Death by City Life

Death by City Life

More than half the world's population now lives in cities, and the signs of strain are becoming more noticeable.

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the source: “Cities and Their Consequences” by William H. McNeill, in The American Interest, ­March–April ­2007.

Greater Mexico City, with a population of 11 million in 1975, now has 18 million people; São Paulo, Brazil, has ballooned from 9.6 to 17 million; Mumbai, India, has more than doubled, from 7 to 16 million. If University of Chicago historian William H. McNeill were painting a picture of today’s world, it would feature a giant wave cresting as it rushes against the shore. The image, he writes, represents a new and largely overlooked demographic phenomenon: More than half of the world’s population now lives in ­cities.

For more than five millennia, most people lived in villages and small cities that were “very hospit­able to human reproduction.” Through war and famine, villagers produced enough children to work their fields, and could also send a surplus of young people to the city or, more rarely, frontier lands. Children were needed. They helped perform simple chores from their earliest years, and later they took care of the elderly and sick. But when families migrated to the cities, there was no work for children, and somebody needed to watch them. Over the centuries, cities have been “demo­graphic sinkholes,” McNeill says. In ­pre­modern times, urban immi­grants found marginal jobs, and many soon died of infectious diseases, leaving few or no heirs. But even as sanitation and living conditions improved, the “sinkhole” description remained apt. Urban life makes child rearing costly and difficult, and the availability of birth control makes it a matter of ­choice.

Since 1920, McNeill writes, “most Americans of European descent have been urbanized, and, like everyone else in that circum­stance, they are not reproducing themselves.” The great cities of Europe, Canada, Russia, Japan, and China, as well as urban pockets in Latin America and Africa, are similarly affected. Where urban population growth has flagged, cities have sustained themselves by attracting immigrants, many from different cultural and religious ­backgrounds.

The settlement of more than half of humankind in cities not only results in a likely popu­lation decline, but it also threatens to increase world disorder. In Euro­pean cities and elsewhere, many recent immigrants have failed to integrate into their new homes. They live in separate neighbor­hoods, poor and second class, and find themselves unable to grasp even the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. The tensions of ­cheek-­by-­jowl inequality provide fertile ground for extrem­ism, both religious and secular. Although man is infinitely adap­table, McNeill writes, the big sociological question is whether man will “learn in time to make cities truly thrive.”

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