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The urban revolution refers to the emergence of urban life and the concomitant transformation of human settlements from simple agrarian-based systems to complex and hierarchical systems of manufacturing and trade. The term also refers to the present era of metropolitan or megalopolis growth, the development of exurbs, and the explosion of primate or mega-cities.
Archeologist V. Gordon Childe coined the term urban revolution to explain the series of stages in the development of cities that preceded the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. For Childe, the first revolution – the ”Agricultural Revolution” – occurred when hunting and gathering societies mastered the skill of food production and began to live in stable and sedentary groups. The second revolution – the ”Urban Revolution” -began during the fourth and third millennia BCE in the civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Near East. The urban revolution ushered in a new era of population growth, complex urban development, and the development of such institutions as the bureaucratic state, warfare, architecture, and writing. For Henri Lefebvre (2003), the urban revolution not only signifies a long historical shift from an agricultural to an industrial to an urban world, but also refers to a shift in the internal organization of the city, from the political city of pre-medieval times to the mercantile, then industrial, city to the present phase, where the ”urban” becomes a global trend. Today, many scholars use the term urban revolution to connote profound changes in the social organization of societies, but they disagree over the conceptualization, causes, and trajectory of the change.
One major point of debate focuses on issues of conceptualization and addresses questions about when, where, and why the first cities arose. In his oft-cited essay ”The urban revolution,” Childe (1950) described the features of early communities in Mesopotamia that marked the beginning of urban settlements. A key feature of the first cities was their immense population size, up to 20,000 residents; their dense geographic concentration; production of an agricultural surplus; and a specialized labor force and system of governance. Today, scholars argue that there is not one urban revolution but several. A ”Second Urban Revolution,” for example, began about 1750 as the Industrial Revolution generated rapid urban growth in Europe. The economy, physical form, and culture of cities changed dramatically as feudal power broke down and trade and travel increased. Increasing size, density, and diversity of cities combined with the growth of commerce to make urban life more rational, anonymous, and depersonalized. Since about 1950, a ”Third Urban Revolution” has been occurring in less developed countries, where most of the world’s largest cities are located. The increasing number of primate or mega-cities of more than 8 million inhabitants illustrates profound demographic and population trends of the past century. In 1950, only two cities, London and New York, were that size. In 1975, there were 11 mega-cities, including 6 in the industrialized countries. In 1995, there were 23 in total, with 17 in the developing countries. In 2015, the projected number of mega-cities is 36, with 30 of them in the developing world and most in Asia. In short, the urban revolution is a global trend that is taking place at different speeds on different continents.
- Childe, V. (1950) The urban revolution. Town Planning Review 21 (April): 3-17.
- Lefebvre, H. (2003)  The Urban Revolution, trans. Robert Bononno. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.