Will urban giants – with high levels of education, income, and real property prices – dominate the future of cities?

Blog post by Daniel Broxterman and Anthony Yezer

30 Sep 2020, 9:46 a.m.
Daniel Broxterman and Anthony Yezer



Some research suggests that more educated workers are attracted to urban giants. And because of their highly skilled labour forces, the giants grow faster. Consequently, city sizes are diverging, with giants growing at the expense of smaller cities.


In opposition, Gibrat’s law for cities holds that population growth rates are not related to city size. Previous testing of Gibrat’s law has found that various factors affect city growth rates over temporary periods, but not in the long run, and the city size distribution of countries is relatively stable.


This paper tests the hypotheses behind the city divergence argument.


First, the paper finds that while the labour forces of large US cities are more skilled, the ratio of skilled to unskilled workers is not diverging in either of the two ways divergence is commonly conceptualised: the dispersion of skilled workers across cities is not increasing, nor are skilled cities becoming still more skilled. (Skilled here means having attained at least a bachelor’s-level degree.) Urban giants appear to be adding more skilled workers naturally because they have more skilled workforces to begin with and educational attainment is increasing nationwide. But cities are not growing apart in relative terms, because the rate of growth of skilled workers does not vary with city size.  


Second, the research examines the possibility that the relation between the skill intensity of an urban labour force and its subsequent rate of growth is not monotonic. Specifically, it demonstrates that cities with high levels of skill intensity do grow more quickly, but as the share of college-educated workers rises, the relation between skill intensity and city growth actually turns down.


What does this all mean? That the growth advantage of urban giants due to their skilled labour forces is likely temporary and will eventually be eliminated as the overall education level of the country rises. And that Gibrat’s law is not likely to be violated by trends in the distribution of skilled workers.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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