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.

“A staggering migration” of hundreds of millions to Chinese cities

A New York Times video highlights the large number of Chinese residents the government intends to resettle to cities in the new two decades. Three quick thoughts on the video:

1. Yes, the scale of urbanization in China is astounding. As the video notes, China’s urbanization rate has approached Western levels in a matter of decades while it took centuries in the West.

2. The video argues that the rapid urbanization in recent years was more natural while the planned urbanization in the next 15 years is more forced by the government. I think this is an odd choice of words: “natural” versus “forced.” This seems to borrow from a typical US/Western explanation that people are free to make choices between urban, suburban, and rural areas. It may feel this way for those with money but it obscures that there are plenty of social forces, such as economic opportunities or race/ethnicity, that “push” and “pull” people away from certain areas. “Forced” seems more correct for official government policy that will require people to move but as a sociologist, I would be very hesitant to suggest social process were inevitable or “natural” or that individuals are complete free agents who can live where they like.

3. The visual in the video is unique. I understand the purpose: to give people the sense of just how large this urban resettlement in China will be. And it is visually more interesting than a graph. At the same time, it is odd to put so many major metropolitan areas in a line. The cities are geographically disparate so why line them up?

Sociological views of the village in India

A review of a new volume on the Indian village provides some insights into how the village is viewed:

AT a time when the general disenchantment with village life appears to be the spirit of new India, the editing of a volume on village society is definitely an act of intellectual courage and professional commitment. We keep hearing scholarly pronouncements on the declining sociological significance of the village and village studies. We are told that the Indian village is no longer a site where future can be planned. Rather, it is an area of darkness – full of despair, indignation, filth and squalor, and mindless violence…

Interestingly, for the urban Indian, the village has always been more than a simple social morphological other to a town or a city. The village has not merely been despised for its lack of electricity and other modern amenities; it has also been perceived as a burden on the national conscience because of its abstract moralised qualities of backwardness, bigotry, illiteracy, superstition, and a general lack of civilisation and culture. For the children and grandchildren of “Midnight’s Children”, the village continues to be emblematic of the rustic world of thumb-impression (angutha-chaap) country bumpkins. At any rate, unparh gavar (illiterate yokel) can hardly be a worthy role model for a nation as aspiring as ours. In a way, the decline of the village in the creative imagination of Indians in recent decades is almost complete…

Put differently, it is time we treated the village as an explanandum in sociological research. We cannot go on assuming the village as the container par excellence of the larger processes of rural-agrarian social change. It never was. The introduction brings out in lucid prose the historicity of the study of rural society. It demonstrates that, for long, the study of the village has been an abiding preoccupation of sociologists/social anthropologists in India. So much so that “village studies” came to stand for Indian sociology in the initial decades of its growth and development as an academic discipline.

In course of time, the village attained paradigmatic status as a template of indigenous society and economy, and village studies very often came to be projected as a shorthand for knowing and understanding Indian society by both professional sociologists and the intelligentsia. The efflorescence of village studies, as a distinctive disciplinary tradition of inquiry, is testimony to the considerable analytical and theoretical significance that the village and the studies of the village enjoyed for more than a century and a half.

Three thoughts:

1. It would be interesting to know how the view of the village in India compares to how villages are viewed in other developing cultures. In places where mass urbanization is currently taking place, are there countries where the village is viewed more positively?

2. I was asked a while back about rural sociology. This subfield has really declined and only a few schools still specialize in it. I assume this is partly because the United States has become an urban nation (80% of Americans live in urban areas). Yet, rural places are still important, particularly in other countries (like India) where rapid changes are taking place.

3. This is a reminder that big city life (living in places with more than a million people) is a relatively recent development in human history. Even in developed countries, this has only become common in the last 120 years or so. We may like our cities but most humans have lived in smaller settings. This change was so remarkable during the Industrial Revolution that it helped give rise to the discipline of sociology.

Even in economic crisis people are still drawn to New York City

Even in the midst of tough economic times, plenty of people are still drawn to New York City:

So what is it that lures us here and keeps us beholden? Recently, the opportunity arguments have been harder to sustain. In March of last year, the unemployment rate in the city stood at 8.6 percent; 12 months later it jumped to 9.8 percent. Nationally, the unemployment rate has declined during the past year, to 8.1 percent in April.

But the past few years, defined by economic challenges, have seemed only to burnish the city’s appeal. An analysis of American Community Survey data by Susan Weber-Stoger of the Queens College Department of Sociology reveals that more people moved to New York City (over 223,000 of them a year on average) after the financial crisis in 2008 and through 2010 than did from 2005 to 2007, an increase of 10 percent.

Simultaneously, the number of people who have left the city since the recession decreased by 25 percent. Of those who have come, most have been from 25 to 34 years old, more than two-thirds of them with college or graduate degrees. More than a third of those who’ve arrived have come from abroad.

When I discussed some of these numbers with Miriam Greenberg, a sociologist who has written extensively about the branding of New York, she cited the highly strategized efforts the current mayoral administration has made to sell the city to the world. This may explain, in some sense, why people have come, but it doesn’t tell us why they remain, with their Zipcar memberships and disillusions.

If I had to venture a guess why this is the case, I might make this argument: New York City (and other big cities) are viewed as places where opportunities are. Even if the unemployment rate is higher (and I doubt many people checked before going there), the assumption is that there are more jobs to be had and there is a broader range of jobs available (particularly compared to smaller cities or more rural areas). Therefore, the potential for a good job is higher. This is process that is not unique to the United States; the incredible rates of urbanization around the world are also partly due to perceptions that cities may be the only places where jobs are available.

We could also flip this question around: should cities try to attract more people if there are not enough jobs for everyone? Greenberg suggests that the city has effectively marketed itself but in the long run, is this a sustainable strategy if there are not jobs (and other needs such as housing) for everyone who comes?

New Census figures: population 80.7% urban, most dense cities in the West

The US Census Bureau released Monday some figures about cities in America. Here are the updated 2010 statistics about urbanization:

 The nation’s urban population increased by 12.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, outpacing the nation’s overall growth rate of 9.7 percent for the same period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau…
Urban areas — defined as densely developed residential, commercial and other nonresidential areas — now account for 80.7 percent of the U.S. population, up from 79.0 percent in 2000. Although the rural population — the population in any areas outside of those classified as “urban” — grew by a modest amount from 2000 to 2010, it continued to decline as a percentage of the national population.

Translation: the proportion of Americans living in urban areas didn’t change very much over the last 10 years. In comparison, the urban population jumped 6% from 1970 to 1980, 3% from 1980 to 1990, and 3% from 1990 to 2000 (see figures on pg. 33 of this Census document). Does this mean we are nearing a plateau in terms of the proportion of Americans living in urban areas?

And here are the new figures for the densest metropolitan areas:

The nation’s most densely populated urbanized area is Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, Calif., with nearly 7,000 people per square mile. The San Francisco-Oakland, Calif., area is the second most densely populated at 6,266 people per square mile, followed by San Jose, Calif. (5,820 people per square mile) and Delano, Calif. (5,483 people per square mile). The New York-Newark, N.J., area is fifth, with an overall density of 5,319 people per square mile…
Of the 10 most densely populated urbanized areas, nine are in the West, with seven of those in California. Urbanized areas in the U.S., taken together, had an overall population density of 2,534 people per square mile.

These new figures continue to support one of the trick questions about cities: which city is the most dense? A common answer is New York City because of Manhattan but the densest is actually Los Angeles. Of course, some of this has to do with Southern and Western cities having more space because of the drying up of annexation opportunities in Midwestern and Northeastern cities in the early 1900s.

While these are very interesting figures, where is the percentage of Americans who live in suburbs?

The rapid urbanization of China: from under 20% to over 50% of the population in cities in thirty years

Much change has occurred in China in recent years and here is one of the big ones: more than 50% of residents are living in cities, up from less than 20% in 1980.

FOR a nation whose culture and society have been shaped over millennia by its rice-, millet- and wheat-farming traditions, and whose ruling Communist Party rose to power in 1949 by mobilising a put-upon peasantry and encircling the cities, China has just passed a remarkable milestone. By the end of 2011, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, more than half of China’s 1.35 billion people were living in cities.

Demographers had seen this moment coming. The 2010 census showed the differential between town and country to be within a mere few tenths of a percentage point. And yet it is still a remarkable turnaround. In 1980 fewer than a fifth of Chinese lived in cities, a smaller urban proportion than in India or Indonesia. Over the next ten years the government remained wary of free movement, even as it made its peace with free enterprise. Touting a policy of “leaving the land but not the villages, entering the factories but not cities”, it sought industrialisation without urbanisation, only to discover that it could not have one without the other.

This is rapid change that affects a lot of social life. It reminds me of the era when sociology emerged in the 1800s where observers started noticing that the move from more rural to more urban life was affecting things like social relationships, social cohesion, governments, and more. Does China have a similar crop of observers thinking through all the effects this rapid urbanization might have?

The article is accompanied by a nice chart comparing China’s urbanization to other regions and countries: it is now ahead of India and South-East Asia though still lagging behind Brazil, the US, and Western Europe. The Census Bureau has tracked the changes in the US in this document (see the bottom of pg. 33): the US first had more than 50% of the population living in central cities and suburbs in 1950, up from 28% in 1910. From the period of this chart (1910 to 2000), the US has not had such rapid change in urbanization as China.