In 1991, a book by Saskia Sassen, The Global City, signaled the coming of age of metropolis as key actors of the globalization process. Information technologies, intimately linked to the globalization process, were producing a phenomenon of “metropolization”, i.e. an accrued concentration of services and decision centers in giant cities that form together a “global network.” London, San Francisco, New York, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai… Such metropolises are indeed the places where the future takes shape – they are also those that provoked and nurtured the current financial crisis…
Nowadays, more than half of the world population lives in cities, and a growing number lives in very big ones. The ills that come with it are well known: slums are growing, the countryside sees its vitality depleted; the accumulation of powers in metropolises erodes the power of nation-states and international organizations; the fierce competition between giant cities may generate useless investments; and finally, even in democratic countries, local governments (especially the ones managing metropolitan cities) are not always fully accountable.
At the same time, global cities can be agents of sustainable development, and thus lessen or even reverse the social ills they are creating, if they become at the same time compact cities. Compact cities are the ones that invest in state-to-the-art public transportation systems, water sanitation and green housing projects. Compact cities are also places where the integration of populations from different background is fostered through educational, social and cultural policies. Finally, compact cities design developmental strategies with an integral and humanist outlook. Amsterdam and a few other cities are tentative model to this approach.
Besides, global cities show a propensity to learn from each other. “Good practices”(lease of bikes, green building techniques, patrimony conservation) are observed and reduplicated from one metropolis to another. The networking between cities can thus become a positive aspect of global governance. This will also mean that cities will progressively enlarge their outlook, paying more attention to the impact of their policies on their fragile hinterland.
If metropolises become at the same time “global’ and “compact”, there is a chance that urban development will be sustainable indeed. The fact is that giant cities have already become driving forces of globalization. The challenge remains to assess and to shape the model of globalization that they will eventually impose on all of us.