Are the well-known facts about urbanization in the United States also true for the developing world? We compare American metropolitan areas with analogous geographic units in Brazil, China and India.
Both Gibrat's Law and Zipf's Law seem to hold as well in Brazil as in the U.S., but China and India look quite different. In Brazil and China, the implications of the spatial equilibrium hypothesis, the central organizing idea of urban economics, are not rejected. The India data, however, repeatedly rejects tests inspired by the spatial equilibrium assumption. One hypothesis is that spatial equilibrium only emerges with economic development, as markets replace social relationships and as human capital spreads more widely.
In all four countries there is strong evidence of agglomeration economies and human capital externalities. The correlation between density and earnings is stronger in both China and India than in the U.S., strongest in China. In India the gap between urban and rural wages is huge, but the correlation between city size and earnings is more modest. The cross-sectional relationship between area-level skills and both earnings and area-level growth are also stronger in the developing world than in the U.S.
The forces that drive urban success seem similar in the rich and poor world, even if limited migration and difficult housing markets make it harder for a spatial equilibrium to develop.