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The term urbanization describes how cities— from as long as 5,000 years ago and in widely separated regions—grew in number, and how their populations increased and become dense. Growing cities stimulated changes that fostered new migrations and diffusions—and ever more cities.
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Urbanization is a process of population concentration. It involves not merely the increasing numbers, size, and density of urban settlements; it is the source of the new opportunities, attitudes, and lifestyles that transform entire societies as they diffuse to smaller places and rural regions and stimulate the streams of migration that produce further rounds of urban growth. Thus urbanization is the vital engine of economic development and cultural change.
Urbanization had several independent beginnings. Primary urban generation occurred in a number of areas widely separated in both time and space: lower Mesopotamia at least 5,000 years ago, the Indus valley 4,500 years ago, the North China plain at least 3,000 years ago, Mesoamerica more than 2,500 years ago, the central Andes and Peruvian coast 2,000 years ago (although recent evidence places the age of the pyramids at Caral at 4,600 years), and the Yoruba territories in West Africa and incipiently in Zimbabwe 500 years ago. Diffusion from already-urbanized societies also stimulated the rise of cities in a number of other areas: Korea and Japan, the Indian Deccan, southwest Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, and the western Mediterranean and Europe. Whether or not the megalithic complexes of Atlantic Europe served as population concentration nuclei or were freestanding ceremonial sites four and five millennia ago is still a matter of debate.
The characteristic sequence of cultural evolution began with domestication of plants and animals and the emergence of class-based societies, followed by the formation of military and religious elites who gathered clans into states and used their power to extract surpluses from village agriculturalists. In such states there developed hierarchies of specialized institutions that exercised authority over territory and maintained order within their populations. At the core of these states were monumental complexes, the focal points around which capital cities evolved and the axes mundi at which leaders could maintain contact with the gods. Frequently, both the ceremonial complexes and the cities that surrounded them were designed as miniatures of the cosmos, in which the appropriate rituals could be performed to ensure that stability and harmony prevailed. Astronomy thus was important not merely for timekeeping and the regulation of the rhythms of agriculture; it was central to the physical plans. The social geography of the cities was predominantly centripetal: the higher the status, the closer a resident lived to the center, but the urban fabric also contained walled “quarters” that separated tribe and clan. The specialists who first emerged as temple and palace functionaries later evolved into producers for the market. Similarly, the merchants who conducted long-distance trade evolved from the networks of tribute that had been secured by military action.
Most classical capital cities were small and compact, yet they were many times greater than other settlements in their domains. Levels of urbanization—the percentage of the population living in urban areas— never exceeded 10 percent. Secondary centers were few and small and the bulk of the urban population clustered in the capital city. This pattern of capital city primacy prevailed until very recently. Only three hundred years ago there were probably no more than fourteen cities in the world with populations exceeding 200,000 (in imperial China, Beijing 650,000, Hangzhou 300,000, Guangzhou 200,000; in feudal Japan, Tokyo [earlier Edo or Yedo] 680,000, Osaka 380,000, and Kyoto 350,000; in the Moghul Empire, Ahmadabad 380,000 and Aurangabad 200,000; in Iran [then Persia], Esfahan 350,000; in the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul [then Constantinople] 700,000; and in Europe, London and Paris both over 500,000 and Amsterdam and Naples both just over 200,000). No more than fi fty other cities exceeded 50,000.
Despite their small size, however, each of these capital cities served as the focus of its own “world economy,” an economically autonomous section of the planet able to provide for most of its own needs. Such economies comprised an immediate core region that provided foodstuffs and within which modification of the earth was greatest, a modestly developed middle zone controlled by the projection of the capital city’s military power and exploited for transportable resources and products, and a vast and relatively untouched periphery that ensured separation from other worlds, except where long-distance merchants made contact at trading centers located where the peripheries touched.
The First Break
The first break with classical urban patterns that raised the level of urbanization above 10 percent came in the Low Countries of Europe in the seventeenth century. Exploiting new maritime technology—deepbellied cargo vessels that significantly changed seagoing goods-carrying capacity and costs—a mercantile center, Amsterdam, became the warehouse of the world. In the United Provinces, the middle zone of what later became the Netherlands, urbanization levels rose to more than 30 percent, and a high degree of market-based specialization in cash crops developed for urban consumers and industrial markets. The closer to Amsterdam, greater was the degree of cash-crop specialization and greater the extent of environmental modification. The further from the United Provinces, the more likely it was that regions were still composed of self-sustaining feudal villages. As urban demands increased, ingenious methods of crop rotation were developed to raise productivity and new technologies enabled cultivable polders to be created by draining swampland. As important, a new spirit of middle-class Protestantism linked to capitalism was fostered, carrying with it ideas of humans’ dominion over nature and the godliness of engaging in production and trade for profit.
The Second Break
Change in the Low Countries was followed by a second break in eighteenth-century Britain as that country’s navy and trading companies helped build a global empire and a new class of merchant entrepreneurs emerged. The English share of European urban growth had been 33 percent in the seventeenth century, but was over 70 percent in the eighteenth century, much of it concentrated in London, by now Europe’s largest city. London’s demand for food radically changed the agricultures of the English core. Dutch engineers were enlisted to bring their technologies to England and facilitated the drainage and settlement of the East Anglian Fens while the import of the “Belgian system” of crop rotation made possible the cultivation of the nation’s sandy wastelands. The great city’s demand for fuel led to rapid expansion of coal mining and coastal shipping. Britain’s urbanization level reached 30 percent by 1800, but in the rest of the world there was little change from 1700. The number of cities with populations greater than 500,000 increased only from five to six and the number of places exceeding 100,000 from thirty-five to fifty. Within the European nations’ expanding colonial empires predominantly rural societies were controlled from small numbers of modestly sized coastal centers that were organized around their ports, docks, and warehouses.
By 1800, the new forces that were at work were to radically rewrite the world map of urbanization. In Britain, urban growth was already accelerating outside London, with the main burst of expansion in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Glasgow, plus a second echelon of urban areas in the 20,000-to-50,000 range that included Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Stoke, and Wolverhampton. The precipitating factors were technological advances in the cotton and iron industries, the first flush of factory building, and significant improvements in inland transportation with the construction of a canal network. The new urban centers were either mill towns in which the workers resided within walking distance of the factory, specialized manufacturing cities such as Birmingham, or centers of control and finance like Manchester. Demand for labor was fed by rural-to-urban migration as feudal villages were reshaped by enclosures that released surplus labor to the towns.
Subsequent bursts of technological change built on this first surge of industrial revolution to create a new kind of city that was built on productive power, massed population, and industrial technology. By the end of the century, this new city has been credited with the creation of a system of social life founded on entirely new principles. By 1900, the level of urbanization had reached 80 percent in Britain, exceeded 60 percent in the Netherlands and newly industrializing Germany, reached 50 percent in the United States, and climbed to 45 percent in France. Sixteen cities now exceeded 1 million in population, there were 287 exceeding 100,000, and the world economy had been reshaped around the great urban-industrial core regions of western Europe and the northeastern United States.
Contemporary observers recognized that something dramatic had happened. Adna Weber, the chronicler of the changes, wrote in 1899 that the most remarkable social phenomenon of the nineteenth century was the concentration of population in cities. The tendency toward concentration, he said, was all but universal in the Western world. The change involved a process whereby, as societies modernized, their market mechanisms expanded in scope and influence. The size of production units increased, as did the number and complexity of production decisions. Increased division of labor and increased specialization, the necessary concomitants of increased productivity, became forces promoting further population concentration and the shift in the occupational structure of economies from agriculture and resource extraction to factory-floor jobs and white-collar occupations. New institutions were created and old institutions were radically altered, especially the financial and market institutions that contributed to the accumulation of social and economic overhead that made further high-level productivity increases in cities possible. There were widening radii of global change as demands for food and raw materials increased and as environments were modified by the unrestricted discharge of effluents, but because of the limitations of foot and horse, the new cities grew, as H. G. Wells put it in 1902, as “puff-ball swells”—dense concentrations within a limited radius of their central business districts. The combination of size, high density, and immigrant- derived heterogeneity had distinctive social consequences: greater individual freedoms and opportunities for social and economic advancement, but also inequality, alienation, and deviance.
Twentieth-Century Urban Growth
During the twentieth century, the urbanization level in economically advanced nations leveled off at 80 to 90 percent but rapid urban growth diffused to most other parts of the world. By 2000, half the world’s population lived in urban areas and virtually all population growth was occurring there as rural-to-urban migration accelerated in countries beginning their process of modernization. More than eight hundred cities had populations in excess of 500,000. Of these, some four hundred exceeded 1 million, of the “millionaire” cities forty exceeded 5 million, and sixteen of these had populations of 10 million or more.
The leveling off of urbanization in the economically advanced world did not mean stasis. New technologies transformed the spatial pattern of urban growth and created new types of transnational urban networks. The concentrated industrial metropolis had developed in the nineteenth century because centrality meant lower costs for specialists who had to interact under horse-and-buggy conditions. But shortened distances meant higher densities, increased costs of congestion, high rents, loss of privacy, and mounting social problems. Virtually all the transportation and communication developments of the twentieth century had the effect of counteracting the constraints of geographic space, making it possible for each generation to live farther apart and for information users to rely upon information sources that are spatially distant. As a result decentralization moved to the fore as the dominant spatial process restructuring urban regions, producing far-flung metropolitan areas and the emptying out of the higher-density cores: commuting radii extended more than 160 kilometers from traditional urban centers and in the most densely settled areas, overlapping urban systems combined to create polycentric “megalopolitan areas.” Globally the interdependencies made possible by revolutionary new information technologies enabled increasingly specialized urban areas to link up in networks dominated by “world cities” such as New York, London, and Tokyo—centers of finance and corporate control.
In middle- and low-income countries, freed of colonial controls, the rush to the cities began in the 1960s and accelerated through the end of the century. The combination of low income and inadequate transportation resulted in a repetition of the West’s nineteenth-century experience of mounting social problems, even as the new cities became the loci of social and economic transformation. But the difference in scale is notable. Much of the change occurred in significantly larger places. Of a total world urban population of 2.86 billion in 2000, 75 percent resided in developing-world cities. The new population concentrations included two-thirds of the world’s 10-million-plus population megacities.
Outlook for the Future
According to Demographia (2010) populations and projections listing, the world’s ten largest populated urban areas as of July 2010 are: Toyko-Yokchama, Japan (35,200,000); Jakarta, Indonesia (22,000,000); Mumbai, MAH, India (21,255,000); Manila, Philippines (20,795,000); New York City (including Bridgeport, Danbury and New Haven in Connecticut, and Trenton and Hightstown in New Jersey, 20,610,000); Sao Paulo, Brazil (including Francisco Morato, 20,180,000); Seoul-Incheon, Korea (including Suweon and Ansan, 19,910,000); Mexico City, Mexico (18,690,000); and Shanghai, SHG, China (18,400,000). The United Nations projects that by 2030, 83 percent of the world’s 5 billion urbanites will reside in middle- and low-income countries in dense urban networks dominated by twenty-five to thirty megacities. We have yet to learn what the consequences will be, but they will surely be no less radical than those of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
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