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Polarization of Economic Potential - the Impact of Tertiarization and Europeanization on Cities

Martin Gornig

Polarization of Economic Potential - the Impact of Tertiarization and Europeanization on Cities

1. Urban economies under pressure
2. The impact on cities' growth potential
3. The impact on income disparity in urban centres
4. Increasing need for action


The national and international service sector is increasingly replacing industry as the backbone of the economy in many European cities. It cannot be overlooked, however, that smaller towns are not benefiting from the economic growth impulses emanating from the service sector. At the same time, tertiarization and Europeanization risk creating ever greater differences in income in urban centres. Cities must rise to these challenges. It is not in their interest to slow down the process of European integration or act as a substitute for the welfare state. Cities must seek to gain the competitive edge within Europe to attract business and, wherever possible, to promote social cohesion. Without sufficient funding, strategies aimed at strengthening the competitiveness of cities and integrating the underprivileged into urban society will not succeed.

In economic terms, cities and urban regions perform particularly well. Productivity (GDP per working person) in large cities and urban areas in Germany and in all EU countries is significantly above national averages (Geppert et al. 2004). In addition, European cities have traditionally played a vital role in promoting social cohesion (Häußermann/Kapphan 2000).

However, the major economic development trends, such as de-industrialization, Europeanization and globalization, seem to be eroding the economic supremacy of urban centres and their ability to integrate. In particular, people are losing faith in the capacity of cities to create new jobs. The following sections outline the theories which support these observations. They present a brief overview of current regional employment and income disparity trends in Germany, thereby pinpointing the dangers presented by increased polarization of future growth potential and income structures in urban areas. The article concludes by discussing the steps which must be taken if such trends towards polarization are to be reversed.


1. Urban economies under pressure

The process of industrialization transformed the city. Historically, industrialization and urbanization are intrinsically linked (Croon 1963). Features such as the establishment of particular production methods (Fordism and Taylorism), the formation of new social strata (the working classes) and the creation of appropriate living and working spaces (industrial estates and residential areas), all shaped the modern city. Despite the dominance of industrial growth, the tertiary sector also played a crucial role in many urban economies (Blotevogel 1995). Tertiarization - i.e. the expansion of the services sector at the expense of industry - is not an exclusively modern phenomenon. It had already been observed before the Second World War (Dangschat et al. 1985).

For a long time, regional economics paid very little attention to these structural differences since all cities and urban regions were growing, regardless of their specific functional roles. Meanwhile, rural areas and city outskirts fell behind. Regional economics was therefore expected to explain growth gaps between the centre and the periphery. It did this by satisfactorily explaining the empirical phenomena, highlighting general advantages of spatial conglomeration caused by internal and external economies of scale (Lösch 1940) and identifying polarization effects (Myrdal 1959), which were the driving force behind agglomeration.

The impact on cities of Fordist production methods and mass purchasing power was so strong that disparities in the structure of the economy also received little attention in analyses of urban regions' socio-spatial structure. Almost everywhere, urban policymakers were preoccupied with managing the resulting economic growth (Häußermann/Siebel 1987). Whether the service sector or industry triggered this growth was of little importance, particularly since Fordism and mass consumerism were just as significant to many services as they were to industry.

The mid-1970s more or less marked the end of the age of industrialization and Fordist production methods in the West. From now on, the service sector was the driving force behind growth, even though industry managed to recover from the oil crisis. With each economic cycle, industry gradually declined in importance, especially for the labour market (Klodt et al. 1997).

This structural upheaval brought with it sudden changes to regional growth patterns within the EU (Hall/Hay 1980). The focus now shifted from the development gap between the centre and the periphery to disparities between urban agglomerations. Regions with large coal and steel industries were particularly hard hit and from now on were labelled traditional industrial regions (Wienert 1990).

At the same time, municipal systems in Europe were oriented towards national economies. Following changes in the organization and management of the economy, caused in particular by EU integration, municipal systems are now undergoing a process of internationalization which is widening development gaps between our cities (Krätke 1998).

The global city theory (Sassen 1994) in particular has popularized these issues. The concentration of businesses and market expansion have boosted the importance of tertiary control functions. These functions are largely bound to particular locations, limiting the number of cities involved. Employment in these command centres of the global economy is increasing. The high income of those in work helps stimulate regional demand for personal services, giving global cities an enormous boost, while other towns suffer as a result of intensified international competition for the most attractive business locations.

The theory of new economic geography (Ottaviano/Puga 1998) forms the basis of the discussion on the spatial-structural consequences of European integration. The conclusions are almost identical to those of Sassen. This theoretical approach largely explains regional concentration and de-concentration processes through sector-related changes in returns to scale and transport costs (Krugman 1995).

The effects of European integration may thus be interpreted as an increase in advantages for large companies (economies of scale) in the sector of tertiary control functions. Improvements in information and telecommunications technology are vital for the management of these services. Institutional trade facilitation is a particularly important factor in Europe. The most important steps in this direction were the creation of the common market in the 1990s, the introduction of the single currency and the recent enlargement of the European Union. According to the theory of new economic geography, all these factors have led to a fall in transportation costs. Rising returns to scale and sinking transport costs result in the spatial concentration of the sector. Focal points of this development are regions which have traditionally been strong. As a result of the initial output and the effectiveness of increasing economies of scale, additional activities in these regions achieve the highest surpluses (marginal productivity).


2. The impact on cities' growth potential

Do these theories correspond to reality? Is it true that cities as a whole are becoming less important for the economy? Is steering the economy and stimulating growth really limited to just a few urban command centres?


Figure: 1998-2004 employment trends (1) in service-based German conurbations (2)

(1) Workers subject to social insurance contributions (excluding civil servants, part-time and self-employed workers).(2) Urban regions whose inner cities have a population of more than 500,000 and in which over 20% of the workforce is employed in the national and international service sector. This sector includes financial and consulting services, the media and tourism (see table). The study covers the Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne, Düsseldorf and Stuttgart conurbations. The inner cities in these conurbations are referred to as service metropolises. Hanover was not included because post-2002 data on employment trends did not distinguish between the inner city and the surrounding area.Source: Geppert/Gornig 2005.

For many years, it seemed as though large cities and conurbations in Germany were falling victim to an irreversible tendency towards spatial de-centralization (Irmen/Blach 1994; Bade/Niebuhr 1999). Migration of people and businesses to less densely populated areas and continued improvements to transport and communications infrastructure seemed to signal their imminent economic decline.

However, current figures on regional employment reveal that the situation is not so clear-cut (Geppert/Gornig 2005). On average, cities continue to perform considerably worse than the less densely populated rural areas. However, a group of large urban regions is developing at a rate well above the national average. These include the Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt am Main, Stuttgart and Munich conurbations. While the overall employment rate in Germany fell by 2.5% between 1998 and 2004, in the aforementioned regions it rose by 1.5% over the same period (see figure).

Even more remarkably, inner cities, which for a long time suffered most from spatial structural changes, are now faring the best. Munich was particularly successful between 1998 and 2004, increasing employment by nearly 5%, the fastest growth rate by far. Meanwhile, Frankfurt am Main reported a rise in employment of nearly 3%. Employment rates rose by about 2% in Cologne and Stuttgart. In Hamburg and Düsseldorf employment levels failed to grow at all, although even this performance was considerably better than in regions in the rest of Germany (on average -2.8%).

The export base theory (Buck et al. 2002) can help explain the current growth of certain cities in Germany and elsewhere. According to this theory, developed in the 1950s, the economic significance of a city or region is defined by its capability to attract demand from other regions. The larger the regional export surplus, the higher the rate of regional growth (Andrews 1953).

The most recent sea change in regional development patterns is clearly due to the expansion and diversification of urban export bases. Traditionally, the export base was often identical to the industrial production of goods. Today however, regions are increasingly trading in services (Daniels 1995; Gornig/Einem 2000). This is true for large parts of the financial sector and for consulting services which primarily develop solutions for other companies. There is also an increasingly interregional flow of certain services targeting end consumers, i.e. households. Examples include the media and large sections of the culture and hospitality sectors connected to tourism. National and international service sectors are particularly well-established in Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Munich (Geppert/Gornig 2005). In these regions, the growth of such services compensated for the decline of the industrial export base.

These findings hardly correlate with the hypotheses of the global city theory. Are Stuttgart and Cologne really the command centres of globalization on the European continent and counterweights to New York and London? It is doubtful. Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich also fall short of the criteria for global cities regarding infrastructure and organizational capacity.

Nevertheless, de-industrialization and Europeanization have left deep marks on urban economies. Industrial wastelands and empty office buildings are not the only signs of this. Populations of once prosperous industrial centres are dramatically shrinking. Statistics show that cities such as Kassel and Magdeburg have extremely high unemployment and large numbers of people on welfare benefits. At the same time, it is clear that a new economic base is emerging, at least in large cities: the national and international service sector. However, only a few cities have hitherto benefited from the economic potential of this sector.

It is extremely hard to predict how spatial development patterns of national and international services will evolve in the long term (Gornig 2004). Several service sector branches, such as business consulting or banking, are increasingly concentrated in a very small number of large centres. Others - such as the media industry - are currently demonstrating de-centralization tendencies. Consequently, conclusions on the relative overall economic development of cities are imprecise. At the moment there are signs that the service sector will replace the ailing industrial basis as the backbone of the economy in certain cities. It is no less likely, however, that the stimulating effect on growth of the national and international service sector will fail to benefit smaller towns. Coupled with large-scale shrinking processes, for example in demographic trends, this means that these towns are threatened with aging, declining populations and decay.


3. The impact on income disparity in urban centres

Tertiarization and Europeanization have just as considerable an impact on social and income structures in urban centres as they do on cities' respective growth levels.

Industrialization, collective wage agreements and the creation of the welfare state resulted in a dramatic fall in income differences in the 20th century. At least until the 1970s the majority of wage earners were able to benefit from rising prosperity levels. Cities founded during the period of industrialization were instrumental in reducing income disparities in Europe. Bolstered by economic growth and urban policy regulation, these cities became engines of integration (Häußermann/Kapphan 2000).

At the beginning of the 21st century, this situation appears to be changing. The social fabric of the European city is at risk. Growing income disparities are a strong indication of new socio-spatial fragmentation in urban centres (Heitmeyer/Anhut 2000).

There are a variety of reasons for the rise in income disparities. Public debate mainly pinpoints the impact of dismantling the welfare state and of rising unemployment. Parallels are emerging between the United States and Europe. In the United States, poverty is not necessarily a result of unemployment (working poor). The once clear framework of the labour market in Europe now accommodates a transitional grey zone of employment which requires little skill and is often temporary and badly paid.

Rising inequality in the distribution of income is becoming an increasingly important part of modern-day life in Europe (Anxo/Storrie 2000). Current findings present a clear picture of the situation in Germany. In the 1990s there were differing growth rates across Germany (Hauser 2003). Since 2000 differences in income have increased enormously (Frick et al. 2005). The welfare state has remained effective in smoothing unearned and earned income inequalities. Therefore, the root problem is the gross imbalance in primary income distribution.

Rising unemployment is the main reason behind increased income disparity in Germany. In particular the gap between the income of households with a wage-earner and those without has grown. The difference between individual levels of income in eastern and western Germany has also risen significantly since 2000 (Göbel et al. 2005). The broad expansion of the low-wage labour market seems to be a particularly important factor in the increase of wage disparity (Schäfer 2003).

The growing gap in income levels can be seen as a direct result of tertiarization and Europeanization. The hypothesis on the expansion of the service sector combines two factors: a rise in demand caused by increasing income elasticity of demand and low productivity as a result of temporal and spatial consumer constraints (Fourastié 1954). It became clear from an early stage that limited potential for productivity increases can also lead to demand bottlenecks (Baumol 1967). Increases in mass income coincide with price rises for services, even if productivity levels stagnate. Over time, services with low productivity levels (low-skilled services) can only employ more workers if wages remain low relative to the overall income trends. On the other hand, services with high productivity levels can expand despite increasing wage costs since their unit labour costs need not rise. The process of tertiarization therefore creates both relatively badly paid, low-skilled service jobs and high-skilled, well-paid employment. Wage dispersion increases during the transition from an industrial to a service society (Harrison/Bluestone 1988).

The growth of cross-border trade in goods and services is a central phenomenon of Europeanization. While such trade exchange was only limited to certain branches in the 1980s, it now spans the whole spectrum of industrial production. An increasingly large part of the service sector within the EU now functions internationally. The implementation of the EU Services Directive, whatever its final form, will speed up this process (Deutscher Bundestag 2005), which will particularly impact border regions where the wage gap between the two countries is very wide.

Companies look for the most cost-effective production sites for each stage of the production process. In countries such as Germany, where wages are traditionally high, the optimization of production location structures has led to an increase in imports at the expense of domestic low-skilled production (Kleinert et al. 2000). This has caused a significant decrease in the number of unskilled workers employed in industry and tradable services in high-wage countries. At first glance, the outsourcing of unskilled labour would be expected to create a homogenous wage structure in western industrial nations such as Germany. However, a decrease in demand for unskilled workers can cause wages for this sector to fall, increasing wage inequality in high-wage countries (Wood 1995).

Theories on the polarization of income have prompted a multitude of studies analyzing the change in social structures in European cities. Most of these, such as those conducted in Oslo (Wessel 2000), Amsterdam and Rotterdam (Burger/Musterd 2002) and Helsinki (Vaattovaara/Kortteinen 2003), have not revealed a general pattern of polarization. However, the studies draw their conclusions from a rather narrow empirical basis and they lack concrete figures on wage disparity.

Analyzable data on household income developments are available for London. A study has shown that there was a significant increase in the number of high-income households in Great Britain as a whole and London in particular between 1979 and 1995 (Gordon 2000). The study also revealed that in London, and indeed across Great Britain, wage dispersion among individual workers has increased. The rate of wage increase in London is well above the national average, a fact which benefits both higher and lower income groups. There is no evidence to suggest that wage disparity in London is more pronounced than in the rest of the country (Hamnett 2003).

Studies of regional wage and income levels in Germany are almost exclusively concerned with interregional wage comparisons (most recently: Gatzweiler/Milbert 2003). No representative surveys on city-internal wage disparity trends in German regions have hitherto been conducted. Analyses of wage-determined agglomeration effects give an indication of regional differences in wage structures. In 2002, Möller and Haas revealed the positive correlation in urban agglomerations between wages and education levels. This allows the conclusion that the more densely populated a region, the wider the income gap between unskilled and highly qualified workers.

A look at differences in less qualified workers' income also indicates changes in wage structures at the lower end of the income hierarchy (cf. table). In the 1980s in West Germany the gross wage of workers with no professional qualifications was about 17% lower than that of employees who had received relevant training. This gap in earnings grew markedly during the 1990s. In 2002 the difference was estimated at 23%. The dramatic increase in service sector wage disparity was crucial in explaining this development. Industry, on the other hand, only experienced a slight rise in the difference in income levels. However, over the same period the number of unskilled workers in industry fell rapidly, while service sector employment rose, meaning that, ultimately, the stabilizing effect was negligible.

Studies in Dortmund and Munich would seem to suggest that the widening wage gap between qualified and unqualified workers has little connection to a region's capacity for growth. Despite a dramatic fall in industrial employment in Dortmund, the rate of wage disparity growth in the region is only slightly above the average in western Germany. However, Munich proves that, in regions where employment is rising rapidly, the wage gap has widened considerably at the expense of less qualified workers.


Table: Wage gap between skilled and unskilled workers







2002 (1)

Wage gap (2) in each region as a percentage

Western Germany


Economy overall





















Dortmund (3)


Economy overall























Economy overall





















(1) Extrapolated due to adoption of a new system(2) Earnings subject to social insurance contributions below the social security contribution ceiling(3) Region used since 1981 as reference unit for nationwide regional development studies

Source: Federal Labour Office, statistics on employees obliged to pay social insurance contributions, data provided by the German Institute for Economic Research Berlin.


4. Increasing need for action

Cities are under enormous pressure to combat the dangers of polarization of economic potential between and within cities. Increasing competition between cities and regions to attract business, in particular in Europe, has made it vital for cities to provide companies with a favourable infrastructural framework. Expanding national and international transport infrastructure and improving the performance of education and academic research are absolutely essential. Principle regulation and funding in these areas are first and foremost the responsibility of the federal government and the Länder. The task of cities is to combine individual features to make themselves appealing locations. Only then will they be able to attract the desired investment, which is essential to secure and strengthen Germany's position as an attractive business location. From the perspective of the economy as a whole, the position of cities when competing internationally to attract business and investment is equally important (see the contribution by Stephan Articus in this issue).

Cities will face an even greater challenge if they choose to play a stronger role in promoting social cohesion. Urban centres should surely not seek to exert direct influence on the distribution of income or to act as a substitute for the welfare state. These duties remain the responsibility of states and the EU. The concrete task of integrating school-leavers, the unemployed and immigrants from different cultures into the local workforce and society is performed in the cities. Youth clubs are organized, sport and culture are promoted, and experiences are exchanged and passed on in local neighbourhoods and districts (Häußermann/Siebel 2004).

The success of cities exposed to Europe-wide competition for business and investment and the promotion of social cohesion within these cities will depend on the creativity and commitment of their citizens, local authorities and elected representatives. However, without sufficient funding, strategies aimed at strengthening cities' competitiveness and efforts to integrate the underprivileged into urban society cannot and will not succeed.

Tax estimations and expenditure forecasts for 2005 and 2006 indicate that the financial situation in cities and municipalities is stabilizing somewhat (Vesper 2005). However, the claim that the majority of towns and cities have achieved a balanced budget overlooks the fact that this was only possible due to huge municipal investment cuts and that there are large differences between individual towns and cities. To combat the polarization of growth potential and social structures, cities must join forces to develop and implement additional measures.



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