For vibrant economy, transportation networks matter more than city size

When it comes to growing a vibrant economy in a city or town, it turns out that size doesn't matter -- at least as much as transportation networks do.

When it comes to growing a vibrant economy in a city or town, it turns out that size doesn't matter -- at least as much as transportation networks do. Well-connected communities with good transportation systems, like the Arkansas town where Walmart is headquartered, can compete with major metropolises, according to a recent study.

Zachary Neal, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, published these findings in a recent issue of the journal City and Community. We spoke last week about what this trend means for towns and cities across the country.

How has the "networking" of towns and small cities changed the way vibrant local economies are developed?

For a long time, it was America's largest cities that were the home to the most vibrant economies -- places like Chicago and New York. But what this study suggests is that size, especially population size, is no longer a major factor in the economic growth of cities. Instead, it seems that networks are significantly more important than size. What that means is that today much smaller cities like Raleigh, North Carolina, or even very small towns like Bentonville, Arkansas, can start to compete with much bigger cities -- if they have a number of strong connections to other cities. It calls into question the importance of being a big city for having a big, vibrant, robust economy.

What types of networks did you study?

This study focused on transportation networks, specifically airline networks. I found that transportation networks -- certainly airlines, but also high-speed rail, highways -- have a fairly strong effect. But these results suggest that other kinds of networks are also important for cities -- technology networks, the accessibility of high-speed Internet both wired and wireless.

In the research triangle area in North Carolina, we find a group of smaller cities: Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill. These cities are all connected by the relationships between the major research institutions that are located there: the University of North Carolina and Duke University. These linkages between the small towns allow them to pool their strength and form a more cohesive urban area. They wind up being able to accomplish much more as the research triangle-urban area than as a collection of small cities.

How did Walmart's decision to locate its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, affect that town?

Having Walmart there has done a lot for the small town of Bentonville and that region of Arkansas. It helped the region grow its networks to other places in order to really put Bentonville on the map. It's happened in a number of ways and involved a number of different types of networks. We've seen the regional airport that serves the Bentonville area grow into one of the busiest airports in America. It allows people to get into and out of the region quite easily, allowing the town to draw on the strengths and talents of people around the country. Other types of networks have also been important. The networks of suppliers and distributors Walmart works with certainly benefit Walmart as a company. But they also benefit other businesses that have set up in Bentonville. Even small businesses like gas stations stand to gain by this town being at the center of this large corporate network.

In Bentonville, the corporation came before the growth of the local transportation network. What about the other way around, with the transportation growth coming first and attracting businesses?

Chicago was a small prairie town until the railroads came along and the canal was dug and connected to the Mississippi River. That's a classic example of how historically these transportation networks allowed a city to grow from a small trading post to a major metropolis. We're seeing that even today. Towns that can put themselves on the map by being located at the center of transportation networks [or] by offering high levels of Internet connectivity really stand a chance of using that as a growth strategy.

Does the growth of vibrant economies in smaller towns and cities mean bigger cities are losing out?

The triumph of networks over size doesn't necessarily mean the triumph of the small town over the big city. Although I found that size isn't as important as it once was for cities economies, it still turns out that the biggest cities also tend to be the ones best able to cultivate strong linkages to other places. New York and Chicago are big. Their strength, though, doesn't just rely on their bigness. It relies on their networks. The fact that these places are large means they're bigger players in these networks, as well. But what this does suggest is the playing field is starting to be leveled. These smaller towns increasingly have the chance to compete with bigger cities.

Is that how you expect this trend will continue, with an increased leveling of the playing field?

There are two possibilities here. One possibility is that networks among cities continue to grow, that small towns continue to become more networked, and this levels the playing field and we begin to see small towns competing with big cities more.

Another possibility is that these networks grow and continue to benefit larger cities, that the networks form bottlenecks in some places where they concentrate the strength and talent of people, the pools of resources and investment. This shift from size to networks could actually result in greater differences, greater inequalities in cities' abilities to grow economically.

Do you have anything else to add?

The results I've found suggesting networks are more important than size doesn't necessarily offer a silver bullet for struggling cities. But it does suggest where city planners and officials can start focusing their attention. In the past, the strategy had been attracting new residents and growing the tax base. But this seems to suggest that strategy isn't going to work anymore. Potentially, a better strategy will be looking for opportunities to connect with both in the regional area and farther away. That may be at least one approach for struggling cities.

Image: Zachary Neal

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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