Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

14.1: A Brief History of Urbanization

  • Page ID
    14577
  • Learning Objectives

    1. Discuss the health problems that resulted when cities developed.
    2. Explain why urbanization grew in the United States during the nineteenth century.
    3. List the problems poor nations face as their cities grow even larger.

    One of the most significant changes over the centuries has been urbanization, or the shift from rural areas to large cities. Urbanization has had important consequences for many aspects of social, political, and economic life (Kleniewski & Thomas, 2011).

    The earliest cities developed in ancient times after the rise of horticultural and pastoral societies made it possible for people to stay in one place instead of having to move around to find food. Because ancient cities had no sanitation facilities, people typically left their garbage and human waste in the city streets or just outside the city wall (which most cities had for protection from possible enemies). This poor sanitation led to rampant disease and high death rates. Some cities eventually developed better sanitation procedures, including, in Rome, a sewer system. Still, the world remained largely rural until the industrialization of the nineteenth century. We return to industrialization shortly.

    During the American colonial period, cities along the eastern seaboard were the centers of commerce and politics. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were the three largest cities in population size. Yet they were tiny in comparison to their size today. In 1790, the year after George Washington became the first president of the new nation, New York’s population was only 33,131; Philadelphia’s was 28,522; and Boston’s was 18,230 (Gibson, 1998). Today, of course, cities of this size are called small towns. New York’s population is vastly higher, at about 8.2 million; Philadelphia’s is 1.5 million; and Boston’s is 618, 000.

    US cities became more numerous and much larger during the nineteenth century because of two trends. The first was immigration, as waves of immigrants from Ireland and then Italy and other nations began coming to the United States during the 1820s. The second was industrialization, as people moved to live near factories and other sites of industrial production. These two trends were momentous: People crowded together as never before, and they crowded into living conditions that were often squalid. Lack of sanitation continued to cause rampant disease, and death rates from cholera, typhoid, and other illnesses were high.

    adef0b5af9f51d0904a26d0e8bced444.jpg

    Muckraker Lincoln Steffens wrote a classic work, The Shame of the Cities, that criticized the municipal corruption characterizing many US cities at the turn of the twentieth century.

    Wikimedia Commons – public domain.