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Urbanization is the expansion of a city or metropolitan area, namely the proportion of total population or area in urban localities or areas (cities and towns), or the increase of this proportion over time. It can thus represent a level of urban population relative to total population of the area, or the rate at which the urban proportion is increasing. Both can be expressed in percentage terms, the rate of change expressed as a percentage per year, decade or period between censuses.

For instance, the United States or United Kingdom have a far higher urbanization level than China, India or Nigeria, but a far slower annual urbanization rate, since much less of the population is living in a rural area while in the process of moving to the city.

The city of Los Angeles is a great example of urbanization.
The city of Los Angeles is a great example of urbanization.

The rate of urbanization over time is distinct from the rate of urban growth, which is the rate at which the urban population or area increases in a given period relative to its own size at the start of that period. The urbanization rate represents the increase in the proportion of the urban population over the period.

In terms of a geographical place, urbanization means increased spatial scale and/or density of settlement and/or business and other activities in the area over time. The process could occur either as natural expansion of the existing population (usually not a major factor since urban reproduction tends to be lower than rural), the transformation of peripheral population from rural to urban, incoming migration, or a combination of these.

In either case, urbanization has profound effects on the ecology of a region and on its economy. Urban sociology also observes that people's psychology and lifestyles change in an urban environment.

The increase in spatial scale is often called "urban sprawl". It is frequently used as a derogatory term by opponents of large-scale urban peripheral expansion especially for low-density urban development on or beyond the city fringe. Sprawl is considered unsightly and undesirable by those critics, who point also to diseconomies in travel time and service provision and the danger of social polarisation through suburbanites' remoteness from inner-city problems.


Economic effects

The most striking immediate change accompanying urbanization is the rapid change in the prevailing character of local livelihoods as agriculture or more traditional local services and small-scale industry give way to modern industry and urban and related commerce, with the city drawing on the resources of an ever-widening area for its own sustenance and goods to be traded or processed into manufactures.

Research in urban ecology finds that larger cities provide more specialized goods and services to the local market and surrounding areas, function as a transportation and wholesale hub for smaller places, and accumulate more capital, financial service provision, and an educated labor force, as well as often concentrating administrative functions for the area in which they lie. This relation among places of different sizes is called the urban hierarchy.

As cities develop, effects can include a dramatic increase in rents, often pricing the local working class out of the market, including such functionaries as employees of the local municipalities. Supermarkets and schools sometimes relocate or close down owing to the same financial pressure. Dramatic increases in land values also encourage further development, and may bring an increased tax revenue for local government.

In order to mitigate the problems of city growth, certain policies such as zoning or growth control or creation of an urban growth boundary are put in place, although the eventual effect of those policies sometimes turn out to be inflated land and housing prices due to a restricted supply.

Ecological and environmental effects

A major issue facing large cities is the disposal of the ever-growing volume of waste which accompanies increased affluence and reliance on purchased goods. Apart from the unsightliness of disposal sites, harmful synthetic materials in packaging, household appliances or machinery may threaten neighboring rural areas or water sources. Though municipal authorities are trying to address the problem, its rapid growth threatens to outstrip the resources of developing countries.

Urbanization often brings people into contact with wildlife such as deer (often hunting is not permitted in settled areas, and deer become quite tame), and puma, a natural predator of deer and pets such as dogs and cats. As the puma become at home in the urban setting they sometimes turn to people too as a source of food.

Increases in the size of urban areas can have significant impacts on local airsheds and watersheds.

With urban areas sprawling outward from the city core, where the majority of economic activity often occurs, people need to travel greater distances to offices and markets in the core: conversely, people in inner-city areas need to travel further to escape the city. The travel mode most often used is the car, which can pollute the air with emissions and can pollute waterways with auto fluids, grime, rubber and metal, and road salts.

Often new urban areas are built in areas where the natural water cycle once occurred, such as forests, meadows or wetlands. This can harm the recharging of the groundwater table, and can affect local bodies of water. The natural water cycle is disrupted, and often, new pollutants such as pesticides can create problems for the ecology of an area.

Conversely, while urban air is often more polluted than suburban or rural air, concentrating a population in a relatively small area can reduce the average amount of travel, and thus reduce transport-related pollution. Similarly, city-dwellers occupy less space per household than suburbanites, and use less fresh water, fertilizer, and herbicides (because they have smaller lawns and gardens, if any).

Psychological effects and urban lifestyle

In the field of urban sociology, the effect of urbanization on mentality and life style has been a subject of research and debate. A general consensus hardly exists, though the differing views are closely related to one another. Following are some examples.

Georg Simmel (1971), a pioneer in German sociology and urban sociology, suggests that the increased concentration and diversity of people and ongoing activities in cities put urbanites under stress (a cognitive overload). This is considered the major cause of urban mentality - detachment from others, self-centeredness, and a rational, calculating mind.

Another well-known view is the subcultural theory of urbanism of Claude Fischer (1975, 1976). He asserts that many different subcultural groups are formed in urban areas, and residents tend to choose a limited number of them to participate, as opposed to freely floating one from another. Some of those groups are quite informal and residents may be strongly engaged, having a similar experience to the close relationship found in community.

The escalating rise in obesity as a public health problem in developing and developed countries has been ascribed by some researchers to the rise of urban sprawl. It is believed that suburbanites rely on takeaway, high calorie food rather than on cooking at home, and that they have less opportunity for walking, cycling and other exercise due to the car-oriented grids of many suburban communities. Some suburban planners have attempted to change this, but few of these attempts have been successful.

Within developing countries urbanization of rural areas causes disruption of the social fabric. People are no longer able to practice traditional lively hood skills such as agriculture and they either have to be retrained to work in other industries or supported by society in some way. This is the case in China, where changes in education provision are required, in order to retrain relocated workers.

Changing form of urbanization

There are different forms of urbanization, or concentration of human activities, settlements, and social infrastructures. Some suggest that the dominant form of urbanization has been changing over time.

Traditional urbanization exhibits a concentration of human activities and settlements around the downtown area. When the residential area shifts outward, this is called suburbanization. A number of researchers and writers suggest that suburbanization has gone so far to form new points of concentration outside the downtown. This networked, poly-centric form of concentration is considered by some an emerging pattern of urbanization. It is called variously exurbia, edge city (Garreau, 1991), network city (Batten, 1995), or postmodern city (Dear, 2000). Los Angeles is the best-known example of this type of urbanization.


Urbanization has in the United States affected the Rocky Mountains in locations such as Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Telluride, Colorado, Taos, New Mexico, Douglas County, Colorado and Aspen, Colorado. The lake district of northern Minnesota has also been affected as has Vermont, the coast of Florida, and the barrier islands of North Carolina.

In the United Kingdom, two major examples of new urbanization can be seen in Swindon, Wiltshire and Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. These two towns show some of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

External links


Batten, D. F. (1995). Network cities: creative urban agglomerations for the 21st century. Urban Studies, 32, 361-378.

Dear, Michael J. (2000). Postmodern urban condition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fischer, C. S. (1975). Toward a subcultural theory of urbanism. American Journal of Sociology 80, 1319-1341.

Fischer, Claude (1976). The urban experience. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Gans, Harbert J. (1962). The Urban Villagers: Group and class in the life of Italian-Americans. New York: MacMillan.

Garreau, J. (1991). Edge city: Life on the new frontier. New York: Anchor Books.

Simmel, Georg. (1903 trans. 1971). Metropolis and mental life. in On Individuality and social forms ed. by Donald Levine. trans. by Edward Shills. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Tonnies, Ferdinand (1887 trans. 1988). Community & society, with an introduction by John Samples. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books.

Wirth, L. (1938). Urbanism as a way of life. American Journal of Sociology, 44, 3-24.

See also

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