Why cities make sense …

(Published in The Freeman, May 24, 2012)

When I was young, one tale I always remember from Aesop’s Fables was the one about “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse.” Most of you know the story by heart – if you don’t, you probably belong to the younger generation who don’t know who Aesop was in the first place. Truly, if you really don’t, try googling it in the internet. I also suggest you read the stories – I guarantee it will make you a more well-rounded human being.

Anyway, the point is, at the time the story was told more than 2,000 years ago, there were already cities, and more importantly, there was already a dichotomy between cities and the countryside. Aesop lived in Greece, known for its city-states. I can imagine the difference in lifestyles between their city folks then, and the “promdis,” if even their household mice lived differently. Today, more and more of the world’s population live in cities. At the rate we’re going, time will come when country life would just be one of those Aesop’s tales.

It started earlier in ancient history when man first realize there are other ways of living other than hunting wild animals in a nomadic lifestyle. The discovery that we can actually cultivate plants for food started the first settlements, where a tribe or clan can permanently stay in one place. Since agriculture requires space, families can claim land and grow food enough for survival. Land was plentiful so everybody had enough. Of course, firstly, they settled on the land that they claim and use.

Sooner or later, people realized there is a better system than living on the land that you till. Imagine a chessboard which has 8 by 8 squares. Let’s suppose a tribe of 64 families live and cultivate a square lot of land each. Then each of them will have to provide for their own. The most important need for agriculture is water so each will have to dig their own wells. They will have to do their own household chores and protect their houses and families from harm.

One bright lad one day said, “Why don’t we live together so that we will dig only one well?” Why don’t families and houses just aggregate in one place so that they can have common protection. There will be a thousand and one other things that they can do together, saving the effort and time for each and every family. Anyway, during the day, they can just go to their individual plots and do their work. It wouldn’t a lot of time before they would realize it would even be more advantageous if they distribute work so that not all of them will have to do the same work. This is when specialization started so some could be farmers, others can be bakers, tailors, cooks, etc. Society became as diverse as it is now.

The fact of the matter is, the congregation of urban functions result in the efficiency of cities. A kilometer of power line may cost P10 million. In a far-flung barangay, it may serve 4 houses. In a busy residential area in Manila, 250 families may connect to the same. So for the same amount of money, an infrastructure may be able to serve a hundred times more people in a city compared to the countryside. In the lingo of economists, “mass production” will result to a more “cost-effective” and “cost-efficient” delivery of services.

There are constraints of course – our newspapers are full of these problems. But in the end, the human population will migrate to cities in this century. The world’s dwindling natural resources will even encourage it more. Even environmental problems like polution will be easier to solve when in a small confined space than in a large swatch of land. Eventually, Aesop’s country mouse will have to move in with his city cousin.   (To be continued…)