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Urbanization refers to the process whereby ever larger numbers of people migrate to and establish residence in relatively dense areas of population. It is a phenomenon that has existed throughout the ages, from ancient times to the present. Large numbers of people have gathered and created urban sites in places like ancient Rome and Cairo as well as in ancient Peking in China. Yet, in recent times, the process of urbanization has gained increasing momentum and with it greater attention as well. Today, more than half of the world’s population live in what are considered urban places, and demographers project that by the year 2050 much of the world’s population will reside in them.
If urbanization were simply about large numbers of people living in dense residential settlements, it would hold little interest for sociologists. In fact, it is about considerably more. One of the questions posed about urbanization has to do with the reasons why people move into urban areas. What, in particular, draws people into urban areas and, once there, why do they remain? Even more importantly, what happens to people and to their lives as human beings once they move into the compact spaces of urban areas? These are questions that have prompted some of the most interesting and perceptive of sociological writings.
Urbanization is something that holds great interest for sociologists and the theories they develop about the way the world works. The first of the major sociological theorists to write about urbanization and its connections to social life was the German social theorist, Georg Simmel. He saw in the nature of urbanization and the growth of the modern metropolis elements that were characteristic not merely of cities, but of the broader development and change unfolding in the modern world. Simmel insisted that the modern city compelled people to treat one another in an indifferent and cool manner. People did not relate to one another as intimates, for example, but rather in an instrumental and calculating fashion: what can you do for me, in effect, rather than let us get to know one another better.
The next major perspective on urbanization and urban areas came from a scholar who helped to create the Chicago School of sociology, Louis Wirth. Wirth, in effect, synthesized many of the key insights of Simmel in a work that would become perhaps the most famous essay about the urban condition in the twentieth century, ”Urbanism as a way of life.” Wirth insisted that the pace of life in the city forced people to deal with one another in an impersonal fashion. People tended to become anonymous in the city; as a result, this influenced their own sense of comfort and security. The city, because of its size and the pace of its life, could become a place that helped to produce various forms of social disorganization, including divorce and crime. Urbanization also placed people into new relationships with one another, the effect being to undermine or to deemphasize the intimacy they had found in smaller places. Moreover, the city also gave birth to new and singular social developments, among them a range of new organizations, such as voluntary associations, not to say also new business groups. In effect, Wirth formalized and extended the basic insights of Simmel, creating both a sociological and a social psychological portrait of the city – a portrait that would remain in place for many decades and provide both an inspiration and a foil for subsequent sociological research.
Other writers and researchers from the Chicago School, among them Park and Burgess, helped to embellish and to flesh out this vision of what urbanization and cities were all about. The Chicago School, in effect, became that branch of sociology that would be devoted to understanding, interpreting, and even seeking remedies for the urban condition created in the modern world.
In recent years scholars have begun to rethink the way they conceive both of cities and of the broader process of urbanization. Lefebvre urged students of urbanization to turn their attention to urban areas as spaces, and to investigate the way such spaces were created. In particular, he insisted that the broader social forces of modern capitalism have much to do with the configuration and arrangement of spaces in the city. Thus, for example, the nature of work and the way that people must travel to work helps to account not only for the development of transportation routes and modes of transportation, but also for the nature of social life and the sites of residential settlements in urban areas.
- Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space, trans. D. Nicholson-Smith. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Orum, A. M. & Chen, X. (2003) The World of Cities: Places in Comparative and Historical Perspective. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Park, R. E., Burgess, E. W., & McKenzie, R. D. (1925-6) The City. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.