Ethno-linguistic diversity: an indicator of urban evolution

» Lire en français: French

Urbanization has a significant impact on social and economic growth and prosperity. But predicting the pattern of urban evolution in the future is difficult. New research, however, reveals that the level of ethno-linguistic diversity is a significant predictor of how urbanization is likely to evolve in a region.

5 min read

Dominic Rohner is a professor of Political and Institutional Economics. Several of his recent papers have studied the role of natural resources and social capital for explaining armed conflict.

Urbanization has increased rapidly over the last 50 years. It is a trend that is set to continue in the short to medium-term, and particularly in developing nations across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The UN predicts some two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050.

Understanding how urbanization is likely to evolve over time is important for several reasons.  It is important for policymakers and urban planners involved in developing the smart, sustainable cities of the future. It is also important for those interested in the economy, as previous research associates larger cities with greater economic growth, thus factors that restrict large dominant cities from emerging in a region may act as a brake on economic growth.  And it is vital for businesses that depend on people in cities buying their products or services.

Urbanization and the size of cities are also relevant to an ongoing debate about how governments should measure the performance of a region or nation. There is growing support, led by countries such as New Zealand, for a shift from focusing on economic outcomes such as GDP, towards a more balanced perspective that covers social measures of performance.  One popular approach, for example, includes measuring various dimensions of well-being, such as work-life balance, housing, health and wealth.  The evolution of urbanization, and whether a region has one large dominant city or several smaller cities, affects life choices – where people can work and live, for example – and well-being.

Yet understanding the factors that influence the way urbanization evolves is a complex and challenging task. In their research paper ‘Ethno-Linguistic Diversity and Urban Agglomeration’ Dominic Rohner (University of Lausanne) and his three colleagues, Ulrich J. Eberle (Princeton University, formerly University of Lausanne), J. Vernon Henderson (London School of Economics) and Kurt Schmidheiny, (University of Basel) make an important contribution to this understanding.

Their research was prompted, in part, by a conversation about “the law of the primate city”.  A primate city, a term introduced by geographer Mark Jefferson in 1939, describes the largest city in a particular region. The law of the primate city holds that a primate city is usually at least twice as big as the next nearest city in size. The authors questioned what might be driving this often observed phenomenon.

They also noted the example of Canada. There, the bilingual city of Montreal has experienced a long period of stagnating growth, whereas mostly English-speaking cities, like Toronto, or French-speaking cities, like Quebec-Ville, have typically grown by at least 50% over a similar time period. Could ethnic diversity (as indicated in Canada’s example by the different languages spoken – the ethno-linguistic diversity), play an important role in shaping the way urbanization evolved in a region? Perhaps, for example, ethno-linguistic diversity creates social tension and conflict within a city, discouraging people from wanting to live in that city, and restricting city growth as a result.

Mapping ethnic diversity, measuring urbanization

The authors investigated the potential link between ethno-linguistic diversity and the way urbanization evolves. To do this they needed to: assess the level of ethno-linguistic diversity in a particular geographical area, at a particular point in time; assess the level of urbanization and urban concentration (the development of primate cities) at a later point in time; and, controlling for other factors, assess any correlation between the two. They described the geographical area they looked at as a ‘province’. It represented the basic administrative unit of a country, such as a US state, German Bundesländer, or UK county.

Database information was used to establish the degree of ethno-linguistic diversity (as of 1975), based on ethno-linguistic diversity, and the levels of urbanization (as of 1975 and 2015), for 3,540 ‘provinces’, in 170 countries.

In particular, the authors looked at the degree to which the population was segmented into groups at the provincial level, based on the different traditional languages spoken – so-called ‘fractionalization’. For urbanization they used two main measures. One was the proportion of the population in a province that lived in urban areas. The other focused on urban concentration – the degree to which the urban population in a province is concentrated in one dominant city, as opposed to several similarly sized cities, for example.

The results show a strong link between ethno-linguistic diversity, as represented by the different languages spoken, and the way that urbanization evolves in a ‘province’. Greater ethno-linguistic diversity is associated with less urbanization (more people in rural areas) and fewer dominant cities. The findings also reveal a link between greater ethno-linguistic diversity and more social tension in the form of conflict and violence, supporting the idea that people are discouraged from living in ethno-linguistically diverse urban areas due to increased social tensions.

A good example is the Indian state of Nagaland. One of the most ethno-linguistically diverse regions in India and the world, it was also one of the leading areas of conflict during the period 1975 to 2015. In keeping with the research findings, the proportion of urbanized population and share of primate cities in Nagaland is in the bottom third of ‘provinces’ globally. In other words, high levels of ethno-linguistic diversity in Nagaland is strongly linked to greater conflict and to people staying in the countryside, and spreading the population across several cities rather than coalescing in one main city.

Interestingly, the authors also showed that while the ethno-linguistic diversity-urbanization link was present in regions where democracy was weaker (according to widely recognized international measurements of democracy, such as those published by US government funded organizations Political Instability Task Force and Freedom House) – as in many developing countries – the link was broken in strong democracies. One likely explanation for this, suggest the authors, is that where ethno-linguistic groups feel that their concerns are heard and they are able to participate in decision making processes it minimizes tensions and conflict between ethno-linguistic groups.

Why the ethnic diversity–urbanization link matters

As noted previously these findings are important for a range of stakeholders, from urban planners to business strategists, to policymakers thinking about using non-economic measures of performance for a region or nation. They are also relevant in the context of policy approaches relating to ethno-linguistic diversity, such as debates about the merits of multiculturalism versus integration, for example.

The findings are particularly relevant in developing economies with high levels of ethno-linguistic diversity and internal migration. They show that higher levels of ethno-linguistic diversity may be linked with social tension and conflict and specific patterns in urbanization. In particular, they can inhibit urbanization generally in a region and also the emergence of dominant cities, which in turn can have a negative impact on economic growth and productivity, as well as on individual life choices and well-being. At the same time, though, the findings also emphasise the benefits of having strong democratic processes and institutions to counter any negative impact from ethno-linguistic diversity.

Related research paper: Eberle, Ulrich J., J. Vernon Henderson, Dominic Rohner, and Kurt Schmidheiny. “Ethnolinguistic diversity and urban agglomeration.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117, no. 28 (2020): 16250-16257.

Featured image by Ryan Deberardinis |