Big city population growth boosted by internet, study suggests

The advent of the internet and increasing economic focus on information and communication technologies (ICTs) has drawn more people into living in cities, according to new research.

A team at the University of Bristol found that despite the distance communication advantages that internet technologies can offer, their increased adoption has resulted in national urban systems that are characterised by higher population concentrations.

Traditionally, firms in similar fields are known to cluster together to reduce production costs, a pattern known as economies of agglomeration.

However, as cutting-edge digital technologies have matured considerably, their impact has not been to disperse urban populations but instead reinforce them.

The researchers tested the effect of internet usage and internet speed on the changes over time in rankings of micropolitan and metropolitan areas in the US, as well as for built-up areas in the UK, for their research.

Dr Emmanouil Tranos, lead author of the paper, said: “Geographers, planners and urban economists explored the spatial footprint of the internet at its early stages. Their theories were conjectural and even fanciful then and included the emergence of telecottages, borderless countries and even the end of cities.

“Today, 25 years after the commercialisation of the internet, we know that those narratives overstated the potential of the internet and other digital communication technologies to supplement face-to-face interactions and diminish the cost of distance. The high and steadily increasing urbanisation rates prove otherwise.

“The results instead favour a complementary relation between the internet and agglomeration externalities, meaning the internet and ICTs have not pushed people out of big cities, but rather attracted more people towards them.”

The researchers hope that these findings will be able to inform urban policy going forward.

The ability of the internet and digital communications to further enhance agglomeration economies can be used as a tool to support urban growth. In addition, the indication that such effects might be stronger for smaller and less dense urban areas, at least in England and Wales, might be helpful to further orient digital strategies towards such locations.

Dr Tranos added: “Although this paper was written before Covid, the results are highly relevant for the current period when internet and digital technologies have supplemented face-to-face interactions.

“The next steps involve assessing the changes that the rapid digitalisation, caused by the pandemic, may create to cities and urban systems.”

While the findings may broadly represent the internet era, big cities such as London are expected to see their populations fall this year for the first time in more than 30 years, due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

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