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Introduction to Sociology

Ron Hammond, Paul Cheney, Raewyn Pearsey

Chapter 18 - Urbanization

Cities, Country Side, and Suburban

Urbanization is the societal trend where the proportion of people living in cities increases while the proportion of people living in the country side diminishes. Urban refers to the geographic territory within or close to a city. The governments of the world define urban in different ways, but it is safe to assume that between 2-5,000 inhabitants in a city is the minimum required to call a geographic territory urban. Some urban areas such as Tokyo, New York, Mexico City, Shanghai, and Lima range from 35 million down to 7 million people living in those cities (Retrieved 23 May, 2014 SOURCE)

A few factors have to be in place in order for urban growth to occur. These theoretical approaches help in understanding urban development. Agricultural Surplus Theory claims that as farming skills increased, a surplus of basic foodstuffs existed. The surplus freed certain people from having to produce their own food and let them develop other occupations. Central Place Theory claims that farmers needed a central place to trade or sell their surplus and cities developed in those central places. Trading Theory claims that the surplus was not as important as were the specialists who knew how to create it and do other occupations. There must also be a transportation route (river, trail, valley, railroads, harbors, or oceans). Once settlers move in, the city will flourish or fail depending on its ability to continue to draw in people seeking opportunities.

Rural refers to the geographic territory in the less populated regions of a society. Mona, Utah; Hell, Michigan, and North Pole, Alaska are just a few of the less populated rural areas in the US. If you grew up in the United States you can find out all types of recent information about your home town (rural or urban) by going to SOURCE and typing in the "Population Finder" section of the homepage. I typed in the zip code for Hell, Michigan (Zip code 48619) and it brought up a table of all the 481Ézip code areas and some interesting information on these cities. According to the 2000 US Census, Hell had 19,840 inhabitants and 59.89 miles of land area or 331.3 people per square mile. I also typed in New York City, New York. It indicated that in 2007 there were about 8,274,527 people living there. It also indicated that some of the city has no residents while in its most densely populated areas it has over 200,000 people per square mile living there (see TM-P002, Persons per Square Mile: 2000 NY, NY).

Sociologists who study the cities often use this simple concept called Population Density=the number of people per square mile or square kilometer. The Population Reference Bureau is free online at It provides details about every country of the world including the US. See Table 1 below for a few 2012 population density estimates that show the variety of densities worldwide.

Table 1. Population Densities for Select Countries and Regions*
Territory Density/Square Mile
World 54.3
United States 34.32
More Developed 24.1
Less Developed 72.1
Africa 36.9
Latin America 30.1
Caribbean 180.0
Asia 137.1
Europe 33.5
Western Europe 162.2
Eastern Europe 16.3
Oceania 4.3
Retrieved 5/28/2014, from: SOURCE And SOURCE

The United States Road System

The United States has become increasingly urban since its formal inception in 1776. Washington D.C. in 2000 was 100 percent urban while Vermont was only 38.2% (retrieved 14 April, 2009 see Table 28. Urban and rural Population by State from SOURCE ).

In Figure 1 you can see the increasing urbanization in the US (the blue line) and some of the factors that contributed so strongly to it after 1940. There were 2 key pieces of legislation that made the development of today's interstate and road system what it currently is. The 1925 and later 1956 Federal Highway Acts facilitated the federal control, organization, and funding of nation-wide road development. Prior to these acts many roads were impassable, or very poorly maintained.

A nationally coordinated numbering system was put into place and after 1956 billions of dollars were earmarked to fund the asphalt and concrete paving of a new highway system. Today we have over 4 million miles of roads that require tens of billions per year in construction and maintenance costs. You can also see that car ownership increased dramatically once the roads were built. The number of cars owned tripled between 1960-2000 and these cars facilitated the commuting trends into the suburbs. The availability of the Internet facilitated working from home and telecommuting. For the wealthy elite, gentrification and exurbanization was made possible by abandoned factories and apartment buildings, now desirable for purchase and renovation by the upper-middle class young couples.

By 1980s, many empty warehouses and many abandoned apartment buildings scarred certain sections of the city. Wealthy young couples began a trend called Gentrification, or the purchase of rundown buildings in the city center that were remodeled for upper class apartments. Inevitably, gentrification forced the poor inner city dwellers out of their neighborhoods, because city officials were persuaded to rezone these gentrified neighborhoods to keep the "undesirable elements" away. Around the 1990’s another trend emerged called Exurbanization, where upper class city dwellers moved out of the city beyond the suburbs and lived in high-end housing in the countryside. Truly, the modern US urban experience has followed a semi-circular pattern in the last 150 years, following this pattern: Rural habitation _ Urban habitation _ Suburban habitation _Gentrification for wealthy _Exurbanization for wealthy. Figure 1 summarizes some of the key historical factors that brought current US urbanization to the point of over 7 out of 10 in the US living in urban areas, following this historical pattern: Industrial Revolution _ World War II _Transportation expansion _ Technological Revolution (computer chip).

Figure 1. Percentage of United States Population Urban and Rural*
*United States Census Bureau. (2010). 2010 Census Urban and Rural Classification and Urban Area Criteria. Urban, Urbanized Area, Urban Cluster, and Rural Population, 2010 and 2000: United States. Washington DC: U.S. Retrieved 21 May, 2014 SOURCE.

Why live in a city in the first place? One explanation goes back to the Push and Pull Factors we learned about in Chapter 17. Push factors back home might include: too many people and not enough jobs or food; too few opportunities; almost everyone is poor in rural areas; and there are often severe taxes in rural areas. Pull factors toward the city typically include hope of better jobs, opportunities, reunion with family members, and lifestyles. In general over the last 100 years the rural economy provided fewer and fewer opportunities, services, and culturally desirable experiences in comparison to the urban one. People are literally pulled to the urban and suburban areas because the city offers more of these unmet needs. The Industrial Revolution brought many workers to live in and around the urban areas. Factories and inner city concentrated housing units were very common up until World War II.


By the end of the war, people wanted their own homes, independence, and a daily reprieve from the grind of the big city. They didn't want to move too far away, just far enough to allow them a less hectic daily life with a more affordable cost of living. The suburbs came at a perfect time.

Suburban refers to smaller cities located on the edges of the larger city, which often include residential neighborhoods for those working in the area. The suburbs in the US grew dramatically after World War II when the superhighways and freeways combined with the somewhat modest cost of automobiles; the movement out of the inner city and into the suburbs was on.

Look at Figure 2 below to see the characteristics of rural, suburban, and urban social structures. On the left side of this graphic, notice that rural areas typically have high levels of homogeneous people (they are very similar), self-dependence, mechanical solidarity, and similarity in work. Urban areas have relatively low levels in each of these. On the right hand side, notice that urban has heterogeneous people (very diverse peoples), inter-dependence (the doctor needs the butcher, the butcher needs the accountant, the accountant needs the electrician, etc.), organic solidarity, diversity in work, higher cost of living, formalized rules, organizational complexity, numbers of people, and anomie. Rural areas have relatively low levels in each of these. Suburban areas have a relative mix of all of these traits, some higher and some lower depending on other structural, cultural, SES, and historical factors.

All of the definitions in this paragraph were discussed in other chapters, but for the sake of quick reference they are repeated here.

  • Homogeneous implies similar types of people whereas Heterogeneous implies diverse types of people.
  • Gemeinschaft (Guh-mine-shoft) means "intimate community" whereas Gesellschaft (Guh-zell-shoft) means" impersonal associations."
  • Mechanical Solidarity is a shared conscious among society's members who each has a similar form of livelihood whereas Organic Solidarity is a sense of interdependence on the specializations of occupations in modern society.
  • Anomie is a state of social normlessness, which occurs when our lives or society has vague norms.

World Trends

Figure 2. Graphic Depicting: Rural, Suburban, and Urban Societal Characteristics 2. Graphic Depiction of Rural, Suburban, and Urban Societal Figure
© 2009 Ron J. Hammond, Ph.D.

The 2008 Population data Sheet from the http Composite map of the world assembled from data (acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012. Retrieved 28, May, 2014) website stated, "The world will pass a milestone in 2008: One-half of the world's residents will live in urban areas. This event is impressive when we consider that less than 30 percent lived in urban areas in 1950 (page 5)." Look at Figure 3 below to see NASA's amazing time-lapsed, night time photograph of the Americas, Western Europe, and Western Africa. From this satellite photograph you can see the population concentrations throughout the US, South America and Western Europe in contrast to the relatively sparsely lit Western Africa. This not only represents fewer numbers, but also less utilization of rather expensive electrical lights in the urban areas. You can barely distinguish Canada from the US. This is because most Canadians live in the lower portion of the country where the climate is more conducive to human existence.

Figure 3. NASA's Photograph of Americas, Western Europe, and Western Africa*
*Used by Permission of NASA, 1995 Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDCp:// Retrieved 28, May, 2014

In Figure 4 you can see the NASA night photo of the rest of the world (not including the north and south continents). On the left side of the photograph it becomes obvious that most of Africa is not as lit up as are the other regions of the world. There are nearly 800 million people currently living in Africa. Electricity and city lights are very expensive based on the standard of living there. Notice the lights of Europe, Russia, The Middle East, India, Eastern China and Asia, the Island nations and the outer boundary of Australia. These light concentrations are in and near major cities and photographically distinguish the differences in socio-economic status between these regions of the world. They also identify the world's urban areas in a clear way.

Figure 4. NASA's Photograph of Americas, Western Europe, and Western Australia, and Island Nations*
*Used by Permission of NASA, 1995 Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC, Retrieved 28, May, 2014 SOURCE

Look again at the United States in Figure 3. You can see a massive cluster in the North-eastern region. The clusters represent what sociologists call a Megalopolis, which is an overspill of one urban area into another often where many small towns grow into one huge urban area connected by a major transportation corridor. Some of the larger ones today include: Boston-Washington; Chicago-Pittsburgh; and New York-New Jersey. A megalopolis often has 10 million or more people living there. These are found in Europe, Asia, India, Mexico, and Japan. A megalopolis is comprised of Metropolitan Areas, or large population concentrations in cities that have influence of the cities various zones. Each city has a number of zones of influence within its boundaries.

Theories of Urban Development

Human Ecology studies the form, structure, and development of the community in human populations. Ernest W. Burgess developed the Concentric Zone hypothesis of city development in his work, "The Growth of the City," in a 1925 publication (see The City by Park, R.E. and Burgess, E.W. eds U. of Chicago Press, 1967). Burgess was from a very influential sociological program called the Chicago School and he believed that a city grew out much like the trunk of a tree with concentric zones. The Concentric Zone Theory claims that cities grow like the rings of a tree, starting in the center and growing outward.

He identified the following zones: Central Business District; low, middle, and high class residential zones; heavy and light manufacturing, and commuter and suburbs zones to give a short list. Each zone has its realm of influence on the daily lives of city dwellers. Although Burgess' approach has been highly modified, it proved to be a classic in studying the nature of cities. Another scientist named Homer Hoyt noticed that not all city patterns were concentric and he devised a theory to study the pie wedge-shaped zones he came to call "sectors." The Sector Theory claims that cities grow in pie wedge shapes as the city develops (see Hoyt, H. 1939, "The Structure and Growth of Residential Neighborhoods in American Cities;" published by the US Federal Housing Administration, Washington, D.C.).

Later, in 1945 Chauncy O. Harris and Edward L. Ullman wrote a scientific piece in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences called "The Nature of Cities" (page 242 published by Sage publications). Their approach came to be known as the Multiple Nuclei Theory, which claims that cities have multiple centers (Nuclei) that yield influence on the growth and nature of an urban area. These scientists cleared up the issue that a cities growth and development can be universally predictable. They and many scientists since them have established that some commonalities can be predicted, but each city has its own unique history, culture, geography, and resources.

In 2006, an article entitled, "Growth and Change in U.S. Micropolitan Areas" was published by Mulligan, G. F. and Vias, A. C. (see The Annals of Regional Science, Vol. 40, No. 2/ June, 2006 pages 203-228). The relatively new concept of a Micropolitan was discussed. A Micropolitan is an urban area with 10,000-49,000 inhabitants. Mulligan and Vias reported about 581 micropolitans counted in the 1990 US Census. The city I live in Payson, Utah is a Micropolitan. When I first moved my family there it had 3 red lights and we counted them. It had a vending machine with live fishing bait on the main corner at the first red light. The US Census has a service called USA Quickfacts (go to pick a state then the city and click "go" and you can find these details for most US cities).

There are many other official classifications used by Government and educational scientists to study the urban, suburban, and rural experiences among society's members. Let's just learn one more concept that will help you to understand the US Census Bureau's approach to segmenting and analyzing cities, counties, states, and the nation as a whole. A Metropolitan Statistical Area includes one or more adjacent counties that has at least one 50,000 populated urban center that influences the economic, transportation and social connection of the area.

Cities: Good or Bad?

For centuries, philosophers and scientists have studied the value of cities in contrast to rural settings. Historians provided records of ancient cities dating back thousands of years BC. Scientists from other disciplines studied the historical documents to derive their structure and function. From these and contemporary studies they've drawn modern-day conclusions about how cities best work. In the early US history there was an intensive debate about the nature of the city as being evil. Many felt that the smaller, spread out cities supported better physical and mental health (although little science went into their claims). Some claimed that the mega city had the best to offer and architects laid out enormous city plans, some using mega-buildings, others using parks and grids to create the ideal city plan that attempted to balance urban traits with rural ones. Many of these plans were utilized in the development of suburbs.

Individuals often weigh in on the debate. Urbanites are drawn to the city for a number of reasons including: the energy, diversity of people, dining and entertainment, safety (yes, many people feel safer in cities), cultural events, and sporting events. Those not attracted by the city are repulsed by: fear of crime, large numbers of people, expensive costs, congestion, and crowding. I remember one of my students expressing how afraid he would be of having an accident out in the countryside and no one being there to provide help. Another student added that he was afraid of psychotic children jumping out of a cornfield and killing any strangers who wandered by. Yet another student chimed in that he felt just as much in danger in the city because there were so many different types of people and unless you were "street smart" you couldn't distinguish the bad guys from the good ones.

Herbert Gans published an important work about the types of people who live in cities. In many ways his ideas still apply today (see Gans, Herbert 1968. "Urbanism and Suburbanism as Ways of Life. A Re-evaluation of Definitions." In People and Plans, pages 34-52, Basic Books: NY.) Gans focused on the life-style of the city-dweller as much as the demographic background. Cosmopolites are intellectuals, professional, and artists who are attracted to the city because of opportunities and community that are found there. Unmarried Singles aging in the 20-30's typically enjoy the city-singles scene and will probably move when they get older or marry. Ethnic Villagers are city dwellers who group together with others of the same ethnic background and set up miniature enclaves. The Deprived and Trapped are the very poor, disabled, or emotionally disturbed who are often victims of other city dwellers.

Certainly Gans' descriptions have merit in our day. We might add a few other categories since over 40 years have passed since his work was published. On one hand we might add opportunist who see the big city as providing their big break in life. We might also add the business entrepreneur who wants to capitalize in the concentrated marketplace of the modern city. On the other hand, we might add organized criminals, white-collar criminals, and gang members. Since we discussed organized and white-collar criminals in the previous chapters, let's limit the discussion here to gangs.

Gang Troubles


Street gangs have been around in the US in one form or another since the early 1800s. Today, street gangs represent a major threat to personal safety and national security. In some instances it is believed that 48 percent of violent crimes are committed by gangs and account for 90 percent of all crimes in other jurisdictions (National Gang Threat Assessment Issued 21, October, 2011 from SOURCE) . This FBI report more recently reported that:

"Gang members are migrating from urban to suburban and rural areas, expanding the gangs' influence in most regions. They are doing so for a variety of reasons, including expanding drug distribution territories, increasing illicit revenue, recruiting new members, hiding from law enforcement, and escaping from other gangs. Many suburban and rural communities are experiencing increasing gang-related crime and violence because of expanding gang influence. Typical gang-related crimes include alien smuggling, armed robbery, assault, auto theft, drug trafficking, extortion, fraud, home invasions, identity theft, murder, and weapons trafficking. Gang members are the primary retail-level distributors of most illicit drugs. They also are increasingly distributing wholesale-level quantities of marijuana and cocaine in most urban and suburban communities. ..Many gangs actively use the Internet to recruit new members and to communicate with members in other areas of the U.S. and in foreign countries" (Retrieved on 21 May, 2014 from SOURCE

Due to the various street gangs that are located within the United States it is difficult to estimate exact memberships numbers. Large national gangs pose the biggest threat for society due to their affiliations with drug trafficking and violence. According to the FBI there are currently 33,000 gangs in the Unites States, which include motorcycle, street, and prison gangs. It is estimated that there are 1.4 million individuals involved in gang activities (Retrieved 23 May 2014 from Retrieved on 23 May 2014 from SOURCE).

One should use caution in drawing too hasty of conclusions about cities causing gangs. Cities don't cause or breed gangs. They just facilitate a high concentration of people so that gangs can easily do the crimes they want to do. Besides, many of today's worst gangs originated in prisons, not the city streets. Other gangs came in with migrants. Still, some have been around long enough to move from the urban to rural areas.

For the most part, gang membership is an urban lifestyle of young men, although female gang membership at a lower level of participation is common. Although White gangs exist, gang membership is predominantly African American, Hispanic, and other race related (See National Youth Gang survey analysis Retrieved on 28 May 2014 and National Gang Intelligence Center. Retrieved on 28 May 2014 from SOURCE).

The burden of managing gangs falls mainly on law enforcement officials who curb or eliminate gang problems in the community. These curbing efforts become more complicated when local elected officials deem it unprofitable to acknowledge a gang presence in their community (this in spite of gang tagging which is apparent to all in the community). Gang members recruit and migrate to other communities. Fundamentally, gang activities are related to illegal money-making activities-the same is true for organized and white-collar crime, but varies in sophistication of methods and violence used. Most gangs, organized criminals, and white-collar criminals follow this principle, "murder for profit." Any degree of violent means is justified that leads toward the illegal profit-making ends.

Additional reading

Search Internet for:

  • metropolis
  • megalopolis
  • megacity
  • metropolitan statistical area
  • edge city
  • suburbanization
  • alienation
  • redlining
  • disinvestment
  • deindustrialization
  • urban renewal
  • enterprise zone
  • Increasing Urbanization
  • Metropolis
  • Megalopolis
  • Exurbia
  • Megacities.

Organizations that are related to Urbanization

  • The Urban Institute LINK
  • US Dept. of Transportation LINK
  • National Governor’s Association LINK
  • US Conference on Mayors LINK
  • FBI National Gang Report LINK search gangs on LINK
  • Urban Sociology at NorthEastern University LINK
  • Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology LINK
  • US Census Bureau State and County QuickFacts LINK

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