Why Cities Are Where They Are
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Why Cities Are Where They Are

This is a Wendover Productions video made
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from Squarespace. The Cumberland valley is home to six towns
lying between Hagerstown, Maryland and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania— Greencastle, Chambersburg,
Shippensburg, Newville, Carlisle, and Mecanicsburg. What’s exceptional about these small Pennsylvania
towns is that they’re each almost exactly 10 miles from each other. The distances deviate by no more than a mile
from this rule. This isn’t a coincidence and this isn’t
planned. Drawing equal sized radii around each town
shows you their spheres of influence. Assuming each town has the exact same shops
and services, rational people will just go to whichever town is closest to buy or sell
goods. Towns ten miles apart mean that nobody has
to travel more than five miles to reach a town. Each one of these towns was founded before
the formation of the United States, so that means that, of course, nobody had cars and
pretty much everybody walked everywhere. 10 miles, or 5 miles each way, is about the
distance a person can comfortably walk in a day with enough time to buy or sell goods
at a central market. Back in this era before cars, a 5 mile radius
was essentially the largest possible commuter zone to small agricultural towns and therefore
having towns ten miles apart was the most efficient possible use of rural land. When you get a chance, take a look at map
of a rural area that existed before cars. You’ll see that the distance between medium-sized
towns is almost always somewhere between about 10 to 15 miles. Because the Cumberland valley is a valley,
towns really could only develop in a line, but in most cases towns develop in all directions. This is what the ten mile rule looks like
going out in all directions. Each of these points is a town and the hexagon
around it is the area from which people will go to the town. In the real world, each of these towns probably
has a small grocery store, a pharmacy, a bank, and maybe a restaurant. Since everybody uses these services, there
doesn’t have to be many people in a towns sphere of influence in order to sustain these
shops. But where do you put something more specialized,
like a mechanic. People only need to go the mechanic every
once in a while so you need more people to sustain one mechanics shop than one grocery
store. Well, some of these small towns develop into
larger towns with more people that can support more specialized shops and services. Putting these larger towns with more specialized
shops closer together would be unsustainable since there wouldn’t be enough people going
to those shops but putting them farther apart would be inefficient since there’s land
that people would not go to a city from. This happens once or twice more until you
have cities. These cities have the largest spheres of influence
and the most specialized shops. You of course still have grocery stores and
pharmacies in cities, but you also have things like luxury car dealerships, brain surgery
centers, and airports. The city’s sphere of influence is enormous
because people will travel hundreds of miles to buy an expensive car or get brain surgery
or fly from an airport. Think about it within a city. How far would you walk to buy a latte. Probably only a few blocks and that’s why
you see Starbucks or other coffee shops on almost every block. Since almost everyone buys coffee, you only
need a few blocks of people to sustain one coffee shop. But how far would you walk to buy a MacBook? Probably quite far since its a infrequent
and substantial purchase. That’s why Apple stores are rather rare
even in cities. You need an enormous amount of people to sustain
one Apple store and we can actually figure out roughly how many. In Connecticut, the Trumbull Apple Store is
about 20 miles away from the New Haven store to the north-east and the Stamford store to
the south-west. In the 10 mile radius around the Trumbull
Apple Store there are about half a million inhabitants which tells us that you need about
half a million people to sustain one Apple store. We can compare that to the Starbucks’ of
lower Manhattan which are spread out at an average distance of about 600 feet. Drawing a 300 foot radius around one Starbucks
in lower Manhattan covers around 6,000 people which means that one Starbucks needs 6,000
people to sustain it. Of course both Connecticut and New York are
places with higher than average incomes which means less people are needed to sustain one
Starbucks or Apple Store. The numbers would be very different in, say,
rural Kansas, but since each store generally only builds in areas with higher-than-average
incomes this gives a good sense of how many people Apple and Starbucks looks for in an
area before opening up a store. So, our model shows where cities should be,
but its not like this in reality. This is the most efficient spread of cities
if you’re assuming that the cities are on a perfectly flat plane with no geographic
features, no social influences, no variability of income, equal distribution of resources—essentially
assuming the world is one homogeneous place… which its not. In reality, of course, our world has an enormous
effect on where and why cities develop. To start out, let’s cut this down to one
city on a flat, featureless plane for simplicity. What affects the location of cities more than
anything is water. If we put an ocean on one side of our isotropic
plane, our city will almost certainly locate near it. Oceans have always been and still are what
connects the world. There’s no other means of transport that
can move such enormous amounts of cargo for so little. Any city needs to be economically efficient
to grow and it will cost more to bring goods to a city that’s 1000 miles inland than
one right by the ocean. Just look at Europe. 6 of the 10 largest European cities are within
100 miles of the coast. But oceans aren’t the only bodies of water
to affect cities. Rivers are just as or perhaps even more influential. Milan, the 19th largest European city, is
the largest to not be either directly on the ocean or on a river, and even then its only
15 miles from a river and 75 miles from the ocean. Until the last century or so, cities could
not survive without direct water access. If you need more proof, 14 of the 15 largest
cities in the world are within a few dozen miles of the ocean. Perhaps the most obvious attractor for cities
is resources, so going back to our isotropic plane, putting natural resources anywhere
on this map will draw cities near it. Cities that existed before the last century
or so generally sprung up right near the resources, much like Pittsburgh, since they acted as
manufacturing and transportation hubs for those resources, but more recently new resource
dependent cities don’t need to be as close to the resources themselves. New transportation technologies can bring
the resources from their source. Just look at Dubai. Of course the UAE has enormous oil deposits,
but they’re much closer to Abu Dhabi and the South-West than Dubai. In 1900, Dubai had 10,000 residents, less
than half that of Carlisle, Pennsylvania—one of the farming towns we talked about at the
beginning. That only grew to 40,000 by 1960, but today
its known worldwide and has more than 2.5 million residents. It was able to grow at this enormous rate—even
faster than Abu Dhabi—since it cemented itself as the economic and administrative
hub for the oil industries of the region. Another geographic feature that we can add
to the plane is mountains. Now, mountains don’t always have a uniform
affect on cities. Mexico City, Bogota, and Addis Ababa are all
enormous cities at elevations above 7,000 feet. Mountains do make transport and trade difficult,
but they also provide protection. Many ancient cities grew in these locations
since they were easy to protect, which left more time to focus on growing the city, but
mountains can also hinder development. For quite a while, the United States could
not develop west of the Appalachian mountains. They just served as an enormous barrier. In 1800, the average center of population
for the entire United States was here even though the US had sovereignty over this entire
area. Of course technology eventually conquered
this barrier and moved the mean population center all the way out to Missouri today,
but if the Appalachian mountains didn’t exist American history and geography would
be completely different. We would have seen urban development much
earlier in the mid-west. But mountains can have another effect. You see, coal, silver, gold, and other mineral
deposits are all often located in mountainous regions, and, just like Dubai, cities can
develop in less hospitable and easy places due to resources. The economic advantage of exploiting the resources
overpowers the economic disadvantage of being in an inhospitable location. Denver, Colorado grew 650% between 1870 and
1880 with the opening of a railroad branch connecting with the transcontinental railroad. It served as an access point to transportation
to the gold miners in the rockies. So mountains can either push cities away or
bring them nearer—it really just depends on the circumstance. Let’s exchange our isotropic plane for a
world map. Where should cities be on here? Well, our world’s cities are not necessarily
all in the most geographically efficient locations. While there is a certain level of natural
selection that grows the efficiently placed cities and shrinks the inefficiently placed
cities, humans are not always able to put cities in the most efficient locations. Let’s put up the 224 cities in the world
with a population over 2 million. You can immediately see some patterns. Putting up the equator, you can see a clear
divide. Only 32 of these cities lie in the southern
hemisphere. One might think this is because there is so
much more land in the northern hemisphere, but that’s not entirely true. You see, the southern hemisphere still has
32% of the world’s land, but only has 14% of the world’s large cities. There’s clearly a higher density of cities
in the northern hemisphere. You can pretty much trace this all back to
Europe and Asia. The first large civilizations and empires
were on these two continents even though the human race likely originated in Africa. There’s hundreds of different theories on
why civilizations succeeded in some places and failed in others, but one of the more
plausible and interesting theories is that Europe and Asia succeeded because they’re
wide instead of tall. The very shape of the continents may have
changed the course of human history. You see, when a continent is wide, you have
a ton of land with roughly the same climate. Climate tends to change when you go north
and south rather than east and west as a nature of how the earth rotates around the sun. Much of the success of early civilizations
had to do with the domestication of plants and animals and the corresponding technology. When expanding horizontally, the climate is
similar enough that an empire can use the same successful plants and animals, while
expanding vertically requires the domestication of new plants and animals. If a civilization started in central-america,
for example, there would be very little land on the continent with a similar climate and
their expansion would be severely limited. In Europe and Asia, on the other hand, theres
thousands upon thousands and miles of similar climate that can be reached just by traveling
east or west. There’s evidence to back this up. Just look at the maps of the four largest
early empires—the Qing Dynasty, the Abbasid Caliphate, the Umayyad Caliphate, and the
Mongol empire. They were all in Eurasia and they all expanded
horizontally. When some of the more modern empires expanded,
they had the technology to do so overseas. The three major modern empires were the British,
Spanish, and French empires—each of which came from relatively similar climates. A major reason why America was able to succeed
is because all the agriculture from Europe worked there. Climatically, Europe and America are nearly
identical. The majority of developed colonized countries
are in the northern hemisphere just because they were closest to Europe, but formerly
British countries like South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand are all highly developed and
in the Southern Hemisphere. Their success over more northern countries
in the southern hemisphere can also be partially attributed to their greater climate similarity
to Europe. Let’s ask one more question. If our world only had one city, where would
it logically be? Well if you take the location of every person
in the world and average it out, you come to south-central Asia. That means that this general region is the
optimum place to live on the planet, but where more specifically should our world city go. Well, this region is already in the Northern
Hemisphere and in Eurasia, so we’ve already covered those two criteria. We want a place within a hundred of so miles
of the ocean, on a navigable river, near mountains with rich mineral deposits—the single best
place for a city on earth just might be… Dhaka, Bangladesh. Every geographic model and theory says that
there is no better place on earth to put a city than here. There’s evidence to back this up: Dhaka
is between the 4th and 18th largest metropolitan area on earth depending on how you define
metropolitan area, and Bangladesh is the sixth densest country on earth—there are 161 million
people living in an area about the size of England. History has affected geography enough that
the largest and most advanced civilizations are not all in South-Central Asia, but if
we started all over again, did humanity a second time, every geographic model says that
this region could be the origin and central point of human civilization. I hope you enjoyed this Wendover Productions
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