Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

David Harvey ( 1935-) currently teaches geography at the Johns Hopkins University. He was previously the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at Oxford University. His writing on urban life is recognized worldwide for its probing reinterpretation of the late-modern society. His books include Social Justice and the City ( 1973), The Limits to Capital ( 1982), The Condition of Postmodernity ( 1989), and Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference ( 1996).


The City in a Globalizing World

David Harvey( 1996)

At the beginning of this century, there were just 16 cities in the world with more than a million people. Most were in the advanced capitalist countries and London, by far the largest of them all, had just under seven million. At the beginning of this century, too, no more than 7 percent of the world's population could reasonably be classified as "urban." By the year 2000 there may well be as many as 500 cities with more than a million inhabitants while the largest of them, Tokyo, São Paulo, Bombay, and possibly Shanghai (although the list is perpetually being revised both upwards and downwards), will perhaps boast populations of more than 20 million trailed by a score of cities, mostly in the so-called developing countries, with upwards of ten million. Sometime early next century, if present trends continue, more than half of the world's population will be classified as urban rather than rural.

The twentieth century has been, then, the century of urbanization. Before 1800 the size and numbers of urban concentrations in all social formations seem to have been strictly limited. The nineteenth century saw the breach of those barriers in a few advanced capitalist countries, but the latter half of the twentieth century has seen that localized breach turned into a universal flood of massive urbanizaton. The future of the most of humanity now lies, for the first time in history, fundamentally in urbanizing areas. The qualities of urban living in the twenty-first century will define the qualities of civilization itself.

But judging superficially by the present state of the world's cities, future generations will not find that civilization particularly congenial. Every city now has its share (often increasing and in some instances predominant) of concentrated impoverishment and human hopelessness, of malnourishment and chronic diseases, of crumbling or stressed out infrastructures, of senseless and wasteful consumerism, of ecological degradation and excessive pollution, of congestion, of seemingly stymied economic and human development, and of sometimes bitter social strife, varying from individualized violence on the streets to organized crime (often an alternative form of urban governance), through police-state exercises in social control to occasional massive civic protest movements (sometimes spontaneous) demanding political-economic change. For many, then, to talk of the city of the twenty-first century is to conjure up a dystopian nightmare in which all that is judged worst in the fatally flawed character of humanity collects together in some hell-hole of despair.

In some of the advanced capitalist countries, that dystopian vision has been strongly associated with the long-cultivated habit on the part of those with power and privilege

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Excerpt from Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference ( Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), pp. 403-424. Copyright © 1996. Reprinted by permission of Blackwell Publishers.

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