Inversion at the metropolitan level


A process of inversion can occur within metropolitan regions as one or more districts overturn the predominant order of influence.


The districts may be undeveloped, lagging or disadvantaged areas within a metropolitan region. As with regional inversion, metropolitan inversion is multidimensional. Economic, political, social and cultural factors may come together to make inversion possible, overturning the predominant position of an area within the larger metropolitan region.


All of the factors at work in the process of regional inversion are likely to play significant roles in metropolitan inversion. The smaller scale of a metropolitan region and its component districts, compared to that of a national territory and its sub-national regions, does not diminish the importance of the elements discussed previously. In some respects, metropolitan inversion might be attained more easily than regional inversion, because of its more limited claim on resources and smaller scale. However, the structure of the metropolitan region within which it occurs may influence greatly the dynamic of metropolitan inversion.


How does metropolitan structure influence inversion?


There are two basic types of metropolitan structure. One of them is the monocentric structure. Typically, a very strong central district dominates most aspects of politics, economics and culture in the monocentric metropolis. From that central area communications and movement spread in radial fashion, linking all districts to the center.


Monocentric metropolises typically grew large when rail provided the main means of movement. In many respects, rail-based technology conditioned this metropolitan structure. The predominance of the central area, the arrangement of districts, and most aspects related to economic value and political influence can be traced to this technology of movement. Even when a monocentric structure is weakened by suburban centers, the predominance of the central district remains formidable.


The polycentric structure, in contrast, typically includes a weaker central area and many districts that vie for predominance within the larger metropolitan region. Competition of districts with the central area and with one another is a fundamental aspect of this metropolitan structure. It encompasses virtually all aspects of the metropolis, and particularly the more salient economic, political and cultural features. As a result, the central district may be less influential in the polycentric than in the monocentric structure.


Polycentric metropolises typically grew large with the automobile. The emergence of the automobile as a mass consumption product, and its associated road infrastructure, greatly conditioned the polycentric structure.

The sprawling mosaic of competing districts in the polycentric metropolis reflects the dispersion that the automobile and road infrastructure technologies made possible. In the polycentric metropolis, therefore, mass rail transit is usually not cost effective due to the vast dispersion of districts, activities and residential areas, and their relatively low densities.


The polycentric structure may be more conducive to inversion than the monocentric one. The fact that districts compete more intensively with one another and with the predominant central area may be an important support for the dynamic of inversion. Moreover, the sort of inter-district competition that is typical of the polycentric structure usually encompasses most economic, social, educational and cultural activities. The impact of heightened inter-district and central versus non-central district competition is therefore likely to be multidimensional. This kind of multifaceted competition can provide non-central districts with many resources that support inversion.


Second, the fragmentation of authority and political power that is typical of the polycentric structure may accelerate the inversion process. Fragmentation means that the predominant central district cannot exercise as much control over the metropolitan region as it would in the monocentric structure. Fragmentation devolves or decentralizes authority to districts. It can provide opportunities to districts to fashion their own strategies for advancement, in an economic, political, educational and cultural sense.


The fragmentation of authority and control may therefore breed autonomy or even independence. It may also provide opportunities to gather resources that would not be available in the more centrally controlled monocentric structure. Fragmentation in the polycentric structure may reach a point where districts act independently of the central area, fiscally and in other functions, devising their own initiatives to, for example, provide incentives to certain activities or levy taxes independently of the rest of the metropolitan region. Such independence may be harnessed to support inversion.


Third, the greater flexibility provided by the polycentric structure to districts may help the process of inversion. Flexibility is largely a product of the fragmentation induced by polycentrism. Any significant devolution of central control to districts will create flexibility. Flexibility may provide more options for districts to, for example, decide how they want to design their own strategies for advancement, and when to act on any opportunities.


Fourth, polycentrism may encourage greater diversity among districts, to support inversion. Some districts may choose to specialize in certain activities. For example, a district may target technology industries, while another chooses retail commercial activities, and yet another decides on a combination of health and educational services. Diverse choices for specialization between districts may support the process of inversion as non-central districts gather influence through the higher value activities they capture.


Specialization is also likely to lead to opportunities for creating clusters. Clusters may deepen specialization by bringing together many linked activities in one or several districts. As those activities take root, they are bound to attract other, possibly complementary or support activities, thereby creating a critical mass that can serve as a platform for the process of inversion.


Fifth, polycentrism may provide stronger and more versatile networks to support inversion. This may be a product of the fragmentation and flexibility that are so characteristic of the polycentric structure. Polycentric fragmentation and flexibility may advance the dilution of hierarchies that is so typical of networks. This may, for example, help a non-central district overcome the barriers that a predominant central district created to protect its position.


Similarly, the decentralization of control that is so typical of networks may be deepened by polycentric fragmentation. Both of these features, working in concert, may produce greater autonomy for non-central districts. Greater autonomy may allow some districts to build up a platform of resources from which the inversion process can be launched.


The relationship between the process of inversion and metropolitan structure is largely unexplored. Much remains to be discovered if we are to develop a better understanding of how inversion occurs at the metropolitan level. Hopefully, this brief discussion will be of help to those who choose to look into this aspect of the process of inversion.


For publications on regional inversion and related topics by this author,

please see the Publications section of this website.


Copyright Luis Suarez-Villa