Cities today are more important than ever before in world history. This is the result of two factors: (1) The long-term global rise of cities (urbanization); and (2) the recent improvement of inner-city quality.
First, the short-term changes.
In many of the wealthy nations, we let our cities go to hell in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. This may have been an echo of the fact that so many people moved to the suburbs in the twenty years after World War II, giving them little desire or reason to care about the hearts of the old cities. Our cities were not helped by social engineering programs (such as government-subsidized housing projects), freeway construction that bulldozed vibrant old neighborhoods, and the persistence of corrupt, old-time political machines. People went on with their lives – built companies, raised families – but most of them didn’t worry about old buildings being torn down or about the cores of our cities becoming unlivable.
By the 1990s, things began to turn around. Today, shorter commutes and access to urban amenities from parks and museums to restaurants have made city centers more competitive with suburban areas. People have begun moving back in to the cities (gentrification) and having more pride in their cities (look at Cleveland’s rise from the cellar). Entrepreneurial leaders like New York’s Edward I. Koch and Rudolph Giuliani have made a major impact. Today, the crime rate on New York’s subways is back down to where it was in the 60s before it skyrocketed. When I lived in New York in the early 1970s, the average New Yorker would not have been caught dead in Central Park (or maybe that is the only way he would have been found there). Now, on Sunday afternoons, Central Park is one of the world’s great community festivals.
As I travel the world, I realize that this phenomenon is not only taking hold in the big US cities. Cities all over the world are more full of life, full of new restaurants, full of festivals and music and art, than they have ever been in their history. We live in a golden age of the city.
However, this late-twentieth-century revival of the city is just one blip on the long-term curve, whose overall direction is up and up and up. Consider, for example, the question of city size. Throughout most of world history, a city of 100,000 would have been considered gigantic. Very, very few cities ever made it to 500,000. In 1850, there was one city in the world with over one million population – London. By 1950, there were fifty-seven. In 1990, there were 276, and it is forecast there will be 380 in 2010.
While most of the people in the wealthy nations live in cities — 77% in the US – most of the world’s population still lives outside them. But that is about to change. In 1996, about 46% of the world’s 5.8 billion people lived in cities. In 2030, the experts say that the earth’s population will exceed 8 billion. And that over 60% of these people will live in cities.
Over the next twenty years, doing business in what are today the world’s poorer countries will become more and more important. And nowhere will cities play a bigger role. Those countries that trail us on the wealth curve are now growing faster than the countries of the first world. And their cities are growing dramatically faster than their rural areas. In that same 1996-2030 time frame, the number of people living in first-world cities is projected to increase 15%, from 883 million to 1.015 billion. In these nations, few live on the soil – only about 300 million today, and even fewer in thirty years. In that same time period, the number of people living in rural areas in poor countries – presently the biggest group on earth – is also expected to grow modestly, up only 7% (from 2.8 billion to 3 billion). But the number of people living in the cities of those countries is expected to rise 134%, from 1.7 billion to over 4 billion.
If you think Shanghai and Mumbai (formerly Bombay) are important now, just check back in a few years.
Defining the City
As you know, I believe we must always make sure we define things accurately before our thinking is formed. And the city is another area where our old definitions get in the way of our understanding. We all know about city limits, those imaginary lines drawn by politicians to define where the turf of one governing body ends and that of another begins. While city limits still have meaning if you are a city council member, or if your house is on fire and you want to know which fire department to call, city limits are of limited value in explaining how people really live and how their economy works.
If you study the areas served by TV stations and newspapers, if you study how people commute to work, if you plan to extend your retail chain into a new city, then all that really matters is the metropolitan (or urban) area – the combination of a city and its suburbs. (The sociologists and economists at the UN like the term “urban agglomeration.”) References to Greater London or Greater Toronto are references to urban areas.
The first difficulty with looking at the world this way is deciding what are suburbs and what are not. While the US Census Bureau defines the metropolitan area around each US city, that definition changes over time as more and more areas are defined as suburbs. In some cases, two almost equal cities come together to form a single urban area. This happened in 1899 when two of America’s biggest cities, New York and Brooklyn, were merged. We define Minneapolis and St. Paul as one urban area, and the same goes for Dallas-Ft. Worth, Tampa-St. Pete, and now Washington-Baltimore.
The important thing to understand is that the urban area is one large, living, evolving organism, no matter where the old city limits lie. Unfortunately, the press often does not follow these rules. It is still common to find lists of “the largest cities” that consider only the areas falling within traditional city limits. According to these lists, Houston is the fourth largest city in the US. If you run an enterprise based in Europe or Asia and are planning your US offices, this information might lead you to put an office in Houston before “smaller cities” like Boston and San Francisco. But the urban areas of Boston and San Francisco, and even Dallas, are larger than that of Houston.
The same pitfall exists overseas. Most atlases list the largest city in Italy as Rome. That’s true, if you’re talking city limits. But the Roman metropolitan area includes about 2.9 million people, while competitor Milan is up to 4.3 million, making it the third largest urban center in Europe. And Milan is particularly important (and ahead of Rome) in the worlds of business, investment, communications, media, and design. (Rome, of course, still leads in Roman ruins and in the lack of a decent subway system–they run into those silly old ruins every time they try to build a new line.)
The difference between city importance and metro area importance is often especially striking in older cities where the city limits were drawn long ago. The city of Boston contains less than ten percent of the population of the Boston metropolitan area. In San Francisco, the figure is less than eleven percent, in Washington about seven percent. Even newer Sunbelt cities can have most of their population in the suburbs: Atlanta and Miami only contain about ten percent of their areas’ population. In many metropolitan areas, the “edge cities” formed near outlying freeways – from Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, to Costa Mesa, California – often contain as much office space and commercial energy as the old city cores.
Our outdated definition of our cities is an enormous hindrance to making those cities better. Older inner cities often contain more poor people and fewer taxpayers, and yet bear higher costs (for law enforcement, fire protection, real estate costs, and taxes). If a city government’s power is limited to its historic city limits, it may be impossible to effectively plan the transportation structure (highways or mass transit), school system, or taxes and investment for the real city – the urban area.
The Hierarchy of Cities
For at least the last two thousand years, there has usually been a “capital of the world.” For centuries, it was Rome. For perhaps more years than any other city, it was Constantinople (now called Istanbul). By the end of the nineteenth century, it was London. Sometime in the first twenty years of the twentieth century, New York took over, and it has remained on top ever since.
Note that the capital of the world may not be a political capital, as New York shows. The capital of the world need not be the largest city on earth – by the best and most current figures I can find, the New York metropolitan area at 20.7 million people is now fourth largest, behind Tokyo, Mexico City, and Sao Paulo. (And we don’t really know exactly how many people live in any of these places. All we can do is make a scientific guess, and the guesses are less accurate in poorer cities and larger cities.)
But New York is more important than any other single city on earth. And more important in a huge array of dimensions – in art, music, drama, poetry, book publishing, magazines, stock trading, insurance, advertising, fashion, corporate headquarters, total dollar amount of transactions, and on and on.
The minute we assign “capital of the world” status to New York, we are saying there is a lead city, a main city – center of the universe. But that definition also implies structure, implies that there is a system of cities. For Los Angeles is more important – in terms of economic and human activity – than San Diego, and Indianapolis more important than my hometown of Anderson (sorry, Mom). Most people who study these things think of cities as having a hierarchy – a structure from top to bottom. The capital of the world is at the top, and the powerful subsidiary giants – often called “world cities” because of the critical role they play on the world stage, each dominating their own part of the global economy–are right below the capital. Normally people think of this in terms of a city pyramid.
However, I think it is more accurate to think of cities as forming a solar system, with perhaps one city at its center but with the others spread about in all dimensions. I call this the city constellation. This way of visualizing cities gives greater and more appropriate respect to all those other towns. Every city networks with many others. They form a dynamic, ever-changing, growing and shrinking web of interaction. Austin, where I now live, links to San Jose due to their shared focus on high-tech industry. Orlando “reports” to Burbank, where Disney’s world headquarters are located, when it comes to the Mickey Mouse decisions. Los Angeles is at the center of the film world, but its banking often flows from San Francisco. So the city constellation should really have lots of dotted lines connecting lots of cities. You can draw your part of the universe of cities, and add in the connecting lines that relate to your enterprise.