Abstract: The issue of urbanization is one that needs to be addressed in these early stages of the new millennium. For a time, city life was considered more sophisticated and “country cousins” were looked down upon. Today the pendulum has swung back again. As the problems of urbanization—slums, crime, and so forth—have reared their ugly heads, a return to a more natural way of life appears increasingly attractive and fashionable. So, should efforts be made to relocate people back into the rural areas and to limit the size and number of cities? The answer may be different depending on whether one approaches this issue from an economic, sociological, political, environmental, or other standpoint. From a values perspective, the goal should be to create work and living environments that are a positive development in the quality of life for all human beings.
Urbanization is not a new phenomenon, although its rapid increase in most countries around the world dates from the Industrial Revolution and twentieth-century advances in technology. The emergence of cities, with infrastructures providing basic needs to all inhabitants as well as cultural diversity, economic opportunity, and modern attractions, was the hallmark of the “advanced” civilizations. However, major problems also ensued: Pollution, disease, and poverty are common features of cities. Increases in class distinctions also occurred with the development of large cities, with the elites living in opulent splendor and the poor massed in the least desirable areas, outside the walls in past times when the walls provided protection and in the “east end” where the pollution was greatest in industrialized European cities.
When people are free to choose their preferred lifestyle both urban and rural options have remained popular. However, increasing urbanization in many parts of the world resulted in less choice in the matter. When the well-paying jobs were all located in the urban areas, and small farms were lost to larger conglomerates or the land taken over for development, many of those who were formerly happy to live in the rural areas were forced into towns and ever expanding cities.
There is evidence from social science that overcrowding is detrimental to the health of human beings and that nature (trees, flowers, natural sunlight) promote health. When urbanization has occurred in an unplanned fashion, or planned without addressing these issues, problems have arisen. Thus, for many, urbanization has come to signal something wrong in our approach to life, something that must be changed, perhaps reverting to the more “natural” and simple lifestyles of the past. The advent of the internet, while hardly a return to a simple lifestyle, has allowed numerous people to work from home at a distance from their colleagues, who may or may not be located in cities. This trend away from urbanization may indeed be an equilibrating factor, and certainly offers hope for correcting many of the problems caused by daily commuting and the use of pollution causing transportation.
However, the true cause of the problems with urbanization lies not in the existence of cities per se, but in fallen human nature. Indeed, the most beautiful architecture, great masterpieces of engineering, and sophisticated cultural advances in all the arts have been hallmarks of the best cities of the past. Today, efforts by the New Urbanism movement, for example, have shown that city architecture can be a display of art, not just functional buildings. With this rise in urban artistic expression comes a greater cultural pride for living in the city—it no longer looks overpopulated, crowded, and stifling, and so city life becomes more attractive.
As we advance in our understanding and recognition that all people are as one human family, and that to achieve the best society we must value and care for each other’s needs, we can learn to build cities that serve people in healthy ways, providing opportunities for all to achieve happiness and prosperity. In this way, the urban or rural lifestyle can become a true choice, allowing people freedom to find a living environment that caters to their individual needs and interests while at the same time participating in human society in a meaningful way.