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The earliest cities were created more than 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia. Those and other ancient cities were few in number and by twenty-first-century standards had small populations, primitive housing, and simple technology. However, cities brought enormous changes in human society. Over the years cities have existed, only a minority of the human population has lived in them; nevertheless, cities have been the locus of political, economic, cultural, and environmental changes that have transformed life on Earth.
Urban Transformation Theories
Scholars studying cities identify many significant transformations in them. This section summarizes five perspectives on these changes.
One perspective contends that city characteristics (i.e., high population density, diversity) cause city people to behave as they do. For example, increased occupational division of labor is associated with the shift from village to city. This important element of the urban transformation is usually explained by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s “dynamic density” principle: when many people try to survive in a concentrated area they specialize and refine the work they do to avoid direct competition with others, avoid redundancy, and improve the quality of their products or services. Similarly, cities are filled with strangers who have few preexisting bonds of loyalty, trust, or obligation. To enable them to better deal with each other, city life relies extensively on written contracts, laws, and courts to enforce them.
Likewise, Georg Simmel explained city-dwellers’ social behavior with inherent qualities of cities. He observed that compared to people from small towns, urbanites are reserved, blasé, aloof, calculating, more attuned to fashion, and engaged in “extravagances of mannerism and caprice” (Simmel 1969 p. 57). This, he argued, is because large cities are filled with people and things that generate a plethora of cacophonous, threatening, and contradictory images and messages. Urbanites’ traits previously mentioned are useful screening and coping devices they use to avoid those disconcerting stimuli and maintain a semblance of sanity and individuality.
Louis Wirth’s 1938 article “Urbanism as a Way of Life” epitomizes the notion that city characteristics produce a particular urban pattern of social life. He defined a city as “a relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals” (Wirth 1969, p. 148), and derived numerous social interaction patterns as consequences of population size, density, and diversity. Wirth proposed that in cities bonds of kinship and neighborliness weaken; tradition and familial authority attenuate and are only partially replaced by formal control mechanisms. Although individuals gain greater personal freedom and both social and spatial mobility are common, city residents’ social relations are segmented, impersonal, anomic, and imbued with “a spirit of competition, aggrandizement, and mutual exploitation” (Wirth 1969, p. 156). Wirth also indicated that as cities dominate their hinterlands, business corporations in them become more cut-throat and soulless, and cities’ subareas become “a mosaic of social worlds” (Wirth 1969, p. 155) with stark contrasts between nearby neighborhoods’ socioeconomic level, ethnic composition, housing, businesses, and land uses. Finally, Wirth suggested that in cities individual people count for little, have difficulty knowing how they fit in or what is really in their own best interests, and therefore they become susceptible to mass movements or charismatic leaders. Wirth’s portrait of urban life suggests that social problems and alienation are inherent elements of large modern cities.
Other perspectives, including Herbert Gans’ Urban Villagers (1962), contradict Wirth’s. One counterresponse is a “rediscovery of community” perspective arising from many empirical studies in cities and suburbs. Together these studies suggest that the depersonalized, alienated, contract-driven urban world of attenuated local and familial bonds described above is an overgeneralization and is contradicted by the continued existence of close-knit neighborhoods and strong group ties in parts of many cities.
This rediscovered community perspective claims Wirth’s “urbanism as a way of life” has not swept community from every corner of the metropolis. It contends that the kinds of people (i.e., their socio-economic level, lifecycle stage, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socio-political values) living in a neighborhood has a greater effect on social life in it than does the place’s population size, density, and heterogeneity. Depending upon the kinds of people in an area (i.e., their needs and interests) they may work to create or maintain an active local community life, or they may let it languish and disappear. Also, community institutions preserve or build strong personal relations in city or suburban neighborhoods. Certain stores, religious institutions, “third places” (e.g., bars, coffee shops), or social clubs become the ground from which community ties grow. These are supplemented by personal networks such as those established in chain migrations to cities or by local community activists.
Another perspective on city life emphasizes underlying economic processes, inequalities, and the distribution of power. The key contention here is that the most powerful causal forces in a city are not inherent qualities of cities, but instead are conflicts of interests among the city’s economic classes, land ownership laws, and land use decisions that serve certain groups’ interests. The first analysis of urban poverty, Friedrich Engels’ mid-1840s study of working-class sections of England’s industrial cities, illustrates this perspective. Engels argued that neither of these cities’ two salient features—(1) huge differences in living conditions between a small upper class and a huge impoverished class of factory workers; and (2) disintegration of society into isolated individuals—is caused by anything inherent in large cities. Instead, he contended that these are produced by the capitalist economy, which causes brutal competition, exploitation, lowered wages, and unstable employment in these cities. Engels also said that the upper class controlled decisions regarding land use. This enabled them to arrange that cheap low-quality housing for workers is far from the better neighborhoods of the rich, guaranteeing the affluent would not have to see or be threatened by the squalor, unhealthy conditions, and misery of factory workers’ slums.
For much of the twentieth century the Engels/ Marxian perspective was eclipsed in urban studies by the influence of Wirth and an urban ecological perspective embodied in Ernest Burgess’s concentric zone model (and revisions by geographers’ sector and multiple nuclei models). It contended that in any era cities develop a characteristic socio-spatial structure produced by the era’s primary mode of transportation, construction technology, local topography, and, most importantly, economic competition for prime urban locations among individuals, groups, and businesses with unequal purchasing power. Segregation of immigrants and racial-ethnic minorities was attributed to a desire for living near others with similar culture and low economic standing, which prevents them from living in cities’ better neighborhoods.
By the 1970s the ecological perspective received criticism for the meager attention it gave to racism as causing urban racial ghettos and underestimation of the role of powerful government and private interest groups in making urban transportation and land use decisions. Researchers with critical perspectives developed explanations showing how cities are influenced by globalization, “growth machines,” “place entrepreneurs,” public-private partnerships, and institutionalized norms regarding gendered and racialized space. The city, in Mark Gottdiener and Ray Hutchison’s “sociospatial” perspective, no longer is the large dense dominant heart of the metropolitan area, where the skyscrapers, theaters, and museums are located; instead the city is a vast “multinucleated metropolitan region” containing dispersed centers and realms (e.g., “edge cities”) that perform most economic and cultural functions the central city once performed. In this perspective the strongest creators and modifiers of the new metropolis are government programs that subsidize suburbanization, real estate industries’ land use decisions, and cultural innovators (in architecture, design, advertising, or arts) who craft new forms, symbols, and desires for the metropolitan public.
Modern Cities and Their Problems
Today’s largest metropolitan areas are in Asia and Latin America. Of the twenty with the highest populations, only New York, Los Angeles, Moscow, and London are in Europe or the United States. Since 1970 Asian and Latin American cities (Seoul, Shanghai, Mexico City, Sao Paulo) and African cities (Cairo, Lagos) have grown tremendously due to internal migration. Migrants pour in largely because governments’ and large corporations’ attempts at economic development disrupt local subsistence patterns in the countryside (e.g., conversion to capital-intensive agriculture, resource extraction). With insufficient housing and sanitation to absorb so many migrants, overcrowding and pollution are serious problems. Newcomers in rapidly growing Latin American and African cities have taken over land and created impoverished squatter settlements. Urban population growth outpaces these cities’ supply of jobs. This oversupply of workers causes low wages and results in enormous informal economies, with their attendant problems. Cities in Asia’s newly industrialized countries (e.g., Korea, Singapore) are marked by the development of global corporations engaged in manufacture, commerce, financial services, and technology. These businesses’ profitability and power enhance cities’ standing among world cities and turn sections of them into cosmopolitan centers. Moreover, their executives and white-collar workers expand the ranks of the cities’ upper and middle class and generate demand for goods and services provided by lower paid workers. Nevertheless, these mega-cities, like those of Latin America, remain places with a small middle class; huge gaps exist between the living conditions of the small privileged class and the poor population.
Cities in the United States face problems so severe that many observers believe they will never regain the prominence they had from 1900 to 1970. Due to suburbanization, initially by affluent whites and later by middle-class blacks and immigrants, only 30 percent of the U.S. population lives in cities. In many large cities most residents are African American or Latino, and often neighborhoods have highly concentrated poverty. With this demographic shift, political clout in legislatures moved from cities to more conservative suburbs. Old cities in the Northeast and Midwest deteriorated. With deindustrialization many cities lost well-paying manufacturing jobs, which were not replaced with sufficient well-paying service industry jobs. City residents experienced high unemployment, cuts in city services, poor schools, and high crime rates. Older neighborhoods saw disinvestment by federal housing policy, which funneled money and new construction into white suburban areas, and by private lending and insurance companies, which “red-lined” city areas, making it more costly for families and businesses to move into or upgrade city neighborhoods. Ironically, federal programs that did make large investments (highway construction, public housing, urban renewal) in cities from 1950 to 1970 have been criticized as doing more to destroy than improve city neighborhoods.
Since 1990, many cities experienced some revitalization, population increase, and reduction in poverty concentration. Federal policy closing large public housing projects and creating mixed-income areas (HOPE VI) is partly responsible for this. Additionally, efforts by community development corporations (assisted by private foundations and city government) have improved housing and safety in some city neighborhoods. Revitalization also occurs with gentrification, as affluent people buy and renovate cheap housing close to the center of a city and then move in or sell to other affluent residents. While this process enlarges cities’ middle class and brings new businesses (improving the tax base), it can displace the less affluent. Where gentrification is extensive it reduces lowcost housing and can put the poor at greater risk of homelessness. Although the cities’ situation may not be as bleak as in the late 1980s, the problems are by no means resolved. In fact, many are appearing elsewhere, especially the older ring of suburbs near cities’ boundaries.
- Engels, Friedrich.  1958. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Gans, Herbert. 1962. The Urban Villagers. New York: Free Press.
- Gottdiener, Mark, and Ray Hutchison. 2000. The New Urban Sociology. 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill.
- Logan, John R., and Harvey L. Molotch. 1987. Urban Fortunes. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Simmel, Georg.  1969. The Metropolis and Mental Life. In Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities, ed. Richard Sennett, 47–60. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Wellman, Barry, and Barry Leighton. 1979. Networks, Neighborhoods, and Communities: Approaches to the Community Question. Urban Affairs Quarterly 14 (3): 363–390.
- Wirth, Louis.  1969. Urbanism as a Way of Life. In Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities, ed. Richard Sennett, 143–164. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
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