The Megacity III

This is Part III of an article about how world cities—such as Seattle—are more closely tied financially to other world cities such as Shenzhen, China, than they are to neighboring Spokane or Tacoma.

SeattleSeattle, Washington

By EMILY BADGER  Dec. 24, 2017 for The New York Times

Inventing ‘New Stuff’ Before Anyone Can Catch Up

People in Rust Belt towns where Google has no office still use the search giant. Facebook and Twitter still require physical assets in server farms. Uber, a quintessential Bay Area company that is both global and digital, operates in about 250 American cities.

But these kinds of ties aren’t truly spreading the Bay Area’s prosperity. Server farms don’t create mass middle-class employment. Using Google isn’t the same as having a hand in engineering it.

Yes, Uber’s innovation eventually reaches smaller cities in Texas and Ohio. “But the economic benefits of it are at Uber headquarters,” said Michael Storper, an economic geographer at U.C.L.A. “The people who got rich off of it are not going to be in the small area. They’re going to be where it’s invented.”

To put it more harshly, when global cities need other communities today, Ms. Sassen said, it’s often to extract value out of them. New York bankers need Middle America’s mortgages to construct securities. San Francisco start-ups need idle cars everywhere to amass billion-dollar valuations. Online retail giants need cheap land for their warehouses.

The rest of the country may receive the innovations that flow out of global cities, and the benefits to consumers are real. “But by the time that’s done, the cities have already invented something new and made themselves richer again,” Mr. Storper said. “Before anywhere else can catch up, San Francisco has already leapt ahead again with new stuff they’ve invented.”

The advantages bestowed by the global economy keep compounding from there. Research by Filipe Campante at Harvard and David Yanagizawa-Drott at the University of Zurich finds that when two cities are linked by direct flights across the globe, business links between them increase as well, such that places with more connections grow more economically. Those economic benefits, though, don’t appear to touch places more than 100 miles beyond the airport.

Shenzhen-650x260Shenzhen, China

“The Torontos, Ottawas and Waterloos in countries like Canada and the U.S., they will link with Shenzhen in China, they will link with Munich and Stockholm in Europe,” Mr. Bathelt said. “And other places will be kind of left out.”

Greg Spencer, another researcher at the University of Toronto, has analyzed the global footprints of the world’s 500 largest firms in advanced industries like machinery, digital services and life sciences — mapping their headquarters, regional offices, manufacturing plants, warehouses, retail stores.

In the international network that emerges, global cities stand out. Other places connect to the global economy by going through them.

“I keep coming back to the idea that a lot of this is about power,” Mr. Spencer said. He means relative power — which places are gaining or losing it as the geography of the economy shifts, too. “Not only are they losing their power,” he said of the places left out, “but they’re losing their connection to the power centers as well.”

That dynamic also leaves smaller places at the mercy of global cities, where decisions are made about which plants to close or where to create new jobs. And so Tulsa, Buffalo and Tucson turn to Seattle as supplicants for a windfall of Amazon jobs. None of them have what Amazon really wants, though: an international airport with daily direct flights to Seattle, the Bay Area, New York and Washington.

Emily Badger writes about cities and urban policy for The Upshot from the San Francisco bureau. [The Upshot provides news, analysis and graphics about politics, policy and everyday life for the NY Times.] She’s particularly interested in housing, transportation and inequality — and how they’re all connected. She joined the Times in 2016 from The Washington Post. @emilymbadger

This concludes this three-part article.

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