What is a “global city”?
Photo by Erika Matthias.
Last month, just a few minutes into a conversation with Gary Lawrence, AECOM’s chief sustainability officer, we ran up against a barrier that is all too common an obstacle for those of us trying to communicate ideas and opinions about the notion of sustainability. We were both talking about global cities as though the other understood perfectly well what was meant.
There are terms that we use in our daily life that we all think we understand. Just as the word “table” conjures an image of a board with four legs similarly in everyone’s mind, we assume that the term “mass transit” or “urban growth boundary,” or — and this is the really tricky one — “sustainability” are likewise universally understood. It is a rare but highly productive discussion that begins by unpacking the meaning of these treacherous terms of art.
On this occasion we stopped and asked, “What is a global city?”
Numerous studies have defined such places on a variety of scales — population, economic transactions, points of intersection in a globalizing society, centers that influence global culture, and many other characteristics. But a global city is not simply a very large city with an aggregation of attributes somewhere in the world. A global city transcends its characteristics — its physical and financial artifacts — to become a key node in the network of global humanity.
For a city to truly be global, there must be psychological and emotional attachments that cause individuals to be concerned for the city’s success even if they are not residents.
In this sense, every city’s boundaries are artificial. However we choose to characterize urban conurbations in the future, our perception of boundaries has to change if we are to engage our global cities in driving more sustainable outcomes for humanity.
Jill Jago is an independent communications strategist.