Status is Everything

Unearned, permanent privilege among cities is limiting the global economy…

Here’s a vision for you, Reader.  Picture in your mind your favorite city.  For a few seconds imagine the characteristics, places, scenery and any other aspects that elicit your admiration.  Next, zoom out as though from space.  Consider your city in the context of its region.  Think about its neighbors and how it fits with them.  What role does your city play within its respective country?  How about on the world stage?  Perhaps all the world knows your city’s name.  Or maybe people really haven’t heard of your city (yet).  No matter, stay with this feeling of affinity a moment longer – your city.

Now take it away.  Erase the buildings.  Rip up the streets. Cut the power lines.  Let plants rise through soil to retake the land.  Where once there was sprawl, now pristine Earth.  The purpose is not to imagine the destruction of your city.  No, imagine it never happened.  If anything, where your city sits is a village, a miniature version of what you know.  The region is undeveloped, remote, a neglected backwater.  As for the people of your city, they too never happened for there was no set of circumstances to facilitate their existence.

If you happen to live in this city you might realize that in this scenario you, your family and friends might not have ever been.  Again, for a moment longer stay with this:  Your city never was.  The world doesn’t know what it missed.

I simulate these circumstances so you might get a sense of how I feel a lot of the time.  In reality, there are many such places.  There are many unborn cities.  The Urban Organism colonizing our planet is but half born.

Earth City Lights 2012
Satellite image of Earth at night from space (courtesy of NASA)

I see cities in a way most people don’t.  Literally, I have spent countless hours looking at satellite images of cities like the one above.  As a biologist first and foremost, images of urban sprawls glowing into space fascinate me.  They are illustrative of a realm of biology that is largely unexplored.  In the tradition of biologists who seek to understand their subjects, I paint urban sprawls, line by line, replicating the balance I observe from above, simulating urbanization.

Experience and study have taught me about the nature of cities, specifically how they grow and interact.  We have the potential, through policy, to sculpt urban systems, or groups of cities.  In other words, we have the power to unlock vast mega-economic potential. I will describe how.

At the start know that I’m not alone.  Within the field of urban geography, the topic described below is a well documented phenomenon.  What I am adding to the discussion is You.

Art – George Wilkinson III

If you build it they will come.  If you don’t…
There really are unborn great cities.  Put more optimistically, the world isn’t done.  The cities you know do not represent a closed list.  The Urban Organism can, and I hope will, glow brighter.  The problem is that these unborn cities are not simply waiting for their moment.  They are regions in bondage, exploited and held down by other domineering, hoarding cities.  Hoarders are a global norm.

We often speak of cities as living organisms.  I encourage this perspective because it enriches an understanding of how cities interact.  Indeed, cities compete with and complement one another.  Cities form networks, belong to groups and depend on one another.  Not unlike their human “cells,” cities depend upon the initial continued support of a parent for their survival.

In real world terms support plays out in the provision of infrastructure.  Cities are fundamentally massive clusters of infrastructure.  Pull up any satellite image to see for yourself: Roads, rail, buildings, airports, sea ports, lights, stadiums, subways, etc.  It’s interesting to observe infrastructure with our eyes, but fundamental to this discussion is the process behind it – how infrastructure is provided.

In the computer game, Sim City, players become mayors and are tasked with strategically providing infrastructure through time in order to create a productive, healthy city.  The hardest part of the game is managing the city’s budget in order to buy infrastructure.  Understandably simplified by the game, funds come from local residents and businesses.  In reality a city’s funds come from these sources plus state (sub-national) and federal governments.  Herein lies the key variable, state and federal budgets.  Hint: They aren’t always dispersed equitably between regions.

Art – George Wilkinson III

King Cities
How does one city dominate or suppress others?  How does one city secure preferential treatment from a state or federal government?  The answer is status.  Specifically, cities that secure preferential treatment often are the state or federal government.

A plethora of published academic research suggests that when a capital city (seat of government) is also the largest city in its respective territory it will hoard resources.  That is, the city’s status as capital will boost its growth prospects while other cities are stunted relative to their economic potential.  The phenomenon is a subcomponent of a broader topic called, urban primacy, or more descriptively, sprawl dominance.  Ample literature describing the importance of a city’s status can be found by searching “urban primacy” on

Sprawl dominance is usually applied broadly, to describe any dominant city, not just capitals.  A favorable natural endowment and strong economic opportunity are 2 factors that give one city a competitive advantage.  What is problematic about capital dominance is that dominant capitals, particularly those that constituted a colonial capital, tend to suppress peripheral regions, thereby stunting the urban system.  In other words, king cities allow political geography to override economic geography.  The cost is huge.

Economic development under king cities in relatively large territories is dictated by status; it’s all about the king. This is unfortunate and hints at the immense power of capital city status. Particularly where a king city was established by colonizers, states should assess the capital’s arbitrary location against the optimal environment for territorial-scale, regionally equitable, planning and development.

King cities hurt the periphery, which experiences higher relative poverty, foreign exploitation, brain drain, social instability, overall neglect and sometimes secession.  These symptoms (excluding secession) reinforce the capital’s power.  People are magnetically drawn to a congested capital and its monopoly of opportunity.  National examples: Mexico City, Bangkok, Baghdad, Jakarta, Cairo, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Paris. Sub-national examples: Atlanta, Sydney, Toronto, Cape Town.

Not all capitals support their urban systems to reach to their economic potential.  This is not malicious or deliberate; It’s a subconscious product of that city’s historic role in society.  Colonial capitals were not established to govern and develop a state.  No, colonial capitals’ charter was more narrow; they were built to extract, a purpose independence alone cannot disrupt.

Art by George Wilkinson III

It’s all in your mind
Psychology is at the core of what makes capital dominance persistent.  Born and raised in this kind of urban system, where government and big business are collocated in a one-and-only city, locals’ beliefs about what is possible, particularly in the periphery, are limited.  Government officials are not immune to such beliefs and therefore allocate budgets not only where most voters live but where they live and where they believe great things are possible.  Put another way, policy makers in these cities tend to have a city-level mindset as opposed to a state or national view.  The territory serves the capital, not vice versa.

In addition to more innocent psychological aspects, there is also the matter of big capital cities attracting the wrong kind of policy maker, those who aspire to be the big fish in the big city.  One unintended but positive result of a remote, small capital city is that the city is so undesirable that it is good at attracting those committed more to policy than self interest.

Capital dominant systems are contrasted with decentralized urban systems, characterized by relatively small, “servant” capitals that are better at economic development. Here, the capital city is an administrative center, not a commercial hot spot.  Thanks to the oversight of bigger cities, small capitals have better track records of equitable regional infrastructure provision. As a result the city-size hierarchies in these territories are more even. Some examples of countries that have implemented the remote capital include the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil and Nigeria, Tanzania and Turkey. These are good examples of decentralized/decentralizing urban systems but it’s worth mentioning that the importance of status doesn’t fade away when a capital is remote.  Size hierarchies between cities change through time and capitals have a knack for steady ascension through urban hierarchies, even during recessions.

Art – George Wilkinson III

We have the power
It is not widely known that we have the power to craft urban systems.  Thus, many assume the appearance and development of cities has been organic and optimal with cities having appeared where they’re meant to.  This is hardly the case.

Many cities appeared as a result of colonization which was primarily an exploitative economic force hardly to the benefit of the colony itself.  While these cities owe their very lives to colonization, it’s important that independent nations utilize policy to allow their urban systems to blossom and fully compliment the global economy.

Returning to the visualization exercise, I took us there to share the sense of loss I feel in knowing there are unborn cities.  Many people condemn human nature and might see this as a good thing, retarding to some extent the human blight upon the Earth.  I see the opposite.

Each city on Earth has made a unique contribution to our global civilization.  We love our cities.  We love living in cities.  We love visiting new cities and experiencing their cultures and sites.  We might pray to the city, that it would provide the right opportunities to make our dreams come true.  Looking across from hilltops, out from skyscrapers, or through plane windows, cities captivate us.

Perhaps the thought that we could be missing some cities, a Los Angeles, Paris, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Cape Town, or Rio de Janeiro strikes a chord with you.  I often lay awake at night.  It’s as if millions of people call out from the unborn cities.  I catch myself daydreaming about them, the next generation, beneficiaries of the latest technology and urban design, bringing new life and innovation to the global economy.

The notion of strategically managing urban systems is about recognizing all of the policy structures at our fingertips. In this instance the salient policy structure is status, something granted to a city, not set in stone.

In future writing I will elaborate on this concept, detail specific examples and explain further nuances of urbanization.  For now, the core message is that no city should be king.