While researching my soon-to-be-published story on Istanbul and the global building boom, I came across three nuggets of research that intersect in fascinating ways, underscoring where we are today and pointing toward an angry urban future.
The first bit has been in the news of late, and perhaps on the minds of Turkey watchers. Looking at historical data, Jeremy Wallace, a political science professor at Ohio State University, found that urban population growth tends to undermine authoritarian regimes. The greater the level of urban concentration in a given country, the shorter the shelf life of the autocrats.
It’s a logical finding, highlighting how cities concentrate large masses of people, connect them via roads and transport, and help them progress up the socio-economic hierarchy, moving beyond survival to concerns about services and quality of life. Wallace also found that these autocratic governments seem to understand this, and thus lavish a great deal more attention on their big cities than their rural areas – which, ironically, tends to draw more people to those cities. He also unearthed particularly good news for Gezi protesters and other critics of Erdogan’s government: regimes in which a single city, usually the capital, dominates the urban landscape fall nearly four years sooner.
The second nugget comes from urban data researchers Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt of the Santa Fe Institute, who found that the bigger the city, the more efficient it becomes. It's an idea that turns Malthus' theories about over-crowding and pestilence on their head, and its largely been borne out.
West and Bettencourt argue that a city is an organism, and, just as an elephant needs only 1,000 times the energy of a guinea pig despite being 10,000 times its size, a 5-million-person city needs less to accomplish factors more than its 200-hundred-thousand-person brethren. As a city grows, in essence, its inhabitants become better at solving its problems.
Finally, we have Brad Werner, a complex systems analyst at the University of California-San Diego. Of late he has begun to argue that, due to the apparent futility of global environmental management, mass resistance could well be humanity’s best means of slowing the unchecked growth threatening to destabilize life on earth. Many scientists are of the opinion that ditching our current economic system – focused on global capitalism and urban development – may soon become necessary to our survival. But only Werner has gone the next step and argued that protest may be our only chance of saving the planet from ourselves.
Considered together, the three discoveries -- from a political scientist-slash-historian, a pair of data researchers and a systems analyst -- outline a 21st century truth. As cities have gotten bigger, their inhabitants have hit upon protest as the best, most efficient method of dealing with heavy-handed governments failing to see which way the wind blows.
What does it all mean for Istanbul, Beijing, Moscow and other big cities? Hard to say for sure; could be dark days ahead.