Cities, Systems of

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Systems of cities are human interaction networks and their connections with the built and natural environments. The study of city systems is a subcategory of the more general topic of settlement systems. Once humans began living in fairly permanent hamlets and villages, it became possible to study the interactions of these settlements with one another. It is rarely possible to understand such settlements without knowing their relationships with the rural and nomadic populations that interact with them. Archaeologists and ethnographers map out the ways in which human habitations are spread across space, providing a fundamental window on the lives of the people in all social systems. The spatial aspect of population density is perhaps the most fundamental variable for understanding the constraints and possibilities of human social organization. The settlement size distribution–the relative population sizes of the settlements within a region–is an important and easily ascertained aspect of all sedentary social systems. The functional differences among settlements are a fundamental aspect of the division of labor that links households and communities into larger polities and systems of polities. The emergence of social hierarchies is often related to size hierarchies of settlements; the monumental architecture of large settlements is related to the emergence of more hierarchical social structures, such as complex chiefdoms and early states.

The Growth of City Systems

Uruk, built in Mesopotamia on the floodplain between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers about 5,000 years ago, was the first large settlement that we call a city. Other cities soon emerged on the floodplain, and this first system of cities materialized in a region that had already developed hierarchical settlement systems based on complex chiefdoms. For seven centuries after the emergence of Uruk, the Mesopotamian world-system was an interactive network of city-states competing with one another for glory and for control of the complicated transportation routes that linked the floodplain with the natural resources of adjacent regions. The relationship between cities and states is a fundamental aspect of all complex social systems. The political boundaries of states are rarely coterminous with the interaction networks in which settlements are embedded, and so settlement systems must be studied internationally.

Both cities and states got larger with the development of social complexity, but they did not grow smoothly. Cycles of growth and decline and sequences of uneven development are observed in all the regions of the world in which cities and states emerged. The invention of new techniques of power and production made possible more complex and hierarchical societies. The processes of uneven development by which smaller and newer settlements overcame and transformed larger and older ones has been a fundamental aspect of social evolution since the invention of sedentary life.

The role of city systems in the reproduction and transformation of human social institutions has been altered by the emergence and eventual dominance of capitalist accumulation. Whereas the most important cities of agrarian tributary states were primarily centers of control and coordination for the extraction of labor and resources from vast empires by means of institutionalized coercion, the most important cities in the modern world have increasingly supplemented the coordination of force with the manipulations of money and the production of commodities.

The long rise of capitalism was promoted by semiperipheral capitalist city-states, usually maritime coordinators of trade protected by naval power. The fourteenth century Italian city-states of Venice and Genoa are perhaps the most famous of these, but the Phoenician city-states of the Mediterranean exploited a similar interstitial niche within a larger system dominated by tributary empires. The niche pioneered by capitalist city-states expanded and became more dominant through a series of transformations from Venice and Genoa to the Dutch Republic (led by seventeenth-century Amsterdam) and eventually the nineteenth-century Pax Britannica, coordinated by Victorian London, the great world city of the nineteenth century. Within London the functions mentioned above were spatially separated: empire in Westminster and money in the City. In the twentieth-century hegemony of the United States these global functions became located in separate cities (Washington, DC and New York City).

Global Cities

The great wave of globalization in the second half of the twentieth century has been heralded (and protested) by the public as well as by social scientists as a new stage of global capitalism with allegedly unique qualities based on new technologies of communication and information processing. Some students of globalization claim that they do not need to know anything about what happened before 1960 because so much has changed that the past is not comparable with the present. Most of the burgeoning literature on global cities and the world-city system joins this breathless present-ism. But claims about the uniqueness of contemporary globalization can only be empirically evaluated by studying change over time, and by comparing the post–World War II wave of globalization with the great wave of international trade and investment that occurred in the last decades of the nineteenth century. All social systems have exhibited waves of spatial expansion and intensification of large interaction networks followed by contractions. Researchers should investigate which aspects of the current wave are unique and which are repetitions of earlier pulsations. Historical comparison is essential for understanding the most recent incarnation of the system of world cities.

According to theorists of global capitalism, during the 1960s the organization of economic activity entered a new period expressed by the altered structure of the world economy: the dismantling of industrial centers in the United States, Europe, and Japan; accelerated industrialization of several Third


World nations; and increased internationalization of the financial industry into a global network of transactions. With the emerging spatial organization of the "new international division of labor," John Friedmann identified a set of theses known as the "world city hypotheses" concerning the contradictory relations between production in the era of global management and political determination of territorial interests. Saskia Sassen and others have further elaborated the "global city hypotheses." Global cities, it is argued, have acquired new functions beyond acting as centers of international trade and banking. They have become: concentrated command points in the organization of the world-economy that use advanced telecommunication facilities, important centers for finance and specialized producer service firms, coordinators of state power, sites of innovative post-Fordist forms of industrialization and production, and markets for the products and innovations produced. During the 1990s New York City specialized in equity trading, London in currency trading, and Tokyo in large bank deposits. Jon Beaverstock, Peter Taylor, and Richard Smith use Sassen's focus on producer services to classify 55 cities as alpha, beta, or gamma world cities based on the presence of accountancy, advertising, banking/finance, and law firms (see Figure 1). The website of the Globalization and World Cities Study Group and Network at Loughborough University is a valuable resource for the study of systems of world cities.

The most important assertion in the global cities literature is the idea that global cities are cooperating with each other more than world cities did in earlier periods. The most relevant earlier period is that of the Pax Britannica, especially the last decades of the nineteenth century. If this hypothesis is correct, the division of labor and institutionalized cooperative linkages between contemporary New York City, London, and Tokyo should be greater than were similar linkages between London, Paris, Berlin, and New York City in the nineteenth century. Obviously communications technologies were not as developed in the nineteenth century, though intercontinental telegraph cables had already been laid, and Japan was not yet a core power in the world-system. But support for the hypothesis would require fuller investigation of the nature and strength of coordination among nineteenth-century world cities.

Another important hypothesis of the global cities literature is based on Sassen's (1991) observations about class polarization and the part-time and temporary employment within globalizing cities. The research of Gareth Stedman Jones on Irish immigration into London's East End in the nineteenth century shows that a somewhat similar process of peripheralization of the core was occurring during the Pax Britannica.

Analyzing Global Cities

Much of the research on the global city system is based on case studies of particular cities that seek to identify the processes leading to their emergence and positioning within the larger system. Janet Abu-Lughod traces the developmental histories of New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles through their upward mobility in the world city system. While these U.S. metropolises share similar characteristics with other world cities, they have substantial differences in geography, original economic functions, transportation, and political history and serve as fascinating cases for comparative analyses of globalization.

With appropriate data, social network analysis can be a valuable tool for studying the webs of flows and connections among cities, including flows of capital, commodities, information, and people. Network analysis produces quantitative indicators of structural characteristics of networks and of nodes (cities) within networks. For example, measures of network centrality are useful for examining the hierarchical aspects of the world city system. Quantitative measurement of the structures of connections and dominance relations among cities–whether these are based on links to global commodity chains, international business, financial and monetary transactions, or critical flows of information, can provide an important window on change over time in the global urban hierarchy.

The data necessary for analyzing the structure of the world city system are difficult to obtain because most statistical information is aggregated at the national level rather than at the city level. But researchers are making heroic efforts to locate data on characteristics of and interactions among cities. For example, using airline passenger flows between the world's leading cities for 1977 through 1997, David Smith and Michael Timberlake offer evidence of change in the structure of the world city system. These data estimate the frequency of face-to-face contacts among corporate executives, government officials, international financiers, and entrepreneurs that grease the wheels of global production, finance, and commerce. Among other findings, their results place London, New York City, and Tokyo at the top of the global city hierarchy, supporting Sassen's views. Further, while many core cities continue to occupy central positions in the global hierarchy, network roles of other cities have shifted during this time. Latin American world cities have declined in their central positioning and strength in network linkages, while Asian cities and secondary cities on the West Coast of the United States (the Pacific Rim) have moved into more central positions within the world city system.

Settlement systems continue to be a fundamental framework for the analysis of social change. The megacities in powerful and more minor countries, and the high density of cities on most continents that is revealed by satellite photos of city lights at night would seem to portend Isaac Asimov's Trantor, a planet entirely encased by a single steel-covered city. But if the reaction against twentieth-century globalization resembles the reaction against nineteenth-century globalization, the Earth's settlement system may be soon facing difficulties that even Asimov did not envision. The global village needs to invent mechanisms of integration that can transcend the centrifugal forces that have so often beset the modern system of cities in recent centuries.

See also: Central Place Theory; Cities: Future; Density and Distribution of Population; Geography, Population; Geopolitics; Urbanization.


Abu-Lughod, Janet L. 1999. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America's Global Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Baum, Scott. 1997. "Sydney, Australia: A Global City? Testing the Social Polarization Thesis." Urban Studies 34(11): 1881–1901.

Beaverstock, Jon V., Peter J. Taylor, and Richard G. Smith. 1999. "A Roster of World Cities." Cities 16: 445–458.

Brenner, Neil. 1998. "Global Cities, Global States: Global City Formation and State Territorial Restructuring in Contemporary Europe." Review of International Political Economy 5: 1–37.

Chase-Dunn, Christopher. 1992. "The Changing Role of Cities in World-Systems." In World Society Studies, ed. Volker Bornschier and Peter Lengyel. Frankfurt and New York: Campus Verlag.

Friedmann, John. 1986. "The World City Hypothesis." Development and Change 17: 69–84.

——. 1995. "Where We Stand: A Decade of World City Research." In World Cities in a World-System, ed. Paul Knox and Peter Taylor. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Grosfoguel, Ramon. 1994. "World Cities in the Caribbean: the Rise of Miami and San Juan." Review 17: 351–381.

Hall, Peter. 1996. "The Global City." International Social Science Journal 48: 15–23.

Jones, Gareth Stedman. A Study in the Relationship Between Classes in Victorian Society. Part 1: The London Labour Market and the Causal Labour Problem. London: Penguin.

Kowarick, L., and M. Campanario. 1986. "San Paulo: the Price of World City Status." Development and Change 17: 159–174.

Machimura, Takashi. 1992. "The Urban Restructuring Process in the 1980s: Transforming Tokyo into a World City." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 16: 114–128.

Sassen, Saskia. 1991 and 2001. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. 2nd edition Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

——. 2000. Cities in a World Economy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Slater, Eric. 2000. "The Return of the Capitalist City: Global Urbanism in Historical Perspective." Ph.D. diss., State University New York, Binghamton.

Smith, David A. 2000. "Urbanization in the World-System: A Retrospective and Prospective." In A World-Systems Reader: New Perspectives On Gender, Urbanism, Cultures, Indigenous Peoples, And Ecology, ed. Thomas D. Hall. Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield.

Smith, David A., and Michael Timberlake. 1995. "Cities in Global Matrices: Toward Mapping the World-System's City System." In World Cities in a World-System, ed. Paul L. Knox and Peter J. Taylor. New York: Cambridge University Press.

——. 1998. "Cities and the Spatial Articulation of the World Economy through Air Travel." In Space and Transport in the World-System, ed. Paul Ciccantell and Stephen G. Bunker. West-port, CT: Greenwood Press.

——. 2001. "World City Networks and Hierarchies, 1977–1997: An Empirical Analysis of Global Air Travel Links." American Behavioral Scientist 44: 1,656–1,678.

Todd, Graham. 1995. "Going Global in the Semi-periphery: World Cities as Political Projects, the Case of Toronto." In World Cities in a World-System, ed. Paul L. Knox and Peter J. Taylor. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Yeoh, Brenda. 1999. "Global/Globalizing Cities." Progress In Human Geography 23: 607–616.

internet resource.

Globalization and World Cities Study Group and Network, Loughborough University. 2002. <>.

Christopher Chase-Dunn

Andrew Jorgenson