High density is the highroad to prosperity

Lawrence Solomon
The Next City
December 1, 1996

It’s always been hard to keep them down on the farm, and soon we won’t need to. Using GPS – global satellite positioning technology – American farmers have begun to map and analyze their land for characteristics such as acidity and soil types, which can vary widely throughout their fields. Instead of applying a uniform amount of seeds, fertilizer and herbicide across an entire field, GPS-equipped combines pick up signals from more than 20 satellites orbiting 11,000 miles above Earth and dole out the precise amount needed for each square metre as they travel the fields. Farmers are finding they’re increasing their yields while spending less on chemicals. Many areas, to their surprise, require no fertilizer at all.

With precision-farming packages starting at US$6,500 and manufactured by Rockwell International, Case Corp. and Deere & Co., farmers no longer need to walk their fields to estimate their needs. Automated equipment, such as the robotic harvesters soon coming onto the market, may one day free them from the need to drive their farm equipment, too. Like their city counterparts, farmers may become telecommuters, running most aspects of their operations from their city homes or their corporate offices, if they choose.

Most will. Whenever people have had economic options, they have tended to prefer high-density life in the city to low-density living elsewhere. The city offers excitement and economic opportunities. It offers education and social mobility. City jobs tend to be safer than those in the country. And with access to health clinics and other social services, people live healthier and longer in cities, especially in the case of the Third World, whose cities rescue many of the world’s poorest from miserable rural existences. Poverty “tends to be at its worst in rural areas,” explained the World Bank in a 1990 study, something “not always understood because the urban poor are more visible and vocal.”

Third World women especially benefit when they are liberated by city life: Away from hidebound country customs, it becomes respectable for girls to be educated and for women to work. According to the World Fertility Survey, 500 million women said they did not want their last child, they wanted more spacing between their children, or they did not want another child, yet lacked access to family planning. In cities, where women have better access to education and birth control, they tend to have smaller families and generally fare better than their country cousins in finding wage-paying jobs.

In the West, we long ago migrated to cities, where most of us now live in relative affluence. Japan took this route to prosperity, too, with Tokyo outdoing all Western cities. With a population of 27 million, almost as much as Canada’s, it has become the largest city on Earth. Now, the people of the Third World are following in the footsteps of affluent people elsewhere, improving their lot in the mega-cities of Bombay, Shanghai, São Paulo and Mexico City. Within a decade, most of the people on the planet will be urban dwellers.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, rural areas – and not cities – are inherently unsustainable. Without urban markets for their surplus, rural folk would be doomed to subsistence agricultural production, leaving them vulnerable to blights and local weather conditions that could devastate their harvests. For this reason, famines are features of rural societies – people in cities have too many options to starve.

Farms are such risky business, and so prone to bankruptcies, that a farmer would be foolhardy to till his fields without obtaining sophisticated financial implements from the city or, as is more common, a host of financial supports from city taxpayers. Farms have also not been exemplars of environmental sustainability, having been run as polluting industries – among society’s worst. More wilderness has been torn down to accommodate farmland than the most sprawling of cities.

Cities, on the other hand, epitomize sustainability. Urban residents live lightly on the land, consuming less energy and other resources than country folk, while also generating enough wealth to support rural areas financially through tax policies that send city earnings their way. City-states, which do not need to share wealth with rural areas, grow economically at two or three times the rate of Western nations.

Tiny Hong Kong was economically backwards until the 1940s, when it was transformed by an enormous influx of refugees from Shanghai, China’s industrial powerhouse, fleeing communism. Now, less than 50 years later, Hong Kong and its six million residents have become the powerhouse. So, too, with Singapore, which has become the world’s sixth wealthiest nation. If São Paulo’s 10 million citizens were a city-state of their own, freed from the burden of supporting Brazil’s rural population, it, too, would rank among the world’s wealthy nations.

The sustainability of cities comes from their inventiveness and adaptability. As Jane Jacobs demonstrated, agriculture began in cities, allowing cities to both feed themselves and to leave something for export. As city land became more valuable, agricultural enterprises were moved beyond the city limits, in the same way cities this century are moving their smokestack industries out of town to make room for enterprises of the information age.

Thanks to urban marketing skills, urban inventions and urban innovations, agriculture thrives in Canada, the United States and other highly urbanized societies and stagnates in agrarian societies. But cities still produce a surprising amount of agricultural product. Singapore is self-reliant in meat and produces 25 per cent of its vegetable needs. The 1980 U.S. census found that urban areas produced 30 per cent of the value of the country’s agricultural output. In 1990, this figure was up to 40 per cent. In 1970, 20 per cent of Muscovites were involved in agricultural production; now it’s 65 per cent. Java, with 50,000 square miles and a population of 100 million, feeds itself largely with locally grown food. Densely populated areas are so resilient that, if necessary, they could convert their industry to agriculture and feed themselves several times over. But unlike farms, cities don’t lend themselves to monoculture. Their diversity is their strength, and their diversity depends on their density.

Government policies, in most places on Earth, have encouraged the destruction of wilderness and the expansion of agriculture and suburban sprawl. Put another way, governments have discouraged cities from becoming ever denser. Remove government preferences that interfere with people’s choice of residence, and our wrong-headed use of the land on the planet would be righted. Cities would become much, much denser.

With more people living in cities, more wealth would be generated, and less wealth would be dissipated subsidizing rural lifestyles and industries. With increased wealth, population growth would slow in the Third World, reducing the demand for foodstuffs and farmland. São Paulo’s very high fertility rate in the early 1960s – on average, each woman gave birth to five children – has been halved during the city’s explosive population growth and may soon average 2.1 children, the point at which populations stabilize. Singapore and Hong Kong have stable populations, as do Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea and other urbanizing Third World countries. Even without reduced population growth, the demand for farmland is abating due to innovations that have improved agricultural production. We now need about half as much acreage per person for grain production as we did in 1950. As a result, farmland sprawl has begun to subside: Some of the farmland taken out of agriculture has become city land, and some has been returned to wilderness.

The ability to feed ourselves has never depended on a high ratio of farmland to urban population. With the world’s population at an all-time high and still growing, we are now producing and consuming more food per capita than ever before and are more resilient than ever before. India and China, the two most populous nations on Earth, are self-sufficient in rice. The Western world’s granaries are overflowing, leading to grain wars among Canada, the United States and Europe. Even Saudi Arabia exports wheat. People still starve for many reasons – the poverty of backward nations, massive dislocations caused by tribal fighting, as in Somalia, or the forcible large-scale relocations of populations as occurred in the U.S.S.R.

But finding the land to feed a large urban population is never a problem, and even in the extreme it is inconceivable that it could become so. At the density of Manhattan, which many consider a desirable place to live, the world’s entire population would occupy less space than the area taken up by the tiny country of Laos.

Dense urban life is not for everyone – large numbers of us prefer suburbs and small towns, farms and faraway places. Yet despite the city’s enormous problems, it draws increasing numbers to it.

Early this century, cities solved the problem of sanitation, which was plaguing their productivity, limiting their growth and threatening them with stagnation. Early in the next, cities are likely to solve traffic congestion – in most cases their chief remaining problem – by tolling urban roads, as London, Singapore and others are doing. With free-flowing urban roads, cities will become more efficient, cleaner, less frustrating and much more liveable. Cities will become more welcoming still to the half of humanity that has not yet moved there.

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