World Cities

You've heard the expression "everything is connected," right? Well, when it comes to cities, the more connected you are, the more important you are. The most important cities are the most connected urban centers in this interconnected planetary hive of goods and services we call the world economy. At the very top of the world economy are the world cities—global centers of fashion, industry, banking, and the arts. And if it seems like these are the cities people are always talking about, well, there is a good reason for that. Read on to find out why.

World Cities World Cities

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Table of contents

    World City Definition

    World cities are urban areas that function as major nodes in the world economy. That is to say, they are places with many important functions in the global flow of capital. They are also known as global cities and are major drivers of globalization.

    First-tier world cities are those few dozen world cities with the highest levels of importance in the global economy and associated functions such as culture and government. Below that are many second-tier world cities. Some ranking systems list hundreds of world cities overall, broken into three or more different ranking levels.

    World Cities, London UK, StudySmarterFig. 1 - London, UK, a world city. Across the Thames is the City of London (not to be confused with Greater London), otherwise known as the Square Mile, and the second most important global financial center after New York

    World Cities by Economic Sector

    Many other types of influence are derived from their financial power. World cities are dominant cities in their states and local regions, at the country scale, across continents, and for the entire globe.

    Secondary Sector

    World cities dominate industry, trade, and port activity. Though they are not centers for primary sector activities—agriculture and natural resource extraction—primary sector resources flow to and through them to be processed and shipped.

    Tertiary Sector

    World cities are job magnets for the services sector. Vast numbers of people provide services for private and public sector employers in the secondary, quaternary, and quinary sectors.

    Quaternary Sector

    World cities are centers of innovation and dissemination of information, particularly in media and education. They have significant media corporations, Internet giants, advertising companies, and many more.

    Quinary Sector

    World cities are where decisions are made, particularly in the financial sector. They are not only centers of economic activity but also where the top executive headquarters for most global corporations are located. Probably not by accident, they also have large concentrations of billionaires.

    How Can You Tell if You're in a World City?

    World cities are easy to recognize.

    Their media imprint is enormous, everybody talks about them, and they are seen as the most important and innovative places on the world stage. Their cultural production is at the top of the global scale. They are filled with artists, movie stars, fashion icons, architects, and musicians, not to mention socialites, financiers, top chefs, influencers, and athletes.

    World cities are places where creative, talented, and economically powerful people go to "make it" on the world stage, be recognized, network, and stay relevant. You name it—protest movements, advertising campaigns, tourism, sustainable cities initiatives, gastronomic innovations, urban food movements—they are all happening in world cities.

    As significant nodes of the global economic network, world cities don't just concentrate economic and cultural power (and, to a certain degree, political power). They also distribute culture, media, ideas, money, and so forth throughout the global economic network. This is also known as globalization.

    Does Everything Happen in World Cities?

    You don't need to live in a world city to be famous, particularly with the growth of the Internet and remote work. But it helps. This is because the art world, the music world, the fashion world, the finance world, and so forth still depend on geographic locations where talent concentrates, and not coincidentally, where finance and consumer power are also available.

    World cities aren't necessarily political centers. In many cases, the centers of political power (Washington, DC, for example) are closely linked to a world city (New York) but are themselves not top-tier global cities.

    Top-tier world cities are hard to dislodge from their positions because they already have so much power concentrated in them. Paris and London have been world cities for centuries by virtue of their status as the centers of global empires, and they are still at the top. New York ascended to a top position by the late 1800s. Even Rome, Mexico City, and Xi'an, examples of top-tier world cities many centuries ago (or millennia ago in the case of Rome), are still formidable second-tier world cities.

    World Cities by Population

    World cities are not synonymous with megacities (over 10 million) and metacities (over 20 million). According to the Globalization and World Cities Network, some of the world's largest cities by population are not even considered first-tier world cities.1 This is because many large cities are relatively disconnected from the global economy, are not fundamental forces in globalization, and do not play important roles in areas such as international finance.

    Huge cities that are not first-tier world cities include Cairo (Egypt), Kinshasa (DRC), and Xi'an (China). With over 20 million people, Cairo is the largest city in the Arab World. With over 17 million, Kinshasa is not only the largest French-speaking (Francophone) city on Earth but is also projected to be one of the world's most populous cities by 2100. Xi'an, deep in the interior of China, has a population of over 12 million, and during the Tang Dynasty, this Silk Road imperial center is thought to have been the world's largest city. But these three cities are not unimportant—Cairo is ranked in the "Beta" or 2nd-tier world city category, as is Xi'an. Kinshasa is still unranked and is in the GAWC's "Sufficiency" category. These and other substantial metro areas are important regionally and nationally but are not central nodes in the world economy.

    World Cities Map

    The spatial arrangement of first-tier world cities stands out on maps. Perhaps not surprisingly, they cluster in those long-time centers of global capitalism—the United States and western Europe. They also concentrated in the newer centers of globalization—India, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. Others are found sparsely across Latin America, western Asia, Australia, and Africa.

    With few exceptions, first-tier world cities are located on or near the ocean or on major navigable bodies of water connected to the sea, such as Chicago on Lake Michigan. The reason has to do with various geographic factors, including the break of bulk points, coastal cities as markets for hinterlands, and the predominantly oceanic dimensions of world trade, all indications of their secondary sector dominance.

    World Cities, World cities map, StudySmarterFig. 2 - World cities ranked in order of importance

    Major World Cities

    New York and London are the primary nodes at the center of the entire network of world cities and the global economy. First and foremost, they are the two major centers of world finance capital, concentrated in the "Square Mile" (City of London) and Wall Street.

    Other first-tier world cities that have appeared in the top ten in most rankings since 2010 are Tokyo, Paris, Beijing, Shanghai, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Toronto, Chicago, Osaka-Kobe, Sydney, Toronto, Berlin, Amsterdam, Madrid, Seoul, and Munich. Some of these cities in the future may drop in the rankings due to shifts in the world economy, while others that are currently lower-ranked may eventually rise.

    Across the many ranking systems, the consistently highest scorers—the top five of the first tier—are New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, and Singapore.

    Knowing what distinguishes world cities from other types of cities is essential for the AP Human Geography exam. It is also helpful to know the names of world cities that appear at the top of most lists, as they have all the "world city" characteristics.

    World City Example

    If the world had a capital, it would be the "Big Apple." New York City is the best example of a top-ranked first-tier world city, and it is ranked number one in just about all categories by just about all ranking systems. Media pundits, and many New Yorkers, refer to it as the "greatest city in the world." Its metro area is over 20 million people, making it a metacity and the largest US city, and by physical size, it is the largest urban area on the planet.

    World Cities Manhattan StudySmarterFig. 3 - Manhattan

    Wall Sttreet is the global capital of financial wealth. The world's major banks, insurance firms, and so forth are located in the Financial District. The New York Stock Exchange. The NASDAQ. Hundreds of economic service firms and law firms are associated with all this economic activity. Madison Avenue—the center of the world advertising industry—is here. Hundreds of global brands are headquartered in New York, many with flagship stores along Fifth Avenue. And let's not forget the secondary sector—the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—which maintains one of the largest transport and shipping infrastructures on the globe.

    New York is the most culturally diverse city in the world, with the highest concentration of ethnic groups and languages of any urban area. Over 3 million New Yorkers were born in other countries. In the arts, New York dominates across pretty much every sector. In media, New York is home to global corporations such as NBCUniversal. New York is also a center of cultural innovation in all fields, from music to fashion to visual and graphic arts. For this reason, it is filled with clubs, sports stadiums, museums, restaurants, and other destinations, making it one of the world's primary tourism centers.

    Finally, politics. Part of New York's "capital of the world" designation comes from the United Nations, which is headquartered here.

    Above all, what makes New York the "capital of the world" is the decision-making that takes place, as the "titans of industry" in the quinary sector direct activities and shape ideas across the planet, affecting the lives of nearly every human being in some way. New York is number one because of how much influence it has.

    World Cities - Key takeaways

      • World cities are the essential nodes connecting the global capital flows that comprise the world economy.
      • The relative importance of world cities is based not on the size of their economy or population but on the amount of influence they have in global financial and cultural categories.
      • The five highest-ranked first-tier world cities are New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, and Singapore.
      • New York is the "capital of the world" because of its massive economic and cultural power and its status as UN headquarters.


    1. Globalization and World Cities Research Network. 2022.
    Frequently Asked Questions about World Cities

    What are the 5 world cities?

    The 5 world cities at the top of most rankings are New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, and Singapore.

    What is a world city?

    A world city is an important or central node in the world economy.

    How many world cities are there?

    Some lists include hundreds of cities in different tiers.

    What is the correct list of world cities?

    There is no single correct list of world cities; many different lists are compiled using slightly different criteria.

    What is a world city example?

    Examples of world cities are New York City and London (UK).

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which activity is NOT associated with world cities?

    Which of the following types of geography is LEAST associated with world cities?

    What quinary-sector activity stands out in the rankings of the first-tier world cities?


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