Must we reinvent the wheel of society?

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At the beginning of the last century, the fraction of the human population that lived in urban areas was roughly 14%, half a century later that number had risen to over 30% and today more than half of all the people on this planet live in urban areas.12 This trend of a growing urbanized population doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon, and indeed the transition into a more densely populated human civilization has been a prerequisite for the overall growth and development observed in our society, especially during the last 150 years.

Living closely together in cities has many advantages; e.g. the average person occupies less domestic space, amenities such as food, water, knowledge, healthcare and energy can be more easily distributed, less energy is expended on transportation and communication, recycling and treatment of waste is more manageable and carrying out large collaborative projects is possible on a completely different level. Looking forward, harnessing these advantages could be more vital than ever before to securing sustainable development and further reducing our toll on the global environment which is currently deteriorating due to, biodiversity loss, global climate change, habitat reduction, acidification, eutrophication, chemical pollution, etc.

The complete effects of global climate change are still not fully understood, but it is very possible that effects such as warmer and more unpredictable weather, sea level rise, desertification and freshwater shortages will make some current areas with human settlements inhospitable or even inhabitable for humans. This could in the future leave us with a growing population and less space to share among us. With this in mind, it might make some sense why urbanization is such an important process for the future of our civilization.

There are however those who think otherwise, those who claim that man was never meant to live in such large congregations, so far from nature, and who cling to traditional lifestyles even in the face of great challenges. There are certainly valid arguments available to this opposition, health issues such as air quality, spreading of pathogens, violent crime, etc. are common problem in urban areas, especially in developing countries. The lack of outdoor areas suitable for exercise and recreation is another problem common to modern cities. There is often a preconceived notion that people who live in rural areas suffer less from depression, are healthier and happier over all. There is however not conclusive evidence that this is always the case, as the main environmental health benefits are negated by lacking access to education and healthcare for example.345

As previously stated, in most parts of the world we see a movement of people from the countryside and into cities, because that’s where most jobs and possibilities for education are found, and this leads to the fact that many small rural communities can no longer sustain themselves. In some areas this leads to further shifting of population into the cities and elsewhere the rural communities are instead subsidized by the state and in effect by the people living in the larger cities, against the best common interest.

Is it possible that these problems associated with living in urban areas are not directly linked to the concept of cities, but to our execution of that concept? The invention of the city is roughly 6000 years old6 and certainly cities built today are vastly different from back then, but we are evidently still far from perfection, and indeed we often have to work around these imperfections, as cities are almost never erased and rebuilt, but continuously change and evolve. So can we improve the way we design and build cities to the point where there are few to no drawbacks and we can reap the full benefits? Indeed there are many obstacles in our way, but if we dream big and not let ourselves be deterred by preexisting norms, either theoretical or practical, I do believe we are capable of such a feat.

Author: Arvid Rensfeldt

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  1. World bank database, 2015-10-05
  2. Population reference bureau, 2015-10-04
  3. Probst et al. (2005). Depression in Rural Populations: Prevalence, Effects on Life Quality, and Treatment-Seeking Behavior. South Carolina Rural Health Research Center, 2005.
  4. Mark S. Eberhardt and Elsie R. Pamuk.  The Importance of Place of Residence: Examining Health in Rural and Nonrural Areas. American Journal of Public Health: October 2004, Vol. 94, No. 10, pp. 1682-1686. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.94.10.1682
  5. The Wall Street Journal, City vs. Country: Who Is Healthier?, 2015-10-13
  6. 6.     Joshua J. Mark, “The Ancient City” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified April 05, 2014

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