The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

What role do city networks play in international development?

In the world's wealthy regions, economic activity is articulated through networks uniting cities around the world--road, rail, shipping, airlines, and telecommunications. If that is so, then shouldn't we also be looking to intercity networks as the key to international development, and not the good governance agenda?

Kerwin Datu

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Nairobi, Lagos, Johannesburg

Topics: Development, Global cities

International development agencies like the World Bank devote their energies to working with national governments throughout developing regions like sub-Saharan Africa, hoping to pull whole regions out of poverty across the board, and at the same time. Yet 'development', however defined, cannot spring forth across a whole continent simultaneously; development is a process that spreads out spatially, spilling out from key urban centres into surrounding cities.

For example, we often tell ourselves that China is rapidly developing, but geographically this is untrue. The coastal corridor has developed apace, propelled by the industrial engines of the Beijing, Shanghai and Pearl River regions. Now that these regions have matured, China's governments are now focused on the inland band of cities, looking for a second wave of miraculous growth.

The same will be true of sub-Saharan Africa. Despite all the attention given to liberalising national markets and overcoming corruption across the continent, I suspect that truly sustainable economic development is a process that will begin in the clusters of cities surrounding Lagos in the west (such as Abidjan and Accra), Johannesburg in the south (including Gaborone and Maputo), and Nairobi in the east (Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Addis Ababa, Kigali). The African Development Bank is applying itself to these clusters with its regional integration strategy, though it receives little help from the outside world on this score.

What I am proposing follows in the footsteps of Jane Jacobs' Cities and the Wealth of Nations, and the more recent work of Peter Taylor and the Globalization and World Cities research network in Loughborough, UK. (One of its researchers, Oli Mould, wrote about creative cities on these pages earlier this month.) Jacobs and Taylor both propose that we see the world's economy not as a mosaic of nations, but as a network of cities. I am proposing that we see international development in the same way: as a process that spreads from city-region to city-region, from Osaka to Fukuoka, from Shanghai to Hefei, and one day from Nairobi to Mogadishu.

These ideas also follow those of sociologists Manuel Castells and Saskia Sassen, authors of The Rise of the Network Society and The Global City respectively. In advanced economies like North America and Europe, economic activity is conducted along intercity networks through the technologies of globalised capitalism — interurban road, rail, shipping and airline networks, and electronic communications and banking systems.

If economies of wealthy regions are articulated along intercity networks, then surely developing the world's poorer regions requires integrating them into the same networks. For regions to participate in today's global economy, they must develop urban nodes to fix the flow of global capital within themselves. Not only are their cities crucial for their development, so too are their linkages with other cities.

This takes the emphasis off the good governance agenda, off the role of national budgets (through which foreign aid is channelled) and onto regional cooperation and the quality of infrastructure and economic ties between cities.

I am describing this hypothesis here partly to receive your feedback. I have recently been given the opportunity to conduct research along these lines over the coming years, and I know that there are many readers of The Global Urbanist who are academics in development and geography, or work in international development agencies such as the World Bank, who will have ideas, suggestions and countertheories to offer. I would be very grateful to hear your responses; please get in touch with me through our contact page. If you are so inclined, you may wish to write an extended response which we can publish as a letter or article.