Urbanization Essay

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Urbanization is the process by which a large number of people over time become concentrated in cities. However, cities, as permanent settlements where heterogeneous groups of people live, have existed since time immemorial. The existence of cities is extensively interrelated to the expansion of an efficient agricultural system and technology that makes possible surplus products beyond the immediate requirements of survival. This condition, together with the existence of complex social organization and favorable geographical environment, plays a critical role in the continued existence of cities. Yet due to, among other things, inadequate technology and agricultural and transportation systems, premodern cities were relatively undersized and few in number compared to modern cities. Hence, the true development of urbanization is a recent phenomenon. Just 200 years ago, the number of people living in urban areas throughout the world was under 4 percent. Currently, that number is 47 percent; soon it will hit the 50 percent mark. By the year 2025, demographers predict that two thirds of the world’s population will live in metropolitan areas.

Modern Urbanism and Beyond

The industrial revolution made a marked difference in the development of modern cities. The revolution played an important role in drawing people to cities, where diverse nonagricultural occupations were available. Most importantly, however, the industrial revolution laid the infrastructural basis for the expansion of communication between distant areas and the transportation of people and resources from one place to another. Hence, preindustrial cities and modern cities were dissimilar from one another not only quantitatively but also qualitatively. Economically modern cities allowed elaborate specialization together with an open system in which achievement rather than ascription played an important role in social mobility. Politically, modern cities became social spaces wherein the notion of citizenship, replacing premodern subject-hood, found full-fledged expression. Culturally, modern cities not only served as centers of cultural intermixing but acted as places wherein diverse subcultures flourished. These processes allowed modern cities to grow exponentially. Some modern cities evolved into metropolises, central cities surrounded by towns and suburban areas with relatively integrated economies. Sometimes continued urbanization created a megalopolis, a continuous stretch of urban area forming a cluster of metropolises, such as from Boston to Washington, D.C.

Modern cities are also distinct from their premodern counterparts because of a unique form of social behavior that emerged within them. Urban sociologist Louis Wirth designated this emergent behavior as urbanism, a distinctive way of life eventuated by the social patterns of modernity. Because urbanites are exposed to an increasing social differentiation of the urban environment, they tend to be anonymous, superficial, and selectively sensitive to social matters while at the same time exhibiting strong ties with their primary groups. Before Wirth, Georg Simmel also remarked on the inimitable features of the urbanite. Unlike some modern social thinkers who lamented the disappearance of community life, Simmel underscored the positive dimensions of the urban experience without glossing over its problems. In place of excessive parochialism and surveillance characteristics of the traditional way of life a good deal of freedom is provided by urban centers to urban dwellers. Anticipating David Harvey’s notion of “time-space compression,” Simmel was able to describe the intense feeling that urbanites experience. According to Simmel, to the extent that they develop a unique attitude that protects them from the overstimulations of urban life, urbanites experience an intense crash of people and events hitherto unimagined. In their blase attitude, an indifference to manifold but selective situations, urbanites might sound cold and calculating. Yet, the blase mind-set is nothing but a survival mechanism through which urbanites focus on what is indispensable to the process of coping with the encounters of city life.

Recently social scientists extended the process of overstimulation that takes place in urban settings to its ultimate conclusion that a new type of self, the postmodern self, has emerged as a result. Postmodernists assert that this new self is markedly different from the selves that preceded it. Unlike the romantic and the modern selves—whose fundamental nature centered on passion and reason, respectively—the postmodern self, despite the residues that it inherited from the past, lacks essence and is decentered. To the extent that the self is at the verge of dissolution, social structures have lost their constraining impact on the individual. However, the self has not disappeared; it has become relational instead, augmented by the opportunity for social connectedness. The proximate cause of this development is technological. In a postindustrial age in which communication technologies dominate, the self is constantly bombarded by signs, images, and varied experiences that knock at its door with no end in sight. Consequently, individuals have a hard time committing themselves to a single master identity. With social saturation undermining “coherent circles of accord,” as Kenneth J. Gergen calls them in The Saturated Self, individuals have no option but to be skeptical of prevailing viewpoints. Ironically, according to some analysts, the process of social saturation—far from enfeebling communalism—reinforces amicable relationships among members of society.

Urbanization and Social Problems

Despite cities acting as platforms for the notable accomplishments of modernity, urbanization’s picture is not all rosy. Urban centers are plagued by many social problems. These problems are most vivid in the developing world, where millions of people are concentrated in few cities. Unprecedented urban growth in these countries is caused by natural population increase and the migration of people from rural to urban areas. In the developing world, more than 70 percent of the urban population lives in poverty; yet rural residents flock to metropolitan areas, attempting to flee from the pulverizing impact of poverty in their own areas. The migration is also, in part, the function of an uneven policy of development that buttresses urban growth at the expense of the agricultural sector. As a result, cities in the developing world must deal with daunting social problems that become increasingly difficult to overcome. Most of these problems are associated with employment, pollution, and housing, just to mention a few. Due to the availability of “surplus labor,” many people in the cities of the developing world are not only unemployed but underemployed and “misemployed” (engaged in undignified activities such as prostitution) as well.

Where attempts to resolve the problems of urban unemployment take place, the result has been the unintended consequences of industrialization and urbanization, with pollution the most salient one. Cities of the developing world are noisier and more polluted than cities of the developed world. Despite the fact that quality of life in urban areas has qualitatively improved compared with quality of life in rural areas, inadequate housing is one of the chronic problems in developing world cities. More than 75 percent of the urban population in these cities lives in overcrowded slums, squatter settlements, and shantytowns where life is extremely precarious. Consequently, as the problem of cities of the developing world is the presence of too many problems without the accompanying social means of prevailing over them, many social scientists fear that the breakdown of urban giants of the developing world may take place unless a social miracle of sorts comes to pass.

In spite of the colossal number of resources at their disposal, highly industrialized nations have not spared themselves from urban problems either. Although the types of chronic problems that Friedrich Engels described in his ethnographic work on Manchester do not exist today, cities of the highly industrialized nations still suffer from “old” (poverty, violence) and “new” (pollution, traffic congestion) social problems. In the United States, for instance, poverty—mainly caused by the loss of manufacturing jobs due to globalization processes, the migration of white-collar corporations and manufacturing firms to the suburbs, and the retraction of investment from inner cities—is one of the “old” problems that afflict urban dwellers, especially inhabitants of the inner city, a significant number of whom fall under the social category of the underclass. Members of the underclass are not just at the bottom of social hierarchy, but they are beneath the class structure. Consisting of single mothers on welfare, teenagers, and the homeless, the underclass have virtually no social and economic capital and are trapped in a cycle of poverty from which they are incapable of escaping.


  1. Gottdiener, Mark and Ray Hutchison. 2006. The New Urban Sociology. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.
  2. Macionis, John J. and Vincent N. Parrillo. 2007. Cities and Urban Life. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  3. Parker, Simon. 2004. Urban Theory and the Urban Experience: Encountering the City. New York: Routledge.
  4. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. “World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision Database.” Retrieved March 27, 2017 (http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/WUP2005/2005WUPHighlights_Final_Report.pdf).

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