Sunday, April 1st, 2012

More Thoughts on the Urban Hierarchy

Few topics get the urbanist blood stirring like the perennial debate over ranking cities. My latest piece on the reordering of the urban hierarchy spawned yet another rekindling of that debate. Among those weighting in were Richard Florida at the Atlantic Cities (whose ideas shaped my original post), Kenan Fikri of the Brookings Institution over at the New Republic and Jim Russell at Burgh Diaspora. There is also a lively comment thread here at the Urbanophile. I wanted to respond to some of the points raised.

The first is the idea that globalization is not a zero sum game and that one city’s gain doesn’t have to come at another city’s expense. This is true. A rising tide can lift all boats. Also, as people like Saskia Sassen have noted, global cities typically don’t compete because they specialize in different things.

However, global cities themselves are a relatively recent phenomenon. Not every city of prominence in the past has yet successfully made the transition to the global age. Early in the industrial age there were cities like Cincinnati that emerged as titans only to fall back as new upstarts arose. It seems axomatic that creative destruction is not going to leave the current system of global cities locked in the current network positions and relative hierarchies that they are in today. And just because cities can in effect “win” in an absolute sense from globalization, they can clearly end up falling back on a relative basis.

I again particularly believe this is a risk for cities that are not the premier city in their country and which are located in the already developed world. As Florida noted, the top of the pecking order is incredibly stable over time. How many times has a #2 or lower city passed up a #1 city in the modern age? Not many. Only two cases come to mind right now, both from extraordinary events. Toronto supplanted Montreal after the latter decided to re-embrace its Francophone heritage at the expense of English speakers, and I believe Rio was once the first city of Brazil and lost out to Sao Paulo after the capital was moved to Brasilia. (Other examples? India perhaps? How many that don’t involve the capital moving?) But there’s much more churn the further down you go.

There is also the question of whether or not I’ve changed my mind about Chicago, particularly in relation to previous posts like this one. I don’t think so. In fact, I think that 2009 piece holds up rather well. Probably to some extent I have come to realize the weaknesses of Chicago’s story though as I dig into the numbers and see what’s going on elsewhere. Also, I think it’s a city that has been (at least until Rahm took over) singularly oblivious to the challenges it faces (though in fairness I guess LA gives it a run for the money), so I work to highlight those rather than the good news which already gets plenty of press. For example, the major national media fawned all over Chicago when Rahm announced his infrastructure plan. I could run ten negative stories and not counter that press, but I feel it’s my job here in this blog to tell the story that’s not being told.

I still clearly believe Chicago has experienced a huge and remarkable transformation. I witnessed most of it personally. I’ve seen a hundred buildings added to the skyline, vast tracts of the central city rejuvenated, a major transformation of the physical face of the city, and more. It would not surprise me at all to discover that it is Chicago that leads the nation in repatriation of jobs from the suburbs to downtown. It has a food scene that holds its own with anybody. And it continues to grow and improve in many ways despite obvious challenges like pensions. I continue to believe the Chicago story is real.

Yet in a sense it was the 90s that was really Chicago’s decade. I’ve got some forthcoming writings on this topic that will explore this in more detail, but just as one teaser, I can tell you that on a metro area basis, Chicago actually added more jobs than Houston in the 90s. But the 2000s were a tough decade for Chicago. What’s more, I don’t think Chicago fully grasps the extent to which other cities have moved even further forward, though you’ll occasionally see someone who gets it, such as in a recent Reader article on competitive cocktailing. So I think Chicago has done well and continues to only get better in many ways, though it has hit a rough patch and I think clearly has suffered a relative decline in standing and importance.

Also, while I pivoted off a Chicago article, I don’t think Chicago is alone. Los Angeles is clearly a “sick man” city in many ways, though a lot of its problems are self-inflicted. I also think Boston is suffering on a relative basis as NYC-DC becomes the premier northeast axis instead of NYC-BOS. This is perhaps why Philadelphia is showing signs of revival.

As for Fikri saying that Washington’s media exports were puny in comparison to NYC and LA, this is true if you look at things like movies and TV shows. But what I had in mind was the huge base DC is becoming for political and other media and reportage. Washington has a huge number of foreign correspondents. Fully 56% of full-time foreign journalists live in DC. Another 34% are in New York. 8% are in California, presumably mostly to cover Hollywood, with perhaps the odd Silicon Valley correspondent. Only 2% are based elsewhere in America. (If you look at part time foreign journalists as well, NYC is the #1 market). I don’t have much at my fingertips right now, but I’ve also read many stories about more media, particularly the politically oriented variety, relocating from NYC to DC. This gives a place like Washington a huge media footprint and platform for which to get its word out to the world in addition to its status as the most important political capital in the world. There’s a reason that those foreigners Phil Rosenthal wrote about in the Chicago Tribune think there are only three US cities: New York, LA, and DC. Combine that with the wonkish atmosphere and the highly educated population, and it’s also no surprise that something like Greater Greater Washington is the most successful city blog in America.

Someone commented that Washington had nothing on Chicago in his estimation. As far as the central city goes, I’d probably agree with that. But it’s not just what you have, it’s where you are headed, and Washington is clearly headed up, in terms of its global and national importance, its economy, its population, its education levels, and its urban environment. When the Burnham Plan came out, Chicago was arguably not a very attractive place either. It was the Houston of its day in a way. But it was a city on the rise. So too with Washington today. It is America’s next great metropolis, at least as long as the federal government’s money and ever increasing control over American life hold up.

Topics: Economic Development, Globalization, Strategic Planning

53 Responses to “More Thoughts on the Urban Hierarchy”

  1. John Morris says:

    It’s a very different perspective. An Art fair in LA always is tilted pretty strongly towards LA based galleries.

    I’m not sure what the point is in Chicago hosting a fair made up of a generic lineup of mostly New York based mega dealers. I know, in a way, that’s what Art Chicago was in it’s early days, but there were just not that many art fairs back then.

    At this point, Chicago needs to focus on the things it can bring to the table that are unique–which, IMHO, means embracing the local and regional galleries in a strong way or focusing on some distictive niches that fit well with the city’s culture.

  2. the urban politician says:


    I’m not very knowledgeable about this topic, but in a way you kind of answered this question.

    You can say Chicago is doing a “me too” of other art fairs, or you can have a different perspective, and say that the world is doing a “me too” of Chicago.

    Art Chicago WAS one of the premiere art shows in the world for a long time. The rest of the world caught on, and the copycats put the original out of business.

    Now Chicago needs to come up with something new and different, I agree that “more of the same” probably won’t cut it. Perhaps a show focused more on art from galleries in America’s interior (midwest, plains, appalachia, south, parts of Canada, some international representation) would be a good idea.

    Again, this is kind of off the topic at hand and I’m the last person to ask about this kind of stuff.

  3. John Morris says:

    I don’t think it’s really off the subject which is about how Chicago fits into the urban hierarchy. This was a very large event for Chicago.

    It really connects to all kinds of issues about how relevant the city is and how could become more so.

    “Perhaps a show focused more on art from galleries in America’s interior (midwest, plains, appalachia, south, parts of Canada, some international representation) would be a good idea.”

    Yes, it probably would be but as I said, Chicago doesn’t see regional connections as important or valuable.

    My advice to Detroit or Cleveland is to take this market and do something exciting and relevant.

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