In the early 19th century London was such an unhealthy place that it couldn’t sustain its population through indigenous births and had to rely upon net in-migration. Its death rate has long since declined to a more acceptable level, but today the capital relies as much as ever on in-migration. About 40% of its current population was born abroad. And foreign-born workers in London constitute more than a third of all foreign-born workers in the UK.

Those facts aren’t much, I realise, to build an entire hypothesis on, but I’m going to give it a go. Hell, there are people out there like Stewart Brand and Erle Ellis who’ve worked with less in trying to convince us that urbanisation is an unalloyed positive.

So here’s my alternative hypothesis to their narrative of joyful urbanisation: Some people want to live in the city and some people don’t, but most people want a secure livelihood. Historically, industrialisation and economic development have been associated with urbanism or urbanisation. Cities were job-creators, built around commerce and industry. So people, in search of that secure livelihood, have tended to go to them, temporarily or permanently. Cities were (and are) also resource sinks, drawing in food and other materials from much wider areas. They thus have an imperial aspect – gravitational centres, as it were, that orient their surroundings to themselves. In some cases, the imperialism is quite localised. In others – like London in its heyday, and apparently still today – it can be global in reach. But the nature of the livelihoods available in the post-industrial city seems to be changing. As I mentioned in a recent post, traditional urban sectors such as heavy industry and port functions are now much less labour intensive, and have also become too large to fit into traditional cities like London. In London, manufacturing is still important (mainly now of food products and clothing), but rising up the list are human and city services – domestic personnel, food retail, hospitality, security, transport, construction, landscape services and so on1.

In other words, cities concentrate people, thereby creating many employment opportunities for people to service other people. So there’s a kind of positive feedback loop of self-reinforcing urban concentration. Meanwhile, London as a so-called ‘world city’, with the benefit of political stability and ratcheting property prices, has increasingly become a playground for the global wealthy. At the same time, the possibilities for cheap accommodation in the city are dwindling – the generation-long onslaught on social housing symbolised most recently by the notorious bedroom tax, the curtailment of private renters’ and squatters’ rights, the closure of loopholes such as narrowboat moorages and heavier planning enforcement of ‘shedrooms’. So there’s a massive squeeze on the living conditions and standard of living of the traditional working class, and quite a squeeze too on the situation of relatively poorly paid middle class workers – teachers, social workers, nurses etc.

I have no idea how all this will play out in the future. But that high level of foreign-born workers is intriguing. It seems to me that cities like London are no longer operating in the way described by classical urban sociology – the slow (and often painful) assimilation of successive waves of migrants into the city’s stable demographic fabric (in London’s case, up to the 1970s, successively Jewish, Irish, Caribbean and South Asian for the most part). The present migrants seem a more provisional and footloose phenomenon than the migrants of the past. They are not necessarily there to stay, but there to earn while they can…largely by servicing the settled population, who rely on them even as they moan about them. On that latter point, there’s clearly a class dimension which is at issue in contemporary politics: the jobs done by migrants service wealthier people the most and tend to undercut the work or the work conditions of the traditional working class. Fortunately, here in the UK we have the political maturity to realise that this is due to structural economic and political factors, and can’t simply be blamed on the migrants themselves – oh, wait. Anyway, should London’s economic fortunes decline, or other cities in other places start to beckon harder, or opportunities in their homelands brighten, or today’s referendum propel Britain out of the EU, then perhaps we could expect London’s migrant population to decrease – with interesting consequences, I’d think, for the life of the city.

Meanwhile, I doubt this situation fosters economic resilience or stability for London. And since the population of Greater London constitutes around 16% of the whole UK population – a pretty high main city/total population ratio when set alongside comparable countries – I also doubt it fosters economic resilience or stability for the UK as a whole. But maybe that has some interesting implications. For one thing, although the UK (or at least England) is one of the more densely populated and heavily urbanised countries of the world, once you take London out of the picture, things start to look more spacious. The southwest region of England where I live has nearly 2 million hectares of farmland and a total population of 5.3 million, with only six cities in the region exceeding populations of 100,000 and only two exceeding 200,000 (Bristol is its largest city, and the tenth largest in the UK, with a population of 400,000). Population density here is 2.9 people per hectare of existing farmland – a contrast with London and the southeast, with 7.5 people per hectare of farmland in that region.

Of course, in reality you can’t just ‘take London out of the picture’. But when I advocate for a smaller scale and more localised agriculture I often come across the kind of objection that runs “Well, that all sounds lovely, but I live in London. How are you going to feed us?” As an ex-Londoner myself – and one, moreover, who has benefitted considerably from its overheated economy – I’m quite sympathetic to that question. Especially if it’s phrased open-endedly rather than as a challenge – less an aggressive ‘how are you going to feed us?’, and more a plaintive ‘how are you going to feed us?’ This is something I’m going to look at more closely in my upcoming posts.

Perhaps a more subversive implication of this line of thought would question London’s overdevelopment. Big (or biggish) cities undoubtedly have a role to play in concentrating various administrative, educational and commercial functions, although much of their old commercial-industrial raison d’être has now gone. But do we need a city of 8 million in a country of 63 million? How much of that population concentration has resulted from old patterns of development and the positive feedback loop I mentioned earlier? How many of those wealthy Londoners being serviced by not-so-wealthy migrants can a just and sustainable society afford? There are those who argue that by promoting ease of interaction, large cities display ‘super-linear power scaling with total population’2 – that is, they create economic activity disproportionate to their size. This hypothesis has been strongly disputed, even in its own terms empirically3, quite apart from the question of whether super-linear power scaling is such a great thing anyway when the case for degrowth is mounting. Indeed, others have argued that the fractal pattern of super-sized cities represents an instability in a complex system operating far from equilibrium4. I wonder if these competing perspectives are over-mathematizations. Perhaps in imputing some kind of ordained and intrinsic trajectory to city development they efface the way it emerges from the self-interested policies of states and their elites. Might it be time for policymakers to start thinking about ways of trimming back the hyperdevelopment of large cities like London in service of wider interests?

The situation is different in the growing megacities of the global south, though there are various similarities. One of them is the same basic imperialism that underlies their prodigious growth – a local imperialism of the city bleeding its rural hinterlands, and a global imperialism associated with institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, whose structural adjustment programs geared to opening markets for global free trade in agricultural commodities (allied with the utter hypocrisy of the US and the EU in continuing to subsidise their own agricultures) gave many peasants and rural poor people few other options. Despite the blandishments of Brand, Ellis and other urban advocates about the advantages of urban residence for poor people in the global south, I still haven’t seen any compelling evidence to suggest that it provides a solid route out of poverty for many, though I’m still open to persuasion. I suspect there may be a historical fallacy here: because urbanisation was associated with economic growth in various historic and contemporary cases (Europe, USA and, perhaps more problematically, China), it’s assumed that urbanisation is a necessary and sufficient condition for development. I’m not so sure. And I think there’s a road not taken here which is worth exploring – endogenous rural development.

But it’s hard to broach such possibilities because of our modernist romance with the idea of the city. In a Twitter exchange, Haroon Akram-Lodhi, whose work I greatly respect, pointed me to Katherine Boo’s amazing book about a Mumbai slum, Behind The Beautiful Forevers as an example of how ‘vibrant’ slum life is. The book certainly shows the ingenuity and tenacity that people in desperate circumstances display in getting by from day to day, which I suppose you could choose to call ‘vibrant’. But to me it also shows the violence, despair, corruption and systematic unfairness of slum life that makes it virtually impossible for all but a lucky few to escape. It’s not that the countryside is necessarily much different. Indeed, in most poor countries rural people are poorer on average than city people. But, leaving aside the question of how valid measures of poverty across the two settings are, it doesn’t follow that moving to the city will improve the lot of the rural poor. I’ve not yet seen convincing evidence for economic acceleration which is intrinsically related to urbanism per se.

Cities have a pretty impressive track record historically of achieving long-term imperialistic control. So I wouldn’t be surprised if places like London and Mumbai carry on their merry way long into the future, controlling the flows of people and resources over large distances, essentially in accordance with the whims of their established elites. But perhaps, if we listen hard, we might just catch a few strains of a requiem playing for them on the horizon of the future. Because what we really need is smaller, tighter cities that are more mutualistically geared to the needs of the wider society of which they form a part. And when it becomes clear, as I think it probably will, that the imperial mega-cities of the modern age are loading the dice against the displaced multitudes of their peripheries, who knows what kind of radical shakedowns of the country and the city might await?

References

1. http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/briefings/migrants-uk-labour-market-overview

2. West, G. and Bettencourt, L. 2011. Bigger Cities Do More with Less: New Science Reveals Why Cities Become More Productive and Efficient as They Grow. Scientific American. 305, 3: 44-45.

3. Shalizi, C. 2011. ‘Scaling and hierarchy in urban economies’. PNAS.

4. Orrell, D. 2012. Economyths, Icon, pp.93-4.

Photo credit: By Duncan Harris from Nottingham, UK – Fox Trot, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21255634