[ExI] Cities

Tara Maya tara at taramayastales.com
Thu Sep 7 21:44:00 UTC 2017

> On Sep 6, 2017, at 4:48 PM, Adrian Tymes <atymes at gmail.com> wrote:
> The main challenge there is not environmental but urban, specifically
> transportation.  People have been gathering in cities since ancient
> times, but especially since the Industrial Revolution, because being
> so close to distribution centers and other people makes life better in
> so many ways.  Better paying and more diverse jobs, access to services
> that are only practical to implement for city-sized crowds (and thus
> that rural folk must do without), not needing to spend so much time
> going from place to place ("wonders of the scenic journey" aside, as a
> day-to-day matter most people prefer whatever practical option is
> closest to teleportation that technology and circumstance make
> available), et cetera and so forth.

All good points, Adrian. 

What do you think about building canals? You could have water-powered energy, transport and obviously the water itself all at once, so new cities would grow up alongside the canals. Of course, right now, the expense isn’t worth it, but could some technological innovations change that?

About cities….

Historically, at least in the Early Modern and Modern Anglosphere societies that I studied in grad school, cities are a demographic heat sink. 

There are two patterns that I studied about city demography since 1500. (I’ve only studied this in English and American context, so I don’t know if it applies equally to cities in the rest of the world, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.) One, everyone is aware of, I’m sure, which is that cities have grown larger, more numerous and house a greater proportion of the population over time.

But this strong unidirectional upward urbanization trend hides another trend, one which has important implications for shorter term evaluations of human prosperity.

Those periods of Anglo-American history when cities have grown disproportionately to the countryside have been the difficult times, the bad times for the ordinary people (though often good times for the nobility, when labor was cheap). When the countryside or suburbs have grown, those are the good times for ordinary people, when the divergence between rich and poor goes down but average standard of living goes up. When housing in the country or suburbs is cheap, young people marry early, and have larger families. When housing is expensive, young people remain single longer, and live a larger portion of their lives in the city. Wages are suppressed by the excess urban population.

Cities are population sinks. But it’s not obvious to those living in the city, because the population is composed of a high degree of immigrants—from the countryside, or nowadays, from other countries as well. Most of Migrants in the European Migrant Crisis might be thought about not so much as international migrants, but as migrants from the countryside to urban centers. It’s just that this is now happening on an international scale as never before.

Obviously, a huge reason for this is the ongoing industrial and post-industrial revolutions, which make food production more efficient and thus slough off excess labor from the countryside to the city. But in the short term, this increase in urbanization (now over 50% world-wide) is not necessarily a good sign. Because cities are not really good places for family formation, or at least, not in the Anglo-American tradition. Those young people are supposed to match up and move out to a house with a yard. Where are they going to go? Where are they going to raise their children? Right now, in cities around the world, the answer is—in dense apartments, in shantytowns, in slums, in ghettos. 

This is not a long-term solution.

If those people aren’t going to move back to the country or to the suburbs for family formation, and if urbanization is the future for everyone, we have to drastically change how cities work. Otherwise, expect the cities to do their real job—cut the population down ruthlessly. 

In so many science fiction futures, I see whole planets that are just one big city. Which I guess would work if you have dozens of other planets which are nothing but farm and forest. We don’t actually know how to build a self-sufficient city yet, a city that not only feeds itself, but breeds itself. Contrast us with termites and ants, that forage outside their next, but always return to it at night. Ants never invented suburbia.

On the other hand, even though many philosophers have urged getting rid of cities completely, and the Khmer Rouge actually tried to empty them, that doesn’t work either. We seem to need cities. Or at least for the last ten thousand years we have.

What do you think? Are we evolving into being a completely urbanized species, or will we always need a balance of city and not-city?

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