Today, the city is a destination in its own right, a place of 11 million people, one of a constellation of cities that tile China’s Pearl River Delta — arguably the most urban region in the world.
While this particular transformation is seen by many as exemplifying Asia’s growth, it also speaks to another global trend — urbanization. It has only been in this past decade that a majority of humanity has been found in cities, placing this drive to density among the fastest demographic transformations in world history.
I am in that majority. In all my 17 years, I have never spent more than a week or so away from a city. Urbanism has thus become a given for me — something I see not only as beneficial but indeed as necessary, for I cannot imagine life without it. Of course, the question such a belief begs is whether or not urbanism is a good thing — to which I answer absolutely in the positive.
Urbanism is in many ways the logical conclusion of human development. For eons, we exploited the world around us for sustenance, farming, and mining just to ensure the existence of the next generation. Now that industrialism has freed us from the burdens of such labour, our species can turn inwards, developing ourselves instead of our physical world, fulfilling the basic aspiration of life — personal progress. Adventure must no longer be sought externally in the pursuit of physical resources; we are now free to seek more intangible goals. Urbanization is but the demographic manifestation of that newfound freedom, for urban environments are those in which our human potential is maximized, our species’ powers of intellect best realized.
To understand this paradigm shift, we must first appreciate the astounding inefficiencies present in the pre-industrial world. In the era before the steam engine, the business of over three-quarters of the world population was agriculture. Such levels are unsurprising, as really the only help our species got in providing for our continued existence was the muscular strength of our farm animals — and that is if our theoretical farmer was lucky enough to own them. Beyond that meagre assistance, the fate of our species quite literally rested on our own shoulders. What this translated into was dispersion. It goes without saying that agriculture requires the exploitation of relatively large amounts of land, preventing any density from forming — lest farmers be far from their fields, and we starve.
Industrialism changed this game profoundly. Through the indescribably large efficiency gains made through agricultural mechanization and chemical engineering, humanity was finally empowered to do more than sustain itself. Human capital was unfettered, and allowed to run amok — setting the stage for urbanism.
This moment in world history — the one where we were freed from the plow — is crucial to understanding urban development. Given strong supply chains, humans could have dispersed into the infertile wilds, building chalets on the permafrost of Siberia with the knowledge that industrialism would provide for them. But, of course, such a bohemian exodus did not take place. Instead of pursuing the frontier, we instead rushed towards each other like filings to a magnet — for it is together that we as a species are at our best, our most effective. This rush to urbanize stems from the simple fact that density facilitates everything — from economic growth to social interactions to learning.
Economically, urbanism’s effects are first felt through the very fact of density. Concentrating once-dispersed economic agents into a small area reduces all of their fixed costs, as supply chains are shortened, land costs are lessened, and integration between players is facilitated, essentially creating economies of scale on a macroeconomic level.
In contrast to this power harnessed in overwhelming size, urbanism simultaneously encourages specialization. The sheer size and density of metropolitan markets allows specializers to rely on there being demand for their services. And, of course, as specialization increases, so does productivity, given that in a specialized paradigm, all of a producer’s capital (human or otherwise) is being spent on the improvement of practice in one small field, rather than being spread over many — a honing of our talent.
Urbanism then facilitates (in the broadest of terms) education. Beyond the obvious concentrations of knowledge and expertise that cities provide, the sheer density inherent in cities enables economic agents to nimbly react to others’ fortunes, expanding on their successes and failures. This ability to observe one another speeds up developmental processes — entities are less likely to make the same mistakes, and the process of progress is accelerated.
Density’s ability to capitalize on human ability extends beyond these dry, economic spheres, for almost inherently, cities become cultural foci. In theory, any significant and concentrated mass of people in one place creates a demand for entertainment, making institutions like museums and theatres viable while also supplying a wide talent pool. The existence of these establishments then theoretically induces greater demand for them, as people move to urban areas (partially) to take advantage of their existence — whether that be as an audience member or performer. The inherently varied mosaic of individuals and places that make up an urban environment also provides myriad stimuli for artists, allowing them to pull from a range of experiences and intellectual backgrounds in developing their work.
Similar processes inform cities’ human diversity. Historically, the sheer volume of humanity contained in any urbanized area rendered some level of diversity likely. Thus, as large-scale migration to cities began, novel populations frequently found ‘pioneers’ from whichever group they came in these urban environments, easing their assimilation into those areas. Today, with transportation cheap and fast, and barriers to entry (relatively) low, cities have become microcosms of the world at large, people attracted to them both for their containing like souls, and also for their radical diversity.
All of this is to say that humans are at their best, their most efficient, their most creative when in close proximity to one another. Urbanization is but a reflection of that fact. We are using our freedom from the labors of sustenance to harness human potential to its greatest, fulfilling our biological prerogative to further our collective well-being. In creating our concrete jungles, we are building the ecosystem to which we are best suited — one in which we need not be fettered with material concerns, but one in which we can seek progress and adventure in what makes us truly unique: our ability to think.
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Grigg, D.B. “The World's Agricultural Labour Force 1800-1970.” Geography, Vol. 60, No. 3 (July 1975). https://www.jstor.org/stable/40568423?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
Sala, Ilaria Maria. “Shenzhen – from Rural Village to the World's Largest Megalopolis.” The Guardian, May 10, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/may/10/story-of-cities-39-shenzhen-from-rural-village-to-the-worlds-largest-megalopolis.
Spence, Michael, Patricia Clarke Annez, and Robert M. Buckley. Urbanization and Growth. Washington, DC: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank on behalf of the Commission on Growth and Development, 2009. https://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTPREMNET/Resources/489960-1338997241035/Growth_Commission_Vol1_Urbanization_Growth.pdf.
Uday Schultz is a senior at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. He enjoys looking at and editing maps, reading, hiking, and debating.
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