The Great Reordering of the Urban Hierarchy


A delegation from Chicago is in Brussels this week to sell the city as a tourist destination in advance of the forthcoming NATO Summit. A Phil Rosenthal column explains that the city has a long way to go:

"I don't think most people in the U.K.have any idea where Chicago is," said Rowan Bridge, a BBC Radio producer who last year spent six months based in Washington D.C. "Most people in England think the United States consists of three cities — New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles — because they're the ones that run the media, they're the ones where the celebrities hang out, they're the ones where the politicians are."

Rosenthal notes that Chicago has long worried about its image, and it has never been a top global tourist destination, but a recent drop in international visitors highlights the challenge even a colossus like Chicago faces in getting its word out in a competitive global economy.

Reading this, it once again strikes me that the old urban hierarchy is being reordered by globalization and the dramatic expansion of the US federal government, to the disadvantage of Chicago and other cities. This, I believe, helps account for its recent struggle.

Joel Kotkin has tirelessly documented the remorseless rise of Washington, DC, rain or shine, in a manner defiant of business cycles. Washington, once a sort of commercial backwater, is now becoming much more a national capital of the type other countries have had.

Meanwhile, back in the "spiky world," the peaks thrive while the valleys suffer. But it is the highest peaks that thrive most of all. Hence we've seen the emergence of a robust NYC post-9/11. It seems to have become if anything more the center of the universe, a huge financial center, media center, fashion center, cultural center, etc. - and adding to it new strength such as its emergence as America's #2 tech startup location after Silicon Valley. New York is at an all time population high and even withing about 60,000 jobs of its all time peak employment.

So we have New York entrenched as America's first city, and Washington, DC increasingly its new "Second City." Los Angeles, which seems to have never quite recovered from the early 90s defense draw down, and Chicago with its 2000s malaise, seem to be the victims of DC's rise. Another loser is Boston, which has seen its status as a financial hub decline and whose Route 128 corridor of tech, having first lost out to Silicon Valley, now appears to be losing out to NYC.

Second tier cities in developed countries may indeed suffer as globalization proceeds. Zipf's Law has historically governed the hierarchy of urban population (and thus proxied for overall urban importance) within particular geographies. Richard Florida and his colleagues showed that Zipf's Law does not apply on a global basis, possibly because of the difficulty of migration between countries.

But many other migration type barriers have declined over time, and it's easy to conceptualize that many types of activities that once operated largely in purely domestic hierarchies now complete in global ones. If true, this would suggest that some cities, like LA, Chicago, and Boston, which ranked high in a national hierarchy might be pretty far down the list in a global one. Those cities with the greatest advantages of talent, high end specializations, and the greatest global connections would be best positioned to succeed in making the transition. We can also note the rise of new cities of importance in the BRIC counties, the Middle East, and other parts of the "developing world" that would bring new competition to traditional developed world power players, particularly for those that were already secondary centers in their own country.

To see this playing out, contrast the differing life histories of Chicago and Hong Kong, which were effectively founded at the same time.

I would describe this as a mix of observation and hypothesis at this point, but would love to see more formal analysis. And of course we'll see how the trends play out. Even if true, we may not be at the end of this Great Reordering. With Washington continuing to soar, we are seeing shifts in the balance of power even with New York, such as the increasing importance of Washington as a media center. Though the inexorable mathematical logic of the budget may crimp Washington at some point, it's certainly not impossible that some time in the future it may take its place as a London-like truly dominant national capital.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. His writings appear at The Urbanophile.

Photo by Doug Siefken