Three Urban Myths

A little follow up to my previous post – and a request for your help. I suggested in said post that the city and the country are not two separate orders of life but two sides of the same coin that jointly create the whole. Still, there seems no end to the debate over the relative merits of urban and rural life, as if the twain should never meet. Generally, the city has got the best notices in this debate over the past century or so, for who but a hopeless romantic can these days seriously extol the virtues of country living as a way forward for humanity?

Well, me for one. But I’m not completely closed to the contrary idea that cities are the future. I’d just like to see some convincing arguments or, better still, actual evidence for the urban virtues. Which is where I’m hoping that somebody reading this might help, by pointing me to some relevant data. For the fact is that most contemporary presentations of the urban virtues I’ve read seem to me more like breathless romantic mythologizing than anything more substantive. So here I offer you three urban myths in the hope that somebody can turn them into something more factual for me.

Myth 1: Rural-urban migration improves the lot of the poor

Cities are the engines of modern capitalist economies – there’s little doubt that without them there would be less monetary wealth. In my book, less monetary wealth wouldn’t be a bad thing. What does seem to me unarguably a bad thing is gross inequality in the distribution of monetary wealth, so if it could be shown that urban life is fundamentally more equitable than rural, then I’d have to concede the virtue of the city in this critical respect.

This virtue is certainly asserted widely. The second and third chapters of Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline constitute an extended paean to the transformative power of urban slums in poor countries. The gist in a select few phrases: “Let no one romanticize what the slum conditions are….But the squatter cities are vibrant….Everyone is working hard and everyone is moving up”.

Sounds great, but where’s the evidence? Brand cites a few tidbits, most notably the impressionistic accounts of western journalists who lived in squatter cities and found them less awful than you might imagine1. Well, no doubt. Other western journalists have done the same and found them pretty bad after all2. We’re not going to get anywhere much thrashing around with this kind of evidence.

Perhaps Gordon Conway can help – former president of the Rockefeller Foundation and global expert on hunger. In his book One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World? he tells the story of an Indian rice farmer who lost much of his land to a local potentate, and then migrated with his family to Calcutta where he found work as a rickshaw puller. “It is a hard life”, says Conway – so hard, in fact, that the unfortunate migrant eventually dies from the strain of the work, “but he has saved enough for a dowry for his daughter, and his family survives. The opportunity is there, for some at least, to slowly progress…to the beginnings of a decent livelihood”.

Hmm, you’re not really convincing me with your story here, Gordon. For one thing, you don’t explain why policies to ensure retention of viable small farms and protect them from the predations of local potentates are worse than making poor folks take a life-or-death punt on city opportunity. And for another thing, it turns out your story is indeed a story – it’s a précis of Dominique Lapierre’s fictional City of Joy. So again we seem to be in an evidence free zone.

I do know of a peer-reviewed paper about rickshaw pullers based on actual real research among actual real rickshaw pullers3 (Evidence! Hurrah!). To quote from the abstract: “Rickshaw pulling provides…relatively easy access to the urban labour market, and an escape from extreme rural poverty. But the initial trend of modest upward mobility from rickshaw pulling is not sustained in the long run. For the sample in this study, almost all economic and social indicators – including income poverty – deteriorated with the length of involvement in rickshaw pulling….[R]ickshaw pulling provides no permanent route to escaping poverty.”

David Satterthwaite, another expert on cities and poverty in low income countries and someone not conspicuously enthusiastic about rural peasant life, has suggested that poor urban dwellers aren’t necessarily better off than their rural counterparts, although the opportunities afforded for political organisation by dense urban residence enables some gains to be made4 . This very modest argument in favour of urbanism is supported by a study of slum dwellers in Bangalore, which concludes “Our findings provide some limited grounds for optimism but, on the whole, continuity trumps change. The majority of households have lived in slums for multiple generations. Slum residents typically work hard… .there is some economic improvement across generations, but the extent of improvement is small on average, and many families have experienced reversals of fortune.”5

So is Brand’s comment better reformulated as “Everyone is working hard, and few of them are moving up”? I don’t know. I’d like to see some proper general evidence about the consequences of rural-urban migration and the nature of slums. Until then, I’m inclined to keep the ‘Cities banish poverty’ story in my folder of urban myths.

One final point on this: Banerjee and Duflo make the point in their fascinating book Poor Economics that rural-urban migration is rarely a final, one-way thing. That’s just too risky for poor rural families. Rather, it’s a cyclical way of spreading risk and increasing the rural household’s wealth by sending young adults to seek wage labour in the city: for them, living on the street or under bridges for a few months is bearable in return for a decent wage, but it’s not a viable strategy of household improvement.

Myth 2: Urban Living Has A Lower Environmental Impact

Well, that’s probably true if the focus is on what the individual resident of a wealthy country can do to lower their personal footprint. You can walk to work, heat a small apartment cheaply, hook in to the economies of scale offered through high density municipal utilities etc.

But there are some complexities here. For one thing, as previously stated, city and country are inextricably linked. There are studies that seem to consider it acceptable to impute agricultural environmental impacts in the countryside to rural dwellers, as if all those thousands of tonnes of cereals they grow there are purely to feed those ravenous rural appetites6. Others write of the sprawling houses and extensive road networks of rural areas, so much less efficient than in cities7. But hang on a minute – what’s that extensive road network for? Not, surely, just to take folks home for a misty taste of moonshine? Er, no. Fundamentally, it’s to get food to the cities8. And if we want to talk about sprawling houses, perhaps we should compare city and country only after controlling statistically for wealth (since country living these days in the over-developed countries is mostly a pursuit of the wealthy). Studies have shown that low income people and low income urban neighbourhoods have quite low environmental footprints, but they increase at individual and area levels with wealth9. Who, after all, lives in these sprawling rural houses? Wealthy city escapees, perhaps?

I’ve written in more detail elsewhere about the statistical complexities involved in picking over claims concerning urban and rural environmental impacts. It’s tricky. But the larger point I must return to is that the city and the country are inextricably linked, and it’s usually the city that calls the shots: the countryside is the extended phenotype of the city. Claiming that the latter has a lower environmental impact than the former makes about as much sense as claiming your stomach has a lower environmental impact than your arse.

Unless of course, anyone can provide me with some convincing counter-evidence…?

Myth 3: Urbanites have a more advanced ecological consciousness than ruralites

I’ve heard it said that once people are no longer struggling against nature to earn their miserable crust of subsistence, only then is it possible for them to take a more generous and expansive view of the natural world and espouse its protection as a worthy cause. Again, I haven’t come across much actual evidence for this view, which strikes me as a rather typical affectation of metropolitan disdain for rural working people, who often nurse their own appreciations of the natural world with which they interact daily in ways beneath the notice of urban sophisticates. Still, impressionistically I’d accept that there’s a kind of left-green consciousness about global environmental degradation and the effect of personal consumption practices upon it which is probably more common among the urban middle classes than the world’s rural poor. But, equally impressionistically, I also detect a ‘screw the countryside’ mode of thinking among urbanites, perhaps along the lines of the ‘man is enough for man’ ideology I mentioned in my previous post on the basis of William Cronon’s work – one reason why I think the ‘land sparing’ argument in favour of crowding people into cities, maximising per hectare agricultural output and leaving as much of the rest of the world free of human interference will not spare any land in the long run. And even with the more responsible left-green consciousness of the urban middle classes I’d question whether it compensates for their actual consumption practices – the air miles, food miles, nitrous oxide, deforestation, palm oil plantations, rainforest soya and all the rest of it that serve the actual lifestyle rather than the idealised aspirational one. Can the consumption practices of wealthy urbanites be so thoroughly decoupled from their ecological consequences that the aspiration to extend an urban middle class lifestyle to everyone in the world becomes realistic? And if not, what are the implications? It’s surely not acceptable on social justice grounds for that lifestyle to remain unattainable for all but a wealthy few. So whither the strange conjunction of urban middle class environmental consciousness and uber-consumption? Well, I’ve come across one great article about it, which is available here – but otherwise…yes, once again please do send in your evidence.


1. Neuwirth, R. Shadow Cities

2. Boo, K. Behind The Beautiful Forevers; Dasgupta, R. Capital

3. Begum, S. and Sen, B. (2005) ‘Pulling rickshaws in the city of Dhaka: a way out of poverty?’ Environment and Urbanization, 17, 2: 11-25.

4. Satterthwaite, D. (2011) ‘What do those who suffer hunger in cities prioritize?’ Paper presented to conference ‘Food Security For Cities’ at the Royal Statistical Society, 13.09.11.

5. Krishna, A. (2013) ‘Stuck in place: investigating social mobility in 14 Bangalore slums’ The Journal of Development Studies, 49, 7: 1010-28.

6. Hoornweg, D. et al (2011) ‘Cities and greenhouse gas emissions’ Environment and Urbanization, 20, 10: 1-21.

7. Marris, E. (2011) Rambunctious Garden

8. Steel, C. (2013) Hungry City; Cronon, W. (1991) Nature’s Metropolis

9. Hoornweg et al, op cit.

2 thoughts on “Three Urban Myths

  1. No data to offer from this quarter, sorry.

    I would like to weigh in with a couple thoughts, however.

    As you so eloquently begin – the city and the country are two sides of the same coin. So I’m not persuaded there is really all that much reason to create a rousing debate on their respective merits… so long as people have some control over their lives and the ability to choose one side or the other of this coin.

    So – thoughts on Myth 1:
    Stewart Brand can grandstand for cities if he likes. Others may follow suit if it makes them feel good. You and I may mosey off to a country setting if we choose (and the government allows). Its great to have the means to make the choice. Poverty compromises one’s ability to choose. And when someone is forced from the land (leaving a city dwelling the only place to go) then the debate over country vs city is meaningless to that individual.

    Kudos for the reference to Satterthwaite. I haven’t gotten my hands on the specific article you’ve referred to here, but I have picked up a couple of his other efforts and there is plenty to chew on there. Poverty keeps coming back to the front of the conversation, and one imagines that location (rural vs urban) will continue to be mere backdrop so long as extreme poverty is an issue. If poverty is ameliorated it seems to me the choice between city and country returns to the individual (to some extent), but market forces will still influence how much choice an individual can aspire to.

    On the final point – remittances – someone leaving the family to go elsewhere for wage labor to support family “back home” do seem to fill a middle ground… preventing all family members being forced to follow the migratory path in one direction. Remittances might also serve some as a bridge over troubled water, literally ‘buying’ some time until conditions “back home” improve. Stories coming out of Greece make me think along this line.

    Migration to the city then, doesn’t automatically improve one’s lot. I have to agree with you.

    Thoughts on Myth 2:
    Nicely done. Wealth (the opposite of poverty?) should be factored into the debate. Externalities need to be factored in as well. So environmental footprint doesn’t easily match an individual’s location metric.

    Thoughts on Myth 3:
    This one gets me where I live. And I need to be careful how I talk about this issue. I live at the edge of major metropolitan area. I’ve country friends and relatives who might consider me an urbanite. Likewise I’ve some city friends and family who may look at our humble abode as one step removed from “the middle of nowhere”. From a personal history – this location represents a move from rural toward city and thus I’d recoil from an accusation of being a wealthy city escapee.

    With that as background, I imagine the merits of a debate about which side of the coin might rightly claim the higher ground in terms of ecological consciousness are going to be difficult to measure. Indeed I’m able to point to folks I know personally who seem to fit a “metropolitan disdain” aspect, and I consider them out of touch. I can also find examples near me of country folk who have little or no appreciation for the environment they inhabit. These latter “neighbors” pain me as well. So for me this third myth may well qualify as myth… but I imagine a more important issue comes down to how we communicate with members on both sides of the coin concerning ecological issues and how they can participate in positive outcomes for everyone.

    While I’m soapboxing I thought I’d toss out a mention of Howard Buffet’s book 40 Chances. Howard is the son of billionaire Warren Buffet, and he has been spending (investing) some of Daddy’s fortune around the world to help alleviate hunger. The book is full of personal anecdotes about the foundation’s experiences. I’m not quite finished, but at this point I can highly recommend it.

    • Thanks Clem – all makes sense to me. Interesting observations on your place between the country and the city. I’ll look out for the Buffet book…

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