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Table of Contents


Volume 35, Issue 3, 2022


Volume 35, Issue 2 2022

Cultural and Economic Authority of World Cities

David Hamper, Deputy Principal, Hills Grammar

2007 was a milestone event in the history of humankind. For the first time in our history more, humans were living in urban than in rural areas. Today it is around 55% of all people live in cities, and the number is growing year on year. By the mid-point of this century the United Nations estimate that around 7 in 10 of us will be living in a city. Cities already account for more the 80% of the world’s economic activity and they are at the epicentre of decision-making. Yet not all cities are equal, and there are many ways to consider the dominance of a city. 

Population as a measure

Population is one way to do this. Using this as a measure Tokyo, in Japan, is by far the world’s largest city with a population in excess of 37.4 million. At around 29.4 million, the Indian city of Delhi is in 2nd place. Every city in the top 10 (see Table 1) has a population of over 20 million. As with all statistics, there are discrepancies; the table below considers the greater metropolitan area of cities, but smaller defined city boundaries will change the data somewhat. 

RankingCity (Country)
1Tokyo (Japan)
2Delhi (India)
3Shanghai (China)
4São Paulo (Brazil)
5Mexico City (Mexico)
6Dhaka (Bangladesh)
7Cairo (Egypt)
8Beijing (China)
9Mumbai (India)
10Osaka (Japan)
Table 1: Cities ranked by population (2020)

Source: International Institute for Environment and Development

Nonetheless, there are 39 metropolitan areas globally that have a population that exceeds 10 million. This is the definition adopted by the United Nations for a city to be considered a mega city. UNESCO estimates a further eight cities will join this list by the end of this decade. Regarding mega cities, Asia is the dominant continent, home to 22 mega cities and 7 of the cities poised to join the list in coming years. 

The population can therefore be used as a way to rank and measure cities. However, in relation to power and influence population is a poor indicator. Take the following example, in 2020 Australia was the 55th most populous country globally with a population of 25.5 million population, and Brazil, with a population of 215.5 million, was ranked 6th. Yet when using a different measure – gross domestic product, World Bank data (2022) shows Brazil holds a 2022 global ranking of 12th with US$1.44 trillion and Australia is just one spot behind with the 13th highest GDP in the world at US$1.32 trillion. Hence, with a population of 8.5 times bigger than Australia, Brazil has an economy that is only 8% bigger than Australia. This example demonstrates that population, in and of itself, is a poor measure for understanding power and influence. 

The Rise of the World City

Cities first emerged more than 6000 years ago but large-scale urbanisation first took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. During the 20th Century, the rate of urbanisation became even greater, and cities continued to grow both in size and number. 

Globalisation and the growth of cities have gone hand-in-hand. Global trade and the ease with which goods and services can be traded globally have facilitated more powerful cities. Today a group of around 50 cities have emerged as world cities. These cities are not defined by their population but by their ability to exert power and influence over other places worldwide. Four cities, New York, London, Tokyo and Paris, are considered the most influential, earning them the title of Alpha World cities; some geographers also use the term global cities for these cities. 

Economic authority as a measure

Using three measures – the extent of advanced producer services, the number of transnational corporation headquarters and the presence of global financial services the International Institute for Environment and Development has ranked cities (see Table 2). When using this as a measure, there is a very different global distribution compared to Table 1. Tokyo is the only city that appears in both lists.

RankingCity (Country)
1New York (USA)
2London (UK)
3Tokyo (Japan)
4Paris (France)
5Hong Kong (China)
6Chicago (USA
7Los Angeles (USA)
8Singapore (Singapore)
9Sydney (Australia)
10Seoul (South Korea)
Table 2: Cities ranked by economic power (2020)

Source: International Institute for Environment and Development

Using authority as a measure of a city’s power is complex as it is, to some extent subjective, unlike population, where an absolute number makes things very clear. Even understanding the concept of authority can be challenging. In simple terms, however, we can take this to mean the ability of a city to exert its influence over other places. The following tables provide examples of how cities can exert economic influence. 

Adding up the number of headquarters of transnational corporations (TNCs) and then ranking cities accordingly is often used (see Table 3). TNCs are defined as those companies that operate in more than one country. In the heavily globalised world, TNCs are often massive in scale and, therefore, also in influence. A city with many such TNCs holds power and influence on a wide scale as the decisions taken at the headquarters can have enduring effects elsewhere. For example, the decision by a TNC to change an aspect of their operations may result in the closure of factories in a different part of the world. 

1Beijing (China)
2New York (USA)
3Tokyo (Japan)
4London (UK)
5Paris (France)
6San Jose* (USA)
7San Francisco (USA)
8Seoul (South Korea)
9Hong Kong (China)
10Washington DC (USA
Table 3: Cities ranked by presence of Transnational Corporation headquarters (2020)

Source: International Institute for Environment and Development

* often referred to as Silicon Valley

Table 4 ranks cities based on the presence of advanced producer services (APS). These are services that are used by other companies in order to help them operate. They can include many different types of businesses that can include business consultancy, accounting, law, information technology and many others. The one thing all APS firms have in common is that their clients are other businesses. They are generally not individuals. Using a measure like APS firms is useful as these firms are attracted to a city by the presence of their clients – other large businesses. To some extent, this is a “chicken and egg” factor, the presence of APS providers attracts companies, but APS providers are attracted by the presence of the companies that use them.

1New York (USA)
2London (UK)
3Paris (France)
4Hong Kong (China)
5Tokyo (Japan)
6Los Angeles (USA)
7Singapore (Singapore)
8Frankfurt (Germany)
9Milan (Italy)
10Sydney (Australia)
Table 4: Cities ranked by presence of advanced producer services (2020)
Source: International Institute for Environment and Development

The presence of an extensive financial services sector is another feature of highly developed and influential cities. There is an old saying that goes like this:

“Wall Street sneezes and the world catches a cold”

This adage stems from the fact that the world’s financial systems are dominated by a relatively small number of key financial centres (see Table 5). The New York Stock Exchange is located on Wall Street, and this small street in downtown New York City has become a key hub for financial business (see Table 1). Similarly, the City of London – one square mile of London is a dominant centre globally. These locations elevate a financial business to another level; having a Wall Street address or being in the City of London creates prestige and sends a message that the business is a world leader – of course, land values and rents in these locations are accordingly extreme. In Australia’s leading world city – Sydney, Martin Place holds a similar, although less significant role. With the Headquarters of the Reserve Bank (Australia’s central bank) found here, other banks and associated firms tend to agglomerate in around Martin Place and nearby streets.

1New York (USA)
2London (UK)
3Hong Kong (China)
4Singapore (Singapore)
5Shanghai (China)
6Tokyo (Japan)
7Beijing (China)
8Dubai (UAE)
10Sydney (Australia)
Table 5: Cities ranked by presence of global financial services (2020)

Source: International Institute for Environment and Development
Figure 1: Wall Street, New York City dominates the global financial industry.
Source: L-BBE, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

With a population of less than 800 000 Frankfurt is less than 60% the size of Adelaide, Australia’s fifth biggest city by population. Yet this small city is one of the most significant cities on a global scale in terms of economic development. It is ranked the 20th most important economic city and 8th worldwide for advanced producer services. Similarly, Zurich in Switzerland is ranked 14th in the world as a centre of global financial services and 14th in TNC HQs, yet it has a population of 430 000 people, less than twice the size of Hobart. 

Cultural authority as a measure

Apart from being centres of economic authority, cities also dominate cultural trends and influence. As with economic authority, world cities also influence culture on a global scale. Based in Los Angeles,, the American film industry remains the single biggest hub of film and television production globally, although somewhat less dominant than in the past. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the global industry peaked at US$101 billion in 2019.  

Other cities are beginning to play a major role in the film industry, perhaps most notably the Indian megacity of Mumbai, which hosts the so-called Bollywood industry. Producing hundreds of films annually, Bollywood rivals Hollywood in terms of production, but its global cultural influence is still much smaller as films are produced principally in Hindi. 

Similarly, in terms of live theatre, there are two dominant centres. London’s West End district (see Figure 2) and the New York district of Broadway. The influence of these centres on live theatre is highly significant, with successful releases in either location almost ensuring global success, at least in western nations.

Cultural authority, such as this, is very hard to quantify and must also be qualified by the fact it is very western-centric. The extent of the influence is greater in places with extensive use of English and in places with a more westernised culture. However, the global success of blockbuster Hollywood films demonstrates their global power and influence. The biggest film release of 2022 thus far has been Top Gun – Maverick, a film based on the 1980s hit Top Gun about a US navy fighter pilot. Within one month of its May 2022 release, the film had box office revenue of over US$1 billion (Pulver, 2022). 45% of this revenue was generated in countries outside of the US, with the movie being the highest revenue earner from countries as diverse as Poland, Australia, Argentina and South Korea. 

Figure 2: London’s West End district is a global centre for theatre production .
Source: Steve Collis from Melbourne, Australia, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Despite hundreds of thousands of newspapers, news websites and other news services globally, just three major news agencies dominate global news. These three services report and collate news from around the world and sell this information to news providers and subscription services. The three agencies are: 

  • Associated Press – headquartered in New York City (USA)
  • Agence France Presse – headquartered in Paris (France)
  • Reuters – headquartered in London (UK)

Interestingly all these agencies are based in dominant alpha world cities. The next tier of powerful, although far less dominant agencies include – Xinhua (HQ Beijing, China), Australian Associated Press (HQ in Sydney, Australia), United Press International (HQ in Miami, USA), Asia News Network (HQ in Singapore), Press Association (London, UK), Press Trust of Indian (Dehli, India) and Deutsche Presse Agentur (HQ Hamburg, Germany). World city locations also dominate these agencies. With the advent of different web-based and community-based news sources, central news agencies are perhaps less influential than they used to be. However, they still hold significant power, and by virtue of being centred in world cities, these cities maintain cultural authority. 

Figure 3: Brussels – the Belgian capital – hosts many of the key institutions of Europe.
Source: pixabay free images, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Political power can be another source of cultural authority. Many world cities are also national capitals, meaning they hold significant political power and influence on a national level. In some cases, though, a world city becomes powerful due to its political connections. A good example of this is Brussels (see Figure 3). Although the capital of Belgium, the status of Brussels as a world city is derived from the fact that much of the decision-making infrastructure of the European Union resides in the city, extending its power and influence greatly beyond the relatively small nation which it is the capital.

Cities can also obtain significant cultural authority through hosting international organisations, both intergovernmental and non-governmental. Table 6 summarises the location of the headquarters of the main organisations of the United Nations. New York City plays host to the main UN Headquarters, attracting not just the workforce of the UN Secretariat but also all of the UN delegations (similar to embassies) for UN member countries (see Figure 4). 

Figure 4: The United Nations Headquarters is based in New York City.
Source: Steve Cadman, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The case of Geneva

The small Swiss city of Geneva, close to the French border and with a population of just 620 000 people, is also a true world city. Although not the financial capital of Switzerland, Zurich or the capital Switzerland, that is Bern, it is home to many of the world’s important international organisations.

As shown in Table 6, several UN organisations are based in Geneva including the UN HQ for Europe, the second biggest UN office outside of New York. Table 7 shows a small sample of the many other organisations also headquartered in Geneva. These cover a wide range of areas, trade, economic development, healthcare, religion and human rights. Through these organisations, Geneva exerts enormous cultural (and to a lesser extent economic) authority on a global scale. Decisions taken in Geneva can have profound effects at a global level, earning Geneva the right to be considered a world city.

Table 7: International organisations based in Geneva Switzerland (other than UN organisations)

International Committee Red Cross and Red Crescent International humanitarian organisation
World Trade Organisation Global trade
World Economic Forum Global trade
International Air Transport Association Airline industry organisation
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) / Doctors Without BordersInternational humanitarian organisation
European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN)Scientific research
World Intellectual Property OrganisationCopyright and patents
Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)Conservation
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)Conservation
International Aids Society Healthcare
World Heart Federation Healthcare
International Road Transport UnionRoad transport association
International BaccalaureateEducation
World Council of ChurchesReligion
Lutheran World FederationReligion
World Jewish CongressReligion
International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA World)Human rights

In Conclusion

World cities are those that have the ability to exert their influence on a global scale. This influence, which is often referred to as authority, can be both economic and/or cultural. The population is not a key factor in determining the power and authority of world cities. In fact, many world cities are quite small in terms of population, but through their ability to attract and host organisations that operate globally, they are able to extend their influence. 

Student activities

  1. Refer to Table 1. Using a blank world map and an atlas, record the location of the most populous cities in the world.

  2. Describe the pattern of the location of the most populous cities.

  3. How do the United Nations define a mega city?

  4. Explain how a world city differs from a mega city.

  5. Refer to Table 2. Using a blank world and an atlas, record the location of the world’s most powerful cities.

  6. Compare the map you made above with the map you made of mega-city locations. Outline the similarities and differences evident in the two maps.

  7. Explain how the economic power of world cities is determined.

  8. What is a transnational corporation? How does the location of the HQs give power and authority to world cities?

  9. Explain the concept of an advanced producer service.

  10. Write a short response explaining the link between economic power and the ability of world cities to exert influence.

  11. Write an explanation of the cultural authority of world cities.

  12. Using the film industry as an example, write a short report explaining how world cities exert cultural influence globally.

  13. Describe the role of world cities in influencing the flow of news globally.

  14. Outline the political power of world cities.

  15. Review the information contained in Tables 6 and 7. Using this information write a paragraph explaining the link between international organisations and the cultural authority of world cities.


International Institute for Environment and Development (2022) The Global Geography of World Cities,

Pulver, A, (2022), ‘Top Gun: Maverick and the unstoppable rise of the ‘legacy sequel’, The Guardian

World Bank (2022) DatBank 

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