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The Social Impacts Of Urbanization

It is now widely accepted that urbanization is as much a social process as it is an economic and territorial process. It transforms societal organizations, the role of the family, demographic structures, the nature of work, and the way we choose to live and with whom. It also modifies domestic roles and relations within the family, and redefines concepts of individual and social responsibility.

Fertility rates. Initially, the societal shift from rural to urban alters rates of natural population increase. There are no recorded examples of where this has not been true. Contrary to public perception, however, it first reduces the death rate, despite the often appalling living conditions in many cities, as in, for example, nineteenth-century Europe and North America and in present-day cities in the developing world (Smith 1996). Only later does urbanization reduce the birth rate (i.e. the fertility rate). The time lag between declining death and birth rates initially means rapid urban population growth; subsequently, fertility rates drop sharply and the rate of growth of urban populations declines.

As a result, families become smaller relatively quickly, not only because parents have fewer children on average, but also because the extended family typical of rural settings is much less common in urban areas. Children are clearly less useful in urban settlements, as units of labor and producers, than in rural settings, and are more expensive to house and feed. In fact, fertility levels in developed countries have dropped so low that cities are seldom capable of reproducing their own populations. They grow, if at all, largely through in-migration from other cities or from rural areas—the latter is now a largely depleted source of population in Western countries—and increasingly through immigration.

Ironically, overpopulation in the Third World and historically low fertility levels in developed countries have combined to produce a massive immigration into those cities in the latter countries that serve as contemporary immigrant gateways or world cities (Sassen 2001; Castles and Miller 1998). Those cities, in turn, have been transformed, in social and ethno-cultural terms, as a result of this immigration (Polese and Stren 2000).

Families and living arrangements. The evolution to an urban society is also frequently equated with a decline in the status of the family, and with a proliferation of nontraditional family forms and new types of households. By nontraditional we mean those families without two parents and/or without children. This trend is in part a reflection of an increasing diversity in "choices of living arrangements." This concept is used in the scholarly literature to refer to the myriad of ways in which individuals in an urban society combine to form collective units (i.e., households). Those combinations may follow from marriage, the traditional arrangement, or from any other association of individuals within the housing system whether those individuals are related by marriage or blood, or are unrelated.

Historically, of course, living arrangements in the past or in rural areas were never as homogeneous or traditional as the literature would have us believe. Nevertheless, the last half-century, notably in the Western countries, has witnessed an explosion in rates of household formation and a sharp increase in the diversity of household and family types. For most of the period since World War II, rates of household formation—that is, the propensity to establish a separate household—has been much higher (indeed 50% higher) than the rate of population growth, and the rate of nonfamily household formation (whose members are not related by blood or marriage) has been higher still. This proliferation has many causes, including rising incomes, higher divorce rates, lower marriage rates, and alternative life styles.

The highest propensities to form separate households, however, have been within two principal groups: the young and the elderly. The former includes single parents, the most rapidly growing household type in Western cities; the growth of the latter has been facilitated by increased longevity and improved health and social benefits. In previous generations, and in most rural societies, many of these individuals would have shared accommodation, often as part of extended family groupings. The result, again with respect to Western countries, is that average family size is now fewer than four persons, while average household size is fewer than three. In many older central cities, in fact, average household size is below two persons. This is in part a sign of success, reflecting improvements in housing and in our ability to afford to live alone, but it also reflects dramatic changes in how we choose to live and in our attitudes to marriage, family life, and social responsibility.

Links to labor markets. This diversity in living arrangements and family composition in urban societies is also closely linked to shifts in the world of work—in the urban economy and in occupations. Not only does urbanization involve obvious changes in employment and working life, it alters the relationships between households (the collective units of consumption) and labor markets (the production sector). Individuals work and earn wages, but it is households (and families) that spend those earnings. Thus, the composition of families and households influences the changing well-being of the individuals in those households as much as the occupational status of its members.

Two countervailing processes are at work here in reshaping the linkages between living arrangement and work. One is that over the last half century the proportion of the population in the labor force—that is, the participation rate—has increased, especially among married women. Historically, of course, women always had full-time jobs in pre-urban societies, but through the process of urbanization much of that work became marginalized as "domestic" (and unpaid) work. Second, the decline in average household size has tended to fragment the incomes of consuming units, usually meaning fewer wage earners per household. One rather obvious result of this intersection of changes in family composition and the labor market has been a deeper polarization in economic well-being among urban populations, which is especially marked between households with two or more workers and those with none.

Domestic relations. Such labor market changes are also interrelated, as cause and effect, with shifts in domestic relations inside the household and family. The impact of these changes have been most obvious for married women. Not only has their involvement in the formal (paid) labor market increased, but so too has their economic position within the family. This gives women more autonomy in decision making, but it has not been without drawbacks. For many women the challenge of balancing work, domestic responsibilities, and the imperatives of everyday urban life, have increased, not decreased. Smaller families, and the dispersion of extended families in contemporary urbanized societies, have in combination also reduced the level of kinship support systems available to these women.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaModern Marriage & Family IssuesUrbanization - The Urbanization Process, The Social Impacts Of Urbanization, The Urban Future