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The illusion of opportunity: the "global city" revisited

Theorising the "global city" must now account for the increasing scale of income inequality, socio-economic segregation and sharply disjunctive living conditions which characterize those global urban spaces created by wealth, industry and innovation.

Jan Wymer
30 June 2014
A 10 year old Bangladeshi migrant child selling ballons to earn money for his climate change refugee family

Bulet, a 10 year old climate change migrant child selling balloons in Dhaka to earn money for his family Demotix / firoz ahmed

At its genesis, the theory of a "global city", as seen in the work of sociologist Saskia Sassen, included a number of elements. In an economic sense, the "global city" comprised a financial centre where a new internationally integrated market was nurtured and serviced. This process triggered a "dismantling of industrial centres" in countries formerly characterized by their industrial rigour such as Tokyo, New York, and London, and their replacement by a new role as service-based "global" financial centres.The emergence of these "global cities" meant that the composition of the global economy, in Sassen’s language, had "changed, so as to produce a complex duality: a spatially dispersed, yet globally integrated organisation of economic activity".

Neo-liberalism’s global commodity chain

The opening up of international markets in the "neo-liberal age" and the subsequent removal of trade barriers in a number of countries - namely India and China - led to rapid economic growth in many nations. As they became integrated into the global commodity chain, many of the industrial tasks once cultivated by the already established "global cities" were transferred to these new areas. Importantly, these industrial tasks are commonly fulfilled to suit international market needs rather than domestic ones. Regardless of where the fruit of this labour ends up, these new "global cities" entered a period of rapid industrialisation. The number of cities with global characteristics began to swell, as their role in the global commodity chain and in global circuits in general became more deeply entrenched. More and more cities of varying size have therefore become characterised by global processes.

Satisfying the demands of international markets requires a significant productive capacity.  This productive capacity in turn requires a large labour force in order to be optimized. It locates itself in close proximity to the means of production which can come in the form of capital or infrastructure technology, most commonly found in a city environment. A large amount of one-dimensional population mobility – that is, movement from rural to urban areas – is therefore required to satisfy the new demands that come as a consequence of being part of a global market. It is within the "global city" that the twin forces of large migrant populations and global pressure interact. The global city has become a stage in which a number of opposing forces are continuously in battle. The primary battle that emerges is created when the opportunities of being part of international markets are met with the pressures of absorbing and accommodating swelling populations.

These forces exhibit themselves through a series of interrelated yet individually defined secondary battles, from the fight for the livelihood of the informal labourer whose slum dwelling is being threatened with demolition from plans to expand the transport network, the fight between a city’s natural environment and the growing population it is expected to accommodate, through to the fight between the agricultural labourer whose land is in danger of becoming engulfed amidst the relentless expansion of the city. It is a battle between international pressure and impoverished labour, whose efforts are ironically so crucial to the needs of the global market.

Sassen’s "global city" must be revisited, to better account for the intensification between forces found in the city. Being dynamic and attractive for investment comes at a price. What are the implications within the process of becoming a "global city"?

Spatial conflict

A prerequisite for the growth of a city is a flow of poor migrants from the countryside who come seeking a more comfortable way of life. Since 2007, more than 50 percent of the world’s population has chosen to live in cities. This class has moved to fill the labour of informal service industries, sectors which lack any legal or political recognition. Concealed under the shadows of ever growing structures as the city expands around them, the lack of status held by these groups puts them in a position of inescapable vulnerability.

It is a baffling irony that, whilst economic growth is the main driver of the city’s expansion, the majority of the individuals moving into the city to offer their labour do not receive any of the proceeds; the wealth created is not shared amongst all those who contribute to create it. In fact, for those working as part of the informal sector, city expansion and an increase in the population can instead result in a reduction of their wage. As the informal workforce swells, the economic stagnancy of the sector means that the same amount of wealth has to be spread amongst a larger number of people, meaning the average wage goes down.

Unprecedented levels of segregation emerge as the gulf between the top and bottom extremes of the spectrum expands, and the space in-between is left vacant. In an updated analysis, Sassen has highlighted the implications of this empty space which should be occupied by a "modest middle class". This is pivotal as it is this class which is the most likely to re-invest back into the city from which the wealth is created. The absence of such a class, however, means that the accumulated wealth of the top 20 percent income groups is commonly invested overseas.

The forces between these opposing groups are so unequal that to say they are in "battle" is even misleading. Domination, subordination, and neglect are probably more suitable. High income earners become more closely tied to global circuits than to the more proximate issues of devastating poverty.

Consider the journalist Katherine Boo’s rendering of Annawadi, a typical Mumbai slum: "Serving the airport clientele, and encircling Annawadi, were five extravagant hotels…from the top-floor windows of which Annawadi and several adjacent squatter settlements looked like villages that had been airdropped into gaps between elegant modernities." Boo captures the violent proximity in which the city’s opposing forces reside.

On moving to the city, low income groups tend to live on sites for which they have no tenure. In the case of Mumbai, this means that half of the city’s population live in low-income areas designated by the government as "slums". Mumbai is just one of many other cities that are part of the "global circuit" which accommodates their low income groups in similar ways.

Space within these "global cities" is scarce. And whether it is the expansion of roads in Istanbul or railways in Mumbai, the groups who suffer on account of these pressures are those in the low-income category. Informal housing tends to sprout in hazardous areas, meaning that it is not uncommon for slums to be situated metres from a railway track or a busy high-street. What happens when the railway needs to expand? The slums of low income groups are commonly demolished, and the informal nature of the dwellings makes it impossible for the inhabitants to launch credible legal campaigns.

The next obvious option is the expansion of city border itself. The urban battlefield is therefore not only concentrated within the city itself, but also has a tendency to engulf surrounding rural areas, which undergo a complex adjustment of social and ecological systems as they become absorbed into the sphere of the urban economy. In his analyses of India’s Gurgaon city, which is one of many smaller cities which have come to be influenced by global processes, Vishal Narain describes how farmers lose land due to relentless urban construction. This process comes as a consequence of land "acquisition" and not through any form of mutually beneficial dialogue. It is not only low-income groups within the city borders who are forced to deal with the pressures of urban growth; those on the borders can commonly find themselves in a similarly vulnerable position.   

An even more precarious element concerning the expansion of "global cities" lies within the ecological and environmental sphere. The informal areas inhabited by many low-income groups in developing cities are extremely vulnerable to flooding. Not only are these areas in battle with the industrialisation happening around them, but they are also in battle with the forces of nature. This is a not insignificant part of the new pressures faced by "global cities", as the Maharashtra flood in 2005 indicates. This caused 1000 deaths and massive damage to homes and livelihoods.

The battles between low-income groups and their natural environment and the socio-economic battle are inextricably linked. The poverty of people living in the most vulnerable areas magnifies local and geological climatic hazards. These issues are intensified by a greater focus on external global pressures rather than dealing with the internal issues they create, without addressing the pressures that come as a consequence of being a significant "global city".  Mumbai is a wealthy and resource-rich city with the capacity to do far more to reduce the risks from flooding.

The illusion of opportunity

The opening up of international markets has led to unprecedented amounts of global pressure. More focus is currently afforded to the idea of becoming "global" as presenting an opportunity, rather than accounting for the pressures it creates. Various forces are in battle to satisfy the new needs. "Global cities" - where wealth, industry, and innovation are created - have become the stage in which these forces interact. This creates a particularly one-sided situation as inequality, formerly much more apparent in inter-country relations, has now become a defining factor of intra-country relations.

It is within the global city where these relations most clearly manifest themselves. The failure to accommodate an influx of migrating rural labourers and the subsequent expansion of the informal sector means that instead of being reduced, the gulf between low and high income earners is increasing dramatically, and it is being allowed to do so at a bewildering rate. This reaches far beyond an unequal distribution of wealth. This economic gap creates an array of separate yet interrelated battles, each of which share low-income group suffering as the common denominator.

Theorising a rapidly developing concept is always a hazardous task. The theory of a "global city" has failed to anticipate the scale of the forces that have been created in the "global city". These secondary conflicts come as a consequence of the primary battle between global pressures and swelling populations. More needs to be done to fill the space between those who benefit from the opportunities of becoming a “global city” and those who are forced to deal with the pressures it creates. 

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