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Social Sci LibreTexts

14.3: Problems of Urban Life

  • Page ID
    14579
  • Learning Objectives

    1. Discuss any three problems of urban life.
    2. Provide an example of a problem that specifically arises from the fact that cities consist, by definition, of large numbers of people living in a relatively small space.

    Life in US cities today is certainly complex. On the one hand, many US cities are vibrant places, filled with museums and other cultural attractions, nightclubs, theaters, and restaurants and populated by people from many walks of life and from varied racial and ethnic and national backgrounds. Many college graduates flock to cities, not only for their employment opportunities but also for their many activities and the sheer excitement of living in a metropolis.

    On the other hand, many US cities are also filled with abject poverty, filthy and dilapidated housing, high crime rates, traffic gridlock, and dirty air. Many Americans would live nowhere but a city, and many would live anywhere but a city. Cities arouse strong opinions, pro and con, because there are many things both to like and to dislike about cities.

    By definition, cities consist of very large numbers of people living in a relatively small amount of space. Some of these people have a good deal of money, but many people, and in some cities most people, have very little money. Cities must provide many kinds of services for all their residents, and certain additional services for their poorer residents. These basic facts of city life make for common sets of problems affecting cities throughout the nation, albeit to varying degrees, with some cities less able than others to address these problems. This section examines several of these problems.

    Fiscal Problems

    One evident problem is fiscal: Cities typically have serious difficulties in paying for basic services such as policing, public education, trash removal, street maintenance, and snow removal (at least in cold climates), and in providing certain services for their residents who are poor or disabled or who have other conditions. The fiscal difficulties that cities routinely face became even more serious with the onset of the nation’s deep recession in late 2007, as the term fiscal crisis was used again and again to describe the harsh financial realities that cities continued to face even after the recession officially ended in mid-2009 (McNichol, 2009).

    In early 2012, almost three years after the United States officially emerged from the recession, this fiscal crisis persisted. The mayor of Syracuse, New York, announced that her city faced a budget deficit of $16 million and called its fiscal problems “staggering” (Knauss, 2012). Mayors in Rhode Island told their governor that their cities need fiscal aid from the state to prevent them from having to declare bankruptcy. One of the mayors said, “We all have the same issues. Something has to be done this year. We cannot have a study commission. We cannot say ‘we’ll wait until 2013 or 2014.’ This is do or die” (Klepper, 2012). Detroit, Michigan, was in danger of running out of money altogether and being taken over by its state government. The member of the US House of Representatives who represents Detroit said he was seeking aid from the federal government: “Bottom line, I’m asking for federal aid to avoid massive layoffs, especially for our public safety workers. That’s what we actually need to attract businesses here who create jobs. We need safe streets and we need good schools” (Oosting, 2012).

    In response to financial problems in these and other cities across the nation, the US Conference of Mayors urged Congress in early 2012 to provide several kinds of aid to cities, including low-interest loans for local rail and road projects and funding for housing and job training for low-income residents (United States Conference of Mayors, 2012).

    Applying Social Research

    Urban Neighborhoods and Poor Health

    Social scientists have long thought that poor urban neighborhoods pose, in and of themselves, significant health risks for their residents. These neighborhoods lack supermarkets with fresh fruits and vegetables, and they lack safe parks and other settings for exercise. They are also neighborhoods with high crime rates and thus much stress. For all these reasons, they should impair the physical health of their residents. Reflecting this argument, the residents of poor urban neighborhoods do, in fact, exhibit significant health problems compared to the residents of wealthier neighborhoods.

    Although this argument might sound compelling, the residents of poor and wealthier neighborhoods might differ in other ways that affects their respective health. For example, people living in wealthier neighborhoods are generally more educated and more conscious of taking care of their health. If their health then is better than that of their counterparts in poor neighborhoods, it is difficult to know how much the neighborhood setting itself plays a role in the health of residents.

    For this reason, a recent study of a real-life experiment provided compelling evidence of the importance of the quality of a neighborhood for one’s health. In the 1990s, the federal government conducted an experiment in which 1,800 poor urban women were randomly selected and, with their permission, assigned to move from their neighborhoods to wealthier neighborhoods. The women were studied a decade after they moved. In particular, they were weighed and had their blood checked for evidence of diabetes. Their results were then compared to women in their original neighborhoods who were not selected to move away. The women who did move away ended up with somewhat lower rates of diabetes and obesity than those who stayed behind.

    The experimental design of this study allowed the researchers to conclude that the change in neighborhoods was the reason for their improvement in these two health measures. Reflecting this conclusion, the secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development said, “This study proves that concentrated poverty is not only bad policy, it’s bad for your health.” A news report observed that the results of this study “offered some of the strongest support yet for the idea that where you live can significantly affect your overall health, especially if your home is in a low-income area.”

    The results of this experimental study underscore the need to improve the living conditions of poor urban neighborhoods, as these conditions affect many life outcomes of the adults and children who live in them.

    Sources: Ludwig et al., 2011; Stobbe, 2011