How the pros and cons of city living vary around the world

Every day, more people become city dwellers. The challenge of urban existence is to balance its benefits and its drawbacks.

By Jared Diamond
Published 6 Apr 2019, 20:26 BST
Singapore is amazing! Especially in the night. Honestly, I have never seen any city that looks ...
Singapore is amazing! Especially in the night. Honestly, I have never seen any city that looks like Singapore in the evening.
Photograph and caption by Evgeny Vasenev
This story appears in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine, which is a Cities special.

For most of the six million years of human evolution, all humans and protohumans lived like somewhat glorified chimpanzees, at low population densities, scattered over the landscape as families or small bands. Only within the past 6,000 years, a small fraction of human history, did some of our ancestors come together in cities. But today more than half the world’s people live in these new settings, some of which have tens of millions of inhabitants.

Urban life involves trade-offs. We may gain big benefits in return for suffering big disadvantages. Let’s consider two of them: the trade-off between individual freedom and community interests, and the trade-off between social ties and anonymity.

To understand the issue of freedom, take first the city of Singapore, in effect one of the world’s most densely populated micro-countries. Singapore’s nearly six million people are packed into about 250 square miles—230 times the average U.S. population density. It’s an Asian financial center, a major port on one of the world’s busiest shipping straits, and a tiny piece of prime real estate wedged between two giant, powerful neighbors, Indonesia and Malaysia. Singapore was part of Malaysia until 1965, when economic and racial tensions spurred its separation. But Singapore depends on Malaysia for most of its water and much of its food, and can’t afford to make mistakes or provoke its neighbors.

So Singapore’s government monitors its citizens closely, to make sure that individuals don’t harm the community. Inspectors check for water standing in each household’s pots, lest they furnish breeding sites for disease-transmitting mosquitoes. Smart-technology sensors measure (or will measure) the traffic on every street, the movements of every car, and the temperatures of and shadows cast by buildings. They also will track the water and electricity consumption of every household and will note the time whenever a household toilet is flushed. Americans may view such measures with horror, as George Orwell’s novel 1984 come true. But for Singapore’s citizens, it’s the bargain that they have made with their government: less individual freedom in return for First World living standards, health, and security.

Next consider Germany’s cities, also densely populated. Local governments have rules about the shapes and colors of tiles that Germans may use on their houses’ roofs, and about the sizes and ages of trees that they can or can’t cut down on their property. To obtain a fishing license, Germans must attend many hours of fishing classes, then pass a 60-question exam. Most Americans would bristle at such restrictions. But benefits to German communities include beautiful regional architecture, green cities, government support for the arts, and healthy fish populations.

At the opposite extreme comes my own city of Los Angeles, where rights of the individual property owner are prized as sacred. The result is a free-for-all, in which many individuals and communities suffer disadvantages. Almost any style of house is permissible; local architectural character is nonexistent. Tree cover is vanishing, temperatures are rising, and landowners’ excavated dirt and sprayed pesticides end up on neighbors’ property. To fish in the local bay waters, anyone can buy a fishing license—no questions asked—so of course fish populations decline.

The outcomes of trade-offs differ for Singapore, Germany, and L.A. because different geographies and histories have led to different customs. Population density is highest in Singapore, intermediate in Germany, lowest in the United States (including California). China—whence the ancestors of most of Singapore’s population arrived—has had cities for five millennia, Germany for two millennia, the United States for just a few centuries. Chinese traditional farming is communal; Germans have close-packed individual farms; and U.S. frontier settlements had self-sufficient, widely scattered families. The cultural legacies of those differences live on today.

Another issue of urban life is the trade-off between social ties and anonymity. Traditional living arrangements still practiced today in rural areas of New Guinea, where I’ve been working since the 1960s, resemble those formerly practiced in pre-urban Western societies. New Guinea villagers live out their lives where they were born, constantly surrounded by lifelong friends and social support.

A first reaction of many lonely, urban Americans is: How heartwarmingly wonderful! When New Guinea villagers move to cities, they find themselves surrounded by strangers, their friends few or recent or scattered across the city. The frequent results are unhappy isolation, decline of social support, and proliferation of urban crime.

Still, we American city dwellers shouldn’t romanticize traditional village living arrangements. My New Guinea friends tell me that those arrangements are also socially suffocating, and limit individuals’ abilities to realize their potential. In New Guinea villages, everybody knows, constantly watches, and incessantly discusses what everybody else is doing.

As a result, a New Guinea friend who spent years living in a U.S. city loved it—because (as she told me) she could sit alone and read a newspaper in peaceful anonymity in a sidewalk café, without being importuned by fellow clan members asking her for money and bewailing their troubles. New Guineans have learned to appreciate the modern urban inventions of opaque bags and trouser pockets—because those inventions permit them to conceal things from neighbors and thereby to acquire small luxuries without becoming targets of village comment. Thus, New Guineans recognize drawbacks as well as heartwarming benefits of village life. They also understand the benefits, not just the pains, of urban anonymity.

It all comes down to compromises. As the world becomes increasingly urban, will all of us be forced to adopt more of Singapore’s solutions? If a government meter that records every flushing of your toilet is part of the price you’d have to pay for living in safety, health, affluence, and beautiful surroundings, what would you choose?

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel. This essay is drawn from his latest book— Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis—which comes out in May.

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