A tale of true cities

Toronto. Photo by Darren Kirby

This spring it has happened again. In Macedonia’s capital Skopje thousands of people have been demonstrating against corruption and leaders’ arrogance, and in the streets of Burundi’s capital Bujumbura protesters have demanded respect for democratic rules. Not long ago it happened in Kiev, in Bangkok, in Madrid and in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, and four years ago it happened in a number of capitals and other big cities in North Africa and the Middle East during the so called Arab spring.

The common feature of all these events of protest is that they emanate from the resentment of educated and cosmopolitan people in big cities. The participants are not primarily united by ethnicity or religion; they are united across those atavistic societal markers by their common outrage against bad rule, unfulfilled promises and non-development. They have learned what a better and freer life can look like, and when they think their leaders deny them this they get pissed.

It is not surprising that these upheavals take place in big cities, where people from often vastly different backgrounds are forced to live together, or at least in each other’s vicinity, and where it is the most probable that people with different roles in society interact with each other.

In the 20th century revolutions of agrarian countries like Russia, Mexico, China and Cuba, among others, a natural source of revolutionary force was the peasants. We all know that these major shake-ups were not unequivocally successful, to put it mildly, but at the time they were perceived as revolts against oppression and for human rights. In our urbanized world, by contrast, uprisings for enhanced freedom and rights generally begin in the cities. Their success arguably hinges on the level of urbanization in the country in question. Many an authoritarian ruler can still amass a significant amount of support in the countryside, so they can remain in power for quite some time even if they accept the results of free elections.

Politics that we tend to label radical is not always modern, but modern ideas are mostly seen as radical when they first arrive. A hundred years ago the political dividing lines in the US were drawn between regions. Not so any more. Voting data shows an increasing and today startling mental gap between the urban hubs and the less densely populated areas around them. In the latest presidential election only three of the nation’s 30 most populous cities voted Republican.

Of course, those who vote Republican would obtest against any suggestion that their political choice represents something less apt for the modern world. But most would agree that the other big option, the Democrats, represents a more liberal societal stance, which nowadays not only means defending free markets but increasingly defending lifestyle standpoints such as allowing same-sex marriage, legalization of marijuana use and assisted suicide — all predominantly urban features (except perhaps the drug issue). And the data suggests that it is not the people who make cities liberal, but the other way around: Cities make people liberal.

A similar liberal-conservative division between urban and rural areas can be noted in Great Britain. London — a city that has taken over New York’s position as the Western world’s “capital” according to urban development guru Edward Glaeser — stands out in particular with residents very clearly to the “left” on social issues and to the “right” on economic issues. On voting maps the city on the Thames looks like a leftist island in the middle of a conservative sea.

The xenophobic party UKIP has grown rapidly across Britain, but it struggles to get steady strongholds in London or other major cities. The same is true for corresponding parties in countries like Sweden and France.

The local and regional elections in Spain recently were a dramatic political upheaval because two newcomers broke the dominance of the two traditional ruling parties. One of them is a leftist populist outfit and the other one can probably be branded as center-right but is primarily anti-secessionist. Both, however, are modern parties in the life-style liberal sense (the center-right party after some recent refurbishing) and none of them is xenophobic (the extreme right is hardly present in Spanish politics). They registered their strongest results in the big cities.

Some of today’s uprisings, city-initiated or not, happen at a moment in that nation’s development when it is ready to change its course. Others occur a bit prematurely, and in those cases they will be followed by disarray. The confusion will in some cases end with new authoritarian rule, often out of pure exhaustion, before a modern order can be installed, following or not a new wave of popular protest. What came immediately after the French revolution? Napoleon. And then, sixty years after the first revolution came a second one, and not until seventy years after that, French democracy and rule of law were established. This does not mean that Egypt and others have to wait 130 years. Development has gained pace, and France in 1789 had no role-models.

The concept of the Arab “spring” is often mocked today because of the chaos that has ensued. But it was an awakening that cannot be undone. The return of authoritarian rule may seem like a full setback, but the incumbent leaders have more eyes on them and less scope for despotism than the regimes that were toppled. Eventually a sufficiently large majority of the population will be living in the context of human friction and compromise that is city life and will hence come to the same conclusion as the people in the streets of Tunis did in December 2010 and in the Tahrir square of Cairo in the gleaming spring of 2011. Cities civilize their inhabitants.

I focus here on the social, cultural and political aspects of urbanization, but the simplest winning arguments in this city promotion are probably the green ones. There are immense environmental gains to make from living densely. Services such as health care and education can be distributed in a much more efficient way in cities than in rural areas. A ten-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan has plausibly a smaller ecological footprint than an ordinary farm on the plains of Iowa. Moreover, as a UN report finds, “urban dwellers have access to larger and more diversified labor markets, and enjoy healthier lives overall”.

My original approach with this essay was an homage to the positive consequences of humankind’s increasing densification virtually without exceptions. Recent events in two small countries made me dither for a while, however. I learned that the feature of urbanization had more layers.

In the last couple of months massive protests have taken place in over a dozen towns in Guatemala against the incumbent president. Interestingly enough the major driver behind the demonstrations has been farmers’ organizations.

In Ireland, a referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage resulted in a resounding and top-modern “yes”, and it turned out that there was a majority for scrapping the old stale views also in the rural districts.

I draw two conclusions from these events, one regional and one all-encompassing:

  1. In contemporary Latin America it is actually not difficult to find several other strong political forces for change with a significant rural element, notably the movement that lifted Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state Evo Morales to power. The most plausible explanation for this is the 500-year old land deprivation the indigenous peoples and most of the rural population in general have suffered on the continent. The right to own land is at the center of almost every revolt between Rio Grande and Tierra del Fuego. It is, for instance, item number one in the Colombian guerrilla movement FARC’s list of demands in the ongoing peace negotiations with the government. Thus: Until this injustice has been corrected, Latin America will probably be the one place where revolts can still be born in the countryside.
  2. A more general conclusion is simply that urban life is becoming the norm and is influencing also the countryside. People living in villages or on farms increasingly enjoy the same standard of living as city people, they have the same supply of information and entertainment, and they are part of the same political debates. This goes for most of the world, but it is perhaps more accentuated in the most mature rich countries, where also a significant amount of the people in the countryside have earlier lived urban lives; to move into the cities as well as out of them these days entails markedly less social drama than yesteryear. This means, after all, that urbanization in its ideological sense is at the core of human modernization.

And it has only started. An ever larger majority of humankind will live in urban areas. A century ago, at the time of the Russian revolution, there were six rural dwellers to each urban dweller. Today the share is down to less than one, and by mid-century it is estimated that two-thirds of the world population will be urban. By then even most of the Africans will live in cities. The rural population is just about to reach its peak in absolute numbers.

A new massive and land consuming “green wave” movement would doom us to downfall. Urbanization, thankfully, will continue to save us.

Recovering news journalist with deep interest in society, science, spirituality & how they merge. Communicate and bridge. Podcast, text, talk. andersbolling.com

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