Swoons Over Miami

A conversation with author Saskia Sassen, who coined the term "global city." As she tells FP: Don't focus only on London and New York. The rest of the world should want to be the next Miami.


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.

FP: So what’s the future Miami of Africa?

SS: You have probably two cities that people could think of as complex places in sub-Saharan Africa. One is Nairobi, Kenya, where some of the architecture still reflects British colonial history. The other one is Johannesburg, South Africa. In recent years, I would say Jo’burg is more dynamic, but Nairobi has lost ground.

FP: And the Miamis of Asia?

SS: In China, there are fast-growing cities like Shenzhen, which is also a port and a place where things come together. But Chinese cities are too controlled to be equivalent to Miami.

Two similar cases might be Singapore and Dubai. Both have constructed themselves arduously, with a lot of resources and government-driven projects, mind you. The market alone could not have done it in either Singapore or Dubai. In a sense, the whole city is a government-driven project — they have constructed themselves as global cities, and very significant ones.

Elsewhere? Quito, Ecuador; Bogotá, Colombia; Caracas, Venezuela — these are all cities with deep colonial histories; they were important nodes, part of a colonial empire, so there was a strong international connection already. They are cities to watch.

But Miami, a little outpost that suddenly explodes — that is still very rare. Dubai and Singapore are the only great similar examples.

FP: How do you explain them?

SS: Well, I think Dubai and Singapore are government-driven projects. It took a lot of hard work. In a way Singapore is surprising. Culturally it’s not cosmopolitan; on the other hand, there was the obligation to learn several languages. Everybody had to study English.

FP: Are there any cities that missed, or are missing, their chance to be global cities?

SS: Beirut, if it had not had a civil war that destroyed it. Beirut had once been the global financial center and banking and commercial center for that whole region. The networks of the Lebanese are truly global and enormously sophisticated; they’re everywhere. That keeps sustaining Beirut a bit, but really can’t transform it. And I think that void in the region is partially what allowed Dubai to become a major trading center, and then a financial center and global city.

Dubai, you know, has it all supposedly — including skiing now, which is ridiculous, so that you can function there. Still, it’s difficult to invest in real estate for the long term there. So many people who actually work in Mumbai prefer to live in Dubai. The flights that go from Dubai to Mumbai are HUGE! And the planes are full of business people! And I’ve flown that. The first class is fantastic, and it’s not that long between flights because there is a lot of traffic between those two cities now.

FP: Is old Europe then old news?

SS: Well, I think Copenhagen, in a way, is becoming the Dubai of Europe. I love that image. I just get so amused by these things. It used to be that London was the platform for Europe. The Japanese firms, the Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian, even the French firms — if they wanted to operate in Europe, they located in London.

But today, you don’t need that single platform. So Copenhagen and Zurich are two cities that have become very attractive for all kinds of reasons to firms, whether European firms or firms from the rest of the world. And so they locate in Copenhagen, which is a very reasonable city: much cheaper, well organized, and it ranks as one of the top cities in terms of reliability, investors’ protections, good on everything. And Zurich, I don’t know if you have been to Zurich, but if you can live in Zurich, why live anywhere else in Europe? It’s absolutely so stunning.

FP: Where did you grow up?

SS: Well I grew up, first of all, in five languages. And I lived in the Netherlands, Argentina, Italy, and then I studied in France, I came to the United States, and I went back to France, and so that kind of a life. I speak like a native from Buenos Aires, you know, a particular city.

FP: Can you speculate on what FP’s Global Cities rankings might look like in 15 years?

SS: I think that many of today’s top global cities of today are here to stay. Of course there’ll be some shift in their relative influence. And trends like the ascendance of Dubai or of Copenhagen over the last few years. Or Singapore — 15 years ago Singapore was radically different. Maybe it looked the same, but it was a different type of global city — it was not a global city, really.

Istanbul is going to be enormously significant. I mean, who are the top investors in Istanbul today? They are from both the West and the East. The East includes Kazakhstan, China, Russia, Bulgaria; it’s just extraordinary.

The other thing that is happening is of course China. In the future, I think that China and Chinese cities will be even more significant.

FP: Will China’s emerging megacities be global cities? By 2030, McKinsey and Co. projects there will be 221 cities in China with populations of more than 1 million.

SS: Not global cities in the same way — they will be Chinese global cities. What I mean is that Beijing will never be a global city of the world, but it will be a global city in the world. The distinction is that of the world means that you have to really become a bit de-nationalized, more ethnically and linguistically diverse. Beijing is still quite homogenous. Same thing with Tokyo. Tokyo never became a global city of the world. It’s not. But in the world, it’s very powerful. In China, only Hong Kong is of the world, because it has been evolving global connections there for a hundred years.

FP: So there’s no mainland Chinese Miami?

SS: Please tell me if you discover it.

Christina Larson is an award-winning science and technology journalist based in Beijing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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