The Benefits of Global Urbanization

01/19/2012 09:32 am ET | Updated Mar 20, 2012

In the December edition of National Geographic, senior environment editor Robert Kunzig wrote an article about how the world will support the seven billion people that the earth is predicted to have before long. In the article, Kunzig supported the global trend of urbanization, stating that urbanization is healthier for the environment. More people living in big cities means less people sprawled out in suburbs, and less people sprawled out in suburbs means less burning of fossil fuels from personal cars and more land given back to the natural ecosystems of the region.

While many traditional environmentalists see cities as places that destroy the environment around them, by Kunzig's estimation, they actually encourage the restoration of natural ecosystems by creating a sort of dichotomy: concentrate all the people into one central location, and leave the rest of the region to the wildlife (vs. a suburban style development which encourages spreading the people and the patches of natural habitat left to regional wildlife equally over the region and therefore disturbing the continuum of the ecosystem). The already proven benefits that cities provide as they encourage walking and public transportation (and therefore discourage the use of cars and other methods of transportation that quickly burn our limited supplies of fossil fuels) must also of course be taken into consideration, along with the fact that in general cities encourage the use of less material resources. Families in cities usually live in apartments instead of large houses, and because they have less space they tend to buy fewer material objects. This both saves the fossil fuels and other natural and artificial resources that would go into the making of said objects as well as the space in a landfill that would have been occupied by said objects once they were thrown away.

Clearly, cities have environmental benefits, but the real reason that I am so highly in favor of the world's trend towards urbanization is because cities are the centers of idea exchange. Because the world's nations are so highly interconnected in today's society, collaboration is becoming more and more critical to the maintaining of a global order and peace; and because the world has never seen anything like this level of interconnectedness before, it is critical that experts gather to exchange ideas about how to best advance in their field. Cities provide both an agreeable meeting place from a practical point of view (nobody wants to fly into a country for a conference only to drive hours from the central airport to meet in a town where they cannot even book a hotel, no matter how brilliant the idea may be), and because they offer so many intellectual resources that help to boost ideas off the ground.

Historically, cities have always been the center of ideas. They have, at least in Europe, been the seat of major universities which have and continue to be a critical intellectual resource for new ideas. They have been centers of commerce and trade, which have both sustained the economy and contributed to the idea pool by bringing products and ideas from other nations that the city may eventually incorporate into its own customs. Similarly, because cities often have such thriving economies, they often attract many expatriates looking for work or intellectual inspiration which once again feeds the idea pool by encouraging intra-national interactions.

The example that comes to mind of a city being such a central location for ideas is 19th and early 20th century Paris. Throughout the mid 1800's to the 1920's, Paris attracted renowned artists from every corner of the Western world, including but not limited to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Samuel Morse, Salvador Dalí, and Oscar Wilde. Paris was quite literally the center of the arts, and those who came to Paris at the same time (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso and Dalí in the 1920's, for example) benefitted not only from the artistic inspiration that seemed to radiate from Paris, but also from being surrounded by other artists of the same movement but from different cultural traditions than theirs. One only has to see Midnight in Paris once to understand the vast wealth of genius and information that was being exchanged.

If modern cities could create an experience today such as the one to be had in Paris -- but tailored to solving the world's current and future problems -- then we could all proceed into the next age with optimism. As more and more cities crop up around the world, I am quite confident that such a convention could occur. The more cities that spring up, the higher the chance there is that someone in that city will have an idea to begin a campaign for social activism on a global scale. Once they have such an idea, they will have a higher probability of finding others who support or are at least interested in their idea because they are in a city and therefore surrounded by more people. Once a group of these people forms and commits to a plan of action, they will have the resources around them to begin instigating their plan readily at their fingertips because of their urban location; and because they have these resources so readily available, their group will be able to advance further, faster. They will also be more likely to meet criticism from experts both from their native and foreign countries that will help them improve because of the increased visibility one gets from being in a city.

Ironically, this idyllic urban center that is committed to solving the world's problems cannot spring up overnight as the result of some communal inspiration; transformations on this scale must be carefully planned. Kunzig mentions in his National Geographic article how many new cities have experienced exponential population growth, but because this growth was so unexpected, the municipal government is having trouble controlling the city. Before small cities can develop into the world's thriving urban centers, both the government and the residents must be well-prepared and ready to embrace the change that awaits them. This requires a city that is both educated about the level of potential power that it could hold if given the right resources and a city that is ready to look forward and embrace the future with open arms.