A recent EASIN Urban, Transport and DRM Community of Practice (CoP) meeting I attended in Seoul, South Korea was an eye opener in terms of the rapid urban development of the city of Seoul. Considered an East Asian tiger, manufacturing and an export-led economy have made Seoul a global city with neon skylines and the new focus of Asia’s technology boom. A presentation by Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG), the agency responsible for the city’s urban planning, describes the city as a ‘strategic space for people to reside in since ancient times’. Nevertheless, the city and its urban identity have gone through various transformations – through the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) to restoration after the Korean war (1950-53) to industrialization (1960s-1970s) to development and globalization. In SMG’s words, Seoul is witnessing the ‘environmental and historical awakening as a world city’. Evidence of this was seen in sites I visited to the restored Cheonggyecheon stream and a former landfill converted to Haneul Park.
If you visit the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., one of the exhibits you’ll come across is a map of the Earth, which shows lights detected by satellites at night. With even a cursory look, it’s clear the lights pick out spatial patterns of urban and economic development. Look at the USA, and you see the coasts are brightly lit, whereas the country’s interior is much less so. Look at the Korea peninsula and you see that whilst South Korea is almost ablaze with light, the North is noteworthy for its almost complete absence of light.
The potential ability of night-time lights imagery to detect spatial patterns of urban and economic development has been known in the remote sensing community since the late 1970s. However, it has only recently been brought to the attention of economists following a paper by Vernon Henderson, Adam Storeygard and David Weil entitled “Measuring Economic Growth from Outer Space.” This paper alerted economists to the strong correlation between a country’s rate of GDP growth and the growth in intensity of its night-time lights, and the fact that the lights represent (for economists) a relatively untapped dataset with global coverage and a time-series dating back more than twenty years.
This post was originally written for the Collective Solutions 2025 blog, a forward-looking study and collaboration platform to explore how the World Bank and similar multilateral institutions can best support developing countries to meet long-term sustainable development challenges in a post-2025 world. Read more about the study and join the collaboration site here.
I don’t particularly like cities. I’m a country boy. But I have lived in cities for the last 35 years; 10 in Bangkok, 15 in Manila, and 10 in Washington, DC (though DC might be called a town if it were in India or China). In the 1990s, I led work on environmental investments in east and south Asian cities. Most of the cities I worked in were severely “under-infrastructured and under-serviced,” and because many of them are built on coastal zones, this was particularly pronounced when it came to low-lying slums, drainage and sanitation. The heaviest price tag was often for drainage and flood control. During those years, I often wondered if and how the city and country leaders would ever catch up on infrastructure needs with the growing urban populations. Many have done well—while others are in worse shape now because they haven’t been able to meet the human tide.
Around 5000 years ago, the first cities emerged in Mesopotamia and the fertile valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Agricultural surpluses enabled a few people to start specializing in something other than agriculture. The farmer who now had extra grain could trade for a better spear or a winter fur coat. This specialization and the ability to trade goods and services is the basis of urbanization. And, there was enough food that the starving artist didn’t starve completely, so along with trade, culture emerged.
Cities grew at a modest pace until about 1800 when the Industrial Revolution took off in the UK and cities developed at staggering rates. Manchester, for example experienced a six-fold population increase from 1771 to 1831. London went from about one-fifth of Britain’s population at the start of the 19th Century to about half the country’s population in 1851. This rate of urbanization has not let up for the last two hundred years; in fact it is still accelerating. The growth of cities seen over the last two hundred years will now be repeated, but this time in just forty years.
A few weeks ago, John O’Brien, the chief strategist for Ireland’s Industrial Development Agency, was at The World Bank, Washington DC to address an event on the role of cultural heritage and historic cities in Local Economic Development. The theme of the event was creating jobs by supporting historic cities and cultural heritage. Urban Sector Manager Abha Joshi-Ghani began the day’s session by underlining the significance of cultural heritage in city development: “We have started to look at cities as drivers of entrepreneurship and innovation. It is important to understand how cities attract skilled people and industries to create jobs and what role they play in economic growth. Therefore it is very helpful to find linkages between cultural heritage assets and job creation.”