Global Cities, Shrinking Cities

Richard C. Longworth, Distinguished Fellow on Global Cities

American cities, now and in the future, can be sorted into three baskets – global cities, regional capitals, and the rest.


Global cities are the handful of metropolises that are intimately linked to the global economy and help guide that economy. Think New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, maybe Boston and Atlanta and a handful of others.


Regional capitals are healthy cities, often state capitals, magnets for their immediate heartland, linked to the global economy but one step down in this pecking order from the global cities themselves. Think Denver, Oklahoma City, Columbus, and Kansas City.


The rest are mostly the losers, neither healthy nor global, caught in a downward spiral that may be terminal. Think Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Syracuse, Dayton, Birmingham. 

New York, New York


"All cities today have corporations, universities, and museums – the touchstones of global connectivity. But global cities simply have more."

Global cities are the true metropolises of a globalizing world. A 2010 listing of the mightiest global cities, compiled by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and A.T. Kearney, described global cities this way:

“These are the ports of the global age, the places that both run the global economy and influence its direction. They are the cities where decisions are made, where the world’s movers and shakers come to exchange the latest news and information. They are where you go to do business, yes, but also to see the greatest art, hear the greatest orchestras, learn the latest styles, eat the best food, and study in the finest universities. They have global corporations – this goes without saying. But they also have think tanks, jazz bars, and broadband. In a word, they have clout.
“In a sense, the world is not flat. Instead, it is a landscape of peaks and valleys, and global cities are the peaks. Often they soar above the hinterland around them, having more to do with each other than with their own countrymen in the valleys below. From their summits, global citizens talk to each other and do the world’s business.”

This survey, like most rankings of global cities, put New York at the top, along with London, Tokyo, Paris, and the other big apples of the global era. On a second tier stood Shanghai, Sydney, Frankfurt, Toronto, Seoul, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Boston, Miami, Houston, and Atlanta occupied a third tier. Only sixty-five cities worldwide made the cut in 2010: since then the listings have included Minneapolis, Dallas, and Seattle.


The survey ranked the cities on five criteria – business activity, education and educated citizens, the power of its culture, its political ties, and its access to the world’s information. Obviously, all cities today have corporations, universities, and museums – the touchstones of global connectivity. But global cities simply have more, and what they have is more important. Mostly they are not only consumers of business and culture but global drivers. 

Indianapolis, Indiana


The regional capitals are the second-rank cities, often prosperous, cultured, and pleasant, but more plugged into their immediate surroundings than the wider world. Many are state capitals – Little Rock, Salt Lake City, Richmond, Madison, Indianapolis, Des Moines – and dominate their states in the same way that Chicago, say, dominates the Midwest or Atlanta dominates the South.


These cities also boast universities, symphony orchestras, big businesses. But they are not quite up there with the global cities. Why not?


Think of them as the urban equivalent of airports. Every city has an airport, but some airports are simply more important than others, and we call them hubs. If you are in Indianapolis and want to get to Beijing, you probably have to go through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to get there.


Similarly, the global cities are the hubs of the global economy. If you do business in Indianapolis and want to do business in Beijing, sooner or later you must pass through the global law or accounting offices of Chicago or New York.

"Most of the successful post-industrial cities share a common attribute. They didn’t have much industry to start with and so have less of a heavy industrial legacy to overcome."

Many of these regional capitals are doing well. A study by Aaron Renn of the Manhattan Institute showed that even cities that are losing jobs or population are gaining college graduates, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of their population. This is a brain gain, the flip side of a brain drain.


For the most part, these cities are drawing in college graduates from towns in their states. During the industrial age, these graduates might have gone back to the old home town. Today, in the post-industrial age, there’s little use back home for their brains and education. The most ambitious head for the nearest global city. The rest go to the regional capital. If you talk to these young migrants, they have no intention of going home.


Most of the successful post-industrial cities share a common attribute. They didn’t have much industry to start with and so have less of a heavy industrial legacy to overcome. Chicago is a rare example of an industrial city that made the transformation to global city. New York always was a finance capital and still is. Los Angeles was tinsel town and still is. Many of the regional cities – Minneapolis, Des Moines, Indianapolis, Salt Lake City – had some industry, but that industry never defined them. Instead, they had state capitals and steady businesses such as insurance or publishing, businesses that thrive today. 

Cleveland, Ohio


The rest are the towns and cities that put Donald Trump over the top in the 2016 election. Unlike the global cities and regional capitals, these cities are the losers in the global economy, once vibrant places that have seen the 21st century pass them by. They are scattered across the country – from New England and the old textile towns of the Carolinas to California’s Inland Empire. But they are most clearly seen in the Rust Belt of the Great Lakes region, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin – the states that once voted for Barack Obama and, eight years later, gave Trump the electoral votes he needed to win.


It is these old industrial cities where the downside of change – political and social – is happening. Rural areas have been overwhelmingly and reliably red for years. The relatively new populist movement that propelled Trump into the White House is truly powered by the resentments of these old rusting cities and their residents.


No city is guaranteed a future. It is hard to see what some of these old rust Belt cities can do to reverse their downward fortunes. Most continue to bleed residents. Detroit lost no less than 25 percent of its population in the first decade of the century, and Cleveland fell 17 percent.


These cities today have little to offer beyond cheap housing: most new residents they attract are those who cannot afford to live anywhere else. Cities in the knowledge economy need educated and skilled workers. Detroit, Cleveland, and the like attract mostly the poor, uneducated, and unskilled, guaranteeing that these cities will remain poor, uneducated, and unskilled.


Interestingly, almost all the global cities and regional capitals voted for Hillary Clinton even more strongly than they had for Obama. Detroit and Cleveland are still Democratic strongholds but of a paler blue, with Clinton’s margins there, while still big, less than those Obama enjoyed. Clinton received 22,000 fewer votes in Detroit’s Wayne County than Obama did, enough to account for Trump’s 12,000-vote victory margin in Michigan all by itself.

"If Detroit and Cleveland are fading blue-dot cities, most of the Midwestern Rust Belt cities have become populist bastions, part of the growing red sea."

Both Detroit and Cleveland have major assets – great symphonies, fine art museums, big league teams, respected universities. Cleveland has its Cleveland Clinic and a vibrant theater scene; Detroit’s dismal downtown is being revived under the patronage of Dan Gilbert, the CEO of Quicken Loans. But both have lost the heavy industry that made them industrial-era powerhouses and, not incidentally, helped bring those symphonies and sports teams to town. Each is about one-third as big as it once was and is still shrinking. One has the feeling that both will continue to shrink until, at some point, the new service-based economy can support the smaller population.


If Detroit and Cleveland are fading blue-dot cities, most of the Midwestern Rust Belt cities have become populist bastions, part of the growing red sea. These are places such as Youngstown and Dayton, Ohio, or Muncie and Anderson, Indiana, or Galesburg and Rockford, Illinois, or Jackson and Saginaw, Michigan.


All these sad towns have economic development commissions and chambers of commerce, and all are searching for a cure for what ails them. But in an economy that values brains over brawn, they are the victims of the brain drain that energizes the great cities and leaves these backwaters with little to offer but cheap labor.


Some, like Youngstown or Flint, are toying with the “shrinking city” concept – the concept based on the reality that these cities will never again be as big as they once were, so how can one redesign a city that was meant to hold 200,000 people into a decent for a population half that big?


This shrinking is trickier than it sounds. It means redefining a city’s area, closing down whole neighborhoods, shutting schools and fire station, removing services. It means knocking down houses and other buildings, which is surprisingly expensive, plus cleaning up polluted land, planting parks where houses once stood, letting streets disappear, ending sewer service – all in the face of outraged civic pride. And this has to be done by cities that, by definition, are nearly broke.


These aren’t ghost towns, like the farm villages that are vanishing back into the corn fields. None will disappear. But no real solution is in sight – certainly none that depends on the leadership and generosity of the global cities that have literally left these places behind, stuck in another century.

Richard Longworth is a distinguished fellow on global cities at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is the author of On Global Cities, an eBook published by the Council, and Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, on the impact of globalization on the American Midwest.