Uneven recovery in the world's cities

Floyd Norris / New York Times News Service /

Published Dec 3, 2012 at 04:00AM

“So the last shall be first, and the first last.”

— Matthew 20:16

So it was in the Great Recession, according to a new survey of the world’s 300 largest metropolitan areas.

None of the wealthiest areas in the world escaped the downturn, and most of them have yet to fully recover more than four years after the downturn began. But nearly half of the poorest areas never suffered any decline, and most of those that did have recovered.

The survey, released by the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution, found that this year the pattern began to change. Growth rates slowed from 2011 in most areas, but the trend was less pronounced in wealthier areas. North America was the only region where more than half of the metropolitan areas grew faster than they had in 2011.

“The global metropolitan economy is fragile and many problems, like the falling eurozone and the slowdown of emerging economies, are here to stay, at least for the immediate future,” said Emilia Istrate, an associate fellow at Brookings. “Despite their challenges, U.S. metro economies are helping to power the global recovery.”

The survey looked at two measures of growth — gross domestic product and jobs — but did so in slightly different ways. It measured the change in per-capita GDP but looked at total employment without adjusting for population change.

Within the United States, only three of the 76 metro areas measured are estimated to have fully recovered in both employment and per capita GDP — Dallas, Pittsburgh and Knoxville, Tenn. Within the eurozone, nearly all major metro areas in Germany and Austria have recovered, but none outside those countries have done so. Nor have any of the major British areas.

Similarly, while more than three-quarters of the 48 Chinese areas have fully recovered, if they declined at all, none of the 12 Japanese areas have done so. While growth slowed this year in China, it still dominated the list of the fastest-growing regions.

The 300 metropolitan areas in the survey are the largest in the world in terms of GDP and together account for nearly one-half of global output, Brookings said. But they include just 19 percent of the world population. The 2012 figures were estimated by Brookings based on data from Oxford Economics, Moody’s Analytics and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Brookings found that 40 of the 300 regions did not suffer even one annual decline in employment or per capita GDP from 2008 through 2012. Most of them were in the bottom fifth of areas, as measured by per capita GDP in 2007, before the recession began. None were in the areas that made up the wealthiest half of the world.

While most areas fell in 2008 and later made at least partial recoveries, there are a few, notably in Australia, that escaped pain early on but declined this year as Chinese growth — and demand for some imports — slowed.

This is the third year that Brookings has done the study, although it includes more areas than the previous studies did. One sad fact remained constant. Athens, Greece, was the worst performer in 2012, as it had been in the previous years. The good news, if you can call it that, is that things are getting worse more slowly. Brookings estimates employment in the Athens area declined 6.9 percent in 2012, while per capita GDP fell 5.1 percent. Both declines are greater than in any other area this year, but they are smaller than the ones Athens recorded in 2011.