1. Social
April 20, 2015

Cities are great, for good left-wing reasons

By Grao

A few weeks ago, we published the first of a new column, by the people behind the “Critical Cities” books, arguing that urbanisation was, well, a bit rubbish really. Not all our readers were happy about it…

Cities are terrible! “The Urban Industry”, as Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield call it, is “marshalling the world off open, verdant and resource rich lands and in to barren, highly controlled, unequal and densely populated urban areas”. Which sounds dreadful, right?

It’s easy to sympathise with this perspective – I mean, who hasn’t squeezed into a busy tube train at rush hour and not contemplated what we’re doing with our lives?

But I’d like to argue for the defence – that cities can be a force for good, and that it is willfully myopic to overlook the role of urbanisation in creating the modern world. I understand that many of the critics of urbanisation are those who, like myself, are on the left – but I think urbanisation can be a positive force for good, left-wing reasons.

Take a look at history. Cities are not a new invention – they have always been a key part of human civilisation, to the extent that they are arguably the reason we have civilisation in the first place. Cities have played the role of engines of progress by the very nature of what a city is: it forces people – and crucially ideas – to live in close proximity.

In many places we take for granted the idea that public services will be handled on an impersonal basis. I don’t mean that the receptionist at the doctor’s surgery will be rude, but rather that our treatment at the hands of bureaucrats will be dished out based on criteria other than patronage and family ties. Urbanisation has meant that traditional family ties and social structures are broken down – that may have its downside, but it also allows for “rational-legal” public administration. And that means better, and more universal, services.

We can probably even go a step further and thank urbanisation for the concept of social mobility. In the past, if you were born to farmers, chances are that you would die a farmer. With the move to cities, the ability to specialise labour has provided the conditions for people to have greater latitude in choosing their own destinies, rather than have it forced on to them by circumstances. Whilst I’m definitely not claiming that cities are great beacons of meritocracy, without them we’d all just be toiling the land whilst the rich look on for eternity.

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The anti-urbanisation lobby says that cities are “highly controlled” and “unequal”; yet it is cities that have historically provided liberation. The free cities in medieval Europe, which were not part of some feudal baron’s empire (surely the definition of control and unequal?), were where the ideas that ended feudalism developed. Heck, it is only thanks to cities that we have a trade union movement. Rather than remaining geographically divided and weak, the concentration of people into cities made it easier for workers to stand-up to those who control the means of production. 

Similarly, it was the cities and not the country where we developed the modern conception of rights that we now take for granted. Thomas Paine may have been born in rural Thetford, but it was only after living in Paris and London that he was able to articulate the Rights of Man.

More recent history, too, shows an important correlation between urbanisation and improved standards of living. China is the obvious example. According to the World Bank, since 1978 half a billion people have moved to cities, and income in real term has risen 16 times. The country and the lives of people within have been completely transformed. For all of the critiques of globalisation (and I’d agree with many of them), it is tricky to argue that those 500m people would be better off living in poverty in “verdant” lands.

What I find odd about the anti-urbanisation view is that it seems to fall for what Orwell called the fallacy of “the superior virtue of the oppressed”. In other words, the idea that because there are evil corporations in one situation, that situation’s opposite has some sort of intrinsic virtue. It reads as implicit that “homogenisation” and “assimilation” are bad things – and it frames the idea that people moving to the cities to obtain a better standard of living as somehow a bad thing. The logical end-point to this sort of thought is the idea that poor people should remain poor – which doesn’t sit well with me as a lefty. Similarly, while there might be huge problems with large-scale corporate farming and the like, we live in an age of abundance: it is easy to forget that, before the industrial revolution, food production could be precarious, and the first to suffer were not the land owners.

There definitely are plenty of good reasons for lefties to investigate and critique many of the phenomena that the anti-urbanisation lot describe. However, the response shouldn’t be to romanticise what they perceive to be “natural”, but instead to ask how corporate control can be reined in, how public services can be better delivered to dense populations, and how political institutions can be strengthened to combat the worst excesses of globalisation. The argue that dense, compact cities make for an “ideal business context”, with all the finger-wagging that implies; but they overlook that compact cities are better for culture, better for ideas and ultimately better for progress, too.

James O’Malley is a writer who lives in a big city, and tweets as @Psythor.

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