Urban Centers

Urban Centers

In this article, we shall examine the importance of urban centers in societies. There are billions of people, with a varied set of cultures, backgrounds, etc… (Brugmann, 2015) who live in what have been defined as “urban centers” (and billions who don’t live in urban centers). In fact, the number of people living in urban population centers is heading closer to be the majority of people in the world. Plus, there are more and more urban larger urban centers. Interestingly, “[c]ities, indeed, have absorbed nearly two-thirds of the global population explosion since 1950…” and continue to growth at astonishing rates (Davis, 2015). There is also a belief, among some, who suggest that the vast majority of the world’s population will live in cities by the middle of this century (Davis, 2015).

Thus, it is important to discuss urban centers, the politics–along with many other characteristics–of urban areas. We will also examine the ever-increasing importance of urban centers, and the effect that this has on international relations issues. We will discuss the definition of an “urban center” or “urban areas,” why there has been a rise in individuals moving (and also, being born in urban areas), as well as some of the problems for many living in urban centers.

What is an Urban Area?

An urban area, or an urban center, is defined by some as “a continuously built up land mass of urban development that is within a labor market (metropolitan area or metropolitan region An urban area contains no rural land (all land ins the world is either urban or rural)” (Demographia, 2015: 2). Other previous ways of defining an urban area has consisted of the “urban footprint,” or “the lighted area that can be observed from an airplane (or satellite) on a clear night” (Demographia, 2015: 2).

A related question with regards to what is an urban area is whether population has anything to do with the definition. For example, while some have traditionally looked at urban areas as having populations over 1 million persons, it should be noted that “the United Nations has expanded its “urban agglomeration” list to include populations of 300,000 or more, from the previous 750,000 threshold” (in Demographia, 2015).

However, it is important to note that we are also seeing the rise of what has been termed “megacities”. There are many cities that have populations in the multi-millions (over 8 million persons). These include cities such as Tokyo, Mexico Citity, New York, Seoul, along with many other cities) (Davis, 2015).

Urban Areas vs. Metropolitan Areas

While some might want to use the terms “urban areas”/”urban centers” and “metropolitan areas” interchangeably, doing so would be a mistake. For example, “A metropolitan area is a labor market and includes substantial rural (non-urban) territory or area of discontinuous urban development (beyond the developed urban fringe)” (Demographia, 2015). It is for this reason that many cities have the urban center (Beijing, London, New York, Paris, Tokyo etc…) and another metropolitan area that often expands many more miles or kilometers. In fact, in the case of the United States, the vast majority of metropolitan areas actually include rural land (Demographia, 2015), whereas the urban centers (or urban areas) do not.

Global Urban Growth

There are many reasons that people move to the cities, and there are many ways in which the city changes over time. Many people often come looking for work (as we shall discussed below). But there are also other pulls. For example, one might want to find individuals with similar interests, which could be related to a larger social scene. They might want not only a job, but a more specific job related to their particular line of work. They may also want to be able to access museums, plays, etc… that might not be as prevalent in the rural area. 

For most, cities are viewed as places where opportunity exists (Brugmann, 2015: 254). As Brugmann (2015) writes: “Cities offer advantage in the world–unique chances to secure greater income, to organize for political rights to benefit from education and social services, to meet other entrepreneurs or gain competitive position in a market. Cities, relative to other forms of settlement, offer what we can simply call “urban advantage” (254). People are attempting to do so for some sort of gain. 

The ability to live close to one another, to exchange ideas, to have closer access to more jobs (theoretically), to solve problems together, to share the costs associated with living (Brugmann, 2015), as well as business projects, etc…. In addition, other infrastructure can be also be cost-effective; telecommunications, roads, etc… will potentially have more people using them (Brugmann, 2015), and could be cheaper than establishing the same services in areas where there are less people. These are all advantages of living in a city. 

Urban Poverty

In our discussions about the rise of urban centers, and the increased numbers of cities, megacities, etc…, it is also important to understand that there are challenges with living in cities. One of the most noted challenges facing individuals in urban centers is that of urban poverty. While many want to think that everyone in the cities has access to food, health, shelter, and stable employment with a fair wage, this is rarely the case. In fact, the issue of urban poverty exists throughout the world, and continues to be a problem. Furthermore, the issue of urban poverty is viewed as “[t]he most widely observed and acutely felt urban problem in developing countries” (Tolley & Thomas, 1987).

While it is the hope of many unemployed individuals to go to the urban centers and find work, there are many who move to the cities only to find themselves in difficult conditions, unable to secure employment. One should not equate urbanization with industrialization (Davis, 2015); in fact, many cities that continue to grow in population figures have not had extensive industrial growth. In fact, as Davis (2015) writes: “Since the mid-1980s, the great industrial cites of the South–Bombay, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, Belo Horizonte, and Sao Paolo–have all suffered mass plant closures and tendential deindustrialization, even from development per se and, in sub-Saharan Africa, from the supposed sine qua non of urbanization, rising agricultural productivity” (245).

This is especially the case in the global south, were there continues to be large increased in urban center populations, but not a similar pattern or economic growth or industrialization.  In fact, moves to the urban rose substantially despite declines in wages, an increase in prices, etc… This relationship surprised many, who thought that it would reverse the trend of movement to cities (Davis, 2015).

Interestingly, Davis (2015) argues that part of the reason for the move by many to the cities had to do with the heightened risk in their farming sectors. Namely, in the 1980s, with the rise of the Washington Consensus, international organizations such as the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) put pressure on governments to reduce their involvement in the protection and support of sectors that included agriculture. And because of this, “[a]s local safety nets disappeared, poor farmers became increasingly vulnerable to any exogenous shock: drought, inflation, rising interest rates, or falling commodity prices” (Davis, 2015: 246). This, couples with cases of domestic conflict (such as civil wars in some countries) forced many to flee their homes, and head to the urban areas.

What was initially viewed as a model where the cities would be rich with capital, whereas the rural areas were the places that had high labor supply is no longer the case (Davis, 2015).

The number of people continuing to move to the cities is rising. And yet, because of the heavy labor supply, and a lack of accessible housing, many are turning to finding other ways to secure shelter. What has happened, in many cases, is that individuals without access to housing, or to be able to afford living in the center of the urban centers, are establishing illegal slum areas (Davis, 2015).

Davis (2015) closes his chapter by saying that “…the cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay. Indeed, the one billion city dwellers who inhabit postmodern slums might well look back with envy at the ruins of the sturdy mud homes of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, erected at the very dawn of city life nine thousand years ago’ (248).


In this article, we have discussed the topic of urban centers. We defined an urban center, discussed the rise of populations related to living in urban areas, discussed the reasons why people go to these centers, as well as challenges (such as poverty).



Brugmann, J. (2015). Chapter 17: The Improbable Life of an Urban Patch: Deciphering the Hidden Logic of Global Urban Growth, pages 249-, in The Global Studies Reader,  Manfred B. Steger (ed). Oxford England. Oxford University Press. 

Davis, M. (2015). Chapter 16: The Urban Climacteric, pages 239-248, in The Global Studies Reader, Manfred B. Steger (ed). Oxford England. Oxford University Press. 

Demographia (2015). Demographia World Urban Areas: 11th Annual Edition, 2015:01. Available Online: http://www.demographia.com/db-worldua.pdf 

Tolley, G.S. & Thomas, V. (1987). An Overview of Urban Growth: Problems, Policies, and Evaluation. Available Online: http://www.rrojasdatabank.info/econurb87/econurbp15-24.pdf


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