The Geography of Borrowing Size

Mark Altaweel


One consequence of a globalized world is that smaller towns in countries, particularly those that have limited draw to foreign capital and a mobile workforce, are likely to suffer economically or might be limited in the opportunities they have to retain their populations.

However, towns, including those in rural regions, can literally borrow size from other urban locations, boosting their economic opportunities and capabilities by using the fact they are located near large towns and can leverage these networks to be more economically robust.

What is Borrowing Size?

What borrowing size simply means is that smaller towns can utilize the size of their larger neighbor cities and leverage their economic networks and capacity for urban investment to better position themselves in regions of higher economic activity.

Similar concepts included borrowed performance and borrowed functions, where towns could perform better and function at a level higher than what would be expected for their given size.

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In Germany, a country without a primate city but where 10-12 core cities exist and have important economic contributions, cities have the effect of benefiting surrounding smaller towns in these zones to the extent where small, rural towns outperform and have greater economic impact than towns that are similar and not in these zones.

This has implications for development, whereby transport and communication links play an important role, and need to be developed closely between larger cities and rural towns, in maintaining close connections of smaller towns to regional economic cities that act as centers.[1]

Varying levels of integration between cities. Figure: Meijers, E. J., & Burger, M. J. (2017). Stretching the concept of ‘borrowed size’. Urban Studies, 54(1), 269-291.
Varying levels of integration between cities. Figure: Meijers, E. J., & Burger, M. J. (2017). Stretching the concept of ‘borrowed size’. Urban Studies, 54(1), 269-291.

What are the Benefits of ‘Borrowing Size’?

The implications of towns borrowing size is potentially important for developers and planners, where often the focus had been on developing single, large metropolises rather than accounting for development that seeks to enhance network and size effects of cities on their regions.

In another study, it was found that towns benefit from both networks, that is their connectivity to large cities, but also the size of larger cities has an effect on the surrounding towns even if the connections between small towns and cities are not well developed.

In fact, it was found that size, rather than network connectivity, is almost always an important factor in enabling towns to leverage economic benefits from their large urban neighbors.

In turn, regional cities can boost their effects to smaller towns if they have improved regional and international connectivity. In other words, connecting larger cities to a larger globalized economy then has the benefit of boosting the small towns around them.[2]

Overall, countries with more polycentric urban regions, that is having multiple large, economically important cities, have higher average GDP per capita than those with a more monocentric urban models.

The monocentric cities tend to have higher GDP per capita than countries with polycentric urban regions, but the overall country benefits from having higher GDP per capita through a polycentric model.

In effect, multiple cities that have high connectivity and growth help to lift the entire country through their local, regional economic impact such as through the borrowed size effect and by spreading wealth to the entire country.[3]

For rural regions, areas that become fragmented from the rest of the country and that are too far from large cities limit their economic opportunities. This does not only mean physical distance but transport links play a critical role.

Inefficient or slow transport between small towns and large cities has a major effect in limiting opportunities, marginalizing small towns and preventing them from benefiting from borrowing size from their large urban neighbor. Communities times should be within 45 minutes to large cities in order for small towns to greatly benefit.[4]

Rural towns do not have to suffer an economic fate that leads to their decline. Rather, regions that better integrate small towns and countries that spread their large cities across different regions have the effect of creating opportunities for small towns. In fact, such opportunities for towns far outweigh the economic benefits they would achieve otherwise without large cities to neighbor them.

For planners, this means not over developing large cities and enabling networks and other infrastructure links between rural and urban regions. This has the net effect of greatly improving economic opportunities and potentially quality of life.


[1]    For more on how smaller towns interlink with larger cities in Germany and how this affects different economic indicators, see:  Volgmann, K., & Rusche, K. (2019). The Geography of Borrowing Size: Exploring Spatial Distributions for German Urban Regions: The Geography of Borrowing Size. Tijdschrift Voor Economische En Sociale Geografie.

[2]    For more on the effect of larger cities on surrounding towns, see:  Meijers, E. J., Burger, M. J., & Hoogerbrugge, M. M. (2016). Borrowing size in networks of cities: City size, network connectivity and metropolitan functions in Europe: Borrowing size in networks of cities. Papers in Regional Science, 95(1), 181–198.

[3]    For more on how different urban models affect countries and regions, see: Brezzi, M., & Veneri, P. (2015). Assessing Polycentric Urban Systems in the OECD: Country, Regional and Metropolitan Perspectives. European Planning Studies, 23(6), 1128–1145.

[4]    For more on how marginalization develops in rural areas, see:  Meijers, E., & van der Wouw, D. (2019). Struggles and strategies of rural regions in the age of the ‘urban triumph.’ Journal of Rural Studies, 66, 21–29.


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.