Cities: Size Does Not Matter Much Anymore


The heart and brain are certainly not the largest organs in the human body, but they are arguably the most important. Why? The heart, through a miles-long network of capillaries, keeps every part of the body supplied with nutrients, and the brain, through an equally extensive network of nerves, provides instructions to every part of the body about what to do with those nutrients. They are important not because they are big, but because they are connected to everything else.

It seems that cities work in much the same way. Some cities are much larger than others, but these size differences play virtually no role in their economic development today. Instead, urban economies depend primarily on cities’ connections to one another through networks of transportation, communication, business transactions, and cultural exchanges. Well-connected cities, regardless of their size, are more likely to develop robust regional economies.

This is hardly a recent phenomenon. The ancient network of trade routes known as the Silk Road played a major role in the development of cities as commercial centers throughout Asia, and Rome’s imperial power was built upon and maintained by the fact that, proverbially, all roads led there. But, the importance of networks has become more critical recently for cities in the United States.

In the past, dominated largely by agriculture and mass commodity production, bigger was better. America’s largest cities served as what Walter Christaller dubbed ‘central places.’ These central places served people living in the surrounding territory, as a place to purchase goods and services, and to sell crops and livestock. Bigger cities drew people in from further away, fueling their economic growth. However, as technological developments allowed people and goods to be transported more quickly and cheaply, people were no longer as shackled to the closest big city. Well connected cities, tied to other places by rail lines and highways, and more recently by airline routes and the internet, could benefit from consumers’ demand and workers’ labor in other places.

Driven by such technological advances, the economic prosperity of American cities has become more tied to their connectedness than their sheer size. But, exactly what kind of connectedness is important can vary from place to place. Cities like New York or Chicago, which drew strength from their size in the past, today thrive largely by being well connected to other cities globally by multiple types of networks, serving simultaneously as transportation hubs, stock exchanges, and cultural centers.

But the biggest change has been the rise of selected smaller cities. Some, not long ago relatively inconsequential, are now major players due to their linkages in more specialized networks. For example, much of Miami’s remarkable economic and demographic growth, and its status as a global city, is the result of its role as the primary economic and cultural bridge between North America and Central/South America. The Research Triangle in North Carolina and Silicon Valley in California have benefitted from intellectual linkages among universities and the world wide tech industry that join independent towns like Raleigh and Durham into cohesive urban regions. Even very small towns like Bentonville, Arkansas (2007 estimated population: 33,744) can be influential in the world arena with the help of vast supply-chain networks orchestrated by a major corporation (Wal-Mart) and large inflows of people made possible by a major airport (Northwest Arkansas Regional, nearly 1.2 million passengers in 2006).

What does this change mean for American cities? Perhaps it’s more helpful to consider what it doesn’t mean. The heightened role networks and connectivity for cities likely does not herald the much-hyped death of distance, where internet technologies like high-resolution teleconferencing allow businesses to successfully operate anywhere. Certainly these technologies may simplify routine transactions like training employees at satellite offices, while email and social networking sites may help maintain existing relationships and collaborations over long distances. However, chance encounters that are almost impossible online but common in hallways or on sidewalks are frequently where new relationships are built and new ideas emerge. Even if technology did eliminate the need for proximity, real physical locations would still be significant. Not all cities are well connected, and this type of inequality serves to channel innovation and wealth toward some places and away from others. Although transportation and communication networks could disperse people and resources evenly across the landscape, more often they concentrate people and resources at key bottlenecks and ‘basing points’ in the networks.

The triumph of networks over size also does not mean the triumph of all small towns over big cities. Size is not bad but simply increasingly irrelevant. Although large cities may encounter inefficiencies due to their size, strategically designed networks can offset many of them. For instance, congestion can be relieved by public transit worth using, or inadequate public services could be bolstered by improving inter-metropolitan coordination. Still, entrepreneurs increasingly seek to locate outside the city’s central core, in smaller suburbs or edge cities. This is a notable development in economic geography, and seems likely to continue. However, the success of these exurbs comes not from their independence from large cities, but instead from their interdependence upon them. Cheap land or favorable tax codes won’t likely transform an isolated small town into an economic powerhouse, while congestion and pollution won’t likely hinder the continued development of a well-connected port city.

Ultimately, we need to change how we think about cities and their economic growth. Contrary to strategies that seek to ‘grow’ cities by building (or rebuilding) their tax bases, cities do not necessarily need more people or even more companies. Instead, city leaders need to concentrate on growth in terms of cities’ connectivity. Each new capillary or nerve takes a small amount of energy for the body to build, yet they are precisely what make the heart and brain such efficient and important engines of life. Similarly, forging new relationships between cities often does not deplete scarce resources, and cities that are linked to one another can exploit economies of scale by pooling their strengths, making them sleeker and more efficient. A city that stands on its own, no matter how large or small, is likely to burn out in the long run. But, a city that can draw on the resources of the whole world through extensive network connections to other cities, whether it is a metropolis or a hamlet, is likely to thrive.

Zachary Neal, PhD, is assistant professor of sociology and global urban studies at Michigan State University. This essay draws on his recent study, “From Central Places to Network Bases,” that will appear in the research journal City and Community, and is available here.

Photo by wzefri

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Great article with excellent

Great article with excellent idea!Thank you for such a valuable article. I really appreciate for this great information..
Lovely Skin 2 Articles

While I enjoyed the article,

While I enjoyed the article, I have a hard time grasping how cities can "build meaningful connectivity" which to me is a very abstract idea.

The lungs and heart metaphor is easy to understand, but it's still not so clear to me how a city can build healthier and stronger hearts/lungs in practice. Sure, different cities may have to pursue different strategies for improved respiration and ciruclation, but how? By focusing on networks and connectivity? This is like saying cities can improve econimc growth by becoming more innovative. I am left asking * but how* ?

Nice article.

Very nice article pointing out the importance of networks. I think the example of Bentonville, which for many is part of the diffuse city of Springdale-Fayeteville with 0,5 million inhabitants (I don't know if the thousand of undocumented workers in Tyson chicken count) is really such a rural place. But I get the point. I still wonder though, how if transportation and communication keeps getting cheaper and cheaper, and with the execption of the old manufacturing cities, cities worlwide keep growing in population.

Great article...linkages and

Great article...linkages and connectivity are, without question, becoming more important than ever. Although I tend to agree with the general observations and recommendations you provide, I would change the title "cities: size does not matter AS much anymore." Certainly there are inefficiencies associated with large cities, but I think the competitive advantages often derived from larger scale and greater diversity are too relevant to simply dismiss them when considering the future prosperity of cities and regions. If only for the fact that they are more readily able to (a certain extent) control networks rather than simply tap into them.

Actually Bentonville is a

Actually Bentonville is a great example of this. It was a very small town until Wal-Mart grew to huge size. It shows that being in a major city isn't necessary to grow a business. In fact being in a major city would have slowed it's growth.

The reason that most businesses aren't created in the city anymore isn't due to top people living in the suburbs or the people starting them growing up in the suburbs. Its due to the fact that suburbs are much more business friendly then any major city. Most large cities are living off their former importance and can be a very lousy place to start and grow a business.

While I agree with your

While I agree with your premise that size doesn't always make or break a city, I think that Bentonville is not a great example. A single company, no matter how influential, does not a city make. If anything, Bentonville demonstrates that political entities often mean less than corporate ones, a lesson we need to carefully watch to avoid an embrace of de-facto facism.

I also have a suspicion that startup companies are locating in suburbs most often when the founders grew up in suburbs, or for the same reason even companies that didn't need big spaces started moving to the suburbs - because the executives lived there. If oil prices rise faster than alternatives are created to replace its function, we'll see how well fringe communities do. Even if oil doesn't rise, I wouldn't be surprised if the general resurgence of health in cities didn't start to bring businesses back over the next 20 years.

Urban areas can offer many advantages, and the smart cities will use the current recession as an "excuse" to lighten up on the things that weigh them down (especially social programs that overlap with federal ones and excessive pensions) and double-down on the kinds of investments that help cities play to their strengths - proximity, transportation, trade and culture. For those four areas, size can be a considerable advantage and it can take a rather large advantage in other areas to bridge that gap for smaller cities.

Networks count

Great essay and the paper behind it is just as good, and as easy to read.

Most plans today are still rooted in the notion of spatial hierarchies and this will be a major wake-up call.

I touched on this idea in a paper I wrote a few years ago for a conference promoting the idea that "highways count" and emphasised the need for transport highways, communication highways and energy highways.

It was trivial stuff compared to Prof Neal's work but I think the energy network would deserve to be put under Prof Neal's microscope for better understaning of its contribution to urban performance and specialisation.

Anyhow, a great essay, which I have grabbed today as a reference in my latest Digest dealing with highway connectivity.

Thank for such excellent work and equally brilliant timing - from my selfish point of view.

Owen McShane, Kaiwaka, New Zealand.
Director, Centre for Resource Management Studies.