Superstar cities and left-behind places: A long-run perspective on inequality and uneven development

Around 1980, interregional income inequality in the US began to grow, as it did in a wide range of other countries. In the US, some people moved to opportunity, newly concentrated in a limited subset of urbanized locations, but overall migration rates shrunk. As a consequence, many Americans have become stuck in places that offer few opportunities. This shift is economically important, and it also appears to be related to the recent upsurge in populist politics. And yet divergence is not a constant or necessary feature of the space-economy. Indeed, it strongly contrasts with patterns experienced during the mid-20th century, where people were more mobile and gaps between places diminished. And partly because many of our core theories of urban growth and change are premised on the record of this earlier period, we face real challenges to explain what we see today, and to design policies that address the fallout. All of this points to an urgent need to (a) better understand the current moment, and in light of this (b) retheorize urban growth. In my talk, I will attempt to do both. I will propose a ‘structural’ theory featuring regular, alternating patterns of convergence and divergence. Major, disruptive technology shocks – or industrial revolutions – regulate this ‘wave’ pattern, increasing the gaps between places, and then later diminishing them. I will sketch mechanisms that could generate these facts, and provide descriptive evidence in support of these ideas by analyzing information on US regional economies since 1860.

Tom Kemeny is a social scientist studying the determinants of economic well-being in cities. Currently, he is Senior Lecturer in Economic Development at Queen Mary, University of London, as well as a Visiting Fellow at the LSE International Inequalities Institute. Recent projects have examined topics including immigration, innovation, trade and inequality. For his work on local social networks, Tom was awarded the 2016 Urban Land Institute Prize for the best paper published in the Journal of Economic Geography. In 2015, his book, The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies: Lessons from San Francisco and Los Angeles, was published by Stanford University Press.  Tom’s work has been discussed in the Atlantic; the Chicago Tribune; the Huffington Post and other media outlets. Tom is currently an Associate Editor at Regional Studies; and serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Economic Geography.  Cutting across his academic interests, he is interested in policy efforts to stimulate prosperity, and has advised governments and NGOs including the OECD, the U.S. Economic Development Administration, and the World Bank.