Why Do People Love Their Cities But Hate Urban Living?
Mahatma Gandhi once said that the true India is to be found not in its few cities, but in its 700,000 villages. The growth of the nation depends not on cities, but on its villages. But, this is not completely true because it has been observed that the creative and ambitious Indians live in cities. This is truer today, because nearly one-third of India's population live in urban areas. A century ago, nearly 90 per cent of the Indian population lived in rural areas. Strangely, urban living is quite unpopular, even in contemporary India.
There were reasons to hate urban living in the past, because life in cities was miserable, in important ways. Even today, life expectancy in Mumbai is much lower when compared with the rest of India. Mumbai is not unique in this aspect. Over a century ago, even life expectancy in New York was much lower than in the rest of the United States. Similarly, life expectancy in London was lower than in the rest of Elizabethan England. Cities were not always the best to live in. Even today, this is largely true, in developing countries.
Cities in the first world countries, however, have tried to mitigate the downsides of urban living, while making life in cities more and more attractive. For example, today, life expectancy in London is higher than in the rest of the UK, and life expectancy in New York is higher than in the rest of the US. This has not happened enough in Indian cities, but these cities are prosperous, nevertheless. So, why is urban living so unpopular even today? Usually Mumbaikars love Mumbai, and New Yorkers love New York. People love their own cities, and there is a large body of literature analysing this phenomenon. Why does love for their own cities coexist with hatred for urban living? What is going on?
One of the possible reasons why people do not like cities is that these are very crowded. But obviously, cities cannot be crowded to the point that no one wants to live there. Cities are crowded, precisely because too many people want to live in them. As economist Bryan Caplan points out, even nerds and misanthropes prefer to live in crowded cities.
Diseases spread more easily in densely populated cities. Even when humankind took to agriculture, diseases started spreading more easily because people started living more closely, along with their animals. When they were hunters and gatherers, things were not so bad, and malnutrition was rarer. It is not even clear why people took to agriculture, because the costs were too high, and this often led to mass starvation and deaths. Something similar was true of cities too, not long ago. Crime and pollution were high, and even in the best of cities, so many people often died because of contagious diseases.
But there were still strong enough reasons for people to migrate to cities. Income levels were high in cities, even when cities were in a primitive stage. Much of great art was created here and even great moments in the history of all countries happened in cities. Even in Indian cities, where life expectancy is lower than in the rest of the country, income levels are much higher, and employment prospects are greater. There is much evidence that suggests that even slum dwellers in cities enjoy better living standards than rural Indians. So, the downsides of urban living are probably not the reason why urban living is unpopular.
There is a certain kind of anonymity in urban living. Cities may be crowded, but people do not care much about people around them and largely mind their own business. However, such anonymity leads to some people hating urban living. They assume that this “atomises” society, and that this is not good for the psychological well-being of people. This argument does not hold much water either. People seem to have relationships that are more meaningful in cities, because it is much easier to choose whom to associate with in densely populated cities. It is true that people are more indifferent to strangers in cities, but such indifference is the root of tolerance.