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The Evolution of City Size Distributions

  • Xavier Gabaix
  • Yannis M. Ioannides

We review the accumulated knowledge on city size distributions and determinants of urban growth. This topic is of interest because of a number of key stylized facts, including notably Zipf’s law for cities (which states that the number of cities of size greater than S is proportional to 1/S) and the importance of urban primacy. We first review the empirical evidence on the upper tail of city size distribution. We offer a novel discussion of the important econometric issues in the characterization of the distribution. We then discuss the theories that have been advanced to explain the approximate constancy of the distribution across very different economic and social systems, emphasizing both bare-bone statistical theories and more developed economic theories. We discuss the more recent work on the determinants of urban growth and, in particular, growth regressions, economic explanations of city size distributions other than Gibrat’s law, consequences of major shocks (quasi natural experiments), and the dynamics of U.S. urban evolution.

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Paper provided by Department of Economics, Tufts University in its series Discussion Papers Series, Department of Economics, Tufts University with number 0310.

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Date of creation: 2003
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Handle: RePEc:tuf:tuftec:0310
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  1. Henry G. Overman & Yannis Ioannides, 2000. "Zipf's law for cities: an empirical examination," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 20136, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
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  19. Lucas, Robert Jr., 1988. "On the mechanics of economic development," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 22(1), pages 3-42, July.
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  25. Xavier Gabaix, 1999. "Zipf's Law for Cities: An Explanation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 114(3), pages 739-767.
  26. Masahisa Fujita & Paul Krugman & Anthony J. Venables, 2001. "The Spatial Economy: Cities, Regions, and International Trade," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262561476.
  27. Jonathan Eaton & Zvi Eckstein, 1994. "Cities and Growth: Theory and Evidence from france and Japan," Boston University - Institute for Economic Development 36, Boston University, Institute for Economic Development.
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  30. Romer, Paul M, 1990. "Endogenous Technological Change," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 98(5), pages S71-102, October.
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  33. Robert Axtell and Richard Florida, 2001. "Emergent Cities: A Microeconomic Explanation for Zipf's Law," Computing in Economics and Finance 2001 154, Society for Computational Economics.
  34. William J. Reed, 2002. "On the Rank-Size Distribution for Human Settlements," Journal of Regional Science, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 42(1), pages 1-17.
  35. Krugman, Paul, 1996. "Confronting the Mystery of Urban Hierarchy," Journal of the Japanese and International Economies, Elsevier, vol. 10(4), pages 399-418, December.
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