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Size and the city

J Brauer | © Stone Garden Economics

I live in the U.S. state of Georgia. In 2014, Georgia’s (estimated) state population passed the 10 million mark, making it the eighth-largest state in the nation after California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

But what about 10 million-sized cities? According to Wikipedia, there are 17 of those. They are, in ascending order, Seoul, Shenzhen, Lahore, Sao Paulo, Cairo, Dhaka, Moscow, Mumbai, Guangzhou, Istanbul, Tianjin, Lagos, Delhi, Beijing, Karachi, and Shanghai.

Congratulations if you can place all of them on your mental world map. Given that the data are slightly dated, one can throw Jakarta and perhaps Kinshasa into the mix as well. Tokyo-city proper counts but 9 million, although the larger Tokyo metro-region is deemed the largest in the world, at 38 million or so.

Of the 17 (or 19) 10-million+ cities, 5 are in China and 5 are in South Asia (in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan). The three very largest—Shanghai, Karachi, and Beijing—each exceed the population size of Florida. Remarkable.

When one extends the “city proper” definition to include metro-regions, satellite cities, and the like, one arrives, according to Wikipedia, at 35 “megacities,” each holding 10 million or more people—where “holding” is probably a better term than is “housing.” Of those, again 5 are in China. India hosts 6 of them (Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad; can you place them?) The United States comes in with but two such agglomerations (New York and Los Angeles) and Europe with four (Paris, the Rhine-Ruhr region, London, and Moscow).

Cities offer many advantages, mostly stemming from precisely the same reason that also make many cities uncomfortable to live in: agglomeration, or sheer population density. Density allows for economies of scale to arise: the same fire department can serve more (high-rise) people; public infrastructure in roads and airports carries more passengers per dollar spent, the arts find more patrons per square mile; and clever people are more likely to run into each other by chance when they are “condensed” into a minimal space. Cities attract the young, eager, and hopeful, leading to a pulsating dynamism so often lamented as “missing” in smaller places or rural areas. Cities are also warmer, reducing the heating and cooling bills somewhat, and they afford greater scope for experimentation in urban planning and design.

For all their advantages, cities also have literally a dirty side to them. There are the slums, the homelessness, the crime, the lack of clean water and safe sanitation, and above all the incessant traffic that with its air pollution not only chokes millions of people to death but that with its arrhythmic stop-stop-go-stop-go-stop-stop-stop pattern puts the lie to the notion of cities as fast-paced places.

Economists are rather familiar with the seeming conundrum of size: Increase size and, at first, economies of scale arise, but increase size further and diseconomies of scale set in: Cities slow down to a crawl. The solution is either to break up cities into smaller, more efficient, livable chunks of separately administered and managed regions, or else to pay far more attention than has been done hitherto to proper incentives, to process innovation, and to city (re)design. Where, why, how, and just when people move about in and around cities is a science all to itself.

Unhappily, the immediate cost of redesign is huge, the payoff of which looms only on the far horizon of time. Taxpayers are reluctant to shell out today for benefits that future generations reap. This brings politics into the game. In principle, authoritarian regimes possess an inherent advantage in this regard and China’s national leadership, apparently, is giving redesign a go.

In all this, I am reminded of an observation I made long ago (as have others). Across the world, large cities have much more in common than what divides their respective nations. The citizens of Athens and Istanbul, Jerusalem and Tehran, Karachi and Mumbai, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, and of Lagos and Kinshasa all will gain from sharing and co-operation, putting national squabbles somewhat to shame.

Cities of the world unite!

J Brauer is Professor of Economics, James M. Hull College of Business, Georgia Regents University, Augusta, Georgia, USA. He is also a Visiting Professor of Economics at the EBA Program, Department of Economics, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand.

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