Practical Implications of De-Urbanization

By Pickford, Andrew | Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, November 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Practical Implications of De-Urbanization


Pickford, Andrew, Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy


"All cities are parasites, feeding off their agricultural hinterlands, but the cities that thrive best develop a relationship with their hinterland which over time becomes distinctly more symbiotic than parasitic."1

THE PROSPECT OF PEAKING GLOBAL POPULATION numbers, followed by decline and potential stabilization, has already begun to be covered in a number of studies. The present phase of growth of population levels is associated with ever-increasing demands by urban masses on their leaders in a process which has been termed "urban geopolitics"2. But what will happen if cities empty?

The urbanization trend, which accelerated over the 20th Century, is a well-known phenomenon. What has also been remarkable is that this occurred at the same time as the increase in global population levels from around 2.5-billion in 1950 to around seven-billion in 2012.

Increasing total population numbers and urbanization rates are often incorrectly seen as mutually reinforcing trends. Commentary from the social sciences field and economists suggests a gradual slowdown in population growth: flattening and then perhaps slowly declining. Yet almost all forecasts suggest a continuing and unbroken urbanization trend.

The problem with such analysis on population growth and urbanization is that it assumes that there would not be any fundamental or disruptive shocks associated with these changes. It also ignores the prospect of cities becoming excessively parasitic on their hinterlands, leading to revolts, and, ultimately, cities ceasing to function.

Be it a pandemic, general breakdown of authority, or perhaps the deliberate shutdown of telecommunications or electricity networks, cities could easily become unliveable and unable to accommodate even a small fraction of their existing population. When de-population (either in aggregate or localized terms) occurs, what can we expect? What will it look like, and which societies will emerge successful out of this period of change?

Before considering urban de-population, we must revisit the original logic for cities in the first place. Generally, the shift from rural to urban centers was driven by: greater potential for wealth creation; improved health, safety, and support services; reliable supply of food and water; and improved opportunities - through such factors as sustained increases in the valuation of real estate and other assets, and commercial opportunities because of entrenchment of a family in an urban location - for successive generations. Underlying all of Ulis, there is an expectation of a steady improvement in all of these factors.

Reverse the improvements, and the calculus of urbanization starts to change.

In the US, there is already evidence of decreasing prospects for certain demographic groups. For example, for the least-educated white demographic, life expectancy has fallen by four years since 1990. In this group, for women, life expectancy fell by five years.3 Within a nation which has an urbanization rate of around 82 percent, this trend could foretell of greater declines in the future across a broader range of socio-demographic groups. Importantly, this decline in life expectancy could reduce the social cohesion of cities, further exacerbating existing crime and liveability issues. The trend of decreasing life expectancy brings into question the original logic of shifting to, and living in, cities.

Another trend which would impact on urbanization levels is a decline in living standards. For the period after World War II, especially within developed nations, there was an expectation of ever-increasing living standards within urban centers. This period has finished. The experience in Southern Mediterranean nations, especially Greece4, has seen the end of this trend and the associated expansive welfare state. In economic terms, the "Age of Entitlement" has given way to the "Age of Austerity" or perhaps the "Age of Adjustment". This will not be bad for all economies or cities, but rather it will be particularly felt where it results in a downwards adjustment of living standards/employment/entitlement. …

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