Urban America: U.S. cities in the global era.

AuthorLongworth, Richard C.

This article considers the impact of globalization on American cities and how these cities will function and compete in a global economy. It argues that almost all American cities grew from an original economic raison d'etre, greatly shaped by the industrial era. The end of that era and the arrival of a new economy affect their utility, for better or worse. Secondly, most American cities are place-based, rooted in areas where they can take advantage of nearby raw materials and serve trade routes and surrounding communities. Global cities will, by necessity, need to sever these geographical ties and find new places in a global network less connected to their environs. American cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and to a lesser extent Boston, Houston and Atlanta, are moving in this direction. A second category of regional capitals will remain more local than global, like Indianapolis, Columbus, Portland and the like. A third category includes once-powerful industrial cities such as Detroit and Cleveland, which lack both global connections and prominent regional status. Their future will be problematic. The final section of the article describes what these cities must do to cope in the future. The emphasis here is on global cities that must find new ways to finance themselves as their old ties to state governments wither.

"Put the city up; tear the city down; put it up again; let us find a city."

Carl Sandburg (1)

This much we know for sure: cities are the future. Much was made of the recent demographic tipping point, when, for the first time in history, the population of cities and their suburbs accounted for more than half of humanity. (2) Cities are big and getting bigger. In the twenty-first century, cities are and will continue to be where the action is, where business is done, where ideas and innovations spring up, where arts and sciences proliferate. For better or worse, our future is urban.

How exactly our urban future will take shape remains an open question. Clearly not all cities will grow equally. Which cities will grow, which will shrink and why? Will urban patterns in the United States resemble those in Europe or, for that matter, in Asia and Africa? Will most cities remain, as they have been in the past, centers of a limited geographic area, dependent on their physical environment? Or will globalization create a new class of cities, a sort of global Hanseatic League, increasingly divorced from surrounding hinterlands that may wither without them? (3)

What may be evolving is an urban-rural divide between wealthy cities participating in a new global hierarchy and the impoverished others, mired in the lowlands of a supposedly flat world. If cities aspire to global preeminence, they will need to provide the services and amenities for global citizens who, increasingly, can live anywhere. (4) But how will cities pay for these services and amenities? This may be the biggest question of all.

These questions apply to all cities, from London to Lagos to Los Angeles to Lahore. However, globalization affects each in different ways and will assign each of them different roles, just as the industrial era in the United States assigned different roles to Boston, Pittsburgh and Omaha, all of which developed in the same era bur evolved differently. Chongqing--booming, thrusting, raw, ambitious--calls itself the Chicago of China. (5) But the Chicago it resembles is the lusty industrial Chicago of the late nineteenth century, not the relatively sedate business center of the early twenty-first century, which has ceded industrial prominence to the Chongqings of the world to establish a new postindustrial niche in the global economy. (6)

One urban size does not fit all, and any attempt to squeeze New York and Nairobi into one grand theory is flawed from the start. Let us focus then on the futures of American cities, a more modest task made easier by the fact that their futures are beginning to be revealed.


Almost all American cities, like cities throughout history, developed to serve some economic purpose. Invariably, that purpose was place-bound. A port, a mine, or a river provided the raison d'etre for many cities. (7) Steel mills took root near raw materials. Auto plants grew up near steel mills. Stockyards depended on fields of grain to feed livestock and on railroads to ship them. Oil cities relied on nearby oil fields while trading posts lay astride trade routes. The economic needs that created cities in turn created jobs, and where industries were robust, the workers stayed to build places to live. In some cases these settlements produced small towns comprised of just a few houses, stores, a school and a church, all serving local farmers or miners. In other cases, these economic epicenters spawned great cities--civilizations that grew to a million people or more--with museums, symphonies and universities, all dependent on that original economic raison d'etre: the port, the steel industry or the auto plants. (8)

Thus grew Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, Miami, Houston, San Francisco and Boston. (9) Not all great cities grew near water Atlanta and Denver are land-locked--but most lie near oceans, rivers or the Great Lakes, because trade goods traveled by water, not by rail or air. For all of these major urban centers, a place-based economic role brought them into being and defined their identities. (10)

But in economics, nothing lasts forever. Trade routes shift. The raw materials necessary for mighty industries become scarce or expensive and the labor necessary to run those industries becomes cheaper elsewhere. Cities that rely on location for their livelihoods may discover over rime that the fonts of their economies have vanished. When economic opportunities arise elsewhere, how can these cities sustain themselves? This is the question facing many American cities today. Born and reared in the industrial era, they find themselves cast adrift in today's global era, forced to reinvent themselves or wither.

Still, if the global future is urban, the United States is already there. While half the world's population now lives in cities, no less than 82 percent of Americans live in metro areas, generating about 86 percent of the nation's jobs and nearly 90 percent of its gross domestic product. (11)

While geography may not be irrelevant in the information era, it is certainly less important. Increasingly, modern global cities exist in the context of global networks overseeing vast supply chains, far-flung human resources and borderless capital flows. The old assets--iron, coal, water, oil--no longer justify their existence. The future of these cities depends on their ability to attract creative talent and workers capable of succeeding in a twenty-first century knowledge economy. (12)


The international economy has been with us for centuries, since before Marco Polo made his trade mission to Cathay and before the Lombard banks began financing Europe in the Middle Ages. (13) This economy ultimately helped shape America. Later, the industrial era marked the ascendance of many U.S. cities. In the postindustrial period, going back about forty years, American cities were transformed, some declining and others gaining strength. We have seen the culmination of this process in the exodus of heavy industry from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, with population booms in once-remote cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas and with the new eminence of intellectual centers like Raleigh-Durham, Austin and Seattle. (14)

However, the modern wave of globalization is even more recent. It began with the rise of post-Mao China in the 1980s but flowered after the collapse of Soviet communism in 1989. Around this rime, India and Brazil emerged from decades of self-imposed isolation and dirigisme. (15) Suddenly, 1.5 billion workers in developed countries found themselves competing with 2 billion new workers entering the global economy. Since these workers came from relatively poor countries, they did not bring much new money with them, which meant more than twice as many workers were competing for roughly the same amount of money. This had the effect of devaluing labor, which explains the availability of cheap goods in American stores, the offshoring of much of American industry and the decline in American wages. At the same time, new...

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