The World-Cities of the Global Age

Diana L. Eck

Cover of Harvard Design Magazine Issue 50

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50: Today’s Global


Lewis Mumford in introducing his now-classic study The City in History wrote, “This book opens with a city that was, symbolically, a world: it closes with a world that has become, in many practical aspects, a city.”1 He saw among the chief functions of the city the conversion of energy into culture. Indeed, the city of old was the anchor of the surrounding culture and synonymous with it. However in the decades since he wrote, the energies of cities have been fueled by an increasingly diverse population with increasingly diverse cultures. Cities are the very places where we see the effects of global migration and face the questions of identity in a complex multicultural society. Today there are a multitude of cities that are, symbolically, the world with all its diversity. Not just New York and London, but Minneapolis and Leeds are today’s world-cities. And the globalization of people, communications, and transportation has created a world that is, in many ways, a city.

What do cities tell us about the challenges we face today? The earliest hieroglyphic symbol of a city was a circle with a cross in it. The city was the crossroads of commerce, culture, and people and it was enclosed either literally or symbolically. As Robert S. Lopez writes, “The circle, in hieroglyph, indicates a moat or a wall. This need not be materially erected so long as it is morally present, to keep citizens together, sheltered from the cold, wide world, conscious of belonging to a unique team.”2 In his view, a city is not just a giant, sprawling town of indeterminate border. It is not simply an agglomeration of people, industry, and power in one place. A city is an ordered human habitation with a center, with an ethos, with a “self-image,” an “idea of itself.” What has happened to the crossroads within the circle today? The crossroads has become a network; the boundary has vanished in the era of “metropolis unbound.” Its centers are multiple. While moats and walls are in the far distant past, is there still a sense of moral belonging that binds citizens together? Is it even possible for our complex global cities to have an “idea of themselves”? Does the diversity of people amplify the energies of the city? Or threaten its coherence?

In their study “The Cultural Role of Cities,” Milton Singer and Robert Redfield write of two kinds of cities.3 The “orthogenetic” cities are those that seem to condense and represent the culture and values of a whole civilization, creating and sustaining the ethos and order of a whole society. They are cities whose names become virtually synonymous with the culture they represent—Rome, Kyoto, Varanasi, Beijing. They are what Mumford saw as a city that is symbolically the center of a cohesive world.

Singer and Redfield describe the second type of cities as “heterogenetic” because they reveal the diversity, the tensions, and the conflicts of a society. Today’s cities are increasingly heterogenic: they are generative to be sure, but they do not give expression to any coherent orthodoxy or order. They gather up the complexities, not always in harmony, but sometimes in conflict. These cities make visible the stretch marks where a whole society is giving birth to something new. And they reveal the fault lines where seeds of revolution are planted. Cities of such heterogenetic change are many in the world—Johannesburg and Los Angeles, Mumbai and Jakarta, London and Buenos Aires.

The old cities, like Varanasi, reproduce the cosmological order and make it accessible on the human plane. They have been centers of pilgrimage and world-ordering rites, the ceremonies of the gods or kings. But heterogenetic cities, like Mumbai, are more aptly expressions of the technical order. Their image is one of action: they hum and produce; they order power, production, and wealth. Their housing projects and slums are as vast as their skyscrapers are tall. Mumbai condenses the complexity of a whole subcontinent, gathering in migrants from the surrounding villages and from throughout India who constitute a migrant-majority of its 20 million people who speak 150 languages. There are no unifying orthodoxies, no cosmic plans, no links to heaven save the uplinks of satellite dishes in even the poorest neighborhoods. On display are the energies of an industrializing society, as well as the conflicts and tensions of a diverse society. As Ramesh Kumar Biswas puts it in Metropolis Now!, “The 3,000-year-old Banaras [Varanasi] can hardly bear the weight of its architectural jewelry, but Bombay is an Indian version of the Eurovision Song Contest: it has no masterpieces—it is more a laboratory for the fusion of Indian identities.”4 He goes on, “Bombay throws its huddled masses into a cauldron and stirs them energetically. They begin to discard traditional dress, loyalties, caste. It has done more to reduce discrimination than all the states’ anti-discrimination policies put together.”

Black and white photograph of men in a desert building a tall scaffold inthe shape of a building.
Kiluanji Kia Henda, from the A City Called Mirage series, 2014-17. Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Fonti, Naples, and Sharjah Art Foundation.

No city, of course, exclusively sums up a culture’s orthodoxies or expresses its revolutions. Most of today’s great global cities have something of both the orthogenetic and heterogenetic about them. But it is the moral order of the city that is endangered in the growth of the technical order. As Mumford looks back at the history of the city, he also looks ahead to its future and prospects. He did not use the term globalization, but he saw on the horizon of his time that the resources of power and culture, formerly concentrated in the city, are becoming diffused and articulated into vast metropolitan areas and, beyond that, into worldwide systems. He wanted to explore the human functions and purposes of the city, as he put it, so that we might “lay a new foundation for urban life” in a world that requires a new kind of world-city to survive. He writes, “The mixture of divinity, power, and personality that brought the ancient city into existence must be weighed out anew in terms of the ideology and the culture of our own time, and poured into fresh civic, regional, and planetary molds.”5

As a scholar of religion, I am particularly interested in the ways that religious communities have put down roots far from the place of their birth and in the human dimensions of the new urban forms that will emerge. Historically, we might think of Christian and Islamic mission movements that traveled in the conquest and entourage of Empire. Today, we think of the massive movements of people—as economic migrants, political migrants, or refugees. Cities large and small all over the world have global dimensions expressive of the marbling of peoples and cultures. The great concrete canyons of Manhattan’s city streets are the site of the annual Sikh Day Parade, the Muslim Day Parade, the India Day Parade, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and the Hare Krishna Ratha Yatra, the festival of the chariots. Cities like Minneapolis, for instance, have a tall-tower Hindu temple, landmark mosques, Buddhist centers and monasteries, and perhaps a gurdwara. Even a small town like Lewiston, Maine, with its large Somali refugee population references a wider world.

And there are neighbors. In Fremont, for example, the Islamic Society of the East Bay and the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church bought property together, built side by side, and share an access road they named “Peace Terrace.” In today’s world-cities, every institution is affected: schools, hospitals, and businesses all face novel dilemmas with an increasingly diverse population. How might this marbling of religious life shape a new urban form?

We know full well that the violence of terrorism has beset some of the great world-cities, unleashing fear and suspicion. Their immense diversity makes cities vulnerable to the grievances of the world. But if we stop there, we miss the multitude of ways in which these very cities are also resilient and beginning to claim a new urban form. On 9/11, people of every religion and culture died in the attack on the World Trade Center, and in the days following, the city was filled with makeshift shrines and posters seeking information on missing loved ones. The media posted the faces of a diverse citizenry, emphasizing that they were all New Yorkers.

In London, following the attacks on the city’s transit system in July 2005, Mayor Ken Livingstone commissioned the most extensive study ever of the city’s more than 600,000 Muslims, 8.5 percent of the population. The study covered everything from an analysis of employment, education, health and well-being, political representation, and civic participation, with the stated underlying assumption that “Muslim communities in all their diversity play an essential part in the life of our city.”6 The mayor said, “Whatever our origins, whatever we want to do with our lives, whatever music we like or whatever we want to eat, we are all Londoners. Whatever our backgrounds—old or young, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, British, Asian, African, male or female, straight or gay—there is a great sense of being Londoners. A single city forged from the immense diversity of its citizens and capable of living at ease despite an environment of change. The multicultural character of London, and the multiculturalist policies pursued within it, are therefore integrally linked to London’s cultural dynamism.”7

Similarly, after a violent attack at the Madrid train station in 2005, the city council launched an initiative to develop a strategic plan for what they called “a city for everybody,” “a city of neighbors.” Madrid’s plan (Plan Madrid de Convivencia Social e Intercultural) drew upon the heritage of convivencia, the “living together” that had represented a high-water mark of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish interrelations in Spain’s history. Over the years, the plan has developed based on “dialogue and discourse between the people who represent the different cultures present in the city.” To be authentic, they affirmed, requires the acknowledgment of certain basic principles: “Respect for the life and dignity of all of the people participating in the process. Their freedom to express themselves, because if not, communication would be tainted. And equality, not only formal but also material, which can only be achieved through equal opportunities for life development.”8

The “metropolis unbound” is a good description of greater Los Angeles, where some 40 percent of the nine million residents are foreign-born. It is a city with a Latino population so large that it has been called a “Latino Subcontinent” and with an Asian population that is a microcosm of all Asia, with substantial Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Cambodian, and Vietnamese subcultures, both Christian and Buddhist. Indeed, LA may be the most complex Buddhist city in the entire world. The city also has a strong Jewish community, and substantial and vocal Black Christian and Muslim communities. So many Iranian immigrants live in LA that it has been called “Irangeles” and “Tehrangeles.” Like Indra’s net of jewels, each linked to and reflecting the other, the religious communities of Los Angeles are each part of the life of a complex multireligious cosmopolis. The Interreligious Council of Southern California mobilizes religious leaders to respond to communal violence.

The capacity of cities to condense, centralize, and assemble culture and power today is challenged by the multiplicity of cultures and the diversity of peoples. Marbled as they are with the colors and textures of the whole, they also are the proving ground of the world’s promise and future. What are our world-cities beginning to say about their sense of identity? How do they respond to the challenges facing them? How have they tried to articulate their civic life anew? What are some of the “fresh civic, regional, and planetary molds” that will be distinctive of the new global cities?

Clearly the infrastructure of the new civic form will need to include a strong human infrastructure holding together the diverse peoples of the global city. The logo of the International Metropolis Conference is a huge suspension bridge. Indeed, bridges are the lifelines of a society on the move. In a sense, the health of our cities is measured by the strength of our bridges and the commitment of our bridge-builders. It is the traffic, the communication, the spanning of difference at the level of leaders and citizens that will enable cities to develop a strong ethos of pluralism. Around the world, there are new bridges being deliberately built: an urban stimulus plan, if you will, enabling traffic back and forth in the increasingly global city. The creation of interreligious initiatives and networks is what the political scientist Robert Putnam calls “bridging capital.” It is the social capital that brings people together across lines of religion, class, and race.

The International Metropolis Conference provides “a forum for bridging research, policy and practice on migration and diversity” in shaping today’s great cities, and the London School of Economics Urban Age project studies the spatial and social dynamics of today’s cities. These projects are sweeping in their global scope, yet neither makes an attempt to address the role of religious leaders and communities as critical to the flourishing of diverse cities. I would contend, however, that the bridging capital of today’s cities must include the relationships between and among religious communities. This is the human infrastructure of relationship and cooperation that will increasingly be essential in the new forms civic life will take.

In studying the changing religious landscape of the United States, my initiative at Harvard, the Pluralism Project, has found that one of the most dramatic aspects of this change is the emergence of a multitude of urban interfaith initiatives. Like a “movement,” it takes many forms, but is anchored in values that head in the same direction. Some initiatives focus on getting to know one another, others on common advocacy in their cities, still others on wider regional or global issues of common concern. Whatever their focus, they bring together people who are constitutive of the new urban form.

The work of the Pluralism Project has highlighted groups like AIM (the Arizona Interfaith Movement) as examples of what is happening. The Houston Dinner Dialogues take place around dozens of city dinner tables and the initiative has spread to many communities; Faith Forward Dallas fosters the multifaith fabric of Dallas; the Festival of Faiths, started in Louisville, now takes place in many urban communities; the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee began as a creative resource in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at a local Sikh Temple; One Jax gathers under the banner of “Different Together” and is devoted to community building among the faith communities of Jacksonville. And there are vibrant women’s groups, such as Women Transcending Boundaries of Syracuse, which was created in the aftermath of 9/11, and the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which began with the commitment of one Muslim woman and one Jewish woman and has quickly developed into a national organization with many local chapters.

World-cities large and small have become emblematic of the diversity of the postmodern world. At times, they are places of segregation where minorities are marginalized and feel isolated. But with the creation of bridging capital, they can also be places of true intercultural understanding and real pluralism simply because of the proximity of peoples. Mumford foresees the city to be a “vivid theatre for the spontaneous encounters and challenges and embraces of daily life.”9 With a public ethos of openness, relatedness, and pluralism, world-cities are far more likely to thrive.

Sociologist Richard Florida writes of what he calls the “diversity advantage” of cities: that diverse cities are more likely to attract a creative class of people who are themselves cosmopolitan, inventive, and artistic and who are more likely to thrive in a culture of complexity, difference, exchange, and cooperation. Studying both old cosmopolitan cities and the cities of today, he sees a positive correlation between measures of tolerance and success as cities. In his study The Rise of the Creative Class, he explains that a climate of tolerance attracts creative talent.10 This kind of city is likely to have an “idea of itself” that is welcoming: a city where the whole world gathers, a city with a place for all. As British authors Phil Wood and Charles Landry, who wrote The Intercultural City put it, “There is a need to establish a city vision, backed explicitly by the leadership, which emphasizes the welcoming of outsiders and of projecting the city as ‘the world in one place.’”11 In doing so, the city will need to move from being passively tolerant of outsiders to crossing boundaries and engaging with others.

Creating the human infrastructure for our global cities will require deliberate effort as the world-cities of today assemble, link, and provide space for the intersection and engagement of multiple cultures. The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, has become one of the great spokesmen for pluralism today. “It is my conviction,” he says, “that strengthening institutions that support pluralism is as critical for the welfare and progress of human society as are alleviating poverty and preventing conflict. In fact, all three are intimately related.”12 But the pluralist infrastructure of our diverse world-cities will not happen by itself. It will be created by those who intentionally work to put that infrastructure in place. Rather than grinding down the landscape with the aims of industry and technology, the aims of the city will be, as Lewis Mumford said, “weighed out anew in terms of the ideology and culture of our own time, and poured into fresh civic, regional, and planetary molds.”13

1 Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961), p. x1.

2 Robert S. Lopez, “The Crossroads Within the Wall” in Oscar Handlin and John Burchard, eds. The Historian and the City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1961), 27-28.

3 Robert Redfield and Milton Singer, “The Cultural Role of Cities,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 3, no. 1 (Oct. 1954).

4 Ramesh Kumar Biswas, Metropolis Now! (Vienna: Springer, 2001).

5 Mumford, The City in History, 575.

6 “Muslims in London,” Open Society Foundations, July 2012,

7 Ken Livingstone, “London’s diversity is its artistic treasure,” The Guardian, April 30, 2008.

8 “Plan Madrid de Convivencia Social e Intercultural,”….

9 Mumford, The City in History, 573.

10 Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

11 Phil Wood and Charles Landry, The Intercultural City: Planning for the Diversity Advantage (London: Earthscan, 2008), 312.

12 The Aga Khan, Where Hope Takes Root (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre), 2008.

13 Mumford, The City in History, 575.