What Cities Need in the Global Economy

To thrive in today’s world, they need to connect with immigrants.
September 2016
(Shutterstock)
By Aaron M. Renn  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute

The globalized economy is about the networked flows of goods, services, capital and talent. What hobbled so many post-Industrial cities’ ability to reinvent their economies is that they were not connected to these global flows. This lack of a connection has left cities like Cleveland and Detroit as “cul-de-sacs of globalization,” in the words of geographer Jim Russell.

Today, of course, most cities recognize the importance of connections to global flows and are working to make sure they are part of the right networks. One small way they do this is through conferences, both hosting them and attending them. I attended two recent global urban conferences, the Chicago Forum on Global Cities and the latest iteration of the New Cities Summit in Montreal, and got to see this in action.

As with many such conferences, the content was almost secondary to the connections made. Both had attendance from all over the world. So while it was good to hear about developments in national and international urbanism, civic tech and other trendy topics, I got more out of chatting with the people I met there. And by hosting these global conferences, Chicago and Montreal helped enrich their own global connectivity.

One of the most important ways for cities to get connected is through migration. Jim Russell and his collaborator Richey Piiparinen at Cleveland State University’s Center for Population Dynamics have been documenting how Cleveland has been getting more connected to the global world through this process. This includes foreign immigration but isn’t limited to that. A key part of it is the influx into places like Cleveland of people who have lived in major global cities like New York, then cycled out.

There are many reasons for this kind of migration, but living costs are certainly one of them. America’s major global urban centers have become extraordinarily expensive to live in. Life in a “microapartment” in New York is less attractive when you are in your 30s and married with kids than it is when you are 22, single and fresh out of college.

What Rust Belt cities like Cleveland can offer is an authentic urban experience in a genuinely historic place at a price that can’t be beat. No one will mistake it for life in Brooklyn, but these cities’ price/performance ratio has a growing appeal, as their downtown population growth shows.

Newcomers from global cities are bringing more than just a desire to save on the rent. They are bringing international connections and ideas to Cleveland and other cities, connecting them to the global economy in ways that these places were not connected before. And they are laying down new “migration pathways” that will help to grow that connectivity in the future.

But while greater connectivity for cities big and small is something to be celebrated, we need to be careful not to fall prey to illusory versions of it. It’s no secret that we live in an increasingly segmented and divided society. The hyper-personalized nature of social media like Facebook and Twitter can give us the feeling that we are tapped into the zeitgeist, but too often it’s really just the opinions of hermetically sealed networks of people who, wherever they might live, already think just like us.

One need only look at the United Kingdom’s recent vote in favor of leaving the European Union. With the exception of the U.K. Independence Party, whose entire raison d’être was getting Britain out of the EU, the leaders of all of the country’s major parties as well as the vast bulk of the business establishment supported the option to remain. Yet 52 percent of the voters felt otherwise.

The British establishment clearly was not very connected to what was going on in its own country. At the Chicago Forum, which took place prior to the Brexit vote, British speakers assured the audience that London wanted to stay in the EU. Yet 40 percent of Londoners voted for the “Leave” option. That’s a not-insignificant minority of the population of one of the world’s foremost global cities. It turns out that quite a large number of Londoners weren’t that well connected even to what was going on in their own city.

This connection deficit is also true of much of the urban intelligentsia. While they may be favorably disposed to ethnic minorities and immigrants, for example, the ones they spend a lot of time chatting with are part of the same educated global class. As essayist Nassim Taleb has observed, they “never went out drinking with a minority cab driver.”

So attending a global conference or living in a newly gentrified neighborhood in the reviving center of a city does not always provide all the connections we need. As Piiparinen puts it, “The paradox … is that the more a city returns, the greater the number who get left behind.” If those who are connected to the global economy don’t work to be an on-ramp for those in their communities who aren’t, this divergence will ultimately fuel even greater social destabilization.