Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Urban Living

The human race passed a significant milestone this past year (or maybe in the past five years, because of difficulties in measurement and definition it is challenging to say exactly when). More than half of the world's six billion people now live in cities. This is pretty momentous.

Despite an idealization of the bucolic countryside with shaded glades and an easier pace of life, cities, since their inception some five thousand years ago, have exercised an inexorable pull of people from the country to urban life. The frank truth is that the myth of the noble savage and the free-loving native in a natural Eden are precisely that; a myth. Over the long haul, and usually even the short haul, city living, despite the sacrifices and the adjustments to personal habits that it requires, has been by far the better bargain for most people. People live longer in the city, enjoy better health, are richer, have greater gender equity, enjoy greater access to education and cultural resources, have lower infant mortality, etc. Not every single person, to be sure, but overall, the lesson is just about iron clad. Forget about going west: go to the city to seek your fortune.

City living is a technological, cultural, economic and political outcome not a function of the size of your country. Australia, a continent sized country with 20 million people, is more urbanized (91%) than the Netherlands with 16 million people on a virtual sliver of land where urbanization is measured at 90%. This despite Australia having 465 times as much land.

Modern man exited Africa about 75-100,000 years ago. The first walled towns or villages showed up around ten thousand years ago (Jericho in Israel at nearly five thousand years is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world). Cities showed up first in the Middle East; Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Persia then began appearing in Asia and Europe.

So - a hundred thousand years for the emergence of modern man; ten thousand years for the first towns; and last year for most people to now be living in a city. Progress of a sort.

What's so special then about cities that everyone seems to want to live in one? Well, there are the obvious reasons mentioned above which might be best summarized as opportunity and development. With one or two occasional (and usually temporary), exceptions there is a high correlation between the basic measures of well-being and the degree of a country's urbanization.

Why is this? Cities exist because of a capacity to generate surplus wealth (whether measured in baskets of grain, gold, or credits in a ledger). For most of our history as humans, we have been prey to weather, natural disasters, disease, and endemic warfare at a tribal level. That endemic warfare was in turn a function of insufficient productivity, people did not have enough to eat and so they sought to take what they needed from others.

With the first surpluses, people needed for the first time to band together to protect those surpluses. They began to have the capacity to plan not just for the next season's harvest but for things longer term. Roads, irrigation, permanent dwellings, etc. Planning required greater social cooperation and coordination. Urban dwellers moved beyond egalitarian familial decision making or close communal decisions based on the extended tribe. They had to develop new and more efficient forms of collective decision making involving people beyond their immediate family or tribe.

At the same time, with greater surpluses, cities were not only able to create larger more efficient forms of decision making, planning, and execution, but they also created the environment for new and more ideas and skills (such as writing) to be transmitted between individuals and from one generation and the next. More ideas among more people inevitably led to new ideas, new inventions.

The process of urbanization is therefore tightly bound up with the development of new forms of government (and gracious knows we have tried a lot of those), new forms of economy (trade, manufacturing and now the knowledge economy), new forms of technological development and new forms of cultural expression.

The archaeological evidence of early cities shows that this was not an easy or inevitably virtuous cycle. Concentrated power (politics) with larger and more concentrated wealth (economy and technology) led to a greater capacity for both improvement but also disaster. Greater concentrations of wealth in towns and cities made them natural targets for quick programs of income redistribution by foragers, farmers and passing raiders. This is of course why most early cities are in part characterized by defensive walls. Members not of the community had to be kept out because they were not part of the communal miracle of productivity and were likely to want to take the fruits of that productivity without exerting the disciplines required to create it.

Cities have not had an easy time but they have a winning promise to those willing to adapt to the disciplines and regulations required to make communal living among strangers feasible. For all that cities have attracted violent attention and have created the capacity to inflict destruction (through larger armies and advanced technology), it is clear that, despite our assumptions of an earlier Eden, the rural existence of foragers and farmers was far more violent. Evidence from the historical record as well as contemporary anthropological studies indicate that mortality among forager and agricultural communities from inflicted violence seems to uniformly range from a low of 5% to levels of 30%, i.e. 30% of all people died from some form of inflicted violence (punishment, war, personal attack, etc.). In most OECD countries over the past one hundred years, despite world wars, regional conflicts and what often seem to us as excessive levels of criminal violence, the mortality rate from violence is in the very low single digits. Almost everyone can anticipate dying from old age or disease.

Cities are a marked level of improvement for virtually all people on virtually all measures. Yet we seem to have an exceptionally ambivalent view of urbanization. We romanticize the rural past. We often directly or indirectly demonize the city.

Partly this is an artifact of history. Writers of children's books of the 1930's and earlier and through the 1960's had mostly grown up in rural and small town America. (America's urbanization stands at 76% and the big transition from country to city occurred between the World Wars and shortly thereafter.) Though they practiced their craft in the cities, they took as their subjects the idyllic recollection of their youth. Think of Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Huck Finn in particular has attracted all sorts of dissertations as an emblem of the noble savage being suffocated by civilization and town living. Think of the works of Robert McCloskey (Lentil, Homer Price, Blueberries for Sal, One Morning in Maine, etc.) and Virginia Lee Burton (Katie and the Big Snow, The Little House, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel) all of which idolize rural or small town living. Granted McCloskey did have a nice portrayal of Boston in Make Way for Ducklings and Burton to some extent of San Francisco with Maybelle the Cable Car. But the ratio sort of tells the story.

More contemporary authors deal with cities in a somewhat more favorable light but still often in a markedly ambivalent manner. Cities might be good but we aren't sure about that. If you look at a list of the most commonly cited children's books among librarians, teachers, parents, etc. among the top one hundred titles, about a third are set in the country or small towns and/or depict the countryside in a very positive fashion (e.g. The Secret Garden, The Little House, Little House on the Prairie, My Side of the Mountain, Pippi Longstocking, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Blueberries for Sal, etc.)

Slightly less than 15% depict cities in a positive light, even making a fairly generous allowance for what is positive or considered urban (e.g. Mr. Popper's Penguins, Madeline, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Cricket in Times Square, All-of-a-Kind Family, etc.)

Given how critical cities are and have been to our progress and well being, surely they deserve a better shake than this. This is not to undercut country and small town living by any means. But what are some of the books that are set in the city and that celebrate the advantages of city living? Below is a cut at some of those tales.

Enjoy these representations of city living and let us know of others that you and your children might have enjoyed.

This book list is divided into three sections:

(1) Picture Books

(2) Books for Independent Readers

(3) Young Adults

The list begins below with Picture Books, but you can use the following link to skip directly to the Independent Readers or the Young Adults sections.

Go to books for Independent Readers

Go to books for Young Adults

Picture Books

Make Way for Ducklings written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey Highly Recommended

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small Highly Recommended

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile written and illustrated by Bernard Waber Highly Recommended

House on East Eighty-Eighth Street written and illustrated by Bernard Waber Highly Recommended

The Adventures of Taxi Dog by Debra Barracca and Sal Barracca and illustrated by Mark Buehner Recommended

Peppe the Lamplighter by Elisa Bartone and illustrated by Ted Lewin Recommended

Madeline written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans Recommended

C Is for City by Nikki Grimes and illustrated by Pat Cummings Recommended

Alphabet City by Stephen Johnson Recommended

The Journey by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small Recommended

City Mouse-Country Mouse and Two More Mouse Tales from Aesop by Aesop and illustrated by John Wallner Suggested

Urban Roosts written and illustrated by Barbara Bash Suggested

Madeline in London written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans Suggested

The Little House written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton Suggested

Katy and the Big Snow written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton Suggested

Abuela by Arthur Dorros and illustrated by Elisa Kleven Suggested

Good Night New York City by Adam Gamble and illustrated by Joe Veno Suggested

Sky Boys by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by James E. Ransome Suggested

My New York Holiday written and illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen Suggested

Taxi by Betsy Maestro and Giulio Maestro Suggested

This Is London written and illustrated by Miroslav Sasek Suggested

New York Is English, Chattanooga Is Creek written and illustrated by Christopher Raschka Suggested

You Can't Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman and illustrated by Robin Preiss-Glasser Suggested

Sky Scrape/City Scape edited by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Ken Condon Suggested

The Wheels on the Bus illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Suggested

Trashy Town by Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemesha and illustrated by Dan Yaccarino Suggested

Independent Reader

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W. W. (ILT) Denslow Highly Recommended

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett and illustrated by Tasha Tudor Highly Recommended

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake Highly Recommended

The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

All-Of-A-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor Highly Recommended

Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard Highly Recommended

Stuart Little by E. B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum Recommended

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg Recommended

Underground by David MacAulay Recommended

Sahara Special by Esme Raji Codell Suggested

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright Suggested

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh Suggested

Snow in August by Pete Hamill Suggested

The Best of Nancy Drew Classic Collection by Carolyn Keene Suggested

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace Suggested

145th Street by Walter Dean Myers Suggested

Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer and illustrated by Valenti Angelo Suggested

Child of the Owl by Laurence Yep Suggested

Rats by Paul Zindel Suggested

Young Adult

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith Recommended

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