In the 1970s and 80s, back when crime peaked in Manhattan and downtowns across the United States and talent and money were draining out to the suburbs, a young sociologist named Saskia Sassen had a hunch the emerging conventional wisdom about the death of the city was wrong.
Then a researcher in New York City, conversant in five languages, she spent her time trolling the small shops and businesses around Wall Street. Even as the city's local economy was struggling, she recognized the emergence of new ties to the world beyond New York -- small, specialized financial and marketing firms with global links, immigrant communities with ties back home, museum curators drawing upon international networks. Sassen predicted that the Big Apple was not dead, but about to spring back to life, with more international clout than ever.
In 1991, when Sassen published her first book, The Global City, which popularized the term, many onlookers were skeptical. After all, the United States was then mired in recession, and urban planners weren't yet talking about how to reinvent downtown or attract a "creative class." Many thought that opportunities would flourish outside cities, and telecommuting might soon make the morning commute obsolete. But in the two decades since, history has proven Sassen right. Today, cities are increasingly important, both as places people desire to live and as global nodes of commerce, culture, and ideas.
On the occasion of the publication of Foreign
Policy's 2010 Global Cities Index, we caught up with Sassen to ask her to
pick the next round of urban winners and losers for the 21st century. The most
extraordinary success? The rise of Miami. Missed opportunity? Beirut.
Foreign Policy: What distinguishes a global city?
Saskia Sassen: A global city makes new norms. And two requirements for that happening are complexity and diversity. Quite often, in countries around the world, it's the most global city, especially New York, where new national and international norms are made.
FP: Is a global city always a megacity, and vice versa?
SS: I'm so glad you asked. Most global cities are really not megacities. Some are, but the question of size is a tricky one. Size is important for a global city because you need enormous diversity in very specialized sectors, a whole range of them. Some of the leading global cities are very large, like Tokyo or Shanghai. On the other hand, you have cities that are simply very large, like Mumbai or Sao Paulo. I don't think Lagos is a global city; it's just a huge city. You have a lot of very large cities that are not necessarily global cities.
FP: Can any city become a global city?
SS: No, I don't think that any city can.
FP: So what's the magic recipe?
SS: Many of today's global cities are old-world cities that reinvented themselves. Like London or Istanbul, they already had enormous complexity and diversity. On the other hand, there are old-world cities, like Venice, that are definitely not global cities today.
And then there's Miami. Never an old-world city, today Miami is certainly a global city -- why? It's quite surprising. Where did its diversity and complexity come from? Let's go back to the history. Before the 1990s, Miami was sort of a dreadful little spot, frankly. There was lots of domestic tourism; it was cheap; it was rundown; it was seen as dominated by the Cubans. But several important things happened. One was the infrastructure of international trade that the Cubans in Miami developed. There was also real estate development, often spurred by wealthy individuals from South America.
All this coincided with the opening of Latin America. In the 1990s and early 2000s, firms from all over the world -- the Taiwanese, Italians, Korean, French, all over -- set up regional headquarters in Miami. In the 1990s, there was also deregulation, so Miami becomes the banking center for Central America. Then the art circuit, the designers' circuit, and other things began to come into the city. Large international corporations began to locate branches there, forging a strong bridge with Europe that doesn't run through New York. That mix of cultures -- in such a concentrated space, and covering so many different sectors -- created remarkable diversity and complexity. Of course, the Miami case is rather exceptional.