Rural to Urban Migration at the City's Edge


By Eric Toole


“Belonging is a privilege, and has its price.” (Kostof, p.11)


Throughout history, the overwhelming trend has been towards urbanization. In the developed world's past and the developing world's present, spurts of growth result in rural to urban migration. These spurts of growth, efforts towards an improved future, are distinctly urban. The city is the creative space generating this momentum, the requirement of a rural influx, a working class input. The city's edge is the permeable surface where these differences are played out, where they constantly collide.


But, rural and urban communities are not only differentiated by this spatial boundary. Separation between these two ways of life lies deeper in a cultural notion of progress. This can be seen in the fact that rural life has been extremely static. Developments in technique, in tools and instruments have of course been added but at an extremely slow pace. Furthermore, these innovations only make more efficient tasks that have been constant through rural history: planting, tilling, etc. When serious changes are made to agricultural life and practice – take American industrial farming as an example – it is largely imposed by urban firms. Humongous tractors, synthetic fertilizer, and genetically modified crops are all inventions of, could only be inventions of, the urban mind and Fordist industrial technique.


Distinguishing between these cultures is important because it clarifies their interaction, it explains the status and motives of those living on the “city edge.” Rural to urban migration is not only an urban expansion but partially resulting from an expansion of urban ideology. When an individual is attracted to the city, arrives on the periphery, it is in the pursuit of new opportunities, of social mobility and higher wages. From this, we get the notion that the city is “where it all happens.” The city is a center of activity not because of simple human density, but as the result of a pressure to constantly change, make new, pursue and fetishize futurity.

Mobility, the opening up of new opportunities to an individual, is accessed only in the city. It is one of the major 'privileges' of urban life and a major reason for one's recent addition of himself to the city. In agricultural life, living by the seasonal schedule of planting and harvesting, there is an ingrained pattern to life. It's flow is predetermined, synced with nature's rhythm. And, this binds an individual to predictability. Annual routine and daily life are not the only components of this life that are predictable, constants tuned to tending a crop. Repetition is also imbedded in the outcome. The static nature of agricultural life is rooted in the predictability of outcomes, the repetition of daily life and annual routine.


Without the opportunity for change or even variation, many leave the countryside. A component of this may be simple boredom but, more severely, mobility is pursued when the status quo means a meager subsistence, maybe even an unsustainable one. At least when one knows things will be different, when there is an opportunity for change, hope is possible. In rural life, there is certainty, there is less choice, and, depending on economic conditions, this sometimes influences an individual to join the city. “To the degree that a city is prosperous and resourceful, it will attract to its periphery outsiders who wish to share its advantages.”


While agricultural life means certainty of outcome, of occupation, it does not mean certainty of health, or good education. Another major 'privilege' of city life is the support offered by a government. These are most fundamentally described by Kostof's section of the development of California tract homes. Plots were simply laid out and “the host city was obligated to bring in the major utilities” (Kostof, p.64). The key word here is obligated – municipal governments are required to provided certain things to residents. Infrastructure is a major advantage of city life. The provision of roads, public transportation, plumbing, and electricity are supposedly secured to every inhabitant. Also important is the governmental standardization of living spaces and conditions that translated to a basic right to health, and livable conditions. In the city, rights and quality of life are supposedly assured by the municipal government. This is not paid with a cultural trade-off, it is simply funded by tax dollars.

But slums in the developing world, almost as a rule, are not provided these things by their governments. Many residents live in self-built shacks; near plants emitting toxic substances; on sites that are prone to mudslides, flooding and other catastrophes – and the cost to human life is great. Cities supposedly provide for the right to healthful, secure existence but, in the developing world, the poor are always excluded. The reason for this is obvious: governments are overwhelmed. Slumdwellers cannot provide anything in tax revenue. They, as a result, receive none of the benefits of a municipal government and are subject to the extreme version of all of the problems that same institution was created to protect against.


So, the boundaries are drawn around these areas. Responsibilities towards them are ignored and they are excluded from the city that doesn't want to provide for them. The city edge is drawn with political, expansionary motives. Historically, this practice has been drawn not to exclude but to include surrounding communities in the practice of annexation. In fact, it was often done “to avoid strangulation by neighboring populations which earn livelihoods in a city, but do not contribute proportionately” (Papademitriou – Kostof, p.59). Here, I find a contradiction. The “livelihoods” earned by a commuting workforce are not to their exclusive advantage. Those who work in the city support its well-being, the wealth of their employers, and the revenue created by their contributions to industry. The population of a city should then be defined as its workforce. The population's definition should not be allowed manipulation by the flexible logic of a governing body. Those who live in the slums cannot contribute directly to tax revenue because they are being robbed out of their labor. Those who profit greatly from exploitation are not taxed properly. If they were, there could be money enough to extend municipal privileges to the slums. Instead of the contribution of tax dollars, those in the slums contribute greatly to labor and thus deserve infrastructur, health and security advantages.

When an individual chooses to participate in the city it is because of his perceived chance of a better life, the 'privileges' initially mentioned. “To the degree that a city is prosperous and resourceful, it will attract to its periphery outsiders who wish to share its advantages” (Kostof, p.47). A city's edge is the place where these differences between rural and urban life are put in contact.




Works Cited:


1.) Kostof, Spiro. (1999). The city assembled. New York, NY:

2.)Davis, Mike. (2007). Planet of slums. New York, NY: Verso.

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