Airbnb turning cities into villages?

The CEO of Airbnb argues his company is reversing the effects of urbanization:

“Cities used to be generally villages, and everyone was essentially kind of like an entrepreneur,” he said at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “You were either a farmer, or you worked in the city as a blacksmith, or you had some kind of trade. And then the Industrial Revolution happened.” World War II followed, and “suddenly cities became more and more mass-produced. And we stopped trusting our neighbors.”…

“At the most macro level, I think we’re going to go back to the village, and cities will become communities again,” he added. “I’m not saying they’re not communities now, but I think that we’ll have this real sensibility and everything will be small. You’re not going to have big chain restaurants. We’re starting to see farmers’ markets, and small restaurants, and food trucks. But pretty soon, restaurants will be in people’s living rooms.”…

Chesky hopes these transformations will make us question the strange way we parcel out trust. “You trust people more than you trust anything in life—if you know them,” he noted. “You’ll trust your mother, your sister, your daughter, you’ll trust your friends. You’ll trust them more than big governments, big corporations. But a stranger—you’ll trust less than anybody.” Chesky’s question: Why?…

What I find most interesting, though, is that Chesky sees village-like networks sprouting in cities at a time when urbanization is also going in the polar opposite direction. More than half of the world currently lives in cities, and the United Nations predicts that two-thirds of the global population will be urban-dwellers by 2050. In 2011, there were 23 “megacities” of at least 10 million people around the world. By 2050, there will be 37. It’s possible that as cities balloon to overwhelming sizes, we’re coping by carving out smaller communities. But it’s also possible that the phenomenon Chesky is describing is primarily playing out in Western countries. After all, Asia, where Airbnb has a relatively small presence, will account for most new megacities in the coming decades.

I can’t decide whether this is a blatant case of boosterism for his product or some naive thinking about countering the mass process of urbanization. This line of thinking about the differences between villages and cities motivated numerous early sociological thinkers: Marx focused on the effects of industrialization in cities, Durkheim looked at mechanic and organic solidarity as well as the increasingly specialized division of labor, Weber emphasized bureaucracy and rationalization in modern society, and Simmel worried about the effects on individuals. They all saw a big shift taking place and we’re still experiencing the process as well as its effects today.

Yet, haven’t cities always contained some village-like features? Think of the romantic notions about neighborhoods, whether emphasized in a place like Chicago with its 77 community areas or Jane Jacobs’ celebration of Greenwich Village-type places. These smaller units allow residents to know some people closely and to participate in local life. Airbnb might do some of this by erasing some of these traditional geographic boundaries and allowing people to connect. But, it doesn’t necessarily lead to long-term interactions that build up community life.

All together, urbanization is a process with profound effects on everyone. Even suburbanites who think they have escaped urban ills are intimately tied to urbanization through their residence in metropolitan regions.

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