Urbanization is good for people. Urbanization played a vital role in transforming the world from primitive hunter-gatherer societies to complex and interacting societies. One of the ways urbanization did this was by fostering the creation and spread of new ideas. Another way that urbanization led to the development of complex civilizations was that the higher population densities compared to non-urban civilizations led to increased immunity to epidemic diseases. Urbanization also provided clear military advantages over pastoralists, which supported the development of large and complex civilizations.

Hunter-gatherer to Complex Civilization

Trade was a necessary part of the growth of civilizations, and urban centers served as centers for trade. Cities were often build along rivers or close to the ocean to be in a good location for trade. For example, there were sea ports in the North Sea and Baltic Sea in 1200’s which engaged in trade with each other.[1] In China, cities grew during the Song Dynasty, as a result of trade. This growth of urbanization was supported by new agricultural techniques, for example early-ripening rice.[2] Having rice that could produce two harvests per year allowed more food surpluses to support urban living. In addition to exchanging goods, trade spread new ideas from one urban center to another.

New Ideas

Urban environments led to new ideas being developed more quickly. Whereas hunter-gatherers interacted with people outside their band infrequently, city dwellers lived near others constantly.

One example of a new idea coming from an urban environment is the development of the polis in Ancient Greece around 800 BC.[3] This new idea of citizens having power to help make decisions in society would lay the foundations for later ideas of democracy. An example of this came the 1700’s with the French Revolution, where there was the idea that the government should express the will of the people that it rules.[4]

Also in Ancient Greece, new ideas in medical and physical sciences began to take off.[5] The ideas of the Greek physician Galen would influence physicians for centuries to come. These ideas and others eventually would come to conquer many of the diseases people suffered from in the ancient world and drastically improve the quality of life. Advancements in physical science would lead to new technologies like steam power, electricity, and eventually automobiles and computers. The Ancient Greeks had some ideas about what matter was made up of, in fact the word atom has a Greek origin.

In the 12th century in Europe, the first universities were established. Some of the first universities included ones in cities like Bologna, Paris, and Oxford in the 10th and 11th centuries. These universities had some independence from the church and the rulers of the time and were an ant’s nest of new ideas. Universities continue to be the places where the newest ideas are thought of to this day.

Figure 1: Map of early universities in Europe and the dates of their founding.[6]

Another example of new ideas coming out of urban centers comes from around AD 800 Baghdad. Al-Khwarizmi was a mathematician and astronomer, among other things, who helped to spread the idea of the number zero and ideas of algebra in the Muslim world.[7] These ideas were vital to the advancement of science and technology. The city environment promoted interaction with more people than pastoral life. Interaction with other people inevitably leads to the creation and exchange of ideas.


Living in close proximity to other people and domesticated animals resulted in increased immunity from diseases. For example, Eurasia had many types of domesticated animals while only five were domesticated in the Americas.[8] This eventually led to Europeans having an enormous advantage over people living in the Americas when trans-Atlantic exploration began. An example of this is how the population in Hispaniola went from 8 million people to zero in less than 50 years after contact with Europeans.[9] The introduction of smallpox was a main reason for this dramatic population decline. The inhabitants of the Americas did not have as many urban centers, so they had not built up immunities to as many diseases as the Europeans had.

Military Advantages

Living in urban environments gave people military advantages over pastoralists. Urban dwellers were able to get bronze, which gave them superior weapons.[10] Bronze required lots of wood and extensive trade routes, as well as specialized labor to produce it. Farmers eventually were forced to pay for protection from professional armies since they were not able to compete with the professional armies of urban civilizations.[11] One example of this comes from Sumer about 2000 BC. McNeill writes that one of the roles of the early Sumerian kings was to lead armies to take goods from mountain people living nearby.[12]


From these examples, it is evident that urbanization is good for people. Urbanization was critical for the transformation of societies from hunter-gatherer tribes to complex civilizations. New ideas were quickly exchanged and shared in urban centers where people interacted with many different people. The dense living environments in urban centers gave urban dwellers more immunity to diseases than pastoralists. Urbanization also provided military advantages over pastoralists. These factors show how urbanization is overall a good thing for people.




“Early European Universities and their Foundation Dates.” Early European Universities. Accessed August 08, 2017. http://www.paradoxplace.com/Perspectives/Maps/Early%20Universities.htm.

Chase-Dunn, Christopher K., and Thomas D. Hall. Rise and Demise : Comparing World-systems. New Perspectives in Sociology (Boulder, Colo.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel : The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

McNeill, John Robert., and McNeill, William Hardy. The Human Web : A Bird’s-eye View of World History. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.

Murphy, Verity. “Health | Past pandemics that ravaged Europe.” BBC News. November 07, 2005. Accessed July 10, 2017. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4381924.stm.

Standage, Tom.  An Edible History of Humanity. New York and London:  Bloomsbury, 2009.

[1] McNeill, The Human Web, 118.

[2] Ibid., 122.

[3] J.R. McNeill and William McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 69.

[4] Ibid., 227.

[5] Ibid., 73.

[6] Early European Universities and their Foundation Dates,” Early European Universities.

[7] Ibid., 118.

[8] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: Norton, 2005), 213.

[9] Jared Diamond, 213.

[10] Ibid., 49.

[11] Ibid., 50.

[12] Ibid., 50.

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