When a terrorist attack occurs in a major urban area (as just happened in Boston) it’s a message to some that we’re better off living far from densely populated regions.
After all, terrorists seek out this population density to foment the maximum amount of mayhem and destruction. It’s also a reminder that cities can be dangerously violent and crime-ridden even without the thoughtful assistance of international or domestic terrorists.
But there's a good reason why people are attracted to cities to begin with—and why urban areas are growing faster than ever. Densely populated regions—like Boston and Cambridge—are centers of creative enterprise. The sheer concentration of human capital in these geographies enables productivity and economic success. That's why denser populations pay higher wages. No wonder three quarters of the world’s population now live in metropolitan areas. Worldwide surveys even show that people are happiest in the most urban of countries.
But what about the crime, disease, and congestion that result from such a concentration of humanity? Well, as long as cities remain as popular as they are, they will attract the rural poor and foreign immigrants seeking a path of advancement—which predictably creates extreme income inequality in close quarters and, with it, considerable human suffering. Life can be unspeakably cruel for the urban poor, but as Edward Glaeser points out in The Triumph of the City, “Urban poverty should not be judged relative to urban wealth but relative to rural poverty." (Ask the Chinese about that.) For most people, rich as well as poor, the benefits of living so close to other people outweigh the costs.
The top rock artists—knowingly or unknowingly—are walking billboards for the success of cities. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Beatles, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Who, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Grateful Dead, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Ramones, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, U2, Green Day, Nirvana—and dozens more—ALL emerged from major metropolitan areas—not to mention the R&B and soul greats like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Otis Redding. Not all of these musical artists were born in cities, but their talent was forged in the artistic and cultural melting pots of places like London, New York, Detroit, and L.A. Talent attracts talent. People get creative by being around other creative people. Human density is messy, but artistic and commercial progress depends on it.
What about the environmental effects of city living? Paradoxically, concentrations of people actually make cities greener. As urbanist Richard Florida says,
“Ecologists have found that by concentrating their populations in smaller areas, cities and metros decrease human encroachment on natural habitats. Denser settlement patterns yield energy savings; apartment buildings, for example, are more efficient to heat and cool than detached suburban houses. Urban households emit less carbon dioxide than their suburban and rural counterparts … Emissions are reduced as metros become larger. In other words, increasing metropolitan output is associated with decreasing emissions.”
For more on this topic, check out my earlier post.