The big question – Global Cities

Do global city rankings matter? Professor Peter Taylor looks at the facts.

There is a debate among those who study cities as to whether success depends on cities fruitfully competing, or co-operating. The answer is that the most successful do both.

Much commentary, however, focuses on competition, often stoked by rankings – how well is my city doing in the latest list? This may be important to mayors, but does it matter to the businesses responsible for creating and developing a city’s economy?

This reminds me of the unfounded furore a little over a decade ago, when it was announced that the European Central Bank was to be located in Frankfurt. There was much speculation about whether Frankfurt would overtake London as Europe’s leading financial centre, and the media was full of stories anticipating London’s imminent decline. But were the two cities really in competition with each other?

For financial workers in the two cities, the question seemed ludicrous. Typically, their firms had offices in Frankfurt and London, and used them for different types of business. They were complementary centres, and most emphatically not rivals.

It was this example that convinced me that cities are inherently cooperative; they connect through city networks where success depends on mutuality. Competition between cities is a contingent occurrence, depending on specific circumstances.

Competition is often related to national boundaries that define a market where there is a limited demand for key business services. Small state economies can usually only support a single major city: for example, Portugal and Lisbon, Ireland and Dublin and Austria and Vienna.

In larger countries, the demise of second stock exchanges commonly leads to a competitive advantage for one city over another. Instances of this include Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Sydney and Melbourne, and Toronto and Montreal.

But while cities may be competing at a national level, internationally they appear to be getting closer. In fact, one analysis identifies the United States plus London as a single central region of economic globalisation, coining the compound name “USAL”.

It is true that London is not only more connected to New York through its business service firms than it is to other major British cities, it is also closer to Chicago and San Francisco.

But while London’s tendency to cleave to USAL – rather than to other parts of the UK – sums up the difficulties facing those who want to harness all British cities to boost future UK economic growth, it also suggests

that leading cities may have less to fear from their so-called competitors than some might imagine.

Founder of the Globalization and World Cities Research Network at Loughborough University, Peter Taylor is now Professor of Human Geography at Northumbria University. His latest book, Extraordinary Cities: Millennia of Moral Syndromes, World-Systems and City/State Relations, was published in early 2013.

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