What Makes a Global City Global?

Saskia Sassen argues that emerging Asian cities have a long way to go before they're truly global.


Not all cities can become global cities, nor should they all want to (“The Global Cities Index,” September/October 2010). In determining whether a city can become global, size matters, of course — because it represents the possibility for diversity and complexity — but it is not the only important factor. The emerging megacities of Asia are not necessarily truly global, at least not in the way we currently understand the term. Many if not most of today’s global cities are Old World cities that reinvented themselves. Like London and Istanbul, they already had enormous complexity and diversity.

That’s not to say that newer-world cities cannot reinvent themselves as global cities. Take Miami, never an Old World city. Today it is certainly a global city. Why? One factor 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, and the establishment in Miami of Latin American bases for firms from Europe and Asia.

These conditions do not exist in Chinese cities. They are too government-controlled to be equivalent to Miami. And I happen to think that some of this is good — if it aims at rebalancing the strong inequalities created by the current economy.

One question I have is whether the large Chinese cities, which are inevitably going to be dominated by Chinese residents, can produce enough diversity to ensure the productive mix that leads to urban knowledge capital. Beijing is a world city: It is a city in the world. Can it become a city that is culturally of the world, in the way that London, Paris, and even New York are?

Saskia Sassen
Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology
Columbia University
New York, N.Y.

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