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.

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.

Keeping the elderly in their hometowns

The USA Today reports on efforts by communities to help the elderly grow old in their hometowns. These communities have built “villages” where services for the elderly are coordinated. According to the article:

More than 50 villages in a neighbor-helping-neighbor system have sprouted in the past decade from California and Colorado to Nebraska and Massachusetts. They are run largely by volunteers and funded by grants and membership fees to provide services from transportation and grocery delivery to home repairs and dog walking…

AARP research shows that 90% of people want to grow old in their home and community.

This would seem to be wise for communities: the elderly know many useful things about a community, have made many connections among residents, and can teach and mentor a younger generation. Communities and suburbs without elderly residents are missing a key piece of their own social fabric.

In the Chicago area, when suburbs talk about “affordable housing,” they are not always talking about housing for low-income residents. They are often referring to programs that would help the elderly remain in places where costs of living make it difficult for residents to live on limited incomes.