Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Triumph of Civilization
The World's New Urban Majority

By David G. Young

Washington DC, August 13, 2007 --  

The growth of the world's urban population is both a symptom and a cause of the welcome economic progress sweeping the world.

When the first cities began popping up in the fertile crescent of the Middle East over 10,000 years ago, humanity began a bold experiment. The surplus generated by farming was able to support a new class of people specializing in administration, trade, and handicrafts. After hundreds of thousands of years of existence, humans had developed what we call civilization.

The development reached a monumental point this year, as the number of people living in cities surpassed the number of people living in rural areas for the first time since mankind parted ways with apes.1 The new urban majority has been created by rapid urbanization in Asia and Africa -- two continents where economic growth and modernization have historically lagged behind Europe, the Americas and Australia. In the developed countries, the majority of people have already lived in cities for about a century -- in America, for example, the shift to an urban majority happened in the years before the First World War. In much of the rest of the world, this change is happening now.

Rising global urbanization is a welcome sign. Urban living is both a cause and a result of economic progress. People only move to cities when they can make a better living at a job than they can by toiling small plots to feed their families. At the same time, a modern economy can only grow when there is a non-peasant workforce to propel it. A modern city creates a feedback loop that draws ever more peasants into urban life. The new urban majority is an indicator the global enrichment that is bringing millions of poor peasants into modern economies -- especially in places like China and India. As a whole, this is a wonderful thing.

No longer does a vast peasantry toil the land to support a tiny urban elite. Now, the urban elite is the majority. Industrialization (both factory product-based and service-based) allows cities to produce much more wealth than ever before.

To be sure, this change is a messy business. In places where peasants are moving to the world's cities most rapidly, sprawling shantytowns with sickening conditions are the temporary consequence. Distant water supplies, high crime rates, scarce electricity, and an absence of sewage systems are typical of neighborhoods hosting those making the transition from rural to urban life.

To people living comfortable lifestyles in the West, it's easy to look on such urbanization in negative terms -- the disturbing image of vast third-world shantytowns makes this inevitable. What's more, people living the fast-paced lifestyles typical of the developed world have a tendency to romanticize rural life.

The anti-urban perspective can be found with the very people who estimated the arrival of the world's first urban majority. In a press release on the subject, researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of Georgia -- two historically rural American states -- stressed the dependency that cities have on rural areas, and the problems caused by urban populations.2

Given how the world has voted with its feet, it is clear that most people disagree with this negative image of the city. For all the problems of urban living -- especially in the third world -- rural life simply cannot match the economic opportunity offered by cities. Those of us lucky enough to have been part of earlier migrations to the city should welcome our new urban compatriots. More welcome yet, will be the increased prosperity that they or their descendents will one day enjoy.

Related Web Columns:

Global Enrichment
The State of the World in 2100
, January 11, 2000


1. North Carolina State University, News Release: Mayday 23: World Population Becomes More Urban Than Rural, May 22, 2007

2. Ibid.