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Is Urbanization Good For Us?

Former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton argues that Ireland has done exceptionally well to develop critical masses of skilled people.

In global terms, the pull of ever bigger cities seems inexorable. In 1970, a third of the world’s population lived in cities, while more than half do so today. By 2050, it is predicted that two-thirds of the world’s 9 billion people will live in a metropolis.

City dwellers consume more energy per capita, produce more greenhouse gases and are more exposed to crime. An increase of 1% in the urban population leads to a 2.5% rise in energy usage. Cities often expand close to the coast, where they are exposed to rising sea levels caused by climate change.

Big cities lead to anonymous, atomized lives for many — lost in the crowd. This makes large cities harder to govern democratically, because the social networks that facilitate democracy and discussion in rural settings are often missing in a metropolis. Yet people seem to prefer to live in cities.

But Why?

A recent study found that on average, the bigger the city, the bigger the income per person.  But the same study also showed that the bigger the city, the higher the incidence of anxiety and transmissible diseases.

A study published by the Royal Society in London last November suggests — using data collected from tracking people and their mobile phones — that the bigger the city, the more friends people have, but they more frequently change their friends as well. It even found that the bigger the city, the faster people walk — probably reflecting higher stress levels.

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Attaching the importance of things that can be measured in money seems to drive this rapid urbanization of the world’s population. But one must ask if this sort of living is best for children growing up; if it facilitates children having enough time with their parents; and if it is good for the quality and cost of schooling that kids receive. A living pattern that is not good for children may not be sustainable in the long-run.

This drive to live in ever bigger cities seems to be a function of the increased specialization in people’s lives. Jobs have become so technical that fewer people understand the work their next door neighbor does. Only in bigger cities will we find a critical mass of people with specific inter-relatable skills. That’s what attracts firms to big cities and may explain why property prices in Dublin are more dynamic than elsewhere.

Ireland’s Success

As a small island off another island, distant from the European mainland, Ireland has done exceptionally well to develop critical masses of skilled people in sectors like pharmaceuticals, medical devices, software, certain financial services, use of big data and food technologies. Foreign direct investment has continued to come into this country in these sectors, even in the worst period of the recession.

As I work abroad for IFSC Ireland, I am repeatedly told that what attracts firms here is the ability to recruit the right people — either locally or among those who are willing to live and work in the country.

Since the abolition of exchange controls, money can come into Ireland quickly. But it can also leave at the blink of an eye. Money often has the legs of a hare, but the courage of a mouse. That is why confidence must be constantly maintained by steady management and consistent fiscal policy.

It is thanks to this continuing overseas confidence in the Irish economy that we have been able to meet our fiscal targets, borrow at reasonable rates and restore economic growth. But such confidence is volatile and fragile and prone to sudden changes in sentiment due to media headlines. We must remain vigilant.

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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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