Monday, January 21, 2008

Sometimes, Distance IS Dead

The blogger reactions to the latest article on the revelation of proximity range from "Place Matters" to the embrace of the idea that distance isn't dead. Urban boosters are keen to point out that city living is more important than any time in history. Of course, that proximity matters is not really a debate. But the evidence offered to demonstrate that distance isn't dead is less than compelling:

As a columnist (which is fancy for "journalist in jammies"), I ought to personify the conventional wisdom that distance is dead: All I need to get my work done is a place to perch and a Wi-Fi signal. But if that's true, why do I still live in London, the second-most expensive city in the world?

If distance really didn't matter, rents in places like London, New York, Bangalore, and Shanghai would be converging with those in Hitchcock County, Nebraska (population 2,926 and falling). Yet, as far as we can tell through the noise of the real estate bust, they aren't. Wharton real estate professor Joseph Gyourko talks instead of "superstar cities," which have become the equivalent of luxury goods — highly coveted and ultra-expensive. If geography has died, nobody bothered to tell Hitchcock County.

Urbanists may find the Hitchcock County story reassuring, but distance could be dead or dying and geography would still matter. How does one explain the skyrocketing real estate prices in and around a number of rural towns? That people want and need to work/live in close proximity doesn't speak to the Flat World thesis, nor does it comment on why a columnist who can write remotely lives in London (instead of McCall, Idaho).

If you look at the relationships between world cities, then you might conclude that distance is dying. Also, the geography of knowledge spillovers describes a very small world. You don't have to travel too far before 10 miles is no different than 10,000 miles. In this case, distance doesn't matter. Furthermore, a number of rural places are increasingly inconsequential. Places that are farther away from London (e.g. New York City) are more important than cities located in England (e.g. Southampton).

Why might a columnist who could work anywhere live in expensive London? Because this alpha world city is where distance matters least for places that are globally most important.

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