Can Europe’s Economy Turn Around If Its Great Cities Continue To Wither?


Europe's Greece crisis has turned the world's attention to the continent's fundamental flaw: burgeoning public spending and sluggish growth in some of its national economies.

To the extent that Europe's more economically fragile countries cannot fix this flaw, Europe poses a global financial risk as toppling EU countries cannot meet their obligations and those left standing cannot prop them up. Only fiscal discipline and boosting growth can save Europe in the long-run.

And for this reason, we ought to worry about Europe's cities. Why? Because as large cities increasingly drive national economies in our rapidly urbanizing global community, Europe's urban growth patterns look alarmingly tepid.

Around the world, people are clustering together faster than ever at a time when it seems technology should allow them to disperse more easily than ever. As it turns out, innovation and a growing services sector flourish best when lots of people and firms are geographically proximate. Ideas, knowledge and valuable skills are transferred more easily in denser areas.

There is a direct relationship between economic competitiveness in the 21st century and the growth of metropolitan areas. But Europe's cities show signs of trouble. They have almost entirely lost the momentum that has driven European pre-eminence for the past 200 years.

In 1800, only 3% of the world's population lived in urban areas, and the only Western cities among the world's 10 largest urban areas were London and Paris. Neither had a population greater than 1 million. Just 100 years later, though, nine of the world's 10 largest cities were in the West — with four of the top six located in Europe, propelled by their economic predominance through industrialization.

Other countries followed the model. By the mid-20th century, 30% of the world's population lived in urban areas, a considerable increase since 1800. But that was only the beginning of an explosive era in urbanization. Between 1960 and 2000, the number of people living in cities worldwide skyrocketed to 3 billion from 750 million.

Currently, the world's largest 100 cities generate 25% of global GDP, a figure that will continue to rise over the next few decades — and which will increasingly exclude Europe's cities.

Asia and Africa, often regarded poetically as agrarian societies, are leading the global urbanization boom. Today, London is the only European city among the world's largest 20 metropolitan areas. Paris is 22nd. Among the top 25 cities, they are two of the three slowest-growing areas.

Late-20th century growth has been driven almost entirely by suburban expansion around core cities. Nevertheless, central cities worldwide have added population on average over the past half century — except in Europe. It is the only continent where core cities have lost population over the past 45 years. While its suburban growth has kept its metropolitan areas growing overall, its net urbanization rate since 1965 is the slowest worldwide.

Because developed countries are already highly urbanized, their metropolitan areas grow more slowly than those in emerging economies. But Europe's rate is unusually slow compared to its peer group of developed nations.

Europe's main metropolitan areas grew just 28% since 1965, a period during which the United States essentially doubled its urban population. Australia and New Zealand have seen urbanization rates of 90% during the same period. Worldwide, the growth average in urban areas has been 135% since 1965.

Europe is the only continent with cities growing at less than 1% annually. In Eastern Europe, the growth rate is actually negative. Some cities, such as Munich and Warsaw, have grown at respectable rates and mitigate Europe's well-known population decline problems. For instance, each city grew between 2000 and 2010, while Germany and Poland each contracted as a whole.

However, urban growth rates in Europe will likely stay low in coming years, which raises questions about whether Europe's economy will continue to grow enough to help the continent out of its present troubles.

European leaders' disconnect with this important reality was on display several weeks ago when the European Commission chose to announce major carbon emissions in 500 cities at the same time its finance ministers were structuring the massive Greece bailout.

However important greening urban areas may be, if Europe should be doing anything with its cities these days, it should be figuring out how to put them at the forefront of its economic recovery. The European habit of implementing growth-inhibiting policies — especially in its cities — has to change if the continent hopes to have a prosperous future.

Given the increasingly metropolitan nature of economic growth around the globe, the health and vitality of Europe's cities will be key to the continent's future prosperity. Policymakers need now more than ever to ask serious questions about the origins of future growth. To answer those questions, they need to pay serious attention to their cities.

This article first appeared at Investors Business Daily.

Ryan Streeter is a senior fellow at the London-based Legatum Institute, an independent, nonpartisan organization that researches and advocates an expansive understanding of global prosperity.