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Form and Function: Visualizing the Shape of Cities and Economies

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Form and Function: Visualizing the Shape of Cities

Visualizing the Shape of Cities and Economies

The Industrial Revolution changed the form and function of cities. New patterns of work resulted in massive wealth and distinct advantages for certain regions. Urbanization emerged as a defining characteristic of this age.

During the latter part of the Industrial Revolution, Cambridge School economist Alfred Marshall looked at a particular question: why did certain industries concentrate in specific places?

Marshall argued that the local concentration of industry created powerful economies promoting technical dynamism and innovation.

This Chart of the Week highlights the spatial patterns and business relationships created at the urban scale. Marshall’s insights from the past help us understand present-day tech and media economies and the massive growth of urban regions.

The Logic of Concentration

Marshall observed that industrial concentration led to long-term tendencies such as increasing returns on capital and compounding regional advantages.

The heart of this observation is that knowledge resides within the companies that make up a particular industry. Over time, these companies can accumulate even more information and direct the flow of new and innovative ideas. This creates local specialization and increasing profits, while also concentrating success, knowledge, and wealth into one key locale.

He defined this pattern as a Marshallian Industrial District.

An Evolving Landscape: Four Patterns

Marshall’s work would later influence the work of Ann Markusen, who created a typology of three additional industrial patterns. The patterns identify what makes a city attractive or repellent to income-generating activities.

District Type: Description: Example:
Marshallian Industrial District This is a clustering of firms in a similar industry, operating within a certain geographic area. Social media marketing companies in San Francisco
Satellite Platform District A set of unconnected branches with links beyond regional boundaries, each part of its own globally oriented supply chain. Suburban neighborhoods
Hub and Spoke District An industrial sector with suppliers clustering around one, or several, dominant firms. Airplane manufacturer Boeing and the region of Seattle.
State-anchored District Industrial activities are anchored to a region by a public or non-profit entity, such as a military base, a university, or a concentration of public laboratories or government offices. Madison, WI and Columbus, OH are examples of university towns, as are many cities with large defense installations such as Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.


There are both benefits and problems—called “externalities”—associated with the spatial agglomeration of physical capital, companies, consumers, and workers:

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Low transport costs
  • A great local market
  • A large supply of labor
  • Increased chance of supply and demand for labor
  • Lower search costs and fast matching of products and labor
  • Knowledge spillovers between firms
  • Strong environmental pressures
  • High land prices
  • Bottlenecks in public goods (e.g. poor/overburdened infrastructure)
  • Corruption
  • High competitive pressure
  • Economic inequality

Clusters for a Digital Age

In the past, the physical constraints of an area defined the structure of cities. Now that so many companies are free from the shackles of producing physical goods, does geography still matter?

Researcher Marlen Komorowski re-examined the concept of clustering with this question in mind. Here are five types of media clusters identified in her research.

The Shape of Media Clusters

District Type: Description: Example:
The Creative Region A metropolitan region that provides advantages due to readily available infrastructures and institutions, and encourages the development of face-to-face interaction and collaboration networks. Berlin, Singapore, Amsterdam
The Giant Anchor A location defined by the activities of one or several large media institutions, which attract complementary firms to agglomerate. Similar to the hub-and-spoke cluster model. Seattle, (Microsoft, Amazon), and Cambridge (Harvard, MIT)
The Specialized Area A media cluster that is located either in a neighborhood within a big metropolitan area or in a small urbanized area. The Specialized Area is marked by a readily available, large pool of employees from a specialized field. Soho (London), Silicon Valley
The Attracting Enabler Determined by the location of certain facilities or resources that can be shared that enable media activities. Movie studios are a prime example. Los Angeles, Vancouver
The Real Estate This type of cluster is centered around office space, sometimes purpose-built for media and creative companies. This space can also include incubators / accelerators. Dubai Media City, Dublin’s Digital Hub


Four rationales drive these patterns: agglomeration, urbanization, localization economies. and artificial formation.

The Shadow of the Industrial Revolution

Alfred Marshall made the argument that local concentration of industry can offer powerful economies and technical dynamism and innovation.

We now see this pattern with the emergence of megacities that accrue the majority of the financial and knowledge returns. These megaregions set the perfect stage for dynamic economic exchanges between skilled labor, technology, and networks.

What does your city look like?

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Chart of the Week

Ranked: The 10 Most Expensive Cities in the World

From Osaka to New York, we look at a global ranking of the 10 most expensive cities, and how those rankings have changed over the last year.

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The Most Expensive Cities in the World

Where personal wealth is concerned, there are two sides to every story.

The first of which is the amount of money a person earns, and the other is what they choose to spend their money on. The latter is influenced by the cost of living in the city where they reside—an ever-changing metric that is driven by a wide variety of factors, such as currency, population growth, or external market movements.

Today’s graphic visualizes the findings from the 2020 Worldwide Cost of Living report and uses data from 133 cities to rank the most expensive cities in the world.

Note: Report research was conducted towards the end of 2019, before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Asia Dominates the Ranking

Globally, the cost of living has fallen by an average of 4% over the last year, with much of the movement up and down the ranking being driven by currency fluctuations.

The locations with the highest cost of living are largely split between Europe and Asia. For the second time in the report’s 30-year history, three cities are tied as the top spot—Singapore, Hong Kong, and Osaka.

RankCountryCityIndex Score (New York=100)Rank Movement
#1(t)🇸🇬 SingaporeSingapore1020
#1(t)🇨🇳 ChinaHong Kong1020
#1(t)🇯🇵 JapanOsaka1024
#4🇺🇸 United StatesNew York1003
#5(t)🇫🇷 FranceParis99-4
#5(t)🇨🇭 SwitzerlandZurich99-1
#7🇮🇱 IsraelTel Aviv973
#8(t)🇺🇸 United StatesLos Angeles962
#8(t)🇯🇵 JapanTokyo965
#10🇨🇭 SwitzerlandGeneva95-5

Source: EIU. New York City is index baseline (score = 100). Ties in index score values are denoted by (t).

Osaka is a newcomer to the top spot, climbing four places over the last year to join cost of living heavyweight champions, Singapore and Hong Kong. As Japan’s third-largest city, Osaka is a major financial hub and a breeding ground for emerging startups, with relatively low real estate costs compared to Singapore and Hong Kong.

Three European cities (Paris, Zurich, and Geneva) sit atop the most expensive city rankings, compared to seven cities only 10 years ago. Similarly, 31 of the 37 European cities have seen a decrease in cost of living overall—largely as a result of the Euro or local currencies losing value relative to the U.S. dollar.

Finally, the top 10 is rounded out with two cities from the United States (New York, Los Angeles) and one from Israel (Tel Aviv).

The Cheapest Cities

While East Asia is home to many of the world’s most expensive cities, South Asia hosts the largest grouping of cities with the lowest cost of living.

RankCountryCityIndex Score (New York=100)Rank Movement
#133🇸🇾 SyriaDamascus25-1
#132🇺🇿 UzbekistanTashkent30-1
#131🇰🇿 KazakhstanAlmaty34-1
#129(t)🇦🇷 ArgentinaBuenos Aires35-4
#129(t)🇵🇰 PakistanKarachi35-2
#128🇻🇪 VenezuelaCaracas365
#127🇿🇲 ZambiaLusaka38-13
#126🇮🇳 IndiaChennai39-1
#125🇮🇳 IndiaBangalore404
#122(t)🇮🇳 IndiaNew Delhi421

Source: EIU. New York City is index baseline (score = 100). Ties in index score values are denoted by (t).

Three Indian cities dominate the cheapest cities ranking due to a combination of low wages and high levels of income inequality, preventing any price increases.

Meanwhile, political and economic turmoil is a common denominator among the cheapest cities outside of South Asia. For example, the Syrian Civil War resulted in an economic collapse, leading to high inflation and a downward spiral in value for the Syrian pound.

A Spanner in the Works

The COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to cost the global economy up to $2 trillion in 2020, so while governments attempt to boost the economy, many are concerned about higher inflation rates spreading across the world.

With a recession becoming more likely, uncertainty around real estate prices will heighten for every city, regardless of their cost of living ranking.

As we navigate chaotic and uncertain times, the next cost of living survey could look very different to today—the most important question will be how permanent the damaging effects of the pandemic will be.

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Cities

Visualizing the Footprint of Highways in American Cities

Highways improved mobility for the average American, ingraining the automobile into the urban fabric of American cities, for better and worse.

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The Impact of Highways

Footprint of Highways in American Cities

Visualizing the Footprint of Highways in American Cities

Driving on the open road is a defining feature of the American experience, made possible by coast-to-coast highways. It defined a generation of life and ingrained the automobile into the urban fabric of American cities, for better and worse.

Today’s animations show how highways reshaped the downtown cores of six American cities and created new patterns of urban life. But first, some background information on the creation of the interstate system.

The Interstate Highway System

The U.S. Interstate System was created on June 29, 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. It would eventually run 46,876 miles, cost $521 billion and take 36 years to complete.

Map of the US Interstate System

From San Diego to Bangor, the interstate highway system connected Americans and opened up the country to commerce and geographic mobility like never before, but for all its benefits, this new transportation network ripped through established patterns of urban and town life, creating a new era of urban development.

The Legacy of Highways: The Suburbs and Inner Cities

The vast geography of continental America helped to entrench personal mobility and freedom into American society. Highways and automobiles accelerated this lifestyle and even changed the shape of entire cities.

According to Prof. Nathaniel Baum-Snow of the University of Toronto, between 1950 and 1990, the population of central cities in the U.S. declined by 17% despite a population growth of 72% in larger metropolitan areas during the same period. Baum-Snow posits that, had the interstate highway system not been built, central cities’ populations would have increased 8%.

Firms followed the workers to the suburbs, but the highways system also created additional benefits for these firms. Cross-country road access freed manufacturing from ports and downtown rail hubs, while allowing economies to operate across larger distances, altering the dynamics of typical urban economies.

Faced with this new reality, inner cities struggled in years to come.

Inner Cities

The introduction of highways created an increase in the supply of land for development through faster commutes to outlying areas. In 1950, half of all jobs were located in central cities. By 1990, less than one-third of urban jobs were located in the core of American cities.

“Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.” Jane Jacobs, Author The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Benefits of new development accrued to the outer areas while the construction of the highways in inner cities displaced largely low-income communities, segregated neighborhoods, increased the amount of air and noise pollution, devalued surrounding properties, and removed access to jobs for those without a car, further concentrating poverty.

Before and After: Six American Cities

A bird’s eye view of six American cities reveals what was and what is now. By overlaying existing highways over the neighborhoods they replaced, it becomes clear how much interstate construction drastically altered America’s urban landscape.

Oakland
Public opposition to the construction of I-980 was so strong that developers abandoned the project in 1971, only to complete it over a decade later.

Miami Highway
The I-95 carved through Miami’s largely black Overtown neighborhood. The construction of a single highway cloverleaf resulted in 20 square blocks being demolished, displacing over 10,000 people in that community.

Providence Highway
The I-95 comprised unconnected segments between 1957 and 1965 through the densest urban areas in a deliberate effort to prevent premature suburbanization and to revitalize the downtown core.

Cincinnati Highway
The I-71 cuts downtown Cincinnati off from its waterfront and a massive freeway interchange forced the destruction of dozens of blocks west of downtown.

Detroit highway construction
Freeway construction transformed Detroit between 1951 and 2010. Previously, its downtown had been surrounded by a high-density street grid. Today, it’s totally encircled by freeways.

Rochester Highway
Rochester is one of many cities opting to undertake freeway removal projects.

As the dotted line above shows, the “moat” surrounding downtown is slowly being removed. The city used reclaimed land from the Inner Loop freeway to construct three mixed-use developments that include below-market-rate units.

The Future of Urban Living: Do Highways Matter?

A new era of living is reconsidering the impacts of these highways on urban centers. As property values rise and existing housing stock is pressured, there are growing concerns over the environmental impacts of suburban life. As a result, urban planners and residents are looking to revitalize city cores and re-purpose land occupied by burdensome slabs of highway concrete.

Since 1987, there have been more than 20 urban highway segments removed from downtown cores, neighborhoods and waterfronts, mostly in North America. The pace of removals has picked up significantly and an additional 10 highways are now planned for removal in the United States.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, American cities have seen their traffic plummet. Rush-hour trips into cities are taking nearly half the time while some are not even commuting at all.

While this situation is likely temporary, it is offering a moment for reflection of how cities operate and whether the car should be at the center of urban planning.

*Hat tip to Shane Hampton, whose 60 Years of Urban Change compilation served as inspiration for this article. Visit that page for many more examples of highway impact on cities.

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