The world has been steadily getting more urbanized. According to the United Nations, the world’s urban population has increased from 746 million in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014, and is projected to reach 6.4 billion in 2050. About 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas today, and that proportion is expected to increase to 66 percent in 2050.
Tokyo in 2014 remained the world’s metropolitan area with 38 million inhabitants, followed by Delhi with 25 million, Shanghai with 23 million, and Mexico City, Mumbai and São Paulo, each with around 21 million inhabitants. Osaka has just over 20 million, followed by Beijing with slightly less than 20 million. The New York-Newark area and Cairo complete the top ten most populous urban areas with around 18.5 million inhabitants each. While Osaka and New York-Newark were the world’s second and third largest urban areas in 1990, the U.N. projects that by 2030 they will fall in rank to the 13th and 14th positions respectively, as cities with at least ten million people in developing countries become more numerous. By 2030, the world will have 41 of these megacities.
“The great thing about cities, the thing that is amazing about cities is as they grow, so to speak, their dimensionality increases. That is, the space of opportunity, the space of functions, the space of jobs just continually increases,” marveled Geoffrey West, former head of the research think tank Santa Fe Institute. “And the data shows that. If you look at job categories, it continually increases. I’ll use the word ‘dimensionality.’ It opens up.
“And in fact, one of the great things about cities is that it supports crazy people. You walk down Fifth Avenue, you see crazy people. There are always crazy people. Well, that’s good. Cities are tolerant of extraordinary diversity….”
What’s it like to live 80 or 90 miles away from so many crazy people (the word “crazy” is clearly inappropriate), such extraordinary diversity? How easy is to make a living enabling one to enjoy the best of both worlds? As the Big Apple lengthens its shadow over the region, will the opportunities for a useful and productive life in the Hudson Valley increase? Or will they decrease?
In 1991, the economist Paul Krugman termed the application of spatial thinking to economics the “new economic geography.” “What you have to understand is that in the late 1980s mainstream economists were almost literally oblivious to the fact that economies aren’t dimensionless points in space,” Krugman explained to an audience of geographers in 2011, “and to what the spatial dimension of the economy had to say about the nature of economic forces.”
Challenged at that time to produce evidence that increasing returns and positive external economies were playing an important economic role, Krugman recalled that he replied with a one-word answer: Cities.
Good economists have recently been producing thoughtful and elegant work about the increasing role that cities are playing in a changing world. I found one recent December 2015 working paper particularly intriguing.
Which are more productive in our world of changing communications — ever-larger megacities or a network of linked middle-sized metropolises? That’s the question raised by “Urban Networks: Connecting Markets, People and Ideas,” by Ed Glaeser, Giacomo Ponzetti and Yimei Zou. The answer: It depends.
The United States turns to megacities, while Europe builds urban networks (“heterogeneous locations”). “American locations can be remarkably different even within a single metropolitan area,” observe the authors. “The less well educated residents of Oakland benefit from access to the San Francisco job market. European egalitarianism also operates at the city level, which should mean that networks make relatively more sense.”
On the one hand, the megacities provide richer and more diverse cultural amenities. On the other, affordable housing in the urban core is increasingly more problematical, and transportation and other infrastructure problems more vexing. What is the likely result? One possible outcome the authors suggest strikes a familiar if merciless chord in New York State’s upstate-downstate debate: “In such cases, the rise of a megacity would require the gradual emptying of the lesser nodes of the urban network.”
In the New York City context, “lesser nodes” can be read as code language for upstate New York. But does it also apply to the Hudson Valley, northern New Jersey and western Connecticut?
For them, an alternate scenario has been suggested. The New York metropolitan area consists of its central core, historically Manhattan, its lesser boroughs (Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx plus its semi-suburb, Staten Island), its partially wealthy inner suburbs, and a geographically vast exurbia increasingly connected to it. That exurbia includes many small cities which the New York-based Regional Plan Association sees as proportionally growing more rapidly in population in the next 20 years or so than New York City. “Multiple job centers” could make the region more competitive and create more economic opportunity, RPA argues.
New economic activities emerge through technological innovation. These activities choose to locate in a spatially concentrated way, a fancy way of saying near each other. In a dynamic, knowledge-rich world, however, they don’t have remain near each other. With job categories and job content constantly evolving, they can split off and relocate elsewhere, perhaps to find kindred spirits in a quite different nearby job center.
The process is not rocket science.
The great minds of the Hudson Valley don’t think very much about the “increasing dimensionality” of the way New York City opportunities keep evolving. They do note patterns of occupational and generational change, shifts in population movement and housing availability, broad influences of shifting technology and embedded human capital. They do detect industry clusters, agricultural hubs, educational centers and population concentrations. But they don’t pull all these strands of information together very well into one actionable picture.
Maybe it’s time they did.