Urbanization refers to the process whereby ever larger numbers of people migrate to and establish residence in relatively dense areas of population. It is a phenomenon that has existed throughout the ages, from ancient times to the present. Large numbers of people have gathered and created urban sites in places like ancient Rome and Cairo as well as in ancient Peking in China. Yet, in recent times, the process of urbanization has gained increasing momentum and with it greater attention as well. Today, more than half of the world’s population live in what are considered urban places, and demographers project that by the year 2050 much of the world’s population will reside in them.

If urbanization were simply about large numbers of people living in dense residential settlements, it would hold little interest for sociologists. In fact, it is about considerably more. One of the questions posed about urbanization has to do with the reasons why people move into urban areas. What, in particular, draws people into urban areas and, once there, why do they remain? Even more importantly, what happens to people and to their lives as human beings once they move into the compact spaces of urban areas? These are questions that have prompted some of the most interesting and perceptive of sociological writings.

For many sociologists, life in the metropolis constitutes the essence of what societies are all about. If one can understand, for example, the nature of communities as they form in cities, some would argue, then one can develop a good grasp of those elements that help people to bond with one another, in general. Others would point out, too, that a study of the lives of people in these dense and compact settlements provides great insight into such central sociological issues as the nature of social inequality and the roots of social conflict.

Urbanization thus is something that holds great interest for sociologists and the theories they develop about the way the world works. The first of the major sociological theorists to write about urbanization and its connections to social life was the German social theorist, Georg Simmel. He saw in the nature of urbanization and the growth of the modern metropolis elements that were characteristic not merely of cities, but of the broader development and change unfolding in the modern world. Simmel insisted that the modern city compelled people to treat one another in an indifferent and cool manner. People did not relate to one another as intimates, for example, but rather in an instrumental and calculating fashion: what can you do for me, in effect, rather than let us get to know one another better. This sense of rational calculation and its effects on the lives of people in large urban areas were pervasive throughout city life, Simmel argued, as the result of the emergence of these major centers of population: it shaped the character of society in the metropolis and it demanded that people adapt to its dictates and constraints. Life was swift in the city, relations transitory, and people were compelled to adapt to it by taking a new mental attitude.

Simmel, in effect, set the tone for much of the sociological writing about cities and urbanization over the course of the next several decades. His ideas, coupled with somewhat parallel ideas in the writings of thinkers such as Ferdinand Tonnies, became the building blocks for how others would come to think of urbanization and the metropolis. The next major perspective on urbanization and urban areas, in fact, came from a scholar who helped to create the Chicago School of sociology, Louis Wirth. Wirth, in effect, synthesized many of the key insights of Simmel in a work that would become perhaps the most famous essay about the urban condition in the twentieth century, ‘‘Urbanism as a Way of Life.’’ Wirth insisted that the pace of life in the city forced people to deal with one another in an impersonal fashion. People tended to become anonymous in the city; as a result, this influenced their own sense of comfort and security. The city, because of its size and the pace of its life, could become a place that helped to produce various forms of social disorganization, including divorce and crime. Urbanization also placed people into new relationships with one another, the effect being to undermine or to deemphasize the intimacy they had found in smaller places. Moreover, the city also gave birth to new and singular social developments, among them a range of new organizations, such as voluntary associations, not to say also new business groups. In effect, Wirth formalized and extended the basic insights of Simmel, creating both a sociological and a social psycho logical portrait of the city – a portrait that would remain in place for many decades and provide both an inspiration and a foil for subsequent sociological research.

Other writers and researchers from the Chicago School, among them Park and Burgess, helped to embellish and to flesh out this vision of what urbanization and cities were all about. The Chicago School, in effect, became that branch of sociology that would be devoted to understanding, interpreting, and even seeking remedies for the urban condition created in the modern world. The Chicago School sociologists turned to questions of immigration, for example, because of the great numbers of immigrants that began to enter cities like Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century. Park also turned to other issues, including race and race relations. Drawing on the work of plant ecologists, he developed notions about how immigrants and natives adapt to one another as they come into contact. The foremost theory of race relations during the twentieth century – the theory of assimilation – originated in the work of Park, from his own insights and views gleaned from his and his students’ studies of urbanization and the city.

Eventually, the ideas and research of Park and Burgess and their students would become known as the school of human ecology. Taking their inspiration from plant ecologists, they used concepts of population, conflict, and change to talk broadly about what happens when urban areas are created, and as different social groups come into contact with one another. They believed that urbanization necessarily implied tension and conflict, and that such conflict came about because social groups, possessed of different national origins and often different cultures, competed for scarce resources (in particular, land and space) in the city. The city itself seemed to be animated by some basic underlying forces. They argued, for example, that land values at the center of the city were the highest across the metropolis because the land there was the most prized, especially by business. These initial insights were later turned into a sophisticated and complicated theory of people and space by Hawley (1950).

For a long while, these ideas about the city – its impersonality, its conflict between different population groups, and its underlying population dynamics – remained at the forefront of sociological research into cities and urbanization. Then, in the 1970s, these ideas were challenged sharply by a new school of social theory about urban areas and urbanization, that of the neo Marxists. Central writers like Castells and Harvey argued that the conflict and change within cities – the various social changes that accompanied the process of urbanization – were the result not of some underlying features of urbanization per se, but rather of the growth and development of modern capitalism. It was capitalism – its inequalities and its tensions between the rich and the poor – that should be held to account for the underside of urbanization, they insisted. With such general assertions as these, then, Castells and Harvey, along with French social theorist Henri Lefebvre, introduced a fresh set of ideas into the thinking and writing about urban areas.

Today, it is the writings of this latter group of social thinkers, and others who share their basic orientation, that tend to dominate research and thinking about urbanization. Issues of poverty and inequality, in particular, seem to have emerged across the world as the world itself has become increasingly urbanized. New and compelling questions arise: How will the new comers be treated within urban areas? Are conflict and poverty forever inevitable features of urban growth? And why is poverty persistent, especially among some groups of new immigrants to the city, but not among others?

In recent years scholars have begun to rethink the way they conceive both of cities and of the broader process of urbanization. Lefebvre urged students of urbanization to turn their attention to urban areas as spaces, and to investigate the way such spaces were created. In particular, he insisted that the broader social forces of modern capitalism have much to do with the configuration and arrangement of spaces in the city. Thus, for example, the nature of work and the way that people must travel to work helps to account not only for the development of transportation routes and modes of transportation, but also for the nature of social life and the sites of residential settlements in urban areas.

Other scholars have taken up such themes and pushed them in new directions. David Harvey, for example, is particularly intent on uncovering the ways in which inequalities emerge in the spaces of cities. His ambition, among other things, has been to show how cities are constantly made and destroyed, a process that is a result, he argues, of the broader processes of capitalism that are devoted, in essence, to the creation of profit. The spaces and sites of cities thus become the pawns for capitalist enterprises: new buildings arise and others disappear because of the constant search for profit and its rise and fall over time. Sharon Zukin has explored these themes even further, noting the ways in which certain spaces of the city have been remade once the older industrial enterprises created during the early part of the twentieth century declined. Zukin also borrows from the work of Joseph Schumpeter, noting how the ‘‘creative destruction’’ of urban areas – the dismantling of old houses, for example, and the creation of new mansions in their place – is emblematic of the growth of market forces in cities, but also of the decline of cities as special places for the lives of human beings.

We tend to think of urbanization and the sites it creates as ‘‘places.’’ In recent years, more and more attention has been devoted to how people develop an attachment to the places of cities, and why such an attachment emerges as a key element in their lives. Anthropologists, historians, and philosophers have begun to create a new, broader perspective on the city that emphasizes it as a ‘‘place’’ – a specific site in social space where people regularly gather. The growth of this new view of urbanization and urban areas is somewhat ironic at this time, given that new global forces are playing such a large and impressive part in driving urbanization and in reshaping urban areas.

One of the prominent themes in recent research deals with the forces that promote the growth and development of cities. When scholars such as those of the Chicago School wrote about the growth of urban areas in the past, they most often were concerned about the specific local factors that brought migrants into the city. Naturally, the most important of such factors, both to sociologists and to other scholars, were economic ones: the history of American and European cities in the nineteenth century, for example, provided ample evidence of the ways in which booming industries and new jobs, not to mention the right kind of civic leadership, provided just the right incentives for people to move into cities.

Today, however, the local has become global. Individual cities, and the attraction they hold for new migrants, must compete not only with other cities in their own immediate regions and surroundings, but also with cities worldwide. Moreover, there is a new stratification system that has emerged among cities. Sassen (2001) has argued that some cities have become global forces, their economic structures and enterprises so powerful that their decisions can actually override those of national governments. When taken to its broadest conclusion, this sense of the significance of global forces suggests that broad economic movements can have an impact on urbanization across the world: people will tend to migrate from the poorer places to the richer ones, and those movements no longer are dictated simply by local forces, or even national governments, but rather are the work of major economic firms and the movement of capital across the world.

The original sociologists of urbanization and urban areas, Simmel and Park, for example, observed the migration of people into cities and the emergence of new forms of life and activity there. Among the things they found were forms of class stratification within the city: in central areas they were the places where the dominant financial enterprises were found; nearby were warehouses where the goods of manufacturing were located; within this area and adjacent to it were the new ethnic villages that emerged, along with the growth of a substantial working class; in the outer areas of cities would be found the wealthier residents – those people who could afford to commute into the city on a regular basis. This was essentially the pattern uncovered in America of space and the distribution of wealth. In other nations, such as France, spatial inequalities took somewhat different forms: the poorer immigrants would settle in the outskirts of cities, with the central parts of such cities still reserved for the wealthier residents. And in Latin American and African countries there was a similar pattern of class segregation that would emerge: in such instances, the relatively well off people in the cities themselves were surrounded by thousands of poor people who lived their lives in shacks and poverty.

Today, a century after many modern cities were formed, social and economic inequalities remain intact. Poor people continue to live apart from rich ones, whether they reside in the inner cities or on their outskirts. Major sociological attention has been devoted to this phenomenon – of poverty and spatial inequalities – over the course of the past two decades, driven initially by the powerful writings of William Julius Wilson on the American underclass. Cities continue to be spatially segregated, and sociologists seek to understand the nature of such segregation better. Poverty has been understood not to be a transitory state for many people, but rather it persists, especially for African Americans. As cities become the destination of ever growing numbers of immigrants, the poor among them (e.g., Mexicans in the US, Turks in Germany, Africans in the Netherlands), the story of race and inequality seems to be repeating the same tales of hardship and dislocation that happened to black Americans. Two major arguments now compete to explain this recurrent phenomenon of race and poverty: (1) that the roots of poverty are primarily economic, born of an inability of people in urban areas either to find high paying jobs or, given limited education, to qualify for them; (2) that the problem of race and poverty is even more pernicious, and that racism is a phenomenon that does not easily disappear, but rather influences the ways in which poor people are treated in many urban areas of the world.

The early sociologists of urbanization, it could be argued, seemed to think that the city itself created a space in which new forms of social life and a new kind environment would emerge, and that these elements would reshape the character of life. What the research and findings of recent work on urbanization, poverty, and despair now show us is that there are indeed broader and more intractable forces at work in shaping urban areas – and that unless human beings work collectively to eliminate such elements as racism or the class segregation of cities, the lives of the poor and the rich will continue to exist as worlds apart. Urbanization, we now realize, is not simply a broad impersonal fact of modern life, but it is something that people and social forces create – and thus it is something that can be changed as well.


  1. Castells, M. (1977) The Urban Question. Trans. A. Sheridan. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Harvey, D. (1988) Social Justice and the City. Blackwell, Oxford.
  3. Hawley, A. (1950) Human Ecology: A Theory of Community Structure. Ronald Press, New York.
  4. Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Trans. D. Nicholson-Smith. Blackwell, Oxford.
  5. Orum, A. M. & Chen, X. (2003) The World of Cities: Places in Comparative and Historical Perspective. Blackwell, Oxford.
  6. Park, R. E., Burgess, E. W., & McKenzie, R. D. (1925-6) The City. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  7. Sassen, S. (2001) The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, 2nd edn. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  8. Simmel, G. (1903) Die Grossstadte und das Geistesleben. In: Petermann, T. (Ed.), Die Grossstadte. Dresden, pp. 187-206.
  9. Zukin, S. (1991) Landscapes of Power. University of California Press, Berkeley.

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