The distribution of cities, then and now

In today’s developed countries, cities are thus scattered across historically important agricultural areas; as a result, there is a relatively higher degree of spatial equality in the distribution of resources within these countries.  By contrast, in today’s developing countries, cities are concentrated more on the coast where transport conditions, compared to agricultural suitability, are more favorable.

That is from Henderson, Squires, Storeygard, and Weil in the January 2018 QJE, based on light data measured by satellites.  Overall, I view this regularity as a negative for the prospects for liberalism and democracy in emerging economies, as urban concentration can encourage too much rent-seeking and kleptocracy.  It also reflects the truly amazing wisdom of (some of) our Founding Fathers, who saw a connection between liberty and decentralized agrarianism.  It suggests a certain degree of pessimism about China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.  The development of the hinterland in the United States may not be a pattern that today’s emerging economies necessarily should or could be seeking to replicate.  Which makes urban economics and Henry George all the more important.


Geography is destiny.

"Collectively, all of America’s temperate-zone rivers are 14,650 miles long. China and Germany each have about 2,000 miles, France about 1,000. The entirety of the Arab world has but 120."
- The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder, Peter Zeihan

'Germany ... about 2,000 miles'

And yet there is only one German city - Bielefeld - without a river.

Don't be silly, Bielefeld doesn't exist.

"Temperate zone" is an interesting qualification, given that very little of the Arab world is in temperate zones.

This sounds like a pullback from favoring density.

Yes, but I don't think it really makes the case that density at trade cities like NYC or LA have blocked American success.

Wasn't 'Too big to fail' about concentration and density? One city being the center of financial service companies?

No. TBTF was a thing but it didn't matter where the banks were headquartered (for example, one of the biggest Bank of America has its HQ in Charlotte).

So according to this model, Singapore is predicted to be the world's most kleptocratic country...TC is pulling things out of his ass again.

Actually, Brazil has built herculean cities far from the coast. Brasília, Goiânia, Belo Horizonte, Campo Grande, São Borja, Porto Alegre, etc...

What kind of American are you? American cities are far superior to Brazilian ones!

1) I am a cosmopolitan American. I am aware of other countries.
2) "By contrast, in today’s developing countries, cities are concentrated more on the coast where transport conditions, compared to agricultural suitability, are more favorable." My point is, Brazil is not a typical developing country.
3) American cities have their steong cities, but there is much to learn from Brazil. It is the longest existing country and it has amassed a wealth of experience we can use.

OK thank you. There used to be a poster here from Brazil who was literally insane. We all laughed at him and his inane posts. You should have seen how upset he got when we reminded him of the US invasion of Brazil in 1891.

"You should have seen how upset he got when we reminded him of the US invasion of Brazil in 1891."
I am pretty sure there was no such invasion.

No it definitely happened. Scientists have proved this event happened, but I can't post the links because the system blocks them.

It is not true! I have read many History books and none mentions are war between Brazil and the United States.

You are reading the wrong books, all leading scientists agree it happened. I would post the links but the system won't let me.

It is not true. Actually, Brazil is the only important country which never was defeated in war.

" there is much to learn from Brazil. It is the longest existing country"

Um, yeah.

Clearly, Chile is the longest existing country.

I am not talking about that. I am talking about existence at time, not space.

Formation of Brazil : 1889; 129 years ago

That is the Federative Republic. Before that, Brazil was an Empire from 1822 to 1889. And a colony from 1500 to 1822.

"And a colony from 1500 to 1822."

So, then Portugal (a country that still exists) and the founder of the colony of Brazil is clearly older than the colony it founded.

Before that, there were inhabitants. There is good reason to believe they have already formed a civilization that can be called Brazilian. According to Tradition, Saint Thomas visited Brazil in the middle years of the First Century C.E., preached to the natives and founded the Brazilian state.

Longest existing country- What is meant by this comment? It would seem to me that many old world countries have been longer in existence than Brazil. France, Spain, and England jump right to mind.

Not to mention Portugal. This guy doesn't know anything about Brazil!

Sorry, I can not post the links, the system blocks them. Scientists have proved that Brazilian claims to civilizational antiquity are actually extremely well-founded. There is good reason to think that Brazil has existed since the middle years of the 1st Century C.E.

"since the middle years of the 1st Century C.E."

C.E> - Crazy Era - dates from the start of the World Wide web in 1989.

Coincidentally (or maybe not) the Brazilian Constitution was written in 1988.

No, it means Common Era. Brazilians call it DC (Depois de Cristo, After Christ). There is reason to believe Brazil was colonized in the middle of the first century of the Common Era by Christians who fled Roman/Jewish persecution.

The "wisdom of (some of) our Founding Fathers". Yes, "some of". Now that's an understatement. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the delegates in Philadelphia feared, not monarchy, but anarchy, insurrectionists opposed to the new nation located mostly in rural areas causing such disorder and instability that Washington feared the British would take advantage and once again try to tame the "colonies". The myth of a connection between liberty and decentralized agrarianism was promoted by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wasn't at Philadelphia, he was in France supporting the very urban French revolutionaries. Cincinnatus, indeed! Today, the "wisdom of the common man" is a euphemism for stupidity. During the campaign, Donald Trump said he loved the "poorly educated". And well he should. Cowen: "It (the connection between liberty and decentralized agrarianism) suggests a certain degree of pessimism about China’s One Belt, One Road initiative." Is the pessimism regarding China or America?

Um, shouldn't a connection between distributed liberty and decentralized economic production suggest optimism regarding the One Belt, One Road initiative (i.e. that China's leaders are competent and know what they are doing), and pessimism that the US' ruling elite want to live in an autocracy (i.e. economic production highly centralized where they can control and profit from it)? The fact that the US electorate voted in an oligarch as president to fight the oligarchy is evidence that the US is already pretty far gone down the road to illiberal government.

Here I was, thinking that most cities in the developed world are along rivers, particularly in Europe.

And anyone familiar with American colonial history recognizes that all the major settlements were on the coast (if one includes the Chesapeake Bay as coast).

The US (and a few other ex-colonial First World countries) should probably get its own category, or at least be divided into regions based on time of major development. There's a marked difference between East Coast coastal cities (when water transport was king) and those in the Mid-West and Mountain West (rail transport ascendant) and the then the Pacific Coast (water transport from European centers was difficult pre-canals). There was also a big difference in suitability to agriculture between the eastern half and western halves of the country that weren't rectified until the mass irrigation/dam construction of the 20th century.

I skimmed the paper and can't find any hard numbers that bear out their conclusions in a strong fashion. It seems their model was lacking and this was a more of a heuristical conclusion than a statistical one.

"There’s a marked difference between East Coast coastal cities (when water transport was king) and those in the Mid-West"

But those cities were also on either the Great Lakes (Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Duluth) or major rivers (St Louis, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Louisville). Even going west, Kansas City, Omaha, Sioux City, Pierre, and Bismarck are on the Missouri River. Also, in the first half of the 19th century, there was a canal building boom that extended into the Midwest (a canal once connected Toledo to the Ohio River through Indiana, and, of course, there's the infamous 'Sanitary and Ship Canal' in Illinois that enabled Chicago to reverse the flow of the Chicago River and send its sewage down the Mississippi rather than into Lake Michigan (and which today threatens to allow Asian Carp to escape into the Great Lakes).

Then the nation was formed.

First roads planned from DC, then canals across NY, then railroads across the North allowing greater mobilization in the 1860s. Then Lincoln at al expanding railroads across the US to deal with the needs of many after demobilization for opportunity. The railroads were given land with the specific intention of them creating cities across rural America. Rural States chartered railroads to create market centers, cities, to capture the opportunity the land in the State provided.

Chicago and Illinois politicians turn Chicago from an inland port to the east coast into a transportation terminus with rail radiating out to more than half rural America. Raw materials flowed into Chicago and processed goods flowed out, in every direction. Further south, politicians fought to compete, eg, St Louis, Kansas City.

Afghanistan has a better climate for farming than Kansas, but Kansas farm economy is far bigger than the entire Afghan economy if you strip out military spending in Afghanistan. That's thanks to the railroads in Kansas created by local politics, e.g., free land, grants, cheap loans, etc.

And even now most of the US' principle cities are on the coasts, the Great Lakes or major rivers. (Exceptions? Yes: Atlanta, Charlotte, Columbus, Indianapolis, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City).

Cities were built in rural areas by central planning by politicians representing their rural constituents.

Farmers, ranchers, miners wanted access to markets, both to sell and to buy. Thus roads, inland waterways, then railroads were built by various means by public policy. However, to prevent distant cities from rent seeking, especially NYC and Wall Street, rural America organized and demanded action to limit the power of cities by creating competing power centers. Multiple inland gatekeepers were created, Chicago, St Louis, Kansas City, etc.

Later as automation eliminated workers from farms on a daily basis, but not entirely, politicians found ways to get factories located in rural America, integrated into the rail network.

While one can argue Deere was located in rural America because it served farmers, why was Maytag located in rural America when it served more urban customers?

Many industrial centers in rural areas were the result of politicians directing government spending to their districts, like military contracts or military operations whether care for veterans, logistics, guard operations.

The "national defense highways" were driven by Ike's experience mobilizing Army units from rural America to urban America in the teens, and then seeing the German highways that served both the German and Allied military.

Many rural communities rely today on government for opportunity, in particular the military. As politicians have concentrated the military spending in fewer locales, more heavily the South, the northern rural areas have suffered.

By contrast, in today’s developing countries, cities are concentrated more on the coast where transport conditions, compared to agricultural suitability, are more favorable.

Not in India. Most of our cities exist near inland sources of water (rivers, lakes,....)

I would have thought America was a newish country with these characteristics.

New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles are all at trade junctions.

Chicago the only one that is primarily internal transport?

How does urbanization encourage rent-seeking relative to having a developed hinterland? In every country there is a lot of policy devoted to transferring income to the agricultural sector via subsidies or insurance or strange water distribution systems, etc. Agricultural areas tend to be heavily weighted in voting systems. Farmers are sometimes not charged for their externalities, either.

I also think there is a big difference b/w having cities in agricultural regions and having an agrarian society. For example, Minneapolis is a major city in Minnesota, a farming state. Does the existence of Minneapolis make our society more agrarian?

I suspect that this whole argument suffers from scaling problems.

What size are these developing countries? If the whole country is smaller than Minnesota, then one Minneapolis is about what you'd expect. And yes, put it at a transportation hub.

“But ideal cities are very much the product of their own ages. Designed as complete urban statements, they bear the unmistakable imprint of their own culture and world view in every street and building. And yet to be successful a city has to be open to continuous development, free to evolve and grow with the demands of new times. Like science fiction accounts of the future, ideal cities quickly become outmoded.”
― P.D. Smith

“urban concentration can encourage too much rent-seeking”
That is clearly the case when you see how in Venezuela, Caracas is so much favored by the governments when compared to rural areas and smaller cities. 5 to1?

"In today’s developed countries, cities are thus scattered across historically important agricultural areas". Not Berlin. Nor London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, nor (I assume) the cities of the Ruhr. It 's a very long time since Rome or Naples were in historically important agricultural areas. Nor is Madrid. Venice never was. Was Turin?

I have not read the paper, but there is a better measure of urban concentration, the exponent on a power law distribution of city sizes within nations. Zipf's Law claims that is or should be equal to one, and a meta-study of this some years by Nitsche in J. of Urban Economics found it not too far off overall, but lots of variation. When exponent equals one, then rank-size rule holds, Pn = P1/n, where equals the rank of a city in a nation's city size distribution. The general story for the US is that this has varied over time, with concentration rising (exponent falling) from colonial times into the early-to-mid 20th century, but declining more recently (think of metro LA catching up with metro NYC, although that may have slowed down very recently).

The point made above that top US cities with a few exceptions (Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, with Dallas-Ft. Worth a recent one that is the only one not on a major river or lake or coast), have been on coasts. So we have these top coastal urban areasa (NYC, LA, SF, Houston, Boston, Washington-Baltimore, Philadelphia, Miami) gaining at the expense of some interior ones (esp. Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis), but in fact the overall distribution of city sizes is getting more equal (power law exponent rising) as further behind coastal cities catching up to further ahead ones.

I have not checked this for other nations, but I would not be surprised if a similar result held. In China, Guangzhou metro area has surpassed Beijing and is catching up to Shanghai, but all are coastal. In Russia, Moscow moving further ahead of St. Pete. In India, Delhi holding its own against Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai. The article may be right overall about coasts vs interior, but they may be wrong about the degree of concentration of the city size distributions, and I am pretty sure they are wrong about it for the US in particular.

"Overall, I view this regularity as a negative for the prospects for liberalism and democracy in emerging economies, as urban concentration can encourage too much rent-seeking and kleptocracy.", that's the reason why New York and LA elected a populist like Trump while the rural areas of the US are extremely liberal. Oh wait...

Urbanization encourages the exchange of ideas, mixing of different ethnic groups and increased contact with people who think differently from you which leads to increased liberalism. The world has never been more liberal today while the fraction of the global population living in large cities has never been higher. And the remaining sparsely populated areas of the US and Europe are the areas supporting the alt-right populists.

Why do think rent seeking and kleptocracy are not consistent with leftism? They most certainly are.

There is a reason Venezuela's Chavez family has 17 estates and hundreds of millions in asset: kleptocracy rhymes with socialism.

Nobody thinks that. You don't know the actual meaning of the word liberalism, as it has nothing to do with leftism.

Is this actually a bad thing?

Australia seems to do fine with the bulk of the population concentrated in ~5 coastal cities, with a vast and scarcely populated hinterland. In contrast, Nigeria is a kleptocratic clusterf*ck, despite having its capital and two of its three most populated cities in inland provinces.

Any way you cut it, spatial inequality is a weird thing to worry about, particularly given Tyler's seeming lack of concern for income inequality, wealth inequality, etc.


The Koch Oligarchs don't care about about inequality of any type.

So of course he doesn't.

México city and Sao Paulo are two huge cities AND they are not on the coast.

Bangalore and Hyderabad (India) as well, and not even river side, they're both lake cities. Not in the same league as the above, but getting there.

I can't imagine there being a relationship between ocean port access and the new economy. Perhaps in the framework of the previous century ocean port access had advantages, and this shows in China. The new economy thrives on other features. Freedom with McMansions, for better or worse, is more conducive to developing an advanced economy.

......."decentralized agrarianism..."

A mixed blessing that also gave us the Electoral college ?

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