Economic development and the effects of urbanisation

The functions of cities

Cities have always been the places where surplus wealth can be created and/or stored. They started as centres for organising agricultural production, trading surplus agricultural produce and administering the rural area round about. Then, over time, as cities grew, they attracted further functions as labour become more specialised and jobs become more precisely differentiated.

Functions of major cities

  • Trading
  • Administration
  • Transport
  • Religion
  • Education
  • Health care
  • Arts and entertainment
  • manufacturing
  • insurance
  • banking
  • publishing
  • media
  • science
  • defence
  • policing
  • diplomacy

Most of the functions above can only take place in a large community where division of labour is possible and where not everyone has to concentrate on producing food and shelter for most of their time. On the other hand as cities grow and attract more and more people they can develop an increasingly wider range of functions, with jobs that become more and more specialised.

What caused rapid urbanisation in Europe?

In Europe, during the industrial Revolution f the 18th and 19th centuries a number of developments occurred around the same time that allowed cities to grow larger than they ever had in the past. These included:

  • the agricultural revolution and the enclosure movement which led to loss of work on the land but also produced a surplus of food that could be transported to the towns to feed their growing population
  • the invention of industrial processes that led to the development of the factory system, where production was concentrated close to sources of power, drawing in labour from the countryside
  • new forms of power, so that coal took the place of water power, concentrating industry in the mining areas rather than having it spread along rivers
  • improved transport systems: canals at first, followed by railways and later by motorised road transport
  • gradual improvements in medicine, hygiene and public health, which allowed large numbers of people to live in close proximity without leading to the inevitable spread of disease

The problems of rapid urbanisation

The processes mentioned above led to the rapid urbanisation of the populations of many of the countries of Western Europe and North America. Unfortunately the processes did not operate in a smooth, synchronise way. Urbanisation often led to great hardships and to dreadful conditions for people in both the new towns and the countryside. At some stages the people in both the new towns and the countryside. At some stages the loss of jobs in farming led to large numbers of rural poor; at other times migration to the towns outstripped the demand for labour or produced a swollen workforce and depressed wage rates, Rural-to-urban migration led to massive overcrowding ad slum housing.

Since the mid-20th century, urbanisation has been taking place most rapidly in South America, Asia and Africa. New megacities include Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Shanghai, Cairo an Nairobi, and there are many other millionaire cities.

As with cities in Europe during the Industrial Revolution, urbanisation in the developing world has not been a smoothly planned process. Many people have been pushed from the countryside by poverty, unemployment, hunger and lock of opportunity; and pulled to the cities by the hope of well paid jobs, or at least the hope that they would be able to survive in the informal economy. Unfortunately, there is often a shortage of work or, at best, only very poorly paid work, and there is still a lack of housing and other infrastructure such as education, health care, sewers and water supply.

However in many cities of the developing world, urbanisation has provided opportunities for economic development as shown in the study of Mumbai –