Urbanization – Is it an advance over a rural lifestyle or a destructive trend?

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.

4 comments to Urbanization – Is it an advance over a rural lifestyle or a destructive trend?

  • Jennifer Tanabe

    I recently came across a paragraph in the National Wildlife magazine entitled “City Ants vs. Country Ants” that caught my attention with regard to this topic of urbanization. The article commented on findings by Purdue University researcher Grzegorz Buczkowski that odorous house ants adopt a different lifestyle when they move from a rural environment to the city. Apparently, in forest areas these ants form colonies with a single queen, and they whole colony can fit inside an acorn! In fact they hibernate in acorns. The city ants, however, create much larger colonies with as many as 200 queens and 50,000 members, and super-colonies with millions of members. Buczkowski notes that this is possible in the city since the ants don’t need to hibernate as they can find a warm environment and stay active all winter.

    Now, I wonder does this apply to human beings too, and thus constitute a positive reason for people to move to cities? I have to say that when I lived in a city (New York or Chicago for example) I found little difficulty traveling to work all year. Public transportation generally kept running and power outages were so infrequent I have no memory of them. In my years in a rural area, by contrast, power outages are expected every winter and roads and driveways are often impassable in the morning. Hence schools are frequently delayed an hour or two and numerous snow days are used, and it’s not necessarily wise to attempt to be “on time” for work every morning.

    It appears that urban areas, with people living in closer proximity and the availability of public transit systems, support greater productivity than rural areas. While we may not be happy to have ants awake and busy all year, at least until we better understand their behavior and can live in harmony with them, greater productivity on the part of human beings has been seen as a benefit to society. But, does it come at a cost for the individuals? Is the more “weather-dependent” lifestyle of the rural area healthier? Perhaps further studies of city ants can help answer this!

  • Gordon Anderson

    From a political perspective, one of the greatest challenges is preventing cities from using their consolidated power to exploit rural areas. State taxes are often shifted away from rural taxpayers to urban projects. Larger proportions per capita go to city schools, city transportation, and city infrastructure. Rural areas suffer, wishing their money would go to their own schools, roads, and local infrastructure. One reason is that cities are often able to lobby more effectively for projects at the state level because they can afford more and higher powered lobbyists.

    This violates the principle of apportioned taxes that was important to the founding fathers. I am not sure if returning to this principle would solve this major political problem, but I do think that larger governments, to the extent they distribute money to smaller governments, should do so on an apportioned basis. Otherwise, the squeakiest wheel will get the grease, creating economic injustice.

    • Frank Kaufmann

      Though difficult to research, I managed to find the first evidence of what I suspected.

      Cities do not steal from states, but quite the other way around. Dr. Anderson’s point about “more expensive lobbyists” might be true I suppose, but beyond that, in my state, New York, the city carries the state to obscene degrees… AND in so many more ways than merely financially.

      Albany the state capital is typical of what causes war elsewhere (like in India) where legislation is passed from a “capital city” impacting areas “far away.”

    • Gordon Anderson

      It would be interesting to explore this in more detail, especially the difference between large cities and capital cities. Capital cities, like Albany, obviously have the advantage of political power, which may trump demographic or economic consolidation.

      I want to give one example of city welfare related to the general rural/urban problem, since Minneapolis is not a capital city but is contiguous with St. Paul, which is a capital city: Here in Minnesota the state pays for half the operating expenses of the light rail system in Minneapolis. The Federal government contributed much to the original construction of the rail line. The people who ride the train either (1) commute to work, (2) are locals who use it to attend events and go shopping, or (3) are out-of-town visitors. However, the people who live throughout the state and never ride the train are taxed to pay half the operating expenses. They would rather have that money go to local projects than to subsidize the transportation of people living in a different area.

      On the other hand, there may be cases of rural welfare as well. Since cities provide more employment, it is possible that a greater percentage of rural people receive other types of services. I think that, in the absence of accurate information, it is natural for people in rural areas to feel that the cities are stealing from them and for people in urban areas to believe the rural areas are living off the cities. It is likely that examples like I have shown above regarding light rail in Minneapolis will be opposed with other counter-examples in political contests over state budgets.

      Too often the political contests never get beneath the level of political and emotional rhetoric. Thus, I think it is important to examine if sound principles are being employed:

      1. Transparency of information is of course important so that an accurate picture can be had.
      2. The principle of subsidiarity, or the idea that a lower government should not take from a higher government, will encourage self-responsibility at all levels.
      3. The principle of apportioned taxes (mentioned in my first comment above) if subsidiarity is violated. If taxes are distributed from a higher level of government to a lower on an apportioned basis, the charges of theft (except by higher-level bureaucracies) would be mute.

      These three principles should be valued over individual issues–like the need for light rail in Minneapolis—and laws should be passed that conform to sound principles if we want sound government. Too often issues like light rail get politicized and laws are passed in ways that violate sound principles of justice and sustainability. If Minneapolis has developed to the point of needing a light rail system, it should be able to pay for from charges to people who use it.

      In the Minneapolis light rail case, New Yorkers, along with other non-Minneapolitains, paid for much of the original installation through Federal taxes. This federal money was not apportioned so that each state received an equal amount per capita from the Federal government for transportation. The money was obtained by some deal in which Minnesota legislators used ad hoc bargaining tactics in Washington that had nothing to do with either self-responsibility, justice, or conformity with sound political principles. Such distributions of Federal funds are not only bankrupting the country, but at the core they violate principles of justice that are required for a government to appear legitimate. Hence, we have a low 11 percent approval rating for Congress.

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