Economic activity is unevenly distributed across space, both internationally and within countries. What determines this spatial distribution, and how is it shaped by trade? Classical trade theory gives the insights of comparative advantage and gains from trade but is firmly aspatial, modeling countries as points and trade (in goods and factors of production) as either perfectly frictionless or impossible. Modern theory places this in a spatial context in which geographical considerations influence the volume of trade between places. Gravity models tell us that distance is important, with each doubling of distance between places halving the volume of trade. Modeling the location decisions of firms gives a theory of location of activity based on factor costs (as in classical theory) and also on proximity to markets, proximity to suppliers, and the extent of competition in each market. It follows from this that—if there is a high degree of mobility—firms and economic activity as a whole may tend to cluster, providing an explanation of observed spatial unevenness. In some circumstances falling trade barriers may trigger the deindustrialization of some areas as activity clusters in fewer places. In other circumstances falling barriers may enable activity to spread out, reducing inequalities within and between countries. Research over the past several decades has established the mechanisms that cause these changes and placed them in full general equilibrium models of the economy. Empirical work has quantified many of the important relationships. However, geography and trade remains an area where progress is needed to develop robust tools that can be used to inform place-based policies (concerning trade, transport, infrastructure, and local economic development), particularly in view of the huge expenditures that such policies incur.
Anthony J. Venables
The geography of economic activity refers to the distribution of population, production, and consumption of goods and services in geographic space. The geography of growth and development refers to the local growth and decline of economic activity and the overall distribution of these local changes within and across countries. The pattern of growth in space can vary substantially across regions, countries, and industries. Ultimately, these patterns can help explain the role that spatial frictions (like transport and migration costs) can play in the overall development of the world economy. The interaction of agglomeration and congestion forces determines the density of economic activity in particular locations. Agglomeration forces refer to forces that bring together agents and firms by conveying benefits from locating close to each other, or for locating in a particular area. Examples include local technology and institutions, natural resources and local amenities, infrastructure, as well as knowledge spillovers. Congestion forces refer to the disadvantages of locating close to each other. They include traffic, high land prices, as well as crime and other urban dis-amenities. The balance of these forces is mediated by the ability of individuals, firms, good and services, as well as ideas and technology, to move across space: namely, migration, relocation, transport, commuting and communication costs. These spatial frictions together with the varying strength of congestion and agglomeration forces determines the distribution of economic activity. Changes in these forces and frictions—some purposefully made by agents given the economic environment they face and some exogenous—determine the geography of growth and development. The main evolution of the forces that influence the geography of growth and development have been changes in transport technology, the diffusion of general-purpose technologies, and the structural transformation of economies from agriculture, to manufacturing, to service-oriented economies. There are many challenges in modeling and quantifying these forces and their effects. Nevertheless, doing so is essential to evaluate the impact of a variety of phenomena, from climate change to the effects of globalization and advances in information technology.
Pao-Li Chang and Wen-Tai Hsu
This article reviews interrelated power-law phenomena in geography and trade. Given the empirical evidence on the gravity equation in trade flows across countries and regions, its theoretical underpinnings are reviewed. The gravity equation amounts to saying that trade flows follow a power law in distance (or geographic barriers). It is concluded that in the environment with firm heterogeneity, the power law in firm size is the key condition for the gravity equation to arise. A distribution is said to follow a power law if its tail probability follows a power function in the distribution’s right tail. The second part of this article reviews the literature that provides the microfoundation for the power law in firm size and reviews how this power law (in firm size) may be related to the power laws in other distributions (in incomes, firm productivity and city size).
Ching-mu Chen and Shin-Kun Peng
For research attempting to investigate why economic activities are distributed unevenly across geographic space, new economic geography (NEG) provides a general equilibrium-based and microfounded approach to modeling a spatial economy characterized by a large variety of economic agglomerations. NEG emphasizes how agglomeration (centripetal) and dispersion (centrifugal) forces interact to generate observed spatial configurations and uneven distributions of economic activity. However, numerous economic geographers prefer to refer to the term new economic geographies as vigorous and diversified academic outputs that are inspired by the institutional-cultural turn of economic geography. Accordingly, the term geographical economics has been suggested as an alternative to NEG. Approaches for modeling a spatial economy through the use of a general equilibrium framework have not only rendered existing concepts amenable to empirical scrutiny and policy analysis but also drawn economic geography and location theories from the periphery to the center of mainstream economic theory. Reduced-form empirical studies have attempted to test certain implications of NEG. However, due to NEG’s simplified geographic settings, the developed NEG models cannot be easily applied to observed data. The recent development of quantitative spatial models based on the mechanisms formalized by previous NEG theories has been a breakthrough in building an empirically relevant framework for implementing counterfactual policy exercises. If quantitative spatial models can connect with observed data in an empirically meaningful manner, they can enable the decomposition of key theoretical mechanisms and afford specificity in the evaluation of the general equilibrium effects of policy interventions in particular settings. Several decades since its proposal, NEG has been criticized for its parsimonious assumptions about the economy across space and time. Therefore, existing challenges still require theoretical and quantitative models on new microfoundations pertaining to the interactions between economic agents across geographical space and the relationship between geography and economic development.