In most chapters of the 6 million-year evolution of mankind, all humans and primitives live in a state of equal importance to the orangutans, which have a low population density and are scattered in the form of families or small tribes. Only in the past 6,000 years – a small section of human history, some of our ancestors joined the city. But today more than half of the world’s population lives in these new social environments, with some tens of millions of people.
Urban life involves many trade-offs. We can exchange huge benefits by enduring huge shortcomings. Let us consider two of them: the exchange of personal liberty and community interests, and the exchange of social ties and anonymity.
To understand the topic of freedom, let’s take a look at the city of Singapore, one of the most densely populated micro-states in the world. Its 6 million people are tightly squeezed into the 720-square-kilometer territory, which is 230 times the average population density in the United States. It is an Asian financial center, an important port in the world’s busiest cargo strait, and a small piece of prime property sandwiched between two strong neighboring countries, Indonesia and Malaysia. Singapore was part of Malaysia before 1965, when the country was governed by economic and ethnic tensions. But most of Singapore’s fresh water and a large share of food depend on Malaysia’s supply, and it can’t afford to make mistakes and untouch the neighbors.
Singapore citizens and their government finalized transactions: less personal freedom in exchange for living standards in developed countries.
Therefore, the Singapore government closely monitors its citizens and ensures that individuals do not harm the collective. The inspectors also checked the water in each household’s pot to prevent the breeding of mosquitoes that spread the disease. Using smart technology sensors measures the traffic on each street, the movement of each car, and the temperature within the building’s shadow. They will also track the amount of water and electricity used by each household, and the time each time the toilet is flushed in the house will be recorded. It may be frightening for Americans to see such information gathering, just as George Orwell’s novel “1984” becomes a reality. But for Singaporeans, this is the deal they have finalized with the government: to reduce the standard of living, health and safety in developed countries with a reduction in personal freedom.
Next, think about German cities, and their population is also very dense. The local government’s regulations are so detailed that the public can use the tiles of any shape and color on the roof, and can cut or not cut the old and old trees on their own real estate. In order to obtain a fishing license, the German must take many hours of classes and pass a 60-question qualification exam. Most Americans will froze in the face of these constraints. But the benefits of German society include beautiful local architectural styles, green cities, government support for art, and healthy fish.
At the other extreme is Los Angeles, where I live. The personal property rights here are sacred and inviolable. The result is that everyone is at ease, and many individuals and groups suffer from dumb losses. Almost any style of house is allowed, and the so-called local architectural features do not exist. Vegetation cover is decreasing, temperatures are rising, and dust and sprayed pesticides from the owner’s construction envelope the neighbors. If you want to fish in the Bay Area, anyone can buy a license without any review, which of course leads to the attenuation of the fish.
Singapore, Germany and Los Angeles have different results for urban settlements because different geography and history bring different customs. The population density is the highest in Singapore, medium in Germany, and lowest in the United States. China, the birthplace of most Singaporeans, has a history of 5,000 years. The history of Germany is two thousand years, and the United States has only a few centuries. Traditional farming in China is commune-style, while Germans have individual farms that are closely aligned, while self-sufficient farmers are widely scattered in the colonies of the United States. These various cultural heritages have been passed down to the present day.
Another topic of urban life is the choice of social bonds and anonymity. The traditional form of residential houses is also practiced today. For example, the rural areas of New Guinea, which I have been working from since the 1960s, seem to be similar to the Western social form before the city. The villagers of New Guinea are a lifetime in their birthplace, and they are always surrounded by friends and society who are familiar with them.
The first reaction of many lonely American city people is: How warm is it! When the villagers of New Guinea moved to the city, they found that they were all strangers, friends were few, or they were shallow, or scattered around the city. This often leads to unpleasant isolation, weakened social support and increased urban crime.
Despite this, urban residents in the United States should not romanticize the traditional forms of rural living. My New Guinea friend told me that such a social environment can also suffocate people and limit their potential. In the village of New Guinea, what one person does is known to all others and is subject to endless review and discussion.
As a result, a New Guinean friend who has lived in the American city for many years has fallen in love with this, because (she told me) she can sit alone in the roadside cafe to read the newspaper and enjoy the peace of anonymity without having to be tired. To cope with the entanglement of people in the village to ask for money or complaints. New Guineans have learned to appreciate the opaque shopping bags and trouser pockets invented in modern urban life – so that they can block the peers’ peeping, and buying small luxury goods doesn’t need to be discussed by the villagers. New Guineans can see the enthusiasm of rural life and the shortcomings of it. They not only understand the pain of being a cityless name, but also understand its benefits.
In the end, everything must be compromised. As the world becomes more urbanized, are we all forced to approach Singapore’s governance? If the government’s instruments are recorded every time you flush the toilet, and this is one of the costs you have to pay for a safe, healthy, affluent and beautiful environment, how would you choose?