Urbanization — pretty much everyone living in a developed country lives in a city. And the current estimate is that by 2030 60% of the world’s population will be living in an urban environment. It kind of makes sense right? In this day and age there are a lot of reasons to live in a city and very few reasons to live in a rural or wilderness environment. Cities offer jobs, commerce, conveniences, housing, restaurants, and entertainment of all kinds. At the same time, farming and food production have become so mechanized that it only takes a few people to raise food for everyone. Those of us who aren’t farming have to find some other type of work to do for fulfillment and survival, and most work is found in the city.
It’s not inaccurate to say that people have lived in cities for thousands of years, but the percentage of the global population living in cities in unprecedented. We are truly experiencing what can be called an “urban revolution.”
So what does this mean for us? What does urbanization mean for people seeking to live whole, meaningful, and healthy lives? The city is a place filled with important paradoxes. Here are a few of the dangers and consequences posed by cities and urbanization:
Lots of People but Little Community — Us human beings, we need each other. We are communal beings. Real, authentic, meaning, and reciprocal relationships are vital for our health. When it comes to developing relationships, our individual selfishness is always our worst enemy, whether we live in the city or in a rural environment. The interesting thing about the city, though, is that it’s filled with people at high proximity, offering the illusion of easy community, but it often leaves people feeling even more isolated and lonely than ever.
What is it that makes the city a place of isolation rather than community? While the answer is somewhat complex, it boils down to the intimate tie between urbanization and technology. Cities are built and shaped around human techniques, with efficiency as the goal, and people often become a mere continuation of that pattern. In the city it’s easy to become merely another cog in the machine. There are millions of people but nobody is responsible for each other. We get lost in the crowd.
Noise — The city represent the epitome of noise: unwanted, purposeless, disorganized sound. From within the city resounds a loud cacophony of anthropocentric sound. The city’s noise takes on many forms, from the contradicting propaganda emitted from shopping center speakers, to the hummings and clangings of cars and other machinery. The overwhelming presence of the city’s noise nearly downs out all sounds of nature, making us feel somehow separate and independent form the rest of creation. At the same time, we hardly have any time to listen to our own thoughts. Creativity and free thinking require concerted effort or withdrawal to rural environments.
Pollution — The city creates an abundance of concentrated waste, a giant cesspool of filth. In the natural world what could potentially constitute waste in concentrated amounts ends up becoming fertilizer. All waste, whether decomposing trees or animal droppings, are naturally recycled and widely dispersed within the environment. When millions of people are concentrated in one place, however, the waste that results becomes toxic and difficult to recycle or properly dispose. Human sewage would be bad enough, but when you add to that all the waste that results from our technology (garbage, fumes, oil, toxins, paper, plastic, etc) even with mitigation the consequences are on the verge of catastrophic.
Less Access to Fresh, Real Food — Historically very little food is actually grown in cities. Most of the land is covered with roads and buildings, and the water supplies are limited, so growing food is difficult to do. The city is not a self-sustaining place — it and its denizens are incredibly reliant on outside inputs for survival. As a result, most city dwellers have a difficult time coming by fresh food in the quantities that promote health. Instead, most are left to survive the best they can off of fast food and processed or pre-packaged foods.
Crime — Cities are filled with people, and people commit crimes. In any given community there will always be a few people who committed crimes against others, but in cities this natural tendency is exacerbated. Why? Well, there are two primary reasons: For one, many crimes are committed out of envy or jealousy, and more people at close proximity provides more opportunity for committing wrongs out of envy or hatred of others. Secondly, cities promise to be places of opportunity, but more often than not there aren’t actually enough opportunities (jobs) for all who live there. Before industrialization, virtually everyone was needed to raise food or was employed in some type of meaningful work, but technology changed that. Industrialization created a gaping deficit in employment opportunities, meaning more poverty, and therefore more crime. Moreover, even when technology results in the creation of new jobs, the work environments in urban settings are often unhealthy and disease promoting (think low-light, excessive sitting, monotonous movements, depression, carpal tunnel syndrome, diabetes). Dis-ease or poor health can further contribute to the cycle of poverty and crime.
Abundance of Meaningless Work — When there are jobs to be found in the city many of them are relatively meaningless. Pushing paper, doing rote jobs, busy-work, little true interaction with people. You might find a job, but there are only a few who privileged enough to find a job that they get any great deal of satisfaction from. Most of us have resorted to looking for meaning outside of work, in our extracurricular involvements, such as through volunteering or participating in some type of organized social group.
The City Represents Rebellion and Self-Sufficiency — All of the above mentioned dangers of the city are a consequence of the city’s history and true character. The construction of the first city was essentially a rebellion against dependence on God. This truth is portrayed beautifully and clearly in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). Rather than depend on God’s protection and provision, Cain established the first city, where he could provide for and protect himself by dominating nature and using violence. The theme of the city representing rebellion and sin runs throughout the Bible, from Babel to Babylon.
The Good News: We Can Bring and Experience Life in the City! So what can we do? Are we to leave cities or abandon cities as hopeless places of dis-ease? No. There is hope and we can bring it. By the miracle of Jesus’ love, God can fill and transform the very symbol and place of man’s selfishness and rebellion. There’s no set program or method we can employ, no precise dogma that can be used to change the city — only faith made tangible through love.
In the Book of Revelation John records his vision of God’s kingdom coming to earth and transforming the city. There’s no temple in the city or religious place of worship, the city itself become the home of God, place where his throne is established and living waters flow, where there’s cleanliness, light, and the tree of life. We don’t know how or when this vision will come to fulfillment, but we can take part in it now, through faith.
It all starts in our hearts. When we are connect to God, through Jesus Christ, we become and extension of his life, love, and creative power. He is the branch and we are the vine. That we, the selfish people we are, can become vessels of God’s love, is truly a mystery, but it’s a true possibility. The ways the God’s kingdom can manifest themselves in your city, through you, are only limited by our faith and imagination. How is God speaking to you. Who is in your neighborhood, what darkness in your city needs the light of God in you?
It’s easy to be so overwhelmed by the whole world’s problems that we don’t take steps to demonstrate God’s love in our own backyard. Whether planting a community garden, mentoring a child in foster care, getting involved in your neighborhood association, or problem solving causes of pollution — you can be a bringer of life in your community. We can’t do it on our own, and we can’t expect to build some man-made utopia, but we can be part of a faith-based revolution. A revolution that grows from within our hearts and expresses itself in faith, with the hope that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.
Inspire and educate us! What ways are you getting involved in your community? How can someone discover the needs of his or her community? Do you have any stories of transformation?
Recommended reading: The Meaning of the City by Jacque Ellul and The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne
Originally posted 2013-10-31 14:36:06.