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May 112012

A small mixed use farm not far from an urban concentration - a vanishing part of our essential infrastructure.

The chances are you live in a city.  Indeed, the chances are 4:1 or more that you live in or close to a city/urban center.

This wasn’t always the case.  If we go back a couple of hundred years, in 1800, it is thought that only about 3% of the world’s population lived in urban areas.

Skip forward to 1900, and the number had risen to 14%, although most cities were small rather than big.  There were only 12 cities in the world with populations greater than 1 million.

This evolution has continued, and at an accelerating pace.  Just fifty years later, in 1950, 30% of the world’s population was in urban centers, and – notwithstanding the appalling destruction of cities throughout Europe and Asia during World War 2,  there were now 83 cities with populations over 1 million people.

Zeroing in on the United States, we see an even greater trend towards urban living than in the world as a whole.  It is hard to be absolutely exact – not only because the US Census Office has repeatedly changed its methodology and definition of what is a city or rural area, but also because we ourselves probably have differing views of the matter, too.

But, in general terms, in the US, by 1950 we were well past the halfway point.  60% of the population lived in urban areas compared to 40% in rural areas.

Move forward another 50 years, to 2000, and at that time, almost 80% of the population lived in urban areas, leaving just 20% in the countryside.  And whereas in 1900 there were only 12 cities worldwide with populations in excess of 1 million, there are now more than 12 ‘urban areas’ in the US alone with appreciably more than 1 million people in them.

Now while the shift in rural/urban numbers, in the US, from 1950 to 2000 might not sound like a huge change to you – from 60% to 80%, that’s not the best way to look at it.  It is actually more significant than any previous shift.

You should also look at the 40% still living in rural areas.  This has halved to 20%.  Perhaps the best comparison is to think about how the 60/40 ratio meant that for each rural dweller, there were 1.5 city dwellers (in 1950).  In 2000, for each rural dweller, there were now four city dwellers – two and a half times as many as 50 years earlier.

Probably, today, the ratio is more like 83/17, meaning for each rural dweller there are now five city dwellers.  Maybe we’re already getting closer to a 1:6 ratio (86/14).

There’s another element of this as well.  Until sometime probably in the 1930s or 1940s, more people lived rurally than in the cities.  But today there is a massive imbalance with the huge preponderance not only of people but of wealth and resources and everything else, all in our cities, while our rural areas are emptying and lying largely neglected – for example, the 25% or so of people in rural and semi-rural areas are served by only 10% of the country’s physicians.

How and Why This Has Happened

This steady trend, with people moving from the farms to the cities, has happened for several reasons.

Mechanization on farms has allowed for massively increased productivity, allowing the same or greater food production by fewer and fewer workers.  This has also pushed down the cost of food (and/or increased the profitability of growing food and selling it).

The greater productivity and affluence of farmers has increased their desire for non-subsistence level goods, growing an economy for everything in the form of non-farm goods, and freeing farm employees to move to work in factories.

The trend from non-mechanized production of goods to mass-production served to concentrate people in areas to work in enormous factories, and the greater efficiencies in producing goods again lead to more wealth, and more consumption, and the need for additional non-farm manufacturing and services.

Lower transportation costs and better/more reliable and faster transportation methods made it possible for concentrations of non-farm workers (ie cities) to source their food supplies from further and further away, freeing cities from earlier limitations on size based on the ability of the surrounding areas to produce sufficient food for them.

This trend has continued even further, with global trade now allowing for food to be produced at lower costs not just elsewhere in the same state, not just elsewhere in the country, not just elsewhere in the same continent, but somewhere half-way around the world, and to appear in our supermarkets at lower cost and almost comparable freshness to locally produced goods.  As you surely know, your local Wholefoods or other ‘quality’ food store actually charges more for local produce than for imported produce these days – how crazy is that!

So these days – all going well – it is entirely possible for huge cities with millions of people to obtain all their food and other essential services from locations hundreds and even thousands of miles away.

Why This Change Is Potentially Worrying

In case you’ve not already joined the dots in the appropriate pattern, the problem is this.  Back when a small city was served by the farms within a day or so of travel around the city’s outskirts, there wasn’t a lot of downside if something ‘went wrong’.  Besides which, back then, everyone kept larger inventories of food.  Individual families would keep weeks of food in their home (including their own preserving of foods); grocery stores and their distribution warehouses would be geared up for replenishment every week or so, and the farmers and their cooperatives and other distributors also kept stocks of products.

Any part of the food chain could be interrupted, and the other parts would be able to continue functioning for some days or longer, and the interrupted part of the food chain could quickly be repaired or replaced.  Worst case scenario – enough nearby farmers could continue to work their farms by hand, and take their food by horse and cart to the cities in sufficient quantities for the city population to be fed.

But now, with ‘just in time’ inventory systems, and families who buy food one day at a time, with no more than several days of emergency food at home, the entire supply chain – now stretched hundreds or even thousands of miles – has little reserve or resiliency in case of any disruptions, and if there is a disruption, it is harder to work around the problem and reinstate the smooth functioning of supply lines.

Every step of the supply chain now replies upon ‘artificial’ productivity enhancers.  The farmers rely upon intensive farming processes and machinery, irrigation, fertilizer, and so on.  The distribution system relies upon electronic ordering and control, and upon airplanes, trains and trucks to move goods quickly, hundreds or thousands of miles before the food items spoil (and the city populations starve).  Even the supermarkets rely upon electronics to manage their inventory control systems and customer billing, and the citizens rely upon transportation to get to and from the supermarkets (and quite likely, to travel up and down the many floors in their apartment building too).

Worst case scenario now would see millions of people in an urban area finding themselves with no local food supply sources within 50 or more miles of where they live, and with sources further away, but within say 100 miles or so, that were only capable of feeding perhaps 10% of the city’s population.  And with only a few days between a supply disruption and the population having no food to eat, there is very little time to resolve a problem or come up with alternate sources of sufficient food for the millions of people affected.

If a longer term disruption to society’s functions and services occurred, the modern-day imbalance between those who produce life’s essentials – the rural dwellers (and not all rural dwellers are food producing farmers these days anyway) and those who need life’s essentials to live but who can’t and don’t produce any themselves – to say nothing of the now massive distances between where food is produced and where it is consumed – makes it difficult or impossible for city dwellers to retreat to the countryside and find the needed support and sustenance there.  When there was a one to one ratio, it was probably possible, but with a five to one ratio?  Forget it!

This is another reason why we prepare for hard times – because there are no longer any ‘safety nets’ out there in case of disruption.  Quite the opposite – not only is there no longer any safety net, but now we have further to fall.

In 1800 each city dweller was supported by 33 rural dwellers/farmers.  In 1900, each city dweller was supported by six other people.  But by 1950, the ratio was dropping below one to one, and now, it has completely flipped on itself – there is only one rural dweller for each five or so city dwellers.

Any sort of failure of our highly leveraged infrastructure and support systems at present and we’ll discover just exactly how terribly unsustainable that ratio can be.


David Spero[suffusion-the-author display='description']

  7 Responses to “Urban Drift : A Worrying Trend”

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  1. We just learned recently there is a USDA housing program: similar to FHA in requirements, but will only finance houses in rural areas, which is to say just about any non-urban area. You can find out more about the program & eligible locations here: http://eligibility.sc.egov.usda.gov/eligibility/welcomeAction.do

    Sounds like someone out there has maybe recognized the problem, & wants to encourage people to return to the country. Of course, this being a government in which one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing, this tends to conflict with the EPA policies which penalize & discourage people from driving distances, with high gas taxes, etc.; the high cost of commuting is one reason many people have moved closer to the cities.

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