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Urbanization is a historical phenomenon closely linked to changes in technology and to some extent science that also influences and is influenced by ethical ideals. Both technology and science develop with more intensity in cities, in part promoted by urban models of human behavior, which in turn may be reinforced by notions of technological instrumentalism and scientific objectivity.

Urbanization, Ancient and Modern

The term urbanization refers to the increasing concentration of people in cities. The first cities appeared after the development of plant cultivation and animal domestication. Formerly nomadic tribes settled in fertile river valleys and became increasingly dependent on agriculture. The ancient cities of Mesopotamia were established between about 4000 and 3000 b.c.e. The cities of ancient Egypt appeared around 3300 b.c.e. and were closely linked to the increasing power of the pharaohs, who were both secular and spiritual leaders who could use their power to create new cities. By about 2500 b.c.e. urban societies had developed in other parts of the world, such as the Indus River Valley in India and Pakistan and the Yellow River Valley of China. Subsequent urban developments of a classical form occurred in Athens, Rome, and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. Despite urbanization in these ancient forms most people continued to live outside cities.

The modern city is linked closely to the development of industrialization, especially in Europe and North America. Before the Industrial Revolution cities were primarily centers for trade, political power, and religious authority. The rise of the machine in the late 1700s in both Europe and North America led to new city forms characterized by larger numbers of people living in areas with greater population density. As machines were developed and manufacturing increased, people began to migrate to cities from rural areas as laborers and consumers.

Technological change is not exclusive to the post–Industrial Revolution era. What distinguished that historical period was the unprecedented rapid increase in the number, kind, and effects of technological innovation and associated increases in urbanization. About 3 percent of the world population lived in urban areas in 1800, a number that rose to 13 percent in 1900 and more than 40 percent in 2000.

The Modern City

The rise of the modern city had significant economic, social, and cultural impacts. Urbanization changed many of the traditional institutions, values, and human experiences that characterized preindustrial cities. For example, while cities grew in importance in economic terms, they also became centers of poverty. Cities also brought together people of different cultures with different worldviews, traditions, and values. In addition, the concentration of people in urban areas created a host of ethical issues related to living together closely.

In 1905 the German social theorist Max Weber (1864–1920) observed that industrialization represented a fundamental process of social change that was embedded in the development of rationality and scientific knowledge. According to Weber, "demystification" challenged traditional religious ideas by providing an alternative basis of knowledge. Weber concluded that this brought about a notable decline in the acceptance of the spiritual explanations that are at the heart of religious beliefs and practices. As a result human activities that previously had been dominated by religious authority were controlled by an appeal to scientific and rational thinking.

In 1965 the Harvard professor of divinity Harvey Cox observed a close interconnectedness between the rise of urban civilization and the collapse of traditional religion. "Urbanization," Cox stated, "constitutes a massive change in the way men live together, and became possible in its contemporary form only with scientific and technological advances which sprang from the wreckage of traditional views" (Cox 1965, p. 1). Cox argued that that epochal change in worldviews resulted directly from the changing nature and character of cities. As cities became more cosmopolitan and as technology fostered greater interconnectedness through travel and communications, religion, Cox argued, lost its centrality in the hearts and minds of people. Nonreligious perspectives on the human condition replaced Christian religious norms and standards for conduct.

Urbanization in a Global Context

The patterns of economic, social, and cultural changes caused by rapid urbanization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are observable in modern cities. In general terms the world population is becoming predominantly urban. Industrialized or more developed countries were more than 75 percent urbanized in 2000, compared with 39 percent for less developed countries. To a certain extent economic gain and higher incomes are associated with urbanization. The expansion of production, communication, knowledge, and trade helped raise standards of living in the more developed countries.

In developing countries the urbanization experience has been vastly different: Industrialization accounts for a much lower proportion of the national economy, and these countries also have significantly lower income per capita. The concern in developing countries is the rate at which increases in the numbers of people living in urban areas are occurring. According to the United Nations Center for Human Settlements (2001), 40 percent of the population of developing countries was living in urban areas in 2001. By 2020 that number is expected to increase to 52 percent.

In 2001 three-quarters of global population growth occurred in urban areas in developing countries, posing significant problems associated with rapid growth in the parts of the world least capable of accommodating it. Most of the projected growth will occur in megacities: cities with a population of ten million or more. These areas already face increasing difficulties in providing their inhabitants with adequate water, food, shelter, employment, sanitation, and basic services. Poverty has become increasingly urbanized as more people migrate from rural to urban areas. The United Nations Center for Human Settlements (2001) estimates that more than a billion people live in crowed slums in inner cities or in squatter settlements on the periphery of large urbanized areas. Not only does this result in strained local conditions, the rapid growth and concentration of poverty in urban areas in the developing world often leads to adverse consequences for national economies.

Although modern cities are part of a highly interdependent global network fostered by new information, communication, and transportation technologies, one significant characteristic of cities in the twenty-first century is the growth of disparities between the rich and the poor. The United Nations calls this the "divided city," and it is characteristic of urban areas in both developed and developing countries. Some researchers predict a new wave of rapid technological change in urban areas driven by information and communications technologies, which reinforce urban polarization and cause further erosion of traditional economic, social, and cultural activities. New technologies, they observe, reinforce and extend the reach of the economically and culturally powerful. Those who already have access to new technologies and most able to benefit from the potential of new technologies will use them to their advantage to assure their place as the principal beneficiaries of the "information revolution."

Another phenomenon closely linked to the modern city, especially in North America and parts of Europe, is suburbanization. Driven by advances in transportation and communication technologies, sprawl patterns of urbanization from central cities to suburbs began to emerge after 1945. By 1960, 60 million people in the United States were living in suburbs, compared with only 45 million in cities. Since 1980 suburban populations have grown ten times faster than have central-city populations.

In response to the problems associated with the rapid rise of modern urbanization and its attendant problems, urban planning emerged in the United States around the end of the nineteenth century. Although examples of planned cities date back several thousand years, urban planning developed from demands for social reform in both England and the United States. In the early twenty-first century urban planners are part of a distinct occupational skill group that applies a specified body of knowledge and techniques addressing land use, city functions, and a wide variety of other urban characteristics.


SEE ALSO Industrial Revolution; Modernization; Secularization.


Callahan, Daniel, ed. (1966). The Secular City Debate. New York: Macmillan. This collection of essays, critiques, and book reviews by a diverse group of authors was compiled in response to Harvard professor Harvey Cox's book The Secular City. The editor notes that the response to Cox's work was surprising, with more than 225,000 million copies sold in the first printing. An afterword by professor Cox is included.

Cox, Harvey. (1965). The Secular City, rev. edition. New York: Macmillan. Explores the theological significance of the modern city and includes an interpretation of the relationship between urbanization and modern secular society. Cox contrasts the modern city (technopolis) with traditional forms of human communities, particularly with regard to the influence of religion and religious institutions.

Ginsburg, Norton. (1966). "The City and Modernization." In Modernization, ed. Myron Weiner. New York: Basic Books.

Hetzler, Stanley A. (1969). Technological Growth and Social Change. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. This collection of essays was originally prepared as lectures for Forum, an educational radio program sponsored by Voice of America. Twenty-five scholars explore how modernization, defined as technological development, occurs and how it can be accelerated. Ginsburg's essay reviews the history of cities and their historical functions. He describes the distinctly different characteristics of the modern city.

Lebebvre, Henri. (2003). The Urban Revolution, trans. Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Henri Lefebre (1901–1991) was an influential French philosopher and sociologist. This work was originally published in 1970, but not translated into English until this edition. Highly theoretical, connecting urban research with social theory and philosophy, Lefebre's work marked a new view of "urbanism." Lefebre posited that "urban society" more aptly describes modern societies, rather than the term "postindustrial society," arguing that all forms of human settlements have been altered due to industrialization and urbanization. He noted that agricultural activity is inextricably linked to "industrialization." Even traditional forms of village life around the globe have been permanently transformed by industrial production and consumption.

Mumford, Lewis. (1961). The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. An extensive exploration of the history of the city, beginning with Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, through the modern. In addition to an historical overview, Mumford critiques many of the historical urban forms. He is especially critical of the modern manifestation of urban communities and the negative influence of capitalism resulting in resource depletion. The annotated bibliography is extensive and very helpful to anyone interested in in-depth material.

Prud'Homme, Remy. (1989). "New Trends in Cities of the World." In Cities in a Global Society, ed. Richard V. Knight and Gary Gappert. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. Collection of essays that details the phenomenon of rapid global urbanization and the forces influencing the extraordinary changes in modern human settlements. Prud'Homme observes that the cities will have increasingly distinct "global" as opposed to "national" roles to play as economic forces become more global.

United Nations Center for Human Settlements. (2001). Cities in a Globalizing World. London: Earthscan. Compilation of work by more than eighty international researchers. The report reviews the status of the world's cities and summarizes global trends that will impact the cities of the future. Especially notable is the observation regarding the increased isolation of the urban poor in both developed and developing countries.

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