Sciences Humaines has a new issue dedicated to cities. It is filed in its geography area on the website but there is no doubt that urban ecology has been a topic of interest to sociology very early on as nexus of social dynamics, processes and practices.
It’s in French, of course, so I’ll provide a rough summary.
There is a tendency to imagine the global economy as a flat space (Friedman’s misguided flat world metaphor comes to mind) where one could neatly distinguish areas of prosperity and of poverty. It is misleading though. Rather than speak of the world economy, one should talk about a multiplicity of networks connecting different types of cities or regions. There are more than sixty financial networks and many oil networks coexisting with the global geographies of industrial production. No single city is involved with all these networks. Mumbai, for instance, is part of the real estate investment network with London and Bogota. New York and São Paulo are core nodes in the global coffee trade. Shanghai dominates the network of copper. Despite this “division of labor”, London, along with a dozen of other cities, distinguishes itself by being connected to an unusually large number of diverse networks.
In other words, the global economy reflects the complex geography of cities networks whose dynamics are not exclusively economic but also based on global migration, cultural exchanges, global civil society networks and others. The global urban networks are an integral part of the complex infrastructure of globalization. Conversely, global networks (such as finance or civil society) are becoming more and more urban, connecting urban dwellers. The more globally connected a city, the more power it carries within the world-system and within the division of labor within the world-system as there is still some degree of economic specialization. I would add that this idea of division of labor (rather than competition) is very reminiscent of Neil Fliegstein’s conception of markets as fields in search of stability… from this perspective, the global division of labor among global cities might operate as a conception of control.
Global firms select their localization based on the global city’s functional specialization and the firms’ objectives. At the same time, all global cities have common features, such as comparable architecture for their business districts (same hotel chains, for instance) but each city somewhat manages to keep its specific ecology. At the same time, global competencies do not fall from the sky and, along with specialization of global cities, there has been the massive development in jobs dedicated to services to private businesses to navigate the global landscape. The global city is the place where such competencies are developed and distributed across networks. These competencies are also distributed from the global city to its nation, thereby connecting the local, national and global levels. After all, most of the 300,000 multinational corporations have their headquarters still located in their country of origin. At the same time, MNCs find it useful to operate across global cities networks precisely because of the division of global labor. This functional specialization might determine where a firm will locate its operations.
The diversity and complementarity of global cities is a perfect illustration of the multi-polarity of globalization.
At the same time, there has been a price to pay for the development of global cities. Popular, low-class downtown areas may have been destroyed to make room for high-end business districts. This has contributed to urban segregation and stratification. Low-income populations and low-profitability firms have been relegated to the peripheries. At the same time, when the financial crisis hit New York City (along with the rest of the US and beyond), the losses to the city were massive in terms of unpaid real estate debt. And these losses have not been compensated by business revenues from MNCs. What seems to have been forgotten in the globalization frenzy of these cities is that they are better able to fulfill their global economic function when they rely on a strong middle class. Conversely, things do not work so well when cities are marred with major inequalities, between abject misery and ostentatious luxury. Apparently, businesses are reluctant to settle in highly unequal cities (Fliegstein is relevant here again as highly unequal cities might be a source of instability). This is why European cities have fared better than American cities in this respect.
For instance, Mumbai and São Paulo are two of the most powerful financial centers of the world. Yet, their status within global networks is hurt by the fact that they are characterized by social devastation. Cities leaders would be well-advised to learn from this rather than just try to attract extreme wealth from business elites.