Study suggests cities and farming began more than 40,000 years ago

A recent study suggests cities may have started much earlier:

For centuries, archaeologists believed that ancient people couldn’t live in tropical jungles. The environment was simply too harsh and challenging, they thought. As a result, scientists simply didn’t look for clues of ancient civilizations in the tropics. Instead, they turned their attention to the Middle East, where we have ample evidence that hunter-gatherers settled down in farming villages 9,000 years ago during a period dubbed the “Neolithic revolution.” Eventually, these farmers’ offspring built the ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the great pyramids of Egypt. It seemed certain that city life came from these places and spread from there around the world.

But now that story seems increasingly uncertain. In an article published in Nature Plants, Max Planck Institute archaeologist Patrick Roberts and his colleagues explain that cities and farms are far older than we think. Using techniques ranging from genetic sampling of forest ecosystems and isotope analysis of human teeth, to soil analysis and lidar, the researchers have found ample evidence that people at the equator were actively changing the natural world to make it more human-centric.

It all started about 45,000 years ago. At that point, people began burning down vegetation to make room for plant resources and homes. Over the next 35,000 years, the simple practice of burning back forest evolved. People mixed specialized soils for growing plants; they drained swamps for agriculture; they domesticated animals like chickens; and they farmed yam, taro, sweet potato, chili pepper, black pepper, mango, and bananas…

“The tropics demonstrate that where we draw the lines of agriculture and urbanism can be very difficult to determine. Humans were clearly modifying environments and moving even small animals around as early as 20,000 years ago in Melanesia, they were performing the extensive drainage of landscapes at Kuk Swamp to farm yams [and] bananas… From a Middle East/European perspective, there has always been a revolutionary difference (“Neolithic revolution”) between hunter gatherers and farmers, [but] the tropics belie this somewhat.”

Two things strike me:

  1. The article suggests that this finding just occurred now because scholars assumed it wasn’t worth examining the tropics. This happens more often than researchers want to admit: we explore certain phenomena for certain reasons and this may blind us to other phenomena or explanations. In a perfect world, there would be so many researchers that everything could be covered and research that rules out explanations or shows a lack of phenomena would be valued more highly.
  2. That cities and agriculture took a longer time to develop does not seem too surprising. The shift to more anchored lives – tied to farming and larger population centers – would have been quite a change. Arguably, the world is still going through this process with the pace of urbanization increasing tremendously in the last century and nations and cities desperately trying to catch up.

Now that scientists are looking into this matter, hopefully we get a more complete understanding soon.

Katie Couric: “Urbanization explained”

In a little under three minutes, Katie Couric explains urbanization. Here is some of the text that goes along with the video:

Bright lights, big cities are getting bigger and brighter. Urbanization — the expansion of cities — is on the rise. People across the globe are heading into urban areas looking for work, education and health care. Others arrive, fleeing wars and natural disasters. They turn to the city life for better living and more opportunities…

Without the proper planning, the rapid increase in urban areas, especially in developing countries where most growth is happening, can lead to some big problems. The World Economic Forum has identified the biggest challenges, from health to poverty to pollution to outmoded transportation…

Governments are faced with the challenges of properly preparing cities for these popping populations by following health guidelines, making housing affordable, funding infrastructure projects and investing in mass transit and alternative energy sources to give Mother Nature a break.

But, still, cities are hot spots for cultural development and economic opportunity. So whether you’re a country mouse or a city slicker, when it comes to urbanization, at least you can say, “Now I get it.”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The story is broken into three parts: the rapid population increase in cities, the peril of these growing cities, and some of the promise of cities. Explain the term, describe some of the problems this causes, and hint at some good things about cities.
  2. A good portion of this is devoted to the difficulties that arise with rapidly growing cities. These are real issues – though they have been going on for decades and will likely continue in the future – that need big solutions. Yet, few solutions are offered or nor is there any suggestion how cities might be part of the solution rather than simply present more issues. And, why put the big issues ahead of the promise of cities which only comes at the end? If the majority of the world’s people are going to be in cities within the next few decades and the majority of the world’s GDP is there as well, could cities be both perilous and promising? As the viewer, should I be fearful of what these global megacities bring (epidemics, climate change, etc.)?
  3. There are some interesting cultural references in here such as country mouse and city mouse as well as country boy (or girl) versus city slickers. These simply seem outdated to me; in 2015, how many people really use these terms? While urbanization is happening at an impressive rate around the world, it already took place in the United States with now more than 80% of the population living in metropolitan areas.

Approaching drastic water rationing in Sao Paulo

One downside of rapid urban growth is illustrated in Brazil where drastic water rationing may start soon:

In São Paulo, the country’s largest city with a metropolitan area of 20 million people, the main reservoir is at just 6 percent of capacity with the peak of the rainy season now past…

After January rains disappointed, and incentives to cut consumption fell short, São Paulo officials warned their next step could be to shut off customers’ water supply for as many as five days a week – a measure that would likely last until the next rainy season starts in October, if not longer.

State officials say they have not yet decided whether or when to implement such rationing, in part because they are still hoping for heavy rains in February and March. Indeed, thunderstorms in recent days have caused lakes to rise a bit.

Still, independent projections suggest that São Paulo’s main Cantareira reservoir could run out of water as soon as April without drastic cuts to consumption.

While this problem may seem far away, I imagine numerous big cities around the world would face major problems in addressing a shortage of certain resources if something “out of the ordinary” – whether weather or changing political conditions – occurred. Wealthier big cities are expected at the most basic level to have water, electricity, sewers, and other features of modern infrastructure but these could be threatened by a variety of factors. And while the article notes that residents and institutions are scrambling to meet the crisis, cities should have some sort of long-term planning for some of these foreseeable issues.

“The ideal commute is not actually no commute” relies on the separation of home and work

Eric Jaffe looks at some evidence that suggests Americans want a bit of a commute to detox from work:

To want a longer trip to or from work may seem strange, if not pathologically self-loathing, when considering all that’s known about the stresses and health hazards of commuting. Still, I’m not entirely alone here. You might think the ideal commute is no commute, but when you actually ask commuters, that isn’t always what they say. In a memorable Washington Post piece from years back, tracking the affection some commuters have for their home-to-office-and-back trip, one man “cursed with a three-minute drive to his job” wished he had some “time to detox”…

A classic study from 2001, conducted by Lothlorien Redmond and Patricia Mokhtarian, asked roughly 1,300 workers in the San Francisco area to report both their “actual” and their “ideal” commute times. The researchers found that the average one-way ideal was actually 16 minutes. Nearly a third of the respondents reported an ideal one-way time of 20 minutes or more. Less than 2 percent reported an ideal under 4 minutes, and only 1.2 percent reported an ideal commute of zero commute...

Now, that’s the exception, not the rule. Redmond and Mokhtarian did find that most respondents, nearly 52 percent, preferred a commute at least 5 minutes shorter than their actual one (which, on average for these folks, was 40 minutes). But 87 people in the sample, or nearly 7 percent, had an ideal commute that was at least 5 minutes longer than their actual commute (which, in this case, was 10 minutes, on average). For the 42 percent of participants whose actual and ideal trips were more or less the same, the average commute was 15 minutes, one way. It seems a quarter hour is something like a preferred commuter constant…

More recent attempts to understand commuter desires have uncovered plenty of nuance. Mode obviously matters. Some work suggests that drivers find their commute more stressful than others, on account of traffic, unexpected delays, and the existence of other drivers. Transit riders can feel some stress, too, especially when the train or bus is delayed, and they also have to worry more about boredom (though that’s quickly becoming obsolete). Walkers and cyclists report the most relaxing and exciting trips.

The type of day you’ve had matters, too. One study, published late last year, recorded trip diaries of 76 commuters over a five-day period. When the demands of the work day were low, the detachment commuters felt during the trip home didn’t influence their anxiety levels once they got there (accounting for travel time). But on days with lots of stress at work, the opposite was true: more detachment on the commute meant less anxiety—and more serenity—upon getting home.

All of this makes some sense within the current system where many people work in a more corporate setting (don’t underestimate the connections between large social changes and the rise of the modern white-collar office) and live within more sprawling metropolitan regions.

Yet, this is based on a social system where work and home are typically separated. This hasn’t always been the case throughout human history. Centuries ago, many people lived and worked within the same building or property. In other words, this idea that you go somewhere to work didn’t really exist. In Crabgrass Frontier, historian Kenneth Jackson describes how even as late as 1815 49 out of 50 workers lived within a one mile walk of their place of employment. Home and work continued to get pulled apart during the Industrial Revolution as well as the urbanization that affected developing countries.

Talk of having no commute for most workers has existed for several decades due to the possibilities for telecommuting. (Granted, this option is more restricted for certain kinds of jobs, particularly in service and manual labor sectors.) Still, many businesses and workers continue to want to go to an office and so we’ll continue to participate in and analyze commutes.

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.

Cross-section of Hong Kong’s 50,000 residents in 290,000 square feet

Here is a detailed cross-section of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City which had some unbelievable population densities:

Though it was demolished over two decades ago, Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City is still emblematic of the kind of intense overcrowding usually seen in dystopian science fiction, so much so that to this day it inspires post-mortem maps, renderings in Lego, even Japanese arcades. At the height of its growth, the largely unsupervised encampment that the South China Morning Post once called “a lawless vacuum” where brothels and gambling hubs “operated with impunity” once crammed some 50,000 residents—all of them essentially squatters—into an area of about 290,000 square feet. Just before the complex was razed, a Japanese team created an amazingly detailed cross-section, recently turned up by Architizer and pictured in full below…

The complex comprised some 500 buildings, affording an average of about 40 square feet per person. In the center bloc pictured above, a resident tears down an interior wall with a pickaxe, while some kind of industrial kitchen operates in a room below…

Trash collects in-between buildings and electrical wiring snakes down the sides. In an alleyway, a man uses an umbrella to shield himself from a dripping water pipe…

The government managed to evict the residents of the Walled City in 1992, and it was leveled in 1993. The spot where it used to stand, not too far from Zaha Hadid’s Innovation Tower, has been turned into a park. Above, construction begins on the rooftop, in the middle of a panoply of T.V. antennae.

A reminder of some of the conditions people in expanding big cities face around the world due to a lack of resources and space. And still these cities continue to grow as there is a lack of opportunities elsewhere…

Does urbanization in America explain the declining deaths by lightning strike?

Here is an interesting research question: is urbanization responsible for the sharp decline in Americans who die by lightning strike each year?

In the lightning-death literature, one explanation has gained prominence: urbanization. Lightning death rates have declined in step with the rural population, and rural lightning deaths make up a far smaller percent of all lightning deaths. Urban areas afford more protection from lightning. Ergo, urbanization has helped make people safer from lightning. Here’s a graph showing this, neat and clean:

And a competing perspective:

I spoke with Ronald Holle, a meteorologist who studies lightning deaths, and he agreed that modernization played a significant role. “Absolutely,” he said. Better infrastructure in rural areas—not just improvements to homes and buildings, but improvements to farming equipment too has—made rural regions safer today than they were in the past. Urbanization seems to explain some of the decline, but not all of it.

“Rural activities back then were primarily agriculture, and what we call labor-intensive manual agriculture. Back then, my family—my grandfather and his father before that in Indiana—had a team of horses, and it took them all day to do a 20-acre field.” Today, a similar farmer would be inside a fully-enclosed metal-topped vehicle, which offers excellent lightning protection. Agriculture has declined as a percent of total lightning-death-related activities, as the graph below shows, but unfortunately it does not show the per capita lightning-death rate of people engaged in agriculture.

Sounds like more data is needed! I wonder how long it would take to collect the relevant information versus the payoff of the findings…

More broadly, this hints at how human interactions with nature has changed, even in relatively recent times: we are more insulated from the effects of weather and nature. During the recent cold snap in the area, I was reminded of an idea I had a few years ago to explain why so many adults seem to talk about the weather. Could it be related to the fact that the weather is perhaps the most notable thing on a daily basis that is outside of our control? As 21st century humans, we control a lot that is in front of us (or at least we think we do) but can do little about what the conditions will be like outside. We have more choices than ever about how to respond but it prompts responses from everyone, from the poor to the wealthy, the aged to the young.