Friday, February 28, 2003

In the discussion going on about urban agglomeration in response to the long rugby League post, Tony has some comments on the historical and cultural factors that make some cities different than others. (This started out as a follow up comment, but got a little too long). While I obviously agree that culture and history are vital, I am not sure that he is necessarily right about the differences between Europe and America.

I am not sure I agree that European cites built up and not out as much as he thinks. For one thing, European cities aren't generally built up very much. The centres of European cities are much flatter than American cities - high rise is largely an American and Asian thing. European densities are often higher, but the suburbs of some European cities can be immense. This is true of Paris, London, and various other places. (The suburbs of European cities are often served by rail as much as road, however). The population table I linked to attempts to rectify the fact that suburbs are not properly accounted for in more conventional measurements: one consequence of this is that some of its numbers are much larger than more conventional measurements of city population. This is no less true for European cities than it is of American cities. It is also true of Asian cities: Tokyo is one of the most rail served cities on the planet, but including its suburbs increases the population enormously: from about 20 million to a staggering 35 million. (It is truly an awesome place). (Tokyo has had a legal situation that has encouraged the construction of private urban railways. This has consequently encouraged the construction of suburbs). Europe and Asia probably have denser suburbs than the US, but the cities have still grown out. A lot.

Tony also comments on the arrogance and ignorance of cities claiming to be the centre of the world, and not paying much attention to anywhere else. My feelings on this are that in some cases it is more true than other cases. Sydney, Australia, is constantly proclaiming iteself to be a "world city". One fact that is invariably true is that "cities that feel the need to proclaim themselves world cities really aren't". Sydney falls a long way short in my opinion.

As to what I think genuinely are "world cities", I will say London definitely, New York definitely, Tokyo definitely, and they are really the only ones I can think of without any reservations, although Hong Kong is reasonably close, and Bombay and Shanghai are possibly world cities of the future. (There is a mixture of cultural and economic factors together that is needed. I have another post in gestation that discusses this in more detail). The thing about California is that everything that is necessary exist somewhere in the state, but not all together. Broadly, greater Los Angeles falls short economically, and the Bay Area falls short culturally. A fusion of the two cities together I think might just about qualify. I think that cities that are old enough to have large traditional downtown areas find this easier. One trouble with the Bay Area is that San Francisco is beautiful, but it just isn't that big. It's almost a toy downtown, at least by the standards of Manhattan or central Tokyo, or central London, or even Chicago.

All that said, one of the most impressive things about the US is the fact that urban amenities are much better spread throughout the country than is the case in many other countries. Things like good shopping, by which a mean a very wide choice of high quality products readily available, decent cultural life, and such indicators as the ability to buy a decent cup of coffee, are much more widely available in the US than in most countries. America somehow manages to spread things that are often only available in the biggest cities in other countries far and wide. (One reason for this is I think the fact that American culture and the American legal and regulatory system makes it easy for businesses to rapidly expand throughout the country, whereas this is less true elsewhere). More thoughts on this will come in another post I am working on.

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