[URBANTH-L]Saskia Sassen and the global city

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Tue Nov 9 14:30:52 EST 2004

The Toronto Star

What makes a global city?
For Sassen, it's about capability: Metropolis' role is changing fast

Nov. 1, 2004


Saskia Sassen sings the city analytic.

First there was Marshall McLuhan and the global village. Now it's Saskia
Sassen and the global city.

Like McLuhan, Sassen can be difficult to decipher, but a fast-growing
number of people and institutions, including some of the most powerful,
are finding that it's worth the effort.

The globe-trotting theorist and author (The Global City, New York,
London, Tokyo, Globalization and Its Discontents) came to town this week
to share her thoughts about globalization, global cities and even how
Toronto fits into the big picture.

Talking in her own sometimes impenetrable mix of academese,
sociology-speak and poetry, Sassen told an audience at the University of
Toronto's Munk Centre that despite fears that globalization would kill
the metropolis, global cities have a major role to play servicing the
expanding world economy.

Sassen argues that as digitized, computerized and electronified as
globalization is, cities still form an essential element in the
mechanics of globalization.

The reason: only global cities can provide the specialized and always
shifting infrastructure required to keep up with the needs of
international capital.

In recent months alone, Sassen has conferred with everyone from the
mayor of Shanghai to members of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board. Just
last week, she travelled to Japan, Central America and Europe.

Transnational in every sense of the word, Sassen was born in Holland and
raised in Argentina, but lives in London and works in Chicago. She also
speaks six or seven languages, she can't remember which, and logs more
than 400,000 miles annually.

"I don't even bother to tell my accountant," she confesses. "He wouldn't
believe it."

By her own account, Sassen has spent the past 20 odd years "digging in
the shadows of the big events of our time."

"My first big project was about international immigration. But I also
look at capital and how it migrates. Though in the '80s, cities ceased
to be a leading economic indicator. Now it's clear that global cities
are about capability.

"Finance is the most global sector," she says, "but also the most bound
to place. Being bound to place makes a difference both to capital and
the city. It's no longer simply a question of the number of
headquarters, it goes much deeper than that and is far more enabling."

"Studying global cities allows one to see that ... capital is bound to
place but not by place."

In other words, though global cities can exist anywhere, they must exist
somewhere. There's no such thing as a purely digital business - capital
has to hit the ground somewhere.

"Finance can be as electronic as it is, but it still needs all the
substructures of computer programming, accounting, legal services,
cleaners and so on," she says. "You also have to have tacit systems of
trust in place, shared understandings ... ."

As an example, Sassen points to Frankfurt, which according to her
analysis is one of the top five global cities. Some years ago, when it
embarked on an aggressive program to make itself a world financial
centre, it set about building up its infrastructure. Rather than
approach financial institutions directly, Frankfurt officials started by
hiring 60 per cent of the computer programmers in London.

Cities, Sassen reminded listeners, "are messy, complex, slippery, highly
specialized and networked. Cities contain fragments of the global
economy. New York is the most global city in the world, but it's far
less modern than the average European city."

"Even the vast new economic topography that is being implemented through
electronic space is only one moment, one fragment, of an even vaster
economic chain that is in good part embedded in non-electronic space,"
she has written. "The most advanced information industries, such as
finance, are installed only partly in electronic spaces."

Sassen, the Ralph Lewis professor of sociology at the University of
Chicago and a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, has
also taught at Columbia University.

She has visited Toronto many times and likes what she sees: "There's no
doubt that Toronto is a global city, because of its enormous networking
capabilities. There are about 40 global cities. Toronto's not in the top
tier, but it's definitely in the second tier, not the third. The big
five are New York, London, Tokyo, Paris and Frankfurt."

And, she says, some of her best friends are mayors: "I get a lot of hugs
from them."

"Municipal governments vary," she observes.

"Many mayors have aspirations to lead an international city. Many are
looking for an opening to talk about the architecture of municipal
government. Urban regions are the engines of growth. Urban-based sectors
are enormously important."

But not all mayors are created equal: "Chinese politicians are so much
more sophisticated than Western politicians. When you're talking to the
mayor of Shanghai, you're talking to power."

Sassen met with Shanghai officials recently about how that city can deal
with growing economic inequality.

"They get it," she reports, clearly impressed.

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