It is nearly 30 years since the sociologist Saskia Sassen published her influential book The Global City, which identified a small group of powerful international cities that had become “command centres” for an increasingly globalised economy.
London was one of these cities at the time of publication in 1991, and it has continued to compete for the top spot in “global” or “world city” rankings ever since across a range of indices. Since Sassen’s book was published, the list has grown longer and the cities, arguably more powerful. But as we approach the 30th anniversary of The Global City, could the seemingly-unstoppable rise of such cities actually be coming to an end?
“Global cities” tend to have powerful, services-dominated economies, attracting the most talented, highly-skilled workers from around the world, and vying for the head offices of multinational corporations and other foreign direct investment. They tend to benefit from access to relatively frictionless international trade and open migration policies at a national level.
Over the last three decades or so, London has had all of the above in spades. It even came out of the 2007/08 global financial crisis relatively unscathed. London’s economy has outperformed, and accelerated ahead of the rest of its nation, even after the crash.
But the relatively recent resurgence of both political and economic nationalism, associated with a somewhat ill-defined “populist” politics, has thrown up a serious challenge to the assumptions that made “global cities” so successful. From Brazil to India, Turkey to the United States, the 2010s saw leaders and governments elected that reject the internationalism of the previous decades. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union can also be seen in this light.
World cities such as London look outwards, for trade and talent. But national governments around the world appeared to be beginning to look inwards. Trade tariffs and wars, tightening immigration laws, and anti-urban politics are all anathema to “world city” success.
The onset of Covid-19 then saw London’s economy temporarily frozen. International and domestic travel ceased . Workers were encouraged to stay at home where possible. In the city centre, change was particularly visible, with the sudden absence of office workers, commuters and tourists rendering central London a near ghost town. The latest announcements from the Prime Minister suggest we may soon return to this deep freeze.
The pandemic is far from over. It will be some time before it becomes clear which changes are short-term, and which are here to stay. Much damage has been done in the interim. But international supply chains ultimately kept Londoners fed. Key workers from around the world took care of the sick, delivered goods and cleaned hospitals. Service sector jobs that can be performed remotely have proved most resilient.
However, anti-internationalist sentiments still exist. In fact, the pandemic-induced closing of borders may even have strengthened them. This double blow could easily be the end for world cities such as London. The future of the UK capital is highly uncertain, in a way that it has not been for decades.
But uncertainty does not necessarily mean disaster. There are at least four reasons to be optimistic about the capital’s future:
First, it is important to remember that populism, by definition, needs to be popular. Both the EU Referendum result, and the election of President Trump in the United States, turned on very tight margins. The idea that the mid-2010s saw the irreversible collapse of a worldview that had been established over decades and which, for London at least, harked back to hundreds of years of global connectivity, will soon be tested. But the conclusion is not foregone.
Second, whilst some national governments have turned away from the open, inclusive values that make world cities so successful, city governments have not done so. In fact, in London’s case, the city is increasingly voting the opposite way to much of the rest of the nation. This brings its own challenges, of course – but it does mean that city leaders around the world can continue to advocate, both individually and collectively, for internationalism, openness and a multilateral approach to dealing with common issues, such as the climate emergency.
Third, the things that make cities such appealing places to live and work have not vanished overnight. Put simply, people will still want to be close to one another. There are economic benefits to be had from agglomeration and “clustering”. But people also come to London to live freely, to mix, to meet, and to love. This desire has not vanished. It is certainly possible that cities will see a re-balancing between centre and suburbs, if not a complete “hollowing out”. But London’s population has grown and shrunk across its different localities many times before. It can surely handle another phase.
This leads us to the final point. London has survived plagues, fires, bombings and deindustrialisation. It has a global brand like few other world cities. Before the pandemic, employers cited the rule of law, the English language, and Greenwich Mean Time as factors that have helped London become one of the world’s most competitive cities. Great cities have risen and fallen in the past, but the UK capital has many enduring assets that aid its resilience.
The combination of these factors mean that London has a great deal going for it, despite the challenging international climate. None of this means that success is guaranteed. Nor should it be taken for granted. But London’s foundations are strong. There is much to build on. The question is how and what to build.
Jack Brown is Researcher Manager at think tank Centre for London, on whose website this article first appeared. It addresses issues at the heart of Centre for London’s ongoing London Futures Review, which aims to build a new vision for the capital “to 2050 and beyond”. Follow Jack on Twitter.
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