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What Does Globalization Mean to Non-Global Cities?

To anyplace that considers itself a “global city” – New York, Chicago, etc – globalization and global competitive reality are the defining lens through which they see their present and future. I happen to think that with the exception of a handful of the most exceptional cities, this is to some extent unhealthy. These cities take too narrow a view. Yet clearly there is an aspect of this global city thing that’s very relevant to them.

But to those smaller places that aren’t global cities, globalization seems curiously absent from the radar. I would define a global city as a place that is a material producer of global city services – financial and producer services related to the global economy – for export. Secondarily we might consider cities that are globally important hubs of transport, culture, political/military power, or of a particular industry.

I notice this big time when I attend events in these two different classes of cities. A civic conference in a global city will be all about globalization, or at least globalization will be used at a unifying frame for everything discussed. A similar conference in a non-global, usually smaller city will be about lots of things, but globalization won’t be one of them. This seems to be true even in very successful non-global cities.

I was talking with someone about this the other day. He spends more time than me in smaller towns and small industrial cities, and notes that globalization is a big discussion point in those places. His take was that for smaller places that have gotten chewed up by the global economy, the menace of globalization was clear, whereas for America’s tier 2/tier 3 type cities, which often tend to be quite successful, globalization hasn’t forced itself onto the radar. That’s not to say that there aren’t people in almost any city thinking about it, but it isn’t core to the civic discourse.

It seems intuitive to me that one of the most powerful economic forces in the world should be front and center for any city thinking about its future. How will they carve out a successful economic niche for themselves over the course of the 21st century?

On the other hand, for these non-global cities, it isn’t exactly clear even to me what globalization means or how they’d react to it. I mean for NYC, it’s instantly clear, but not for these places. Their networks are primarily national and regional, not global. Their economies aren’t based on trading sophisticated financial and producer services. Even though global trade, etc. mean something to them, it’s easy to view it through a traditional civic and economic development lens.

I’m talking about cities like Nashville, Indianapolis, Austin, Charlotte, Columbus, Kansas City, Providence, etc. here.

So I wanted to throw it open and ask the question: what does globalization mean to these cities and how should they be thinking about it?

Aaron M. Renn is a urban policy analyst and consultant based in New York City.  His writings appear at his blog, The Urbanophile, and in other publications


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