The Spatial Effects of Trade Openness: A Survey

This paper surveys the literature on the implications of trade liberalisation for intra-national economic geographies. Three results stand out. First, neither urban systems models nor new economic geography models imply a robust prediction on the impact of trade openness on spatial concentration. Whether trade promotes concentration or dispersion depends on subtle modelling choices among which it is impossible to adjudicate a priori. Second, empirical evidence mirrors the theoretical indeterminacy: a majority of cross-country studies find no significant effect of openness on urban concentration or regional inequality. Third, the available models predict that, other things equal, regions with inherently less costly access to foreign markets, such as border or port regions, stand to reap the largest gains from trade liberalisation. This prediction is confirmed by the available evidence. Whether trade liberalisation raises or lowers regional inequality therefore depends on each country’s specific geography.

Review of World Economics, 147(1): 59-83, 2011. See publication