Worldwide Distribution of ‘Global’ Cities

The concept of the ‘global’ or ‘world’ city has been established for well over a century now. The definition is rather straightforward: a city that occupies an important place in the global economic and cultural discourses and can produce a direct effect on international affairs. Of course, what constitutes a city that fits that definition is not so straightforward. Is economic influence completely tied into political or cultural influence? Must a city have a certain level of demographic diversity? Advanced infrastructure? While the cities at the top of the list may be obvious (New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, and so forth), where does one draw a limit on the number of cities that can be considered ‘global’ in influence? As the planet becomes more and more interconnected over time, and as global populations continue to increase, it makes sense that the number of world cities should grow as well.

Every year or so, one firm or another releases its own list of global cities (generally as a way to get publicity for said firm via a press release announcing the list, followed by the wave of resultant easy-to-write articles in newspapers and on websites based upon the list). There are also lists put out by academic research groups and think tanks. Most of these lists are straight-up rankings listing cities from 1 to 20 or from 1 to 30 or some other round number, with some combination of the aforementioned four cities at the top, followed closely by other prominent metropolises. A round number looks good on paper, but it’s an arbitrary cut-off. What if there are than 20 (30, 70?) places that qualify as a ‘global city’?

The most comprehensive list comes from the academic think tank known as the Globalization and World Cities Research Network (GaWC) based out of Loughborough University, featuring contributions from a ridiculously large array of top social geographers and social scientists (explore the site; there are plenty of juicy data available to explore) from pretty well every respected faculty on the planet.Rather than set an arbitrary number for their list of world cities, they identify which cities meet their criteria, and then divide the qualifying cities into various tiers: alpha, beta, and gamma world cities (further divided into 4, 3, and 3 subcategories respectively). There are also two tiers (called ‘High sufficiency’ and ‘Sufficiency’) for those cities which just miss the cut. While the GaWC site has a map of just the alpha cities available (not to mention a cartogram), below I have mapped out the alpha, beta, and gamma cities.


Click on the map to expand (2000×1027).


Distribution of alpha, beta and gamma world cities by region (2008). Source, GaWC, 13 April 2010.

Analysing the data, we can discern the following:

-Even though its one-time global hegemony is no longer, Europe is disproportionately represented at all three levels. In fact, one European beta city (Luxembourg) has a population of under 90 000 (compare that to the city of Tianjin, which has over 12 000 000 residents, but only manages to reach ‘Sufficiency’ status, equal with that of Hamilton, Bermuda with a population of 1 000).

-The United States alone has 18 cities at the alpha, beta and gamma levels (the next closest countries, India, China, and Germany, have five each).

-East Asia is strikingly weighted toward alpha cities, a reflection of the rapid economic ascendance of its major cities in the past half-century combined with the cities’ generally massive populations. For being the world’s most populous country, however, China has rather few cities on the list.I would surmise this will change with future editions.

-Africa is woefully underrepresented, with only one beta city (Johannesburg) and no alpha cities reflecting the relatively poor economic condition of the continent. Interestingly, despite possessing dozens of rapidly growing metropolises, one of the cities that does make it onto the list is Port Louis (population 150 000), capital of the isolated island country of Mauritius.

-The largest country by population that doesn’t have a city on the list is 150 000 000-strong Bangladesh, whose capital Dhaka only reaches ‘High Sufficiency’ status. The most populous country that doesn’t even host a city with ‘Sufficiency’ status is Ethiopia (80 000 000).

Further Reading

Foreign Policy et al. (2010). The Global Cities Index 2010. Available at Accessed 6 January 2011.

Globalization and World Cities Research Network (2010). GaWC – Globalization and World Cities. 21 December 2010. Available at Accessed 7 January 2011.

Globalization and World Cities Research Network (2010). The World According to GaWC 2008. 13 April 2010. Available at Accessed 7 January 2011.

Institute for Urban Strategies (2009). Global Power City Index 2009. Tokyo: Mori Memorial Foundation. Available at Accessed 6 January 2011.

KnightFrank LLP (2010). The Wealth Report 2010. London: KnightFrank LLP. Available at Accessed 6 January 2011. (2010). New York! The Big Apple’s the most influential city, Delhi, Mumbai count too. 27 March 2010. Available at Accessed 6 January 2011.

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