Alternative Globalization in ‘Ordinary Cities’

by René Boer

Tunis, Tunisia, site of the 2013 World Social Forum. Source: Paix & Développement

On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of people will gather in Tunis for the World Social Forum (WSF). They plan to discuss alternatives to capitalist globalization, in response to widespread economic and ecological problems wrought through market-oriented development over the past thirty years. The WSF has taken place annually since 2001, inspiring national and regional versions in cities throughout Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia and South America. These forums have become important congregation points for the alter-globalization movement, and their locations reveal a striking counterpoint to those of "global cities."

A map of World Social Forums (green) and their regional counterparts (pink), by René Boer.

Saskia Sassen coined the term "global cities" in reference to increasingly interconnected nodes of worldwide economic and political influence. Periodic reports like the Globalization and World Cities (GaWC) Classification or the Foreign Policy Global Cities Index tend to designate London, New York and Tokyo most influential, followed by cities like Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Paris, Zurich, Chicago and Seoul. Cities in lower-income countries are disproportionately scarce among the top 25, which contrasts sharply with the nodes of global social movements.

The 2011 World Social Forum in Dakar. Source: Abdullah Vawda

Jennifer Robinson, Aihwa Ong and Ananya Roy criticize "global cities" rankings that concentrate on the development trajectories of relatively few cities in the highest-income countries. Such hierarchies dominate contemporary thinking on urbanization and shape policy in not-so-global cities, aimed at "catching up" with the command centers. Robinson's notion of "ordinary cities" highlights the unique histories, current situations and future possibilities of all urban areas. While not discounting the importance of examining global cities, this idea opens a much wider range of options for research and policy.

The 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai. Source: Claudio Riccio

Research on less-dominant cities often takes the form of local case studies with limited scope. Broader lateral networks, interactions and mutual experiences among them receive less attention. Robinson points to alternative globalization processes taking shape among ordinary cities and shaping their development paths. Migration patterns, criminal networks and religious movements, for example, forge new relationships between cities and exert considerable influence at local scales. In a similar way, the recent emergence and distribution of social forums has created an alternative urban constellation. The networks of activists meeting in ordinary cities of different sizes, cultures and regions prove that these places can be "global" in their own way.

René Boer (@rene_boer_) recently graduated from the University College London Urban Laboratory and currently works for Failed Architecture in Amsterdam.

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