An Extremely Broad Generalization about Modernity and Density

Ruminations inspired by a drive out of Buenos Aires, through provincial Argentina

This post deals with an incredibly basic, obvious fact—our increasing urbanization. The point is to bring analytical clarity to this obvious fact, to think more clearly about the future of urbanization.

In the 80s, pundits and futurologists predicted that improvements in communication technologies would make the city obsolete. In the future, everyone would live in a spacious rural mansion, and telecommute to business meetings.

But instead, over the past 20 years, even as we have seen unpredictably radical improvements in communication technologies, we have observed the exact opposite: big cities are on the rise, while almost everywhere else is in relative decline.

How to explain this?

We can say, in the language of economics, that modernization increases the returns to density. Development shifts societies from agricultural, land-and-natural-resources-based economies to symbolic, services-and-knowledge-based economies. Agriculture rewards sparsity. Just as Willy Sutton robbed banks because that’s where the money was, agriculturalists have an incentive to spread themselves widely and evenly over the country because, well, that is where the arable land is. But a modern, industrial economy, based on production technologies like factories and assembly lines, rewards close clustering, to reduce the costs of moving unfinished goods, ideas, information, and workers between points in their supply chain. An economy based on knowledge brings workers and firms to where knowledge already is—where smart people and universities happen to be—and also where knowledge can be newly produced, and, most importantly, where workers can learn that knowledge. Those places are cities, where dense agglomeration facilitates the easy and constant exchange of ideas and information. Finally, a services-based economy also obviously requires people to go where other people are, increasing density.

This is all pretty obvious. What’s my point?

Simply: We can predict, but shouldn’t lament, ever-increasing density for the foreseeable future. The prognosticators of the 1980s saw cities as unnatural constructs of the industrial age. But I think it makes more sense to view dispersed, rural life as a construct of the key form of capital (arable land) and the labor-intensive methods needed to develop it with inferior technologies, of a bygone era. We should see our shift to a knowledge-and-service based economy as a blessing, one that frees us from the land, and makes available to ever more of us the more fully human pursuits of knowledge, culture, and vibrant social life.

For the foreseeable future, this means we can expect big cities to get bigger and better and smarter and more vibrant, while smaller rust-belt cities and detached small towns and their equivalents in other countries, will continue to decline. This will provide lots of fodder for visits from nostalgic NPR reporters, but there’s actually nothing lamentable about it. It just means more people will have access to the high wages, productivity, and cultural amenities found in big cities.

(Three “yes-but” notes: There has emerged a class of young, symbolic workers who do telecommute as prognosticated. But, instead of living in rural mansions, they move constantly among cities. By doing so, they are not directly hooked into the firms that employ them, but are still hooked into the knowledge networks that come from all dense agglomerations of educated people, wherever located. Second, there are great virtues to solitude: creativity, insight, and truly original thought come to us when we ignore the constant streams of information and others’ ideas, and step back to digest and reconfigure it all. This is what country homes are for. Third, suburbs, which allow easy access to all of the amenities of urban life, and also arguably more pleasant sleep, are every bit a part of urbanization in the incredibly broad sense in which I have discussed it.)

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