What After Urbanization?

29 elo 2016
Panu Lehtovuori

Urbanization is a fundamental societal process that reshapes individual and communal fortunes across the globe. When people in big numbers move from country to cities, environment, economy, social life and shared values all change rapidly and in a complex manner.


While hardly anyone can doubt urbanization’s deep-cutting transformative power, I would like to turn our attention to some less clear dimensions of the on-going change.

Firstly, pervasive urbanization is both a historically unique and rather new process. For millennia, humankind was living in rural settings, and cities remained relatively small. Over 90% of people were always and in every country rural. Only industrialisation from early 19th century on made mass-urbanization both possible and necessary. There is no mass urbanization without industrialization.

Secondly, industrial urbanization is a process that cannot be turned back. It is a qualitative shift or quantum leap that changes nearly everything in a given society. Good example is the idea of leisure: before industrialisation and its new labour relations no one thought about “leisure”. There were neither social institutions linked to leisure such as vacations, nor leisure spaces such as weekend homes.

These two ostensibly simple points – the quantitative and qualitative aspect of urbanization – hide interesting uncertainties and gaps in knowledge.

Michael Batty in a lecture that can be freely viewed raises the question that we are not able to know what happens to the urbanization rate after the rapid urbanization process is over. Diagram 1 is a representation of Batty’s question. Does the rate stay close to 100% for the coming decades and centuries? Does it go down again? Does is fluctuate? No one knows exactly because mass urbanization is historically unique process without precedents. We do not know if the large industrial cities and the global urban system stay or if they start to change in surprising ways, taking new evolutionary paths.


Henri Lefebvre discussed already in early 1970s the horizon of “total urbanization” (1). Diagram 2 represents that idea. Lefebvre’s point was qualitative. He foresaw that regardless of the exact urbanization rate, developed societies were changing and moving from the industrial phase to something new. Lefebvre, thus, discussed a second qualitative leap after industrial urbanization, a leap to a fully urbanized society.

Many other authors have developed Lefebvre’s vision, but it is still today quite unclear what the fully urbanized society actually means. For even the best minds, it is not easy to see through systemic changes. Also the complex interplay of the quantitative, material processes and the qualitative socio-cultural processes poses a real challenge.

To grasp the future possibilities, in the URMI project, we spot interesting trends and surprising weak signals in nearly all areas of human life. Simultaneously, we work with spatial data studying built form and mobilities to better understand what is going on right new.

While in Europe and Finland we are already an urbanized society, there remains substantial work to be done to understand the dynamics of the next urbanization phase. History will not stop, and urban dynamics will likely grow more complex and surprising. We do not know, yet, “what after urbanization”. Surely, the answer will not be boring.



(1) Lefebvre, Henri (2003). The Urban Revolution. University of Minnesota Press. (Original in French 1970)

Thanks to Jaana Vanhatalo for drafting the diagrams.


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