“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” – Charles Darwin
We live in an age fascinated with globalization. The isolationist dogma that was common in the early-to-mid 20th century has all but fallen away, replaced by a mutual feeling of international integration encompassing everything from trade to ideologies. While advances in communication (the internet today, the telegraph and Morse Code of yesterday), and easier access to international travel have greatly advanced the track of globalization, it is the still-present power of the global city that has allowed globalization to impact countries on an individual level.
Although the global city itself is not a new concept, the term “global city”, and its aggressive study, was ignited in the early 1990s, spearheaded by Dutch-American sociologist Saskia Sassen. Every global city is unique, so it’s difficult to assign an exact definition to the term, but in brief, a global city is any large metropolitan area that functions as an important node in the global economic, cultural, or social system, with an emphasis on economics. Sassen’s landmark 1991 work, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, established the benchmark for what global cities of the future would be compared to. Since Sassen’s original theory as to what makes a city truly “global”, other geographers and sociologists have attempted to rank many of the world’s great metropolises in terms of their power as a global city. The most well-known of these studies comes from the Globalization and World Cities Research Network, whose most recent rankings can be found here.
The purpose of this post is not to talk at length about the history and theory behind global cities, but rather to merely refer to it as we examine one of the strangest cases of geographic relocation in recent memory.
Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a country shrouded in mystery. Like many countries in the wake of post-colonialism, Myanmar was wracked with political unrest and extreme poverty, all under an all-powerful and brutal military government. The junta in Myanmar lasted for the better part of the 20th century, and as a result, Myanmar was almost completely cut off from outside influence, going so far as to not have access to common technologies like television, or phone service.
Gradually, though, military rule eased in Myanmar, and going into the new millennium, it appeared as though democracy would begin to flourish. Although issues of free speech and oppression are still rampant in the country, a democratic system has risen, if only slightly, and the country has opened itself up to foreign investors and tourists. These steps have allowed Myanmar to become more global, and in 2005 this new influx of money, influence, and people gave the government the initiative to attempt to cultivate a global city.
This is where it gets interesting. Most global cities arise after many decades of gradual growth, and become affluent organically, but the urban planners in Myanmar decided to take a different approach. On November 6th, 2005, the government of Myanmar officially moved the nation’s capital from Rangoon, a large coastal city, to centrally-located Naypyidaw, which, prior to 2005, was mainly an empty patch of rice-paddy farms. The goal was to create a glistening new metropolis, built from scratch, that could feasibly become a new global city.
On the outset, Naypyidaw looks to have what it takes to become a global city. It has luxury hotels, two world-class stadiums, a gigantic convention center, big box stores, eight lane highways, and an international airport. It even has access to 24-hour electricity, paved roads, and consistently clean water, all of which are rarities in the rest of the country. However, what Naypyidaw lacks is the one thing that makes cities function on a basic level: people. Naypyidaw has less than one-fifth of the population that Rangoon has today, and many of the city’s denizens are government employees, forced to move (supposedly only on 48 hours notice) when the capital changed. The vast, 10-lane highways that snake throughout the city are devoid of cars, and the lavish casinos and golf courses are largely empty.
What would cause the governmental officials to move something so essential to their country’s infrastructure as their capital city? The reason that Myanmar’s parliament gives is fairly straight-forward: Naypyidaw is more centrally-located, which adds to security from any kind of coastal threat. This doesn’t seem like an out-of-the-ordinary response, given Myanmar’s militarily-driven government, but there is so much more to it than simple strategy.
The best way for a country to move away from its troubled past is to forge a bright, optimistic future. This appears to be why Myanmar decided to start from scratch; they were hoping to recreate the outcome that comes from decades of gradual growth in just five years. This is the biggest reason why Naypyidaw hasn’t succeeded yet. They ignored the fact that global cities start out as something much smaller, and have to grow into their surroundings and influence.
Now, almost ten years after the move, the whole operation seems like a boondoggle, and has only succeeded in moving the government further away from the majority of the population, showing the dichotomy between the excess within Naypyidaw, and the poverty and under-development surrounding it. Only time will tell if Naypyidaw can become truly global, but at this point in its life-cycle, is only serves as a cautionary tale to other developing countries about the dangers of trying to force yourself onto the international stage.
– Ben Kessler