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Cities are the new power centres

July 16, 2008

By former Canada’s World blogger Christopher Leo

Much of the blogging on this site has focused on environmental issues, world issues and discussions of diversity, all obviously related to globalization. My job is to bring cities into the discussion, and it turns out this is easy to do. It’s not well enough understood that globalization has brought about fundamental changes in just about everything urban, and especially in the political importance of cities.

In part, this is because the power of national governments, while it remains very real and very important, has declined noticeably, especially in governments’ ability to regulate market activity and protect social welfare. Budget stringency, free trade agreements and competitive conditions in world markets have convinced governments everywhere, regardless of whether they are conservative, liberal or social-democratic, that that they must lower barriers to trade and cut corporate and upper-income taxes, social programs and funds for regional development. In an increasingly borderless world, therefore, local communities everywhere are less protected by national governments from the consequences of international economic competition than before, and many are suffering serious harm.

But greater ease of communication is not just available to large corporations, despite what many people think. It also makes it possible, as never before, for social movements to organize themselves on a world scale, and these opportunities are being actively exploited. Globalization also greatly reduces many locational advantages. It is as easy to run a business dependent on high-speed communications from Winnipeg or Wuppertal – and perhaps from Ouagadougou or Wang-ts’ang – as from New York, London or Tokyo.

In other words, the tools of both entrepreneurship and political communication are becoming more and more widely available. An unavoidable outcome is that each city is much more directly in competition with other cities everywhere. As a result, cities have been thrown more than ever before upon their own resources. It has become the normal way of doing business for every municipality or metropolitan region to write its own economic development strategy and create an agency or agencies to implement it. Each municipality and each region has its own particular mix of resources, locational advantages and disadvantages, human capacities and shortcomings. As global market competition intensifies, it becomes more important for each community to assess its own potential strengths and design its economic development strategy accordingly.

If every region is doing that to its own best advantage, no two strategies will be the same. In those circumstances it becomes obvious that local initiative will become more important, and dictation from the federal government less functional. This applies, not only to entrepreneurship, but also to social policy. Inevitably, the forces represented by international markets and 21st Century communications are moving cities more and more to the centre of political gravity.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2008 10:33 pm

    Thanks for your comment. It’s encouraging to see people taking an interest in these issues.

    It was a good thing that Broadbent raised the charter cities issue, but, like you, I don’t agree with his solution. I’ve studied these questions extensively and concluded that there’s no shortcut. We need national governments to be involved in urban affairs, and we need them to respect community difference. Setting cities free is not the answer. For more on this question check out http://blog.uwinnipeg.ca/ChristopherLeo/archives/2007/11/post.html.

    You were right, by the way, to amend “cities” to “urban areas”. The real economic drivers aren’t necessarily cities per se. They’re urban-centred regions. This is one of the reasons why urban autonomy is a problematic idea. Who’s entitled to autonomy: Toronto? The GTA? Vancouver? The GVRD? The lower mainland?

    Difficult issues, but really interesting and important ones.

    Christopher Leo, Ph.D,
    Professor, Department of Politics,
    University of Winnipeg,
    Winnipeg R3B 2E9.

    Adjunct Professor,
    Department of City Planning,
    University of Manitoba.

    Research-based blog: http://blog.uwinnipeg.ca/ChristopherLeo/

  2. Scott Y permalink
    July 22, 2008 6:31 am

    Thanks for bringing up the issue of cities (or more honestly, urban areas) Christopher. Your post (which I am still mulling over) reminded me of two books that I read recently.

    Book One: Alan Broadbent’s ‘Urban Nation’

    In a nutshell, Broadbent’s thesis is that Canada is an urban nation (with 80% of our population in urban centres) but our mindset hasn’t caught up yet. He mostly concentrates on urbanization in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal as Canada’s three largest urban areas and how our current model is insufficient. He suggests that our major metropolitan areas are hampered by having to depend on their respective provincial government for most major initiatives.

    Broadbent’s most radical proposal is that Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto should become provinces with provincial-like powers. While I’m not particularly fond of this proposal, he does highlight the literal polar opposites of dealing with public policy issues like access to health services and immigration in rural Canada and urban areas. At present, the Big Three receive 75% of incoming immigrants. I’d appreciate hearing others’ thoughts on Broadbent’s proposal.

    I’m currently reading Richard Florida’s “Who’s Your City” and am thoroughly enjoying it. I particularly agree with Florida’s assertion that the world is getting ‘spikier’, not flat like Friedman’s conclusion. Basically, he’s suggested that the world isn’t flattening, but that urban areas are increasingly clustering high tech, intelligentsia, investment, etc, but leaving rural areas far behind. I’m still reading, so don’t want to make any more comments until I finish it. But at present, definitely recommend it so far.

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