Saturday, March 09, 2013

Flat World Urban Geography

You don't have to live in the city to benefit from agglomeration and density. Knowledge networks are transnational, stateless. Geography is dead.

That's the polemic between Thomas Friedman's Flat World and Richard Florida's Spiky Town. Balls of fire are hurled at the opposition's straw men arguments. The old "debate" has found new life thanks to Yahoo's infamous kibosh on telecommuting. Edward Glaeser muses:

Thirty years ago the cyberseers predicted that new technology would make face-to-face contact, and the cities that facilitate that interaction, obsolete. The technoprophets were just as wrong as the geniuses who thought telephones would halt urban growth.

Clearly, the world isn't flat. It's spiky. Proof from Ohio:

“New technology has redefined metropolitan areas, and metropolitan areas are no longer cities and their suburbs,” said Myron Levine, a professor with Wright State University’s Department of Urban Affairs and Geography. “People are interconnected over much greater distances as a result of transportation and new technology, which means you can often network at home and not be in the office everyday.”

Game, set, and match to Richard Florida. The world is either flat or spiky. The two geographies are mutually exclusive. Technology should have transformed the economic order of things in a matter of weeks. It hasn't. Thomas Friedman is a babbling idiot.

Thanks to technological innovation, urban economic geography is becoming flatter. In fact, a flatter world allows for greater agglomeration. A simple innovation such as the shipping container set into motion a massive transformation:

On April 26, 1956, a crane lifted fifty-eight aluminum truck bodies aboard an aging tanker ship moored in Newark, New Jersey. Five days later, the Ideal-X sailed into Houston, where fifty-eight trucks waited to take on the metal boxes and haul them to their destinations. Such was the beginning of a revolution.

Decades later, when enormous trailer trucks rule the highways and trains hauling nothing but stacks of boxes rumble through the night, it is hard to fathom just how much the container has changed the world. In 1956, China was not the world's workshop. It was not routine for shoppers to find Brazilian shoes and Mexican vacuum cleaners in stores in the middle of Kansas. Japanese families did not eat beef from cattle raised in Wyoming, and French clothing designers did not have their exclusive apparel cut and sewn in Turkey or Vietnam. Before the container, transporting goods was expensive--so expensive that it did not pay to ship many things halfway across the country, much less halfway around the world.

What is it about the container that is so important? Surely not the thing itself. A soulless aluminum or steel box held together with welds and rivets, with a wooden floor and two enormous doors at one end: the standard container has all the romance of a tin can. The value of this utilitarian object lies not in what it is, but in how it is used. The container is at the core of a highly automated system for moving goods from anywhere, to anywhere, with a minimum of cost and complication on the way.

Those three paragraphs explain much more than Richard Florida ever did. The changes took decades to manifest. It's not the innovation itself that has agency, but how it is used. As Tyler Cowen would tell you, we've barely scratched the surface of what the internet can do.

What's going on in Ohio is remarkable:

The areas separating Dayton from Columbus and Cincinnati that are located along the Interstate are attracting residential and commercial development, which has helped create a new “megapolitan area,” said Levine, the Wright State professor.

This urban geography is new and exciting. It is technologically driven. It's a trend worth tracking. All hail the technoprophets and cyberseers. The end of geography is nigh.

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