Urbanization refers to the growth of urban city living and the movement of populations from rural to urban areas. It results in a larger proportion of people living in urban areas compared to rural areas.
The key effects of urbanization have included social change, a shifting economy, and environmental degradation.
During the industrial revolution, mass urbanization led to less intergenerational households, shifts in employment from agricultural to factory work, and increased reliance on supply chains for consumption (Hussain & Imitiyaz, 2018)
Sociologists study urbanization to understand its effects on society and their implications. We also aim to identify the underlying social processes that drive urbanization (namely: migration, globalization, and economic development).
Urbanization refers to the process of internal migration where people move from rural areas to urban areas. This leads to an increase in the proportion of a population living in cities and towns.
Scholarly definitions include:
“[Urbanization is] the increase in the proportion of the population residing in towns, brought about by migration of rural populations into towns and cities, and/or the higher urban levels of natural increase resulting from the greater proportion of people of childbearing age in cities.”(Mayhew, 2015)
“The trend toward increasing numbers of people living in cities.”(McKinney & Schoch, 2003)
“the process of mass-scale migration from the countryside to cities.”(Cowan, 2021)
From these definitions, we can confidently draw two key features of urbanization:
- Growth of city population and population density.
- Proportional increase of city populations compared to rural populations.
According to Mayhew (2015), this process began in the 18th Century (that’s 1700-1799) but boomed in the 19th Century (1800-1899) as a result of industrialization. It’s also seen by other human geographers, such as Inglehart and Welzel (2005), as a key feature of modernization.
- London (during the Industrial Revolution): One of the first cities to experience urbanization was London. Between 1700 and 1800, London grew from 600,000 to 1.1 million residents. This was due to industrialization and the growth of urban factories that had a strong need for labor. People started moving to London in search of work in the factories.
- Mexico City (Megacities): Urbanization is the cause of the growth of megacities such as Tokyo, Mexico City, and Mumbai, which have populations of over 10 million people. In such cities, people spend their lives living in (and raising children in) high-rise apartment buildings.
- LA and Sydney (Suburbanization): This refers to the expansion of suburban areas around cities, leading to the development of large metropolitan regions such as the Greater Los Angeles Area and the Greater Toronto Area (Hirt, 2007). Another example is Sydney Australia, where urban sprawl stretches for hours so people can still live in self-standing houses rather than apartments.
- Shenzen (Emergent Urban Centers): Urbanization can be seen in the development of new urban centers in China, such as Shenzhen and Guangzhou, as part of the country’s rapid economic growth. These cities spring out of nowhere and become huge cities rapidly, partly thanks to the Chinese government’s control over economic development.
- Medellin (Informal Settlements during Urbanization): Urbanization can also cause informal settlements to emerge. What we might call ‘slums’, these settlements often come about due to lack of affordable housing or poor population management by local governments. A key example of this is the Communa 13 district of Medellin.
- Seoul and Singapore (Smart Cities): “Smart cities” is a term used to refer to cities that have embraced technology to help overcome growing strains. Seoul, for example, has embraced technology to help more efficiently manage traffic flow and urban security.
- Vancouver and San Francisco (Gentrification): The phenomenon of gentrification involves the displacement of lower-income residents from urban neighborhoods due to rising costs of living. Generally, it involves revitalization of poor but well-positioned areas close to city centers but pushes people out of suburbs that their families had lived in for generations (Redfern, 2003). This is currently occurring, for example, in the downtown eastside of Vancouver and occurred in the 1990s in downtown San Francisco.
- Singapore (Urban Tourism): Due to their bustling mixes of cultures, large urbanized cities have become major destinations for travelers seeking cultural and entertainment experiences. A key example is Singapore, a city-state that takes millions of tourists a year to see its beautiful gardens and sporting events.
- New York City (Urban Cultural Movements): Urbanization has also led to the emergence of new cultures. A key example is urban culture in New York City, which led to hip hop music, which today is a mainstream genre of music.
Urbanization by City (Population Changes)
|City||Population (1990)||Population (2000)|
Sociologically, urbanization has a number of important implications:
- Ethnic and Cultural Pluralism: It often leads to the formation of diverse and heterogeneous communities, with people from different ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds coming to the city for economic opportunities.
- Changing Social Relations: Urbanization can lead to the development of new forms of social organization, such as the growth of labor unions or the emergence of new political movements. According to Durkheim (1982), agrarian societies are organized via shared values (mechanical solidarity) whereas urbanized societies achieve cohesion due to mutual interdependence and respect for diversity (organic solidarity).
- Infrastructure Strain: The growing concentration of human populations into urban areas often requires increasingly complex city infrastructure that requires significant urban planning. Affected infrastructure includes transportation routes (with increasing need for public transit), communication, waste management, and logistical supply chains (Hussain & Imitiyaz, 2018).
- Inequality: urbanization can also create new forms of inequality, such as the concentration of poverty in certain areas or the creation of exclusive enclaves for the wealthy.
These sociological aspects of urbanization highlight the complex and dynamic nature of urban life, and the need for careful study and analysis to understand its impact on society (Hussain & Imitiyaz, 2018).
Case Studies: How Urbanization Changes Nations
Suburbanization refers to the growth of satellite suburbs around cities. It is an effect and sub-category of urbanization.
When cities grow, working- and middle-class residents begin to move from city centers to suburban areas in search of land at a lower cost per square meter, more space, and a quieter lifestyle for raising their children (Hirt, 2007).
This process has significant social, economic, and cultural implications. Centrally, it causes strain on causeways into city centers and logistical strain throughout the city. It may also cause destruction of environments and native animal habitats on city peripheries (Hirt, 2007).
Gentrification is a feature of contemporary urbanization. It refers to the process of wealthier residents moving into working-class inner-city suburbs.
This process tends to be of concern because it displaces low-income residents from their neighborhoods. Often, these residents – who may have lived in the neighborhood for generations – end up living in suburbs that become too expensive.
Furthermore, gentrification often leads to over-policing of working-class people in their own neighborhoods (Redfern, 2003).
Overall, gentrification tends to change the cultural identity of a space, dislocates the working-class, and pushes the disadvantaged farther away from city amenities that they need to help them to achieve social mobility.
Urban planners need to identify ways to mitigate the heat-generating effects of large cities, as well as help to decrease concentrations of pollution and fog.
Some scholars (e.g. Satterthwaite, 2009) argue that urbanization can exacerbate climate change. Urban areas create heat islands, alter the natural water cycle, and encroach on the natural environment (Satterthwaite, 2009).
But urban areas can also play a critical role in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Sustainable urban areas require greenways, resource saving practices, policies and practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficient appliances, and renewable energy sources (Satterthwaite, 2009).
With the increasing concentration of populations in urban areas, social movements emerge that attempt to directly address the unique concerns of urban dwellers.
Key concerns could include housing affordability, mitigating the effects of gentrification, achieving equality and justice in multicultural cities, and seeking more environmental sustainability in cities (Pickvance, 2003).
Urban social movements may engage in protests and demonstrations, participate in community organizing, and engage in volunteerism.
Of key concern to sociologists – and especially urban ethnographic researchers – is exploration of the power struggles and social conflicts that shape urban life and lead to urban social movements (Pickvance, 2003).
|Pros of Urbanization||Cons of Urbanization|
|Economic opportunities: Higher concentrations of people in an area can allow for a more diverse range of businesses and economic activities, providing individuals with more job and career opportunities.||Environmental concerns: Urbanization often leads to concentrations of pollution and smog, deforestation of regions surrounding cities, and encroachment on native habitats.|
|Access to services: Concentrated population hubs give greater access to healthcare, education, transportation, and entertainment hubs for a greater number of people.||Traffic congestion: The high population density of urban areas can lead to traffic congestion, which can reduce quality of life. Urban planners need to address this with smart public transit infrastructure.|
|Cultural diversity: Urban areas tend to be more cosmopolitan. People from a range of different regions come together to form a melting pot of cultural groups. This gives access to a range of cultural pursuits, but can also promote tolerance and understanding.||Higher cost of living: Urban areas often have a higher cost of living due to high demand. This puts upward pressure on real estate costs, in particular.|
|Infrastructure: Urban areas tend to have better infrastructure such as roads, public transportation, and utilities, because it is necessary to hold and service a wider range of people.||Lack of Community: People often feel a sense of social isolation in large cities because they blend into the crowd and are not running into the same people at the shops day after day.|
Urbanization refers to the growth and development of urban areas, and it has far-reaching sociological consequences. It leads to the formation of cultural pluralism, new challenges for urban planning, and even new consequences for social justice.
Urbanization also has environmental impacts, including climate change and habitat destruction. Suburbanization and gentrification are two key processes associated with urbanization that reflect changing patterns of social and spatial inequality.
Despite these challenges, urban areas are also sites of social innovation, creativity, and cultural diversity.
Cowan, R. S. (2021). Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities by Vaclav Smil. Technology and Culture, 62(3), 916-917. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1353/tech.2021.0115
Durkheim, É. (1982) The Rules of Sociological Method Free Press. (first published. 1895).
Hirt, S. (2007). Suburbanizing Sofia: Characteristics of post-socialist peri-urban change. Urban Geography, 28(8), 755-780. doi: https://doi.org/10.2747/0272-36188.8.131.525
Hussain, M., & Imitiyaz, I. (2018). Urbanization concepts, dimensions and factors. International Journal of Recent Scientific Research, 9(1), 23513-23523.
Inglehart, R., & Welzel, C. (2005). Modernization, cultural change, and democracy: The human development sequence. Cambridge University Press.
Krause, M. (2013). The ruralization of the world. Public culture, 25(2 70), 233-248. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-2020575
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Pickvance, C. (2003). From urban social movements to urban movements: a review and introduction to a symposium on urban movements. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27(1), 102-109.
Redfern, P. A. (2003). What makes gentrification ‘gentrification’?. Urban Studies, 40(12), 2351-2366. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/0042098032000136101
Satterthwaite, D. (2009). The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change. Environment and urbanization, 21(2), 545-567.