Globalization’s Dense Geography

In the latest installment of his column, WorldView, Josh Leon examines a World Bank report that argues that a few mega cities will draw a disproportionate amount of global commerce.

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The sociologist Saskia Sassen theorizes that globalization operates according to geographies of dispersal and concentration. The geography of dispersal is akin to what Thomas Friedman calls the “flat” world. Goods, services and, to an increasing extent, jobs can be bought and traded anywhere, with little loyalty to place. But instead of diffusion, she argues, the global economy actually leads to geographic concentration. This is because cities offer pools of talent and services that amplify the productivity of knowledge-based sectors. Global capital accrues in a select number growing mega-cities around the world, with billions of people following the opportunities of the market by migrating into these cities.

The World Bank’s latest annual development report, Reshaping Economic Geography, focuses on the phenomenon of spatial concentration, arguing that the benefits of globalization will be “unbalanced.” That is, a few mega-cities will attract a disproportionate amount of global commerce. This, the report contends, is the natural progression from rural to urban that societies undergo as they become more affluent. In short, rapid urbanization happened in North America, it happened in Europe, and now it is happening in Asia and even Africa. Two-thirds of the world will live in cities by 2050, compared with one-third in 1950.

The underlying assumption is that market forces propel people into cities as societies become wealthier. But markets don’t seem to be functioning smoothly or efficiently. By far more migrants are piling into cities than there are jobs for. Booming Shanghai and Mumbai, for instance, have gargantuan unemployment rates and growing inequality as they take on more of the rural poor.

Enter the slums, vast densely populated squatter areas that are lacking in basic services like water, trash collection and sanitation. Their exponential growth constitutes one the biggest conundrums of globalization era. No one—not local governments or development agencies like the World Bank—has come up with a solution that slows their growth or makes them substantially more livable. Repressive countries like China impose brutal restrictions on rural migrants, relegating them to second-class citizens, ostensibly to stem the flow. More progressive policies include parceling and deeding slum plots, expanding services, or public housing. None will be enough, and more slum growth is a virtually certain.

This is the regrettable part of World Bank prognostication. It sees a pattern of growth that will be spatially dense, concentrating in heavily populated areas that make up a fraction of the world’s land surface. Its prototypical example is Tokyo, a metropolitan area that covers only four percent of Japan’s land area but is home to 35 million people and a huge percentage of Japanese commerce. Now compare that to modernizing Mumbai, already the most densely populated city on earth, but concentrated mostly on a peninsula. Central Mumbai has districts with more than one million people per square mile.

As Mumbai chronicler Suketu Mehta pointed out in his captivating book Maximum City, India is an under-populated country with overpopulated cities. That pattern will continue if the World Bank is right. Sparsely populated rural areas cannot revive as agriculture declines relative to urban growth. People living there will just have to uproot and head for cities. Given that reality, the World Bank downplays the need to channel investments into rural areas, or upgrade infrastructure where there are fewer people to take advantage of it. Instead, it recommends increasing connectivity between cities and remote rural regions, in order to bring people closer to where markets are operating.

The World Bank is right in its general point that urbanization is an inexorable global force, in large part because of the invisible hand of the market. But it’s ignoring some important points. First, the World Bank’s essential recommendation—to make it easier for people in rural areas to pull up stakes and leave—really amounts to a large-scale displacement. Families and communities will atomize, breaking apart important social support networks. Migrant workers in unfamiliar cities stand to suffer alienation at best, and appalling labor abuse at worst.

And then there’s the global recession. It may be that the job markets in the developing world’s major metropoles are saturated for the time being, holding a false promise to millions of rural migrants seeking better living standards. Twenty million migrant workers in China have reportedly returned to the countryside because of the manufacturing crash in cities.

Second, urbanization isn’t just caused by market forces. Cities tend to grow by state-led efforts to channel capital into them, like China has done along its Pearl River Delta region for decades. If government policy can shepherd people into cities, why can’t it play a role in maintaining the smaller, post-agricultural communities that exist outside of cities? Urbanization might be inevitable, but there’s no reason why governments can’t prevent a situation where utter chaos prevails in cities, and rural areas become forgotten dust bowls.

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