan. Existing highways, roads and transit lines will be woven together with other planned development to cover the region in a matrix or grid. This configuration is meant to reduce congestion and increase accessibility across city sectors as well as among social and economic classes.

Madrid’s grid-system of infrastructure and settlements presents a sharp contrast to the concentric rings of highways found in Seattle, as described by Anne Vernez-Moudon, professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Washington. Despite the presence of Puget Sound to the west and the Cascade Mountains to the east, Seattle reflects the typical North American affection for beltways. Furthermore, with one highway dubbed the “Boeing Beltway,” the relationship between government-funded infrastructure and the private sector is clear.

This comparison also illustrates the role of Madrid’s strong regional government in attempting to have infrastructure-whether government-funded or privatized-shape the urban form. In most global city regions with weaker governments, infrastructure only plays catch-up with existing demand.

Consortium commentator Gary Hack argued that the polynucleated ‘spread city’ is the more typical reality, usually accompanied by an increase in spatial segregation by class. Since the powerful economic and technological forces at work around the globe are likely to accelerate and reinforce these trends, he concludes that planners should focus on specific sites within city regions where they can exert their influence with the most positive results.

The comparative analysis between Ortiz’s metropolitan-wide infrastructure plan and Hack’s site-specific approach reminds us that, despite the similarities among forces shaping city regions across the globe, the ways these forces play out vary widely. These variances reflect important differences in institutional arrangements, history, culture, attitudes about private property, and notions of the public interest, among other factors. Furthermore, these differences also affect how researchers see their own cities in comparison to others.

The role of informal markets, for example, illustrates the challenge researchers face in attempting to understand both the unique and common features of international forces. While it is hard to understand land markets and land use in cities as different as Ankara and Santiago de Chile without understanding the informal sector, western European and North American researchers rarely attempt to understand their cities’ land markets from this perspective.

The regional city teams are continuing to work on their respective reports in preparation for publication of a book by International Thomson Publishing in the United Kingdom.

Rosalind Greenstein is a senior fellow of the Lincoln Institute and director of the Program on Land Use and Regulation.