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The Global Spatial Distribution of Economic Activity: Nature, History, and the Role of Trade

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  • J. Vernon Henderson
  • Tim L. Squires
  • Adam Storeygard
  • David N. Weil

Abstract

We study the distribution of economic activity, as proxied by lights at night, across 250,000 grid cells of average area 560 square kilometers. We first document that nearly half of the variation can be explained by a parsimonious set of physical geography attributes. A full set of country indicators only explains a further 10%. When we divide geographic characteristics into two groups, those primarily important for agriculture and those primarily important for trade, we find that the agriculture variables have relatively more explanatory power in countries that developed early and the trade variables have relatively more in countries that developed late, despite the fact that the latter group of countries are far more dependent on agriculture today. We explain this apparent puzzle in a model in which two technological shocks occur, one increasing agricultural productivity and the other decreasing transportation costs, and in which agglomeration economies lead to persistence in urban locations. In countries that developed early, structural transformation due to rising agricultural productivity began at a time when transport costs were still relatively high, so urban agglomerations were localized in agricultural regions. When transport costs fell, these local agglomerations persisted. In late developing countries, transport costs fell well before structural transformation. To exploit urban scale economies, manufacturing agglomerated in relatively few, often coastal, locations. With structural transformation, these initial coastal locations grew, without formation of more cities in the agricultural interior.

Suggested Citation

  • J. Vernon Henderson & Tim L. Squires & Adam Storeygard & David N. Weil, 2016. "The Global Spatial Distribution of Economic Activity: Nature, History, and the Role of Trade," NBER Working Papers 22145, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:22145 Note: DEV EFG
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Broadberry,Stephen & O'Rourke,Kevin H., 2010. "The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521708395, December.
    2. Barro, Robert J. & Lee, Jong Wha, 2013. "A new data set of educational attainment in the world, 1950–2010," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 104(C), pages 184-198.
    3. Broadberry,Stephen & O'Rourke,Kevin H. (ed.), 2010. "The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe 2 Volume Paperback Set," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521128247, March.
    4. Broadberry,Stephen & O'Rourke,Kevin H. (ed.), 2010. "The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe 2 Volume Hardback Set," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521199179, March.
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    Cited by:

    1. Lessmann, Christian & Seidel, André, 2017. "Regional inequality, convergence, and its determinants – A view from outer space," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 92(C), pages 110-132.
    2. Dave Donaldson & Adam Storeygard, 2016. "The View from Above: Applications of Satellite Data in Economics," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 30(4), pages 171-198, Fall.
    3. Pfeifer, Gregor & Wahl, Fabian & Marczak, Martyna, 2016. "Illuminating the world cup effect: Night lights evidence from South Africa," Hohenheim Discussion Papers in Business, Economics and Social Sciences 16-2016, University of Hohenheim, Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences.
    4. Areendam Chanda & Dachao Ruan, 2017. "Early Urbanization and the Persistence of Regional Disparities within Countries," Departmental Working Papers 2017-01, Department of Economics, Louisiana State University.
    5. Beltràn Tapia, F. & Díez-Minguela, A. & Martínez-Galarraga, J., 2017. "The Shadow of Cities: Size, Location and the Spatial Distribution of Population in Spain," Cambridge Working Papers in Economics 1749, Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • O13 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - Agriculture; Natural Resources; Environment; Other Primary Products
    • O18 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - Urban, Rural, Regional, and Transportation Analysis; Housing; Infrastructure
    • R12 - Urban, Rural, Regional, Real Estate, and Transportation Economics - - General Regional Economics - - - Size and Spatial Distributions of Regional Economic Activity; Interregional Trade (economic geography)

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