The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Thank God for Cities

The process of urbanization is fundamentally an economic process by which individuals maximize their ability to find the “good life.” Populations flow into urban areas because the density of population in urban areas allows them to improve their lives. Contrary to the idea that density of population is a bad thing the fact is denser populations allow individuals to improve their lives.

The larger the number of individuals the greater the number of trade transactions possible and the more likely it is for someone to find a transaction which will benefit them. Thus the greater the number of possible transactions the wealthier the community. This is why urban areas tend to be wealthier than rural areas. Professor Jacqueline Kasun writes:

“Within all countries, however, the most densely settled areas — the cities — have the highest levels of per capita output and income. Economists have long explained these relationships on the grounds mentioned above — the more densely settled populations make better use of their transportation and communications systems as well as other parts of their economic infrastructure. They also have more opportunities for face-to-face contacts that encourage innovation and productivity.

Larger populations not only inspire more ideas but more exchanges, or improvements, of ideas among people, in a ratio that is necessarily more than proportional to the number of additional people. (For example, if one person joins an existing couple, the possible number of exchanges does not increase by one-third but triples). One of the advantages of cities, as well as of large universities, is that they are mentally stimulating, that they foster creativity.”

A similar point was made in Population and Technological Change by Ester Boserup. She wrote, “before the Industrial Revolution one densely populated area after another became the technological leader. During the whole of this part of human history, the main advantage of a dense population, i.e. , the better possibilities to create infrastructure, seems to have outbalanced the disadvantages of a less favourable ratio between population and natural resources. Europe succeeded Asia as the technological leader, but only after it arrived at relatively high population densities… [T]he inhabitants or large sparsely populated continents were doomed to be illiterate subsistence producers.”

The ability to maximize “profit” (in the broadest sense) is the fundamental reason urbanization happens. A theater-goer benefits from a wider choice of theaters and films not from a narrower choice. A restaurant owner benefits from more potential customers and not fewer.

Moreover, certain technologies that improve the standard of living are prohibitively expensive in rural areas but relatively cheap in more densely populated areas. This is one reason why you never see subways in farming communities: the economies of scale don’t allow for them. The same is true for highways, hospitals, electricity, sewage systems and other services. The rural areas have more than enough land for everyone and we could shut down the densely populated cities. But we don’t. To do so would be folly and would make all of us poorer.

Professor Nathan Keyfitz says the concentration of capital in cities allows for healthier lifestyles, in spite of the problems usually associated with crowding: “…the concentration of people in cities has much to be said for it. To be sure the air above Mexico City is scarcely breathable — but this is a local effect. In spite of the bad air, city dwellers live longer than their country cousins. Certainly health care, education and other amenities are more easily provided to urban populations than to rural ones.”

Urbanisation increases wealth and thus speeds the process toward pollution control. It should also be remembered that pollution is “wasted” resources and in a market economy the profit motive encourages new technologies to maximize profit and thus reduce pollution. The less waste the higher the profits.

Environmentalists should applaud cities and dense population concentrations since they are more environmentally friendly than spreading out. Individuals in densely populated regions don’t need to use as many resources to travel to work, they often walk, or use busses or trains instead of cars. City dwellers use less land per person for living. In addition the amount of natural resources used to build the typical city dwelling is considerably less than the amount used for rural or suburban dwellings. City dwellers tend to live in smaller houses than their rural counterparts. High population densities in the cities leave large tracts of land open for recreational, agricultural or conservation purposes. Keyfitz puts it this way: “When people are concentrated in cities, they would seem to have less direct effect on the forests, the wildlife, the ocean‚ on the biosphere in general.”

Critics of urbanization will point to the poverty that has often been found in urban areas throughout history. But this poverty was not the creation of cities. This poverty was existed elsewhere and the poor moved to the city precisely because cities are engines for wealth creation. It was the promise of a better life that transferred poverty from around the world into the major cities. And it was the fact this promise was so frequently fulfilled that kept the poor coming to the urban areas. Harvard Professor Edward Banfield, in his The Unheavenly City, noted that: “The problem of poverty in the cities is seldom of the cities own making; it is essentially a problem made elsewhere and then brought to the city. In every generation the city largely solves the problem, only to see it posed anew by fresh arrivals.” As he points out the city is not the cause of such problems but instead “has proved to be a remarkably efficient machine for transforming it into prosperity and even affluence.”

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.