Fat city


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.

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  1. Art is harder way out here in the middle of nowhere. If I were trying to make it as a professional songwriter, I'd be in the middle of a big city. I'd hate it, 'cause I hate the noise and crowding, but even from the perspective of other musicians to jam with, more people is more.

    Affects my business as well. I've done zero live events this past year, because I'd have to travel 2 hours to Minneapolis or 7 hours to Chicago to really make it worthwhile. Our entire county has 45,000 people. Not enough for narrowly focused speaking gigs.

    1. A decade ago folks were predicting that the Internet Age would obviate the need for people to live closer together, but population density has accelerated since then, especially by professionals IN that industry (as in Silicon Valley).

  2. Speaking as a country girl, I balked at the idea that urban dwellers are happier, so I did some checking of my own. Gallup's survey questions included whether people experienced enjoyment most of the previous day, felt rested, respected and whether they laughed a lot and learned something interesting. Their results? "Interestingly, every country in the top 10 most positive countries ranked outside of the top 25 for GDP in 2011, and none of those countries were in the top 50 for GDP per capita." (Forbes, 1/13)

    It turns out that the happiest countries, except for Denmark, are among the 20% lowest in population density. The happiness ranking by country, with their population density ranking out of 192 countries:
    1. Norway - 165/192
    2. Denmark 61/192
    3. Sweden - 154/192
    4. Australia - 187/192
    5. New Zealand - 162/197
    6. Finland - 161/197

    1. Summarizing economist Edward Glaeser’s statistical analyses in “Triumph of the City” (page 7 and page 276):

      “People report being happier in those countries that are more urban. In those countries where more than half of the population is urban, 30 percent of people say that they are very happy and 17 percent say that they are not very or not all happy. In nations where more than half of the population is rural, 25 percent of people report being very happy and 22 percent report unhappiness. Across countries, reported life satisfaction rises with the share of the population that lives in cities, even when controlling for the countries’ income and education. So cities like Mumbai and Kolkata and Bangalore boost not only India’s economy but its mood.”

      The apparent discrepancy between the two sets facts may be due, in part, to the fact that people who live outside a highly dense urban core in a metropolitan region—or “mega-region”—may be living in a relatively less populated area while receiving the benefits of their general proximity to an urban center. Such may be the case in those European countries.

      I’m not arguing that people who live inside an urban core are necessarily happier than those who live outside of one in an extended metropolitan mega-region, but that people in both cases generally live more happily (and certainly more prosperously) than those who live far from cities.

      I am also arguing that living in a city is healthier for the environment.

    2. Not sure population density is the best measure. What if everyone lives in just a couple of major towns but the area of the country is large with massive unpopulated areas? For example, Norway (population about 5.5m) has just under 2m living in metropolitan Copenhagen alone.

        1. Yes, population density based on national boundaries is not the best metric, because countries like the US would be in the bottom quartile of population density by that measure — whereas by other measures the US is a very urban nation.

  3. As mentioned previously, population density has its costs. (And I'd hate to tally the cost of having thousands of state/local police, Special Ops, Homeland Security, ATF, FBI, National Guard crawling the streets of Boston this week!) Yet civilization's artistic, scientific, commercial, and spiritual advances have occurred largely from people living and working in close proximity to each other.

  4. I don't know, it depends who you are. I grew up in the best of both worlds, the leafy, park-rich environs of the suburbs. Close to the city, but quiet and spacious enough to play baseball on a real diamond with a backstop and home-run fences or street hockey right in the actual street. At night you could fall asleep to rustling leaves or wake to the silent wonder of a world made wondrous by snow. But still get all the advantages of the bustling, vital, human-rich city just 15 minutes away.

    As America becomes more and more "Asianized" and we get more and more warehoused into tiny and efficient living spaces in anthill cities, I fear we are increasingly losing sight of the only concept that can save our planet: population control.

    The new thing in cities is "micro-spaces": 200 sq. ft. horse stalls for humans. The more we accept being hung like meat in little studio apt. racks the less we remember why we had to end that way. There are way too many of us for this planet to support. Think, and shrink.

  5. Your old hometown, Arlington, MA—15-20 minutes from Boston's urban core—though technically a town is still Metropolitan Boston, and very much a part of the city. (And with a population of 43k it’s no podunk village.) Some folks will choose to live outside the most densely populated part of a city, but still reap—and contribute to—the benefits of that urban region.

    Population control is an interesting topic for a longer post. But many urbanists from Jane Jacobs to Edward Glaeser advocate what is called Vancouverism—a philosophy of urban planning & design that utilizes narrow, high-rise residential towers appropriately spaced to preserve view corridors. There is much we can still do to comfortably increase population growth in our cities, but it will require some upending of long-standing assumptions about urban development.

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