The Environment's Outlook On Urbanisation Through Time: Part I

There were travellers yesterday, there are travellers today. The journey remains the same, just the means have changed. From the early ages of horse mounts and palanquins, to ships and boats, to horse and carriages, to cars, buses, and trams, to aircraft and spacecraft.

The people of yesterday and the people of today embark on journeys of lengths: some short and some long. An evolution of transportation; over land, sea and air.

Influence of Urbanisation and Industrialisation

As civilisation progressed into new eras, the once primitive way of life began to change and the mid-18th century agrarian society transformed to be industry-focused. New towns were settled, new businesses opened, and people sought after the ever-increasing rise in prosperity and a better quality of life.

This evolution brought about a change that impacted the socio-economic balance and transformed the societal hierarchy (Yasin et al., 2019). Settlers migrated from rural villages towards urban towns for new employment prospects, as well as access to better health care and education, leading to a rapid increase in urbanisation.

Even though at the time this development aided the economy, many factories and businesses were pollution driven (Nowak, 1997). During those years no one could have imagined how much this was starting to damage our environment.

Since then, a pre-COVID world population growth was forecasted to increase to approximately 10 billion by 2050 from the 7.6 billion that was recorded in 2018 (Our World in Data, 2019). To provide enough living space for everyone, it can be inferred that this will force cities to grow further, swallowing and reducing the number of rural regions (Todaro, 1969).

Our World in Data image below shows how in 2017 the large majority already lived in urban areas, demonstrating that the global population has now transformed into a majority urban population.

The map explores the world’s population dwelling in urban settlements at 85%, with the highest urbanised countries belonging to Asia, Latin America and Africa (89%, 81.7% and 81.3% respectively). Source: Our World in Data, 2019.

This leads to a significant problem: the current infrastructure is then at risk of reaching capacity. So if cities continue to transform further into megacities, it replicates that previous evolution from the agrarian society at an even bigger scale. And as before, this can develop numerous repercussions (Todaro, 1969).

In a wider context, urbanisation has greatly benefited the socio-economic status of the world cities. However, this posed a deterring impact on the environment, silently growing and developing over the years (Condurat et al. 2017). The early industries of coal, brick mining and garment factories had introduced pollution within the atmosphere of urban cities in comparison to rural counterparts (Stremikiene et al. 2013).

The negative impacts of unsustainable human behaviour can now be seen to have an effect upon the entire planet; and this damage no longer remains hidden.

1840s Pollution from American Factories during the industrial Revolution

Source: First industrial revolution America, 2014.

Impacts of Early Migration

The earlier migration was seen as the opportunity towards beginning a new way of life. Towns and cities became integrated and connected through the various transport systems, increasing mobility across multiple regions for business and leisure.

The majority of urban settlers became car owners, homeowners, and business owners, or employed in multinational corporations. The annual income of individuals increased, as well as their commodities and personal property (Blaga & Eckl, 2017). The development of such industries enabled globalisation uniting both cities and nations.

The development of more efficient road transport systems, through cars, buses and trains, assisted the expansion of urbanisation, whilst releasing harmful gases, such as carbon dioxide, into the Earth’s atmosphere (Blaga & Eckl, 2017).

It can then be deduced that the environment has been negatively impacted by human influence, through the contribution of harmful pollutants from transportation and urbanisation.

A glimpse of the 19th Century City dwellings as a result of urbanisation. Source: Library of Congress, 2018.

Our resolve so far

Humanity’s unsustainable way of life can no longer go unnoticed, as in the long term it will not only damage our economy and health, but will also put under question our future existence entirely. The environmental conditions and air quality will simply become inhabitable.

It is interesting to put our initial desire to improve the quality of life, which lead to urbanisation, in perspective with the potentially disastrous consequences.

As a result, world leaders have committed to resolving the impact through policies and initiatives within their respective countries.

To give an example, the sustainable city development of London introduced congestion charges for high emission zones and implemented the use of cycle paths, enabling sustainable development and growth. In response, fewer vehicles are travelling in these areas, reducing air pollution and giving hope that there is a solution to improve sustainability.

However, this raises a question: are these initiatives enough?

We will examine the question raised and explore the influence of car ownership, changes to individual needs and our response in the second part of this article “The Environment's outlook on urbanisation through time: part II.”

Article's Terminology

- Primitive : Refers to preserving the character of an early stage in the evolution or historical development of something.

- Agrarian: Referring to an industry or a society that was based off farming and agriculture.

- Urbanisation: Describes the increase in population residing in urban areas in comparison to rural areas. i.e a built up town or city in comparison to the countryside or village.

- Globalisation : Refers to the process where countries are becoming interconnected via trade, traditions and cultural exchanges globally


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