Metro | November 23, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Saving the Metropolis

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On October 31 of this year, the global population reached seven billion; this figure will continue to skyrocket, jumping from seven to eight billion within the next two decades.  Modern population growth, however, has reached a crux not just in its scope, but also in its composition: it was only within the last few years that the world’s population of city-dwellers surpassed its rural counterpart, and this global urbanization is quickly accelerating.

The dynamism of the metropolis

Much of the demographic shift toward the city comes from the developing world and newly industrialized countries, such as China where the urban slice of the population will increase by 20% by 2030, and Nigeria where it will increase by 25%.  In nations such as these, where economies are initially developing and modernizing, urbanization can be seen as a parallel process to industrialization as workers are drawn into the urban matrix by the prospect of lucrative labor.  Just as the fervently pro-urban Harvard economist Edward Glaeser points out in in his new book, The Triumph of the Citynew urban zones foster competition-through-proximity, and allow for social mobility and political participation by breaking down traditional, agronomical hierarchies.  Adapting the viewpoint of the environmentalist, compact cities, replete with skyscrapers and vertical development, foster more eco-friendly lives as the need for transporting resources, and humans themselves, is reduced.  Thus, from the pragmatic eyes of the academic, the influx of residents into developing cities, like Nigeria’s Lagos and China’s Xinjiang, is something to be celebrated, a triumph, economically, politically, and environmentally.

At home, in the United States, the rise of the city and the subsequent cost-benefit analysis is less clear, mainly because modern urbanization in the developed world is profoundly different from its counterpart in the developing world.   While Americans are vacating rural areas, migration and population growth is not contributing to the rise of the metropolis, but rather to the rise of urban sprawl.

A rejection of individual dignity

Already half of Americans live in suburbs, and 80% of all urban growth over the last three decades, (which in turn comprises the vast majority of general growth), occurred in suburban areas.  The ectoplasm of subdivisions, extending out from major cities and sweeping across accommodating topographies in cookie-cutter rows of soulless prefabricated McMansions is absorbing our new, rapidly expanding population.  The very structure of these “communities” rejects the rugged individualism of the countryside and the cosmopolitanism of the city.  Like the lost Connecticut suburbanites of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, modern American suburb-dwellers are confronted with the prospect of overweening conformity, if nothing else, through the uniform architecture of modern suburban sprawl.

Although the rapid pumping of the new American population into suburbs and low-density, peripheral cities rejects individualism and destroys the romantic edge of the demographic extremes, I admit that many of these judgments are just that, judgments, subjective and open to personal interpretation.  After all, if somebody’s life goal is to occupy a home at the end of a cul-de-sac in a faux stucco subdivision in the Arizona desert, who am I to denigrate their conception of the American dream?

Still, there are quantitative reasons to despise the new demographics of American population growth.  First of all, the environmental benefits of the compact city that Edward Glaeser espoused are reversed, as suburbanites are forced to commute usually over twenty minutes to work, rarely taking advantage of public transportation that is more readily available to their colleagues in the city proper.  The competition-through-proximity, media proliferation, and incentives for innovation that are present in the metropolis, fade alongside waning population density.  Perhaps a more serious toll of modern suburbanization, however, is the impact that our new suburban sprawl has on both ecosystems and the human landscape.  Unlike a city that expands upward, an outward-expanding city comes at the expense of rural and even wild regions, a reality as concerning to academia as it is to the environmental activist bloc.

The dearth of interface competition, the sprawling strip malls, the end of country, and the overweening reliance on the car, have pushed city and even state leaders to encourage urbanization but fight it in its limp, suburban form.  Portland, Oregon currently serves as the prime example, of the anti-sprawl, compact growth city, where the urban population will grow by approximately 80% over the next few decades, but officials have only allowed a for a 6% increase in land to be zoned for residential tracts.  Even in Vermont, the least urbanized state in the nation, thorough initiatives are in place to fight the sprawl and suburbanization characteristic of the displacement of that state’s population. If no governmental measures are put in place, the population explosion will still lead to a form of urbanization, just not the desirable form, not that of the modern metropolis, the marketplace of ideas, the harbinger of tolerance, a place of man-made beauty with minimal encroachment on its natural counterpart.

From the libertarian perspective, the idea of smart growth, of channeling the population into certain demographic categories is an Orwellian nightmare.  After all, the decision of where one is to live is, by and large, personal.  That said, it is when the cumulative decision to populate the urban periphery leads to the destruction of plains, forests, and farms, pollutes the air with the fumes of commuter traffic, and dilutes the dynamicity of metropolises that once served as one of the romantic roots of American culture, that personal decisions rise up to a new emergent level, worthy of political tampering.

American urbanization, in its modern, decentralized form, is nuanced and unfortunately lacks the innate and significant benefits of third world population concentration.  Without government action and the political popularization of anti-sprawl principles, it will be only in developing nations that the compact metropolis will sustain itself.  In the United States, unlike in the developing world, the population explosion will be synonymous with suburbanization and the de-concentration of urban living.  On a national level, this still constitutes concentration, and the building up of urban peripheries is by far preferable to the degradation of purely rural landscapes.  Still, with the proper policies, we can avoid what amounts to the unraveling of the vertical metropolis, and it is through succeeding in this task that we can preserve two key institutions in American culture: the country and the city.

Photo credits: Carl De Souza/Agence  France-Presse – Getty Images; foreignpolicy.com

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