Sunday, January 08, 2012

Urbanisation, and a Japanese Curiosity

I come from the hippie era that disdained cities and glorified carrots and goats.  Not that I've raised carrots or goats myself, but I've kept a residual sense of contempt for high-rises, parking meters, and all the noise. 

We did almost go the full rural route early on, and it hovered in the conversation until the mid-80's, but we eventually settled into a largely small-town/suburban lifestyle.  We talk about whether moving back into the city would be reasonable for retirement, but there's a lot not to like about it.  It depends on where and how, I suppose.

Thus it is with some reluctance that I am convinced by the argument that urbanisation in a country is a good thing, and that absent artificial encouragements by government (such as mortgage deductions, agri subsidies, grants and programs that prop up marginal endeavors), the natural flow of youth and talent is to cities, and that's a good thing. Less ecological disruption, efficiencies of scale, etc.

Note that in these discussions, it is often unclear whether edge cities are considered as part of the discussion or not, and that single factor changes nearly everything. Researchers whose conclusions seem planets apart might actually be in essential agreement, and arguments that have escalated to threat level might be about details. 

Also left vague is what sort of countries urbanisation is good for: All of them? Third World? Free Market?

With that in mind, note that Japanese cities continue to prosper despite the birth dearth and the yearly predictions that the whole country is going to collapse.  There are places in the provinces that are collapsing - and the pictures are a touch disquieting - but the Japanese don't seem to mind all that much.

It raises very interesting questions about what a "good" economy is.  GDP is a measure of growth and fluidity, but may not capture the idea of stable wealth in a community, nor the technological improvements we all share but look like 0% growth.


karrde said...

One difference: Japan is a culture that has a very strong sense of collectiveness.

This may be an Oriental (Japanese/Korean/Chinese) trait, and not just a Japanese trait.

But that cultural trait would promote bringing people into the big city, and care very little about dying/dead towns in the hinterlands.

karrde said...

One stray thought: nearly a decade ago, I saw a series of photographs online.

The photos were likely taken during a bus-tour of Chernobyl, though the photo-taker claimed she had gotten permission to tour the area herself, on her motorcycle. (The photographer originally had a different website, but currently keeps a site at

Those photos are more depressing than this photo series from Japan. But they have some similarities, in their exploration of things left behind in abandoned areas.

Grandma Bee said...

The Nat'l Geographic had an article singing the praises of cities for the same reasons mentioned here. I see two glaring problems that the Nat Geo didn't address, and I'd like to know if somebody else has thought of these:
1. Where in a big city are children going to get free play in nature? You're not allowed to climb trees in most public parks, or dig for worms, or put in your own patch of tomatoes. Kids spend way too much time indoors as it is, with their butts planted in front of electronics. Kids desperately need to get out in nature and experiment. It's a matter of emotional and mental development that cannot be addressed in a school setting.
2. A lot of the people who point to Asian cities as examples are missing a serious cultural problem. Asian urban populations put tremendous amounts of pressure on kids in schools. The hellacious One Child Policy in particular puts tremendous pressure on kids because the kids carry the expectations of two parents and four grandparents. The school system drains the kids of energy; I know of a number of middle schoolers in Beijing who have maybe two hours a week to themselves, if it isn't full of homework. I know a lot of Chinese families and I see the heavy impact of the pressure of the Asian school systems and the family duties piled one one small pair of shoulders. The suicide rate among young people is a serious issue in these places.
So do the people singing the praises of these urban systems know what the hell they're doing to the kids?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Grandma Bee, anytime you start kicking NG here, you are going to get pats on the back and people willing to stand you a drink. Perhaps this is because so many of us loved what it was in our youth, and are sorry to see its decline into the Green Bible, Illustrated.

The pressure on Asian students is a cultural thing, and I find it a way they attempt to game the systems of school and work. They already have the smarts and the energy - most of the effort is wasted. Still, they are who they are, and perhaps that's how they got there over the centuries. You might find Steve Sailer interesting on that score.

As to children, I agree they are often subtly left out of these calculations. I'm not particular about the worms and tomatoes - any moving through space on one's own will do, I think. I grew up in a mill city and had plenty of that (plus worms). Being driven around in suburbs may be worse for one's independence of action (I had that, too). I'm all for the electronics, though.

Texan99 said...

I lived my whole life in Houston before we moved to this semi-rural area about seven years ago. I worried at first whether I'd miss the big city. Houston's not a great example, of course, but there were restaurants, ethnic food, theaters, music, etc. Several years ago, I did take on some work that made it convenient to take an apartment in Houston for the many nights I needed to stay there during the week. The apartment was in one of the new "midtown" areas that have sprung up near downtown, with lodging above street-level shops and restaurants. It was pretty great to be able to walk to a variety of commercial establishments like that.

I still prefer it out here in the trees. I figured, if I missed that stuff all that much, I could make trips back. The urge hasn't overwhelmed me enough to make me forget the endless parking lots and ugly buildings. Even the siren song of San Antonio, an equally close city and much more beautiful than Houston, has proved easy to resist.