Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Global Cities Don’t Just Take, They Give

Creativity for the world or for your city gives something back – Charles Landry

I had an interesting conversation about Washington, DC with Richard Layman a few months back. One of his observations, rooted in Charles Landry’s, was that great global cities don’t just take, they give. To the extent that Washington wants to be a truly great city, it needs to contribute things to the world, not just rake in prosperity from it.

Affecting the world, often for good but unfortunately sometimes for bad, is a unique capability that global cities have because they are the culture shaping hubs of nations and world. When an ordinary city does something, it can have an effect to be sure. But things that happen in the global city are much more likely to launch movements.

For example, Chicago did not invent the idea of doing a public art exhibit out of painted cow statues. I believe they copied it from a town in Switzerland. But when Chicago did it, it inspired other cities in a way that Swiss town did not. In effect, ordinary cities influence the world usually by influencing a global city, which then influences the world. Often it is the global city that gets the credit although the actual idea originated elsewhere. Thus the role of the global city is critical. But we shouldn’t assume that all ideas originate there or that other cities can’t profoundly influence the world.

We might also think of bicycle sharing, which was around in various forms for quite a while. But it was the launch of the massive Paris Vélib’ system in 2007 (which according to Wikipedia was inspired by a system in Lyon) that made bicycle sharing a must have urban item the world over.

Similarly it was the High Line in New York that has every city wanting to convert elevated rail lines into showcase trails. New York is really the city that made protected bike lanes the new standard in the United States as well.

Beyond simple urban amenity type items, global cities can also launch profound cultural and social transformations. A few examples.

The first is from Seattle, a sort of semi-global city. It was in such a depressed state in the 1970s that someone put up a billboard that’s still pretty famous: “Will the last one leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?” Yet in Seattle there was a coffeehouse culture that spawned a movement out of which came Starbucks which literally revolutionized coffee drinking in America and event pioneered the entirely new concept of the “third place.”

A lot of people like to attribute the emergence of Seattle as a player to Microsoft moving there from Albuquerque in the late 1970s. However, I think the coffee example shows that there were interesting things already happening in Seattle long before that. It was a proto-global city waiting for a catalyst.

Another example would be the emergence of rap music out of New York City. Or house music from Chicago.

Or consider the 1963 demolition of Penn Station in New York in 1963. The wanton destruction of this signature structure horrified the city and led to the adoption of its historic preservation ordinance. This was not the birthplace of historic preservation in the United States, but this demolition played a key role in bringing historic preservation to the fore, not just locally but nationally.

Lastly, the Stonewall Riots in 1969 clearly played a signature role in the gay rights movement in America. Many pride parades today are scheduled to fall on the anniversary of the event.

Who knows what might have happened with coffee in America without Seattle. But I think it’s clear that both the historic preservation and gay rights movements would have emerged at some point anyway regardless of what happened in New York. However, the events in New York clearly provided a sort of ignition and acceleration.

How many historic buildings in America were saved because Penn Station was lost? (Think about how many might have been destroyed had the historic preservation movement emerged later).

Think about a state like Iowa where gay marriage is legal. How many people in Iowa 40+ years ago had any idea that an obscure incident in New York City would ultimately transform the social conventions of the rural heartland?

I think this shows the power of the global city. I’m sure that there are things happening underground in New York and elsewhere that right now that we don’t know anything about yet that will ultimately transform our world 10, 20, or 30 years down the road. It’s crazy to think about.

Topics: Arts and Culture, Globalization, Historic Preservation, Urban Culture
Cities: Chicago, New York, Paris, Seattle

5 Responses to “Global Cities Don’t Just Take, They Give”

  1. Betty Barcode says:

    “Often it is the global city that gets the credit although the actual idea originated elsewhere.”

    And that is OK? It is maddening to those of us in 2nd or 3rd tier cities, especially those who have suffered a lot of disinvestment and depopulation.

    Here’s the Catch-22. We are lectured to be creative, to innovate, to build on whatever assets we have left. Then we find that our innovation doesn’t really count until New York or Chicago copies it and gets the accolades, which then reinforces their self-image as just, well, better, cooler, and smarter than those dimwits in the hinterlands.

    From our perspective, The Big City often behaves like an imperial power, treating the region it depends on as its colonial outposts.

  2. Racaille says:

    I am rather certain that few good things ever came from the suburbs.


  3. Derek Rutherford says:

    Racaille, your scorn is misplaced. Practically every innovation in the High-Tech (HT) space was invented in a suburb. As evidence:

    – Silicon Valley is the hub of HT, and it is a suburb. It is also the home and primary R&D site for much of the industry, from HP and Apple through Google and Facebook.

    – Boston’s primary HT belt is the Rte 128 corridor, which loops through Boston’s suburbs. EMC and AD are there, as was Digital back in its heyday.

    – TI, which invented the semiconductor, operates in the north suburbs of Dallas

    Dell and Microsoft are also run from suburbs.

    Suburbs are apparently good at something.

  4. Tim Schirmang says:

    Is this post a brief outburst of irrational urbanophilia? The “power of the global city” is definitional and deserves no admiration or scorn either way. There’s a strong tone of urban paternalism here that’s just silly. Did LA give us police brutality? Did New Orleans give us blinding local corruption and procrastination? Of course not.

    Likewise, NY didn’t give us historical preservation. Seattle didn’t give us coffee. Paris didn’t give us bikes. When cities with a lot of people (global cities) do something it gets noticed, period. It isn’t inherently better or worse.

  5. J says:

    From the title I thought that this may have been a post about immigration, remittances, education or other examples of cities taking people in and providing a trickling out of brain power, money or new ideas. I agree with Tim that big cities get noticed and often they are followers instead of leaders. As media becomes more democratized hopefully the good ideas from cities, big and small, and suburbs, far and wide, are given more recognition instead of going unnoticed until a “global city” adopts them.

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