Why Berlin is like a teenager: European capitals, and their effect on GDP per capita

Alexanderplatz, Berlin. Image: Getty.

Cities are real money spinners, the economic power houses of the world.

That’s all the more true when you look at capital cities. As well as national governments, they often house a country’s business elite as well. Many also have a panoply of history and culture for the tourists to come snap at, too. Throw in the fact they often have larger populations, and you’ll find that many capitals provide a significant share of their country’s GDP.

But how far do capitals dominate, economically? In an age where secessionists are getting uppity and despots are itching to start firing missiles, what would happen to countries if their respective capitals disappeared?

A study, conducted by the Cologne Institute for German Business (IWD), calculated the impact various countries would see on their GDP per capita if their capital cities and their inhabitants were suddenly removed. It found that the most severely affected – and therefore the most capital-centric – economies were Greece and Slovakia. If Athens and Bratislava suddenly eloped together, those states would be 19.8 per cent and 18.9 per cent poorer respectively.

At the other end of the scale lies Germany. If, perhaps inspired by the efforts of Scotland or Catalonia, Berlin were to secede, then German GDP per capita would actually increase by 0.2 per cent. Berlin is basically a teenager of a capital city, lacking the financial responsibility of supporting its neighbours.

The data in chart form. Image: Statista.

There are a number of reasons for the capital’s lack of productivity. One is the country’s federal system, which means Germany has many different economic centres. What’s more, Berlin was split in two until less than thirty years ago, by the Cold War and a big wall. Despite having come leaps and bounds since reunification (thanks in part to the burgeoning start-up scene fueled by Club Mate), it still has further to go.

Rome is close behind Berlin in the capitals-not-pulling-their-weight race: taking away the city’s economic contribution would leave Italians with 1.6 per cent less GDP per capita. The richest cities in Italy are its northern economic powerhouses, such as Turin and Milan.

London falls in the middle of IWD’s rankings. If the Brexit jitters got too much for the City and the bankers led cosmopolitan London into forming a city state, then the remaining Brits would suffer an 11.1 per cent hit in GDP per capita.

This is perhaps surprising, given the gulf between London and the UK’s other major cities. In Greater Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Liverpool, GDP per inhabitant falls below the national average. London has considerable higher standards of living than all of those.

Given that, it’s perhaps little wonder that the otherness of London and Londoners has started to enter the political discourse, with phrases like “metropolitan elite” getting bandied about by politicians and populists alike. A number of attempts to correct the London/everywhere else imbalance have been made, through initiatives such as the Northern Powerhouse Project, but the progress is slow, to say the least.

Perhaps being less financially less responsible for the country is preferable. Ah Berlin, to be a teenager again.

You can read more about the study here, provided that you speak German.


What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.

Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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