Journal of Economic Growth

, Volume 19, Issue 3, pp 339–368 | Cite as

Agriculture, transportation and the timing of urbanization: Global analysis at the grid cell level

  • Mesbah J. Motamed
  • Raymond J. G. M. Florax
  • William A. MastersEmail author


This paper addresses the timing of a location’s historical transition from rural to urban activity. We test whether urbanization occurs sooner in places with higher agricultural potential and comparatively lower transport costs, using worldwide data that divide the earth’s surface at half-degree intervals into 62,290 cells. From an independent estimate of each cell’s rural and urban population history over the last 2,000 years, we identify the date at which each cell achieves various thresholds of urbanization. Controlling for unobserved heterogeneity across countries through fixed effects and using a variety of spatial econometric techniques, we find a robust association between earlier urbanization and agro-climatic suitability for cultivation, having seasonal frosts, better access to the ocean or navigable rivers, and lower elevation. These geographic correlations become smaller in magnitude as urbanization proceeds, and there is some variation in the effects across continents. Aggregating cells into countries, we show that an earlier urbanization date is associated with higher per capita income today.


Economic growth Economic geography Urbanization  Agriculture Transportation 

JEL Classification

C21 N50 O11 O18 R1 

Supplementary material (2.3 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (zip 2393 KB)


  1. Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S., & Robinson, J. (2001). The colonial origins of comparative development: An empirical investigation. American Economic Review, 91(5), 1369–1401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S., & Robinson, J. (2002). Reversal of fortune: Geography and institutions in the making of the modern world income distribution. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 117(4), 1231–1294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Acemoglu, D., & Robinson, J. (2012). Why nations fail: The origins of power, prosperity, and poverty. New York: Crown Business.Google Scholar
  4. Allen, R. C. (2008). The nitrogen hypothesis and the English agricultural revolution: A biological analysis. The Journal of Economic History, 68(1), 182–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Anselin, L. (1988). Spatial econometrics: Methods and models. Dordrecht: Kluwer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Anselin, L. (2000). Spatial econometrics. In T. Mills & K. Patterson (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Econometrics, Volume 1 Econometric Theory, Chapter 5 (pp. 83–98). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Anselin, L., Bera, A. K., Florax, R., & Yoon, M. J. (1996). Simple diagnostic tests for spatial dependence. Regional Science and Urban Economics, 26(1), 77–104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Ashraf, Q., & Galor, O. (2011). Dynamics and stagnation in the Malthusian epoch. American Economic Review, 101(5), 2003–2041.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Ashraf, Q., & Galor, O. (2013). The ’Out of Africa’ hypothesis, human genetic diversity, and comparative economic development. American Economic Review, 103(1), 1–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bairoch, P. (1998). Cities and economic development: From the dawn of history to the present. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  11. Bosker, E., Buringh, E., & van Zanden, J. (2013). From Baghdad to London: Unraveling urban development in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, 800–1800. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 95(4), 1418–1437.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bosker, M., Brakman, S., Garretsen, H., De Jong, H., & Schramm, M. (2008). Ports, plagues and politics: Explaining Italian city growth 1300–1861. European Review of Economic History, 12(1), 97–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cameron, A. C., & Trivedi, P. K. (2010). Microeconometrics using stata. College Station: Stata Press.Google Scholar
  14. Chorley, G. P. H. (1981). The agricultural revolution in northern Europe, 1750–1880: Nitrogen, legumes, and crop productivity. The Economic History Review, 34(1), 71–93.Google Scholar
  15. Clark, G. (1992). The economics of exhaustion, the Postan thesis, and the agricultural revolution. The Journal of Economic History, 52(1), 61–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Clark, G., & Clark, A. (2001). Common rights to land in England, 1475–1839. The Journal of Economic History, 61(4), 1009–1036.Google Scholar
  17. Comin, D., Easterly, W., & Gong, E. (2010). Was the wealth of nations determined in 1000 B.C.? American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics, 2(3), 65–97.Google Scholar
  18. Dell, M., Jones, B., & Olken, B. (2014). What do we learn from the weather? The new climate-economy literature. Journal of Economic Literature Literature (forthcoming).Google Scholar
  19. Diamond, J. M. (1997). Guns, germs and steel: The fates of human societies. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  20. Duranton, G. (1999). Distance, land, and proximity: Economic analysis and the evolution of cities. Environment and Planning A, 31(12), 2169–2188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Easterly, W., & Levine, R. (2003). Tropics, germs, and crops: How endowments influence economic development. Journal of Monetary Economics, 50(1), 3–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Fujita, M., & Krugman, P. (1995). When is the economy monocentric? von Thünen and Chamberlin unified. Regional Science and Urban Economics, 25(4), 505–528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Fujita, M., Krugman, P., & Venables, A. J. (2001). The spatial economy: Cities, regions, and international trade. Cambridge: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  24. Funke, M., Zuo, J. (2003). Annual hard frosts, scale effects and economic development: A case not closed. Quantitative Macroeconomics Working Papers 20308, Hamburg University, Department of Economics.Google Scholar
  25. Gallup, J. L., Sachs, J. D., & Mellinger, A. D. (1999). Geography and economic development. International Regional Science Review, 22(2), 179–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Galor, O. (2011). Unified growth theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Galor, O., & Weil, D. N. (2000). Population, technology, and growth: From Malthusian stagnation to the demographic transition and beyond. The American Economic Review, 90(4), 806–828.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gollin, D., Parente, S., & Rogerson, R. (2002). The role of agriculture in development. The American Economic Review, 92(2), 160–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Halvorsen, R., & Palmquist, R. (1980). The interpretation of dummy variables in semilogarithmic equations. The American Economic Review, 70(3), 474–475.Google Scholar
  30. Hansen, G. D., & Prescott, E. C. (2002). Malthus to Solow. The American Economic Review, 92(4), 1205–1217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Heston, A., Summers, R., Aten, B. (2006). Penn World Table Version 6.2. Technical report, Center for International Comparisons of Production, Income and Prices at the University of Pennsylvania.Google Scholar
  32. Hijmans, R. J., Cameron, S. E., Parra, J. L., Jones, P. G., & Jarvis, A. (2005). Very high resolution interpolated climate surfaces for global land areas. International Journal of Climatology, 25(15), 1965–1978.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. IPCC (2002). The IPCC Data Distribution Centre: Downloading Scenarios and Climate Data from the DDC.Google Scholar
  34. Jedwab, R., Kerby, E., Moradi A. (2014). History, path dependence and development: Evidence from colonial railroads, settlers and cities in Kenya. CSAE Working Paper WPS/2014-04, Center for the Study of African Economies.Google Scholar
  35. Johnston, B. F., & Mellor, J. W. (1961). The role of agriculture in economic development. The American Economic Review, 51(4), 566–593.Google Scholar
  36. Kelejian, H. H., & Prucha, I. R. (2007). HAC estimation in a spatial framework. Journal of Econometrics, 140(1), 131–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kiszewski, A., Mellinger, A., Spielman, A., Malaney, P., Sachs, S., & Sachs, J. (2004). A global index representing the stability of malaria transmission. The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 70(5), 486–498.Google Scholar
  38. Klein Goldewijk, K., Beusen, A., & Janssen, P. (2010). Long-term dynamic modeling of global population and built-up area in a spatially explicit way: HYDE 3.1. The Holocene, 20(4), 565–573.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Klein Goldewijk, K., Beusen, A., Van Drecht, G., & De Vos, M. (2011). The HYDE 3.1 spatially explicit database of human-induced global land-use change over the past 12,000 years. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 20(1), 73–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kögel, T., & Prskawetz, A. (2001). Agricultural productivity growth and escape from the Malthusian trap. Journal of Economic Growth, 6(4), 337–357.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Krugman, P. (1991). Increasing returns and economic geography. The Journal of Political Economy, 99(3), 483–499.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Kuznets, S. (1973). Modern economic growth: Findings and reflections. The American Economic Review, 63(3), 247–258.Google Scholar
  43. Lucas, R. E. (2000). Some macroeconomics for the 21st century. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14(1), 159–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Maddison, A. (2001). The world economy: A millennial perspective. Ottawa: Development Centre of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Mankiw, N. G., Romer, D., & Weil, D. N. (1992). A contribution to the empirics of economic growth. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 107(2), 407–437.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Masters, W. A., & McMillan, M. S. (2001). Climate and scale in economic growth. Journal of Economic Growth, 6(3), 167–186.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Matsuyama, K. (1992). Agricultural productivity, comparative advantage, and economic growth. Journal of Economic Theory, 58(2), 317–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. McCloskey, D. N. (1972). The enclosure of open fields: Preface to a study of its impact on the efficiency of English agriculture in the eighteenth century. The Journal of Economic History, 32(1), 15–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. McMillen, D. (2003). Spatial autocorrelation or model misspecification? International Regional Science Review, 26(2), 208–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Michaels, G., Rauch, F., & Redding, S. J. (2012). Urbanization and structural transformation. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 127(2), 535–586.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Michalopoulos, S. (2008). The origins of ethnolinguistic diversity: Theory and evidence. American Economic Review, 102(4), 1508–1539.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Motamed, M. J., Florax, R. J. G. M., Masters, W. A. (2014). Agriculture, transportation and the timing of urbanization: Global analysis at the grid cell level. Tinbergen Institute Discussion Papers TI 2014–002/VIII, Tinbergen Institute.Google Scholar
  53. Murata, Y. (2008). Engel’s law, Petty’s law, and agglomeration. Journal of Development Economics, 87(1), 161–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Ngai, L. R. (2004). Barriers and the transition to modern growth. Journal of Monetary Economics, 51(7), 1353–1383.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Nordhaus, W. D. (2006). Geography and macroeconomics: New data and new findings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103(10), 3510–3517.Google Scholar
  56. North, D. C. (1990). Institutions, institutional change, and economic performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Nunn, N. (2008). The long-term effects of Africa’s slave trades. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 123(1), 139–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Nunn, N. (2014). Historical development. In S. Durlauf & P. Aghion (Eds.), Handbook of Economic Growth, Vol. 2a, Chapter 7. Amsterdam: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  59. Nunn, N., & Qian, N. (2011). The potato’s contribution to population and urbanization: Evidence from a historical experiment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 126(2), 593–650.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Olsson, O., & Hibbs, D. A. (2005). Biogeography and long-run economic development. European Economic Review, 49(4), 909–938.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Puga, D. (1999). The rise and fall of regional inequalities. European Economic Review, 43(2), 303–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Putterman, L. (2008). Agriculture, diffusion and development: Ripple effects of the neolithic revolution. Economica, 75(300), 729–748.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Putterman, L., & Weil, D. (2010). Post-1500 population flows and the long-run determinants of economic growth and inequality. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 125(4), 1627–1682.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Ramankutty, N., Foley, J. A., Norman, J., & McSweeney, K. (2002). The global distribution of cultivable lands: Current patterns and sensitivity to possible climate change. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 11(5), 377–392.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Sachs, J. D. (2003). Institutions don’t rule: Direct effects of geography on per capita income. Working Paper 9490, National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
  66. Sokoloff, K. L., & Engerman, S. L. (2000). History lessons: Institutions, factors endowments, and paths of development in the new world. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14(3), 217–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Solow, R. (1956). A contribution to the theory of economic growth. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 70(1), 65–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Spolaore, E., & Wacziarg, R. (2009). The diffusion of development. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(2), 469–529.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Spolaore, E., & Wacziarg, R. (2013). How deep are the roots of economic development? Journal of Economic Literature, 51(2), 1–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Strulik, H., & Weisdorf, J. (2008). Population, food, and knowledge: A simple unified growth theory. Journal of Economic Growth, 13(3), 195–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Vörösmatry, C. J., Fekete, B. M., Meybeck, M., & Lammers, R. (2000). Global system of rivers: Its role in organizing continental land mass and defining land-to-ocean linkages. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 14(2), 599–622.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Williamson, J. G. (1988). Migration and urbanization. In H. Chenery & T. Srinivasan (Eds.), Handbook of Development Economics, Vol. 1, Chapter 11 (pp. 425–465). Amsterdam: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  73. Xenophon (1914). Cyropaedia: The education of cyrus. (J. M. Dent and Sons. Translated by H.G. Dakyns, revised by F. M. Stawell).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mesbah J. Motamed
    • 1
  • Raymond J. G. M. Florax
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
  • William A. Masters
    • 5
    Email author
  1. 1.U.S. Department of AgricultureEconomic Research ServiceWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Agricultural EconomicsPurdue UniversityWest LafayetteUSA
  3. 3.Department of Spatial EconomicsVU University AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  4. 4.Tinbergen InstituteAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  5. 5.Friedman School of Nutrition and Department of EconomicsTufts UniversityBostonUSA

Personalised recommendations