The paradox of ‘Malthusian urbanization’: Urbanization without growth in the Republic of Genoa, 1300 to 1800

By Luigi Oddo (University of Genoa, Department of Political Science) and Andrea Zanini (University of Genoa, Department of Economics).

From the second half of the 20th century, the role of urbanization in the development process has become an extensively investigated topic. In standard urbanization models, from the pioneering studies by Lewis (1954) on urban pull factors, then passing on the great classics of the subject by de Vries (1984) and Bairoch (1988), who stressed rural push factors, cities have almost always been represented as a factor of economic development in the pre-industrial world. Urbanization levels and city sizes have often been used as empirical proxies for the level of income per capita (De Long and Shleifer 1993; Acemoglu et al. 2002, 2005; Malanima 2005; Maddison 2008; Dittmar 2011).

The role of urbanization as a factor of economic growth has also been included in the literature concerning Malthusian population theory. Clark (2007) and Voigtländer and Voth (2009, 2013) suggested that high urbanization rates helped keep down fertility and to drive up death rates, allowing living standards to rise, but through purely Malthusian mechanisms. Overall, both urbanization models and Malthusian population theory basically support the principle, even if through different mechanisms, city growth was a factor of economic advancement in the pre-industrialworld.

However, in the last 20 years,the idea that urbanization level is closely correlated with levels of income and growth has started to be questioned, especially in the literature concerning developing countries (Fay and Opal 2000, Henderson et al. 2013, Gollin et al. 2016). The experience of the Third World in the second half of the 20th century clearly shows that changes in income do not explain shifts in urbanization. Urbanization continues even during periods of negative growth.

On this basis, we aimed to shed light on the relationships between urbanization and economic growth in the pre-industrial era, analyzing the case of an Italian pre-unification state, the Republic of Genoa, from 1300 to 1800 with a novel dataset of cities and rural populations. Genoa was one of the most powerful Italian maritime republics, probably exhibiting one of the highest degrees of urbanization in Europe in the Late Middle Ages. However, the history of the Republic of Genoa was described by cyclical Malthusian stagnations, which were characterized by almost flat-lined growth at the population level (Figure 1). 

Figure 1: urbanization (upper) and population (lower) of Genoa 1300-1800

The coexistence of these contradictory elements raises the following question: is a high degree of urbanization always a sign of economic advancement in the pre-industrialworld?

To answer this question, our paper introduces elements of rural-urban migration models within the Malthusian population theory to provide a different perspective on the interactions between urbanization levels and demographic dynamics. Focusing on the Republic of Genoa, this approach brings out that if high levels of urbanization do not reflect substantial increasing productivity in agriculture and growing urban labor demand, urbanization per se is not sufficient to take-off from Malthusian stagnation. Therefore, the rise in urbanization cannot match sustained economic growth. The natural consequence is urbanization growth that follows a stopandgo trend, where city populationsinflate and deflate cyclically. To describe this phenomenon, we coined the term ‘Malthusian urbanization’.

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