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Geosciences LibreTexts

14.1: Urbanization and Cities

  • Page ID
    11805
  • Urbanization is the study of the social, political, and economic relationships in cities, and someone specializing in urban sociology would study those relationships. In some ways, cities can be microcosms of universal human behaviour, while in others they provide a unique environment that yields their own brand of human behaviour. There is no strict dividing line between rural and urban; rather, there is a continuum where one bleeds into the other. However, once a geographically concentrated population has reached approximately 100,000 people, it typically behaves like a city regardless of what its designation might be.

    There are three prerequisites for the development of a city. First, good environment with fresh water and a favourable climate; second, advanced technology, which will produce a food surplus to support non-farmers; and third, strong social organization to ensure social stability and a stable economy. Most scholars agree that the first cities were developed somewhere in ancient Mesopotamia, though there are disagreements about exactly where. Most early cities were small by today’s standards, and the largest city around 100 CE was most likely Rome, with about 650,000 inhabitants. The factors limiting the size of ancient cities included lack of adequate sewage control, limited food supply, and immigration restrictions. For example, serfs were tied to the land, and transportation was limited and inefficient. Today, the primary influence on cities’ growth is economic forces.

    Growth of Urban Populations

    Urbanization levels are affected by two things – migration and natural increase. Migration is the movement of population from one area to another. Some migrations are forced, voluntary, permanent and temporary, international and regional. Rural to urban migration, is the movement of people from countryside to city areas. This type of migration happened in developed countries from the 18th century onwards on a large scale, and has gradually slowed down. However, many developing countries are experiencing massive rural to urban migration, mainly of young males, into the major cities.

    The major reasons for migration can be classified into push and pull factors. A push factor is something that can force or encourage people to move away from a country. Push factors can include famine (as in Ethiopia in the 1980s), drought, flooding, a lack of employment opportunities, population growth, over population, and civil war. A pull factor is one in which encourages people to move to a city. Pull factors include the chance of a better job, better access to education and services, a higher standard of living. These factors have contributed to millions of people in developing countries moving to cities, creating mass urbanization. Natural increase (a population increase due to more births and fewer deaths) also has a major effect on rates of urbanization. Natural increase is stimulated by better access to medical care, improved water supplies, sanitary conditions and wealth.

    Suburbs and Exurbs

    As cities grew and became more crowded (and often more impoverished and costly) more and more people began to migrate back out of them. But instead of returning to rural small towns (like they had resided in before moving to the city), these people needed close access to the cities for their jobs. In the 1850s, as the urban population greatly expanded and transportation options improved, suburbs developed. Suburbs are the communities surrounding cities, typically close enough for a daily commute in, but far enough away to allow for more space than city living affords. The bucolic suburban landscape of the early 20th century has largely disappeared due to sprawl.

    Urban sprawl contributes to traffic congestion, which in turn contributes to commuting time. Commuting times and distances have continued to increase as new suburbs developed farther and farther from city centers. Simultaneously, this dynamic contributed to an exponential increase in natural resource use, like petroleum, which sequentially increased pollution in the form of carbon emissions (negative aspects of urban sprawl will be explored further in the following section).

    As the suburbs became more crowded and lost their charm, those who could afford it turned to the exurbs, communities that exist outside the ring of suburbs and are typically populated by even wealthier families who want more space and have the resources to lengthen their commute. It is interesting to note that unlike U.S. cities, Canadian cities have always retained a fairly large elite residential presence in enclaves around the city centres, a pattern that has been augmented in recent decades by patterns of inner-city resettlement by elites (Caulfield 1994; Keil and Kipfer 2003). As cities evolve from industrial to postindustrial, this practice of gentrification becomes more common. Gentrification refers to members of the middle and upper classes entering city areas that have been historically less affluent and renovating properties while the poor urban underclass are forced by resulting price pressures to leave those neighbourhoods. This practice is widespread and the lower class is pushed into increasingly decaying portions of the city.

    Together, the city centres, suburbs, exurbs, and metropolitan areas all combine to form a metropolis. New York was the first North American megalopolis, a huge urban corridor encompassing multiple cities and their surrounding suburbs. The Toronto-Hamilton-Oshawa and Calgary-Edmonton corridors are similar megalopolis formations. These metropolises use vast quantities of natural resources and are a growing part of the North American landscape.

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