Decentralisation and urban density

The destruction of the World Trade Centre's Twin Towers has led to speculation that the era of soaring skyscrapers is over – and that businesses will become more decentralised. Some predict that modern technologies and communications will allow people to work together yet at a distance and physically apart.

Centralised institutions of all sorts suffered in the late 20th century. The Soviet Union disintegrated. Japan's centralised economy fell apart. Mammoth, old-line corporations felt the competition of small start-up companies. Even U.S. cities have felt the pull of decentralisation.

  • In 1940, nine of the 10 largest U.S. cities packed more than 10,000 people into each square mile.

  • Today, only three of the 10 largest cities have more than 7,500 people per square mile.

  • During the 20th century, factories abandoned central cities and joined workers at the edges of urban centres.

    But cities are not doomed, planners say. For all the wizardry of the Internet and teleconferencing, enterprises that depend on ideas and information do better when people cluster together. The more idea-intensive an industry, the more likely it is to gravitate to an urban centre.

    Thus, for example, in 1990, there were 31 U.S. cities with populations larger than 200,000, in which college graduates outnumbered high-school dropouts. All but one of them, Washington, D.C., grew in the 1990s.

    Source: David Wessell, Capital: Decentralisation and Downtowns, Wall Street Journal, October 25, 2001.

    For more on Technology & the Economy

    FMF Policy Bulletin\6 November 2001
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