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