The rapid population growth in second-tier global cities

The biggest cities in the world aren’t the only ones that are growing:

Megacities like Tokyo and Sao Paolo grab headlines, but the fastest population growth is happening in a group of global second-tier cities, which are easier for rural populations to reach and are safer and less intimidating than the megacities, many of which are surrounded by vast slums, Sassen said.

Three of the world’s fastest-growing cities with populations over 5 million are in Africa. Four are in China, two are in India and one in the Middle East. (One megacity, Beijing, is growing at a rate of 4.6 percent a year).

They are places like Suzhou, China, Surat, India and Kinshasha, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or, take Luanda. If Americans have heard of it, it’s probably from images of a nearly 30-year-long civil war that overtook the southwest African country after independence from Portugal. After 10 years of peace, Angola’s oil, gas, diamonds and other mineral resources are fueling a building boom…

The fastest-growing cities are adding hundreds of thousands to their populations each year. Luanda, for instance, is expected to grow again next year by 4 percent, according to a United Nations report. That’s more than 400,000 people, or about the same number who live in Miami.

Not everyone can live and work in the biggest global cities. Mid-sized cities can contain a large number of people while offering some of the features of urban life without the largest-scale populations and problems. Take the United States as an example: the top three cities may get a lot of attention but most Americans do not live in these regions. (Roughly 42 million live in the New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago regions combined.)

It would be interesting to know how these second-tier cities are then connected to the biggest cities around the world. Do they also have concentrations of the finance industry? Do they act more as regional centers that provide needed services and goods for their own geographic area? This article suggests such cities are unique business opportunities; while everyone else flocks to the most well-known places, there are emerging markets in these second-tier cities.

How 46 ISO standards for world cities could be used

The International Organization for Standardization has approved a list of 46 key indicators by which to compare cities around the world:

But now, the first-ever set of ISO standards for world cities has been created. And the implications are dramatic. City policymakers will have objective standards to compare their services and performance with other cities around the world. And just as significant, the people of cities — civic, business organizations, ordinary citizens — will be able to access the same new global standards. This means they can ask city leaders tough questions, stoking debate about their own city’s performance on the basis of verified measures ranging from education to public safety to water and sanitation…

But many cities, up to now, haven’t recorded data on all those indicators. Or if they did, they were inconsistent in their precise definitions, making it difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons of cities across continents and diverse societies. Many organizations, in independent media and special interest groups, issue rankings of cities. But in 2008, when the Global Cities Indicators Facility at the University of Toronto compared rankings that had been applied to seven prominent world cities, it turned out that only six of the 1,200 indicators being applied were exactly the same.

Now, cities everywhere will have an internationally agreed upon set of standards indicating data that should be collected, and the definitions and criteria to use in collecting it. They won’t be legally required to do so, but they’re likely to be under pressure from citizen, business, academic and other groups insisting they use the ISO standards so that their performance can be benchmarked clearly against peer cities, both in-country and — in today’s increasingly globalized economy — across the globe…

A technical committee was formed. With McCarney’s institute acting as a de facto secretariat, meetings were held in urban centers from Japan to France and Britain to Canada. Comments were received from cities worldwide — “fantastic for us, really strengthening the set of indicators we started with back in 2008,” notes McCarney. The analysis winnowed down and rejuggled the list to 100 candidate indicators. Finally, 46 (see them all here) were selected as well-tested core measures that cities must report to prove they’re in conformance with the new ISO 37210 standard.

It will be interesting to see how the data is used. Here are some options:

1. The article suggests having clear points of comparison will push cities to compete. Yet, not all the cities are directly comparable. The article addresses this by suggesting there could be different tiers of comparisons – the top global cities and developing world cities shouldn’t be compared head-to-head.

2. Is this going to be another set of information that is primarily for boosters? Imagine a city in Western Europe could say that it is one of the best of the world in low levels of particulates in the air and then trumpets this in a marketing campaign. Similarly, the media might eat up this information.

3. National or international bodies could use this information to enforce certain guidelines. If there is reliable information on air pollution, outside bodies could then claim other objective standards need to be met.

4. Maybe this is primarily for academics. Consistent data across cities and countries can often be difficult to come by so having set standards and data collection could help. This could be particularly useful for tracking change in developing world cities.

Settling on how to measure data is a start but it is part of a longer process that then includes figuring out how to interpret and use such data.

Chicago stars in the new video game Watch Dogs

Curbed Chicago looks at how the city is portrayed in the new game Watch Dogs:

Chicago is finally getting a starring role in a new video game. New York, LA and Miami have all made cameos in the popular Grand Theft Auto series, but a new game called Watch Dogs will take place in an Orwellian version of Chicago. Although the scale and placement of buildings is not completely accurate, the graphics are quite surprising and this semi-fictional city depicted in the game definitely looks like our fair city. Some of the Chicago icons spotted in this promo video include famous buildings like the Willis Tower, the Trump Tower, the John Hancock Center, the Aqua Tower, and Marina City.

The pictures look pretty accurate.

So why doesn’t Chicago get more video game love? Do other American cities have glitzier and more worldly facades that are well-suited to garish video game scenes or dystopian scenes? Maybe all that Midwestern charm, winter weather, and gleaming International style architecture simply isn’t entertaining enough. Chicago may be the #7 global city but not necessarily for video game purposes.

Chicago again named #7 global city

Curbed Chicago highlights the 2014 A.T. Kearney rankings which again have Chicago at #7 in its Global Cities Index:


Chicago has recently been named the 7th most globally integrated city in the world according to management consulting firm A.T. Kearney’s latest Global Cities Index. Five North American cities made the list, including New York (1), Los Angeles (6), Washington (10) and Toronto (13).

As the article notes, Chicago has been roughly in the same position for a number of years. But, I’m not sure I agree with this:

It appears that Chicago has played it safe, maintaining a solid position over the last few years, and not making any major changes in position.

What is the evidence for this? Perhaps the important question to ask is how much a city might realistically be able to move up or down the rankings within a year or a few years. Major changes that would heavily impact the five criteria happen infrequently, some change takes quite a bit of time, and the other cities are doing things as well even as things are happening in Chicago. Also, we might ask whether it is valuable for a big city to chase such rankings versus do the things that are best for the city and its citizens.

Height battle between Willis Tower and One World Trade Center reveals each city’s insecurities

One World Trade Center may have been officially declared the tallest building in the United States but one writer argues the debate is really about Chicago’s and New York City’s insecurities:

What this whole thing really measures isn’t the size of a pair of buildings—it’s the size of each city’s insecurity. New York has its hollow confidence, and Chicago has its inferiority complex. Each is painful, but both can be soothed by the balm of the biggest building. Helpful reminder: The reason that Western Hemisphere asterisk has to be applied to the Willis / World Trade debate is because, among the tallest buildings worldwide, these two barely make the top 10.

The tallest building thing is just a stand-in for the real question: Which is the better city? You’ll need a different kind of Council on Urban Habitat to really get to the bottom of that.

Which is the better city? New York City is consistently ranked as the #1 global city. New York has more glamor, more of the global financial industry, more people than other cities in the United States, and one of the most impressive concentrations of people, buildings, and wealth in Manhattan. Chicago has its place as the quintessential American city (from its explosive growth in the late 1800s, its place as a transportation hub, the birthplace of numerous financial industry and commodity trade inventions, and its contrasts of wealth and poverty) and architecture.

But, all places have imperfections. See an earlier post about Chicago’s insecurities. And, it also depends on which other cities are in the comparisons: New York City is commonly compared to the world’s greatest cities including London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. Chicago, on the other hand, contends with two larger U.S. cities (including Los Angeles, a city that doesn’t seem to get caught up in these debates) and perhaps the next tier of global cities.

How exactly a building settles these concerns is beyond me. As the article notes, there are other buildings around the world – in some that rank lower on the scale of global cities, places like Dubai, Mecca, and Shenzhen – that are as tall or taller.

New York City seeing a rise in super-rich mansions (not McMansions)

Curbed highlights a Gizmodo story about “McMansions” in New York City – and both get it wrong as these new homes are far beyond McMansions:

But developers may be reaching a breaking point in Manhattan, where warehouses are being bought to build $100 million single-family homes.

A handful of real estate stories this week question whether NYC is reaching peak development. First off, we have a mind-boggling report about the rise of single-family “palaces” in Manhattan. According to the New York Times, the super-rich are buying up warehouses, parking garages, and other commercial buildings to turn them into gigantic McMansion-style homes (including what will soon become the largest single-family home in the city). According to one broker, the new “benchmark” price is going to be $100 million, as opposed to the almost austere $50 million buyers expected to pay a few years ago.

It’s one thing to get rid of warehouses and garages—but another set of trend pieces alert us of a more problematic trend: The disappearance of gas stations in the city. As developers strive to find new plots of land that can be rebuilt from the ground up, they’re buying up gas stations left and right. We’ve covered at least one of these developments before, but according to the NYT and the Village Voice, it’s becoming a problem for cab drivers who can’t always find a station in time.

Note: the New York Times article cited above which starts with the story of a new 40,000 square foot home does not use the term McMansion. Calling them McMansions is just wrong; these are unusually large and expensive homes that go far beyond the typical, mass-produced, large suburban home.

More on these new homes from the New York Times:

“The town-house buyer doesn’t want a multi-unit condominium that is mass-produced,” said Wendy Maitland, a senior managing director of sales at Town Residential, who just closed a deal on a town house at 45 East 74th Street for $26 million. “This is an entirely private home, built for the lifestyle of someone who has multiple staff, a private driver. These people do not need a doorman, and they aren’t sharing amenities.”

Such buyers don’t exactly need a discount, but the value of private homes compared with condominiums is a draw anyway. “There is a gap in the marketplace — mansions are an area that is undervalued,” said Louis Buckworth, a broker at the Corcoran Group. He recently represented the British real estate magnate Christian Candy in buying a $35 million 30-foot-wide mansion for his family on the Upper East Side. (“Mansion” is typically defined as a town house at least 25 feet wide.) Mr. Candy’s new home, at 17,000 square feet, cost less than $2,100 a square foot. Meanwhile, “an 11,000-square-foot apartment at One57,” said Mr. Buckworth, referring to the glass tower in Midtown that Extell Development is building, “sold for $10,000 a square foot, making what we paid a joke.”

McMansion owners may want similar things – privacy, more space – but these homes are a step above.

Interestingly, even with their size and price, they tend to compare favorably to expensive homes in other global cities:

And for many buyers — especially foreigners who see real estate as more affordable in New York than in cities like London or Hong Kong — the numbers are eye-catching. Mr. Candy, for example, just sold a $250 million apartment in London and a $400 million home in Monaco, Mr. Buckworth said. “So as a foreigner, you say to yourself: ‘I can spend £20 million for an average-size flat in London, or get a mansion in prime Manhattan.’ And you can see why these numbers aren’t going to be particularly scary.”

So instead of pitching the story on Curbed and Gizmodo as the excesses of the American wealthy in New York City, this could be told as a story of relative value for big homes in a major global city. Same data, different contexts and narratives. Just bringing up the word McMansion implies selfish owners out to live in ostentatious homes.

“Why do we believe North America’s biggest cities are dangerous when they are, in fact, among the safest places in the world?”

Just how dangerous are North American cities?

Why do we believe North America’s biggest cities are dangerous when they are, in fact, among the safest places in the world? In large part, because it was once true: For most of the 20th century (and a good part of the 19th), our big cities really were dangerous. Murders, muggings, armed robberies and sexual assaults were big-city phenomena, and the way to escape physical danger was to move away. Today, the opposite is true.

If you really want to find murder city, you need to get out of North America. The most violent cities in the world are places that used to be small and peaceful, but have very recently become huge cities. And no wonder: The cities of the Southern and Eastern hemispheres are doing today what our cities did a century ago: Absorbing huge, formerly rural populations. In 50 years, Kinshasa has grown from 500,000 to 8 million people; Istanbul from 900,000 to 12 million…

“The twenty-first century,” it concludes, “is witness to a crisis of urban violence.” The two billion people becoming city-dwellers are facing the “urban dilemma” – they realize that moving to the city is an improvement in their lives by most known measures, but it does expose them to greater risk and danger. So while urbanization has cut world poverty in half and lifted billions out of starvation, the hives of crime and danger in the city are preventing the next step into prosperity: “This dark side of urbanization threatens to erase its potential to stimulate growth, productivity and economic dividends.”

By no means is this inevitable. Cities are not naturally more violent: Yes, Caracas and Cape Town have horrendous murder rates. On the other hand, very densely-populated cities such as Dhaka and Mumbai have rates below their national averages – they are actually safer places to live than the villages migrants are leaving behind. In poor countries, and here in the West, the really huge cities are often much safer than the small and medium-sized ones, where the real corruption and danger lie. In India, which has been galvanized by a rape crisis in the fast-urbanizing north, new research shows that rates of sexual assault and rape remain higher in rural areas. And we have learned from Brazil and South Africa that big, bold interventions can make dangerous cities safer.

It is helpful to keep a global perspective on this issue. What counts as violent is relative: Americans tend to compare their cities to other American big cities, perhaps within regions or to the biggest cities in the country.

Another reason our big cities are seen as violent: urban violence is a consistent media story, even as violent crime rates have dropped in many cities.

Houston a relatively unknown city despite being the 4th biggest in the US

An interesting profile of Houston as the “next great American city” includes this bit about how the city is viewed:

If nothing else, the Kinder Institute’s reports underscore how little the country really knows about Houston. Is it, as most New Yorkers and Californians assume, a cultural wasteland? “The only time this city hits the news is when we get a hurricane!” complains James Harithas, director of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. “People have no idea.” Its image in the outside world is stuck in the 1970s, of a Darwinian frontier city where business interests rule, taxation and regulation are minimal, public services are thin and the automobile is worshiped. “This was boomtown America,” says Klineberg of the giddy oil years. “While the rest of the country was in recession, we were seen as wealthy, arrogant rednecks, with bumper stickers that read, ‘Drive 70 and freeze a Yankee.’” Today, he adds, “Houston has become integrated into the U.S. and global economies, but we still like to think we’re an independent country. We contribute to the image!”

Several thoughts about Houston’s profile:

1. Part of the issue may be that Houston is trying to join the group of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles that has been set for decades. Houston is the newcomer and perhaps besides oil, doesn’t yet have the broad appeal these other three have. Plus, these top three are world-class cities, top ten global cities, and that comparison can be harsh.

2. It sounds like Houston could benefit from a strengthened booster campaign. Cities often have to sell themselves and their assets. This requires business, civic, and political leaders (the growth machine) to band together behind some common appeals. What might draw people to Houston? What would attract businesses and tourists?

3. I wonder if there is some conflict between being part of Texas and being from Houston. From the outside, perhaps particularly from the coasts, it is easier to lump all of Texas together, even though it has a variety of communities (some big differences between Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio). Additionally, Texans tend to like to play up the uniqueness of their state. Compare this to cities like Chicago where there is a very sharp divide between the metropolitan region and “downstate.” Perhaps Houston needs more of a city-state mentality to separate it from Texas.

Arguing over whether spires and antennas at top of skyscrapers count for a building’s height

There is an ongoing argument, including this opinion piece from a “Chicago partisan,” about what at the top of a skyscraper should count toward the building’s official height. The latest round of argument involves the new World Trade Center building:

So far, nothing is official: the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the international organization of skyscraper engineers, designers and builders that certifies a building’s height, will weigh in only when One World Trade Center is completed. At an expected, historically symbolic 1,776 feet, the New York tower seems to have a solid claim.

But Chicagoans who live in the shadow of the 1,451-foot tall Willis Tower, which has held the title of nation’s tallest for some 40 years, should cry foul — because deciding just how tall a building is turns out to be more complicated than it might seem…

The council has three categories for measuring the heights of tall buildings: height to “architectural top,” “highest occupied floor” and “height to tip.” This may seem like splitting hairs, but the differences can be considerable.

The meanings of “height to tip” and “highest occupied floor” are self-evident. But “architectural top,” the category the council uses to officially crown the tallest building, is less clear; it includes “spires,” but not “antennas, signage, flag poles or other functional-technical equipment.” This wording deliberately makes the short, pointy tops of the Petronas Towers count, but leaves out the much taller antennas that crown the Willis Tower.

The way this argument is going, it seems like city partisans want to change the definition of building heights in a way that best advantages their tallest structure. Why? This is more about status and prestige than anything else. The city with the official tallest building can claim something about themselves. Certain cities, like Chicago and New York, are known for their skylines and have historically dominated this international race.

I’m not sure why exactly this matters for certain cities. On the one hand, these tallest buildings can dominate a skyline. Being at the top of the record books can bring some attention, though it is unclear what exactly it leads to. On the other hand, the square footage of residential or commercial space that one building can add doesn’t make or break a business district (unless, perhaps, it is the only really tall building). Also, the tallest building can be built nearly anywhere, whether in New York, Chicago, Kuala Lumpur, or Dubai. Does the tallest building really signal architectural or engineering competence? Doesn’t it tell us something that not every major or global city is chasing this record?

In other words, this might be a record that only a few cities and boosters really care about.

Five experts weigh in on global flight-path maps

An art critic, environmentalist, aviation consultant, data visualization expert, and philosopher offer some interpretations of global flight-path maps.

From the art critic:

It’s almost like contemporary fractalisation – based on fractals, those beautiful divisions of science and nature. A number of artists have exploited them. Max Ernst based a lot of his surreal landscapes on fractalisation.

From the aviation consultant:

Europe looks so bright because it has so many short-haul flights. It’s also one of the busiest global markets and there are several hubs in relatively close proximity in Europe: Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and London…

What we’re going to see in a few years is more connections between Asia and Africa, and South America and Africa, along with more “south-south” trade.

From the expert in data visualization:

You can see the density of the flights, but it doesn’t show you how many people are travelling on them. You could do that by colouring them differently.

From the philosopher:

We are not seeing the life of individual human beings, but the life of the species as a whole, as if the species was one organism, pulsating like a jellyfish. Maybe it represents our collective existence?

Interesting thoughts all around. The quote above from the philosopher is right on in that maps like these allows us to see larger patterns and how we are all connected. It is not just about the flow of passengers or cargo back and forth but also about how these flight paths connect us. The maps could also serve as a proxy for global power and business activity. I remember seeing work from sociologist Zachary Neal along these lines. Take a look at his publications involving cities, networks, and airplanes here.