Thursday, May 07, 2020

Urban Flight, Epidemics, and Demographic Change

In recent weeks, many people who can afford to do so have fled the congestion of cities for suburban, rural, or resort areas. Some such prized destinations have taken aggressive action to exclude non-residents:

Second Homes

It's being speculated that the flight from cities may lead to a permanent shift from urban to suburban living, for those who have the luxury of choice. The work-at-home trend may continue and accelerate after the present crisis ends. One commentator (see "Great American Migration" below) says, “You’ll still have urban centers. But they’ll be less intense and more dispersed. You’ll no longer have to choose between unaffordable, overcrowded cities and incredibly boring countryside. There will be a more attractive middle ground.”

Great American Migration

Other observers point out that the 1918 flu pandemic didn't cause the downfall of cities, and predictions that people would retreat from large urban centers after 9-11 didn't materialize. In fact, most cities have continued to gain population regardless of these and similar crises. Cities may have to adapt, but they aren't likely to empty:

Will the Pandemic Empty the Cities?

During the plagues of the past, people frightened of disease have often tried to escape the lethal overcrowding of cities. Boccaccio's 14th-century DECAMERON introduces a group of young, wealthy gentlemen and ladies who flee from the Black Death to a villa outside Florence. In antebellum New Orleans, upper-class families annually retreated from the city to country homes during "fever season." Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" portrays the gruesome fate of a prince who barricades himself and his cronies in his palace for a nonstop orgy while taking refuge from the titular epidemic.

As Arno Karlen explains in MAN AND MICROBES, his book on the evolution of infectious diseases from prehistory to the era of AIDS and Ebola, the phenomenon of epidemics began with the invention of agriculture and cities. Agriculture allowed the same land to support a much higher population than in hunter-gatherer or nomadic societies, but with negative trade-offs. People eating a monotonous diet of mostly grain tend to be less healthy than hunter-gatherers (as archaeology confirms). The resultant overall decline in health impairs the immune system. Moreover, by living in close quarters with domestic animals, they fall victim to animal diseases that mutate to prey on human hosts. With the growth of cities, for the first time in human history enough people lived together in a congested environment for epidemic diseases to flourish. Before modern sanitation and medicine, cities were deathtraps compared to the countryside (for the poor and working class at least).

We think of our contemporary world as being dominated by urbanization. Yet rural, agricultural communities still flourish, too. Herding and hunter-gatherer societies still exist, even if pushed to the margins by industrialization. Some people enjoy cutting-edge, high-tech conveniences and comforts, including smart houses, while others don't yet have indoor plumbing. This subject reminds me of a weakness in much SF that depicts contact with extrasolar planets. Too often, the alien world seems to have only one level of cultural and technological development that's uniform all over the planet, as well as one religion, a universal language, and, sometimes, a single ecology (the ice world, the desert world, the jungle world, etc.). Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover offers an example of doing it right; we see a variety of languages, climates, landscapes, and cultural customs on Darkover. Think of what different impressions of Earth extraterrestrial explorers would get if they landed in New York, Tokyo, Yellowstone Park, central Africa, the Australian outback, or northern Alaska and didn't bother to look any farther than their initial touchdown point.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

No comments:

Post a Comment