Urban Life

Something that fascinates me endlessly about spending my time in an “old world” culture like that of Taiwan is the stark difference in the realities of urban life between our culture and theirs. Maybe it’s because they have been at it so much longer than we have, I mean the Chinese had a restaurant culture 2000 or so years ago, and we Europeans just started to catch up with them a few hundred years ago, but life here just seems to fit together much better than it does in Canada.

We North Americans have a habit of arrogantly looking down on the urban cultures of other places and assuming they’re some kind of rural backwater slums punctuated by the occasional western-style structures like a business tower, a Starbucks or a Wal-Mart. Nothing could be further from the truth, these places and people have been dealing with massive populations for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years and while their urban planning skills do often leave a little bit to be desired (as any poor Asian postman will tell you) they have highly developed urban ecocultures which I have to say leave ours in the dust in some ways.

Long ago the people here realized something: that city life is about the service industry, that you simply make money by providing goods and services to other people. Now, that might seem like the most obvious of statements, and in Europe we too had an urban culture and service industry, but when it came to North America, things kind of broke down. Here’s what I think happened:

When North American was first settled, it was mostly done so by peasants who wanted a patch of land to farm and stake out their claim on prosperity. Urban culture was mostly left behind (except in ideas brought from the old country) and a sort of self-sufficient rural community mentality was the norm instead. By the time real towns and cities did get around to forming in North American the renaissance was coming to a close in Europe and a new age, the Industrial age was starting to begin. Urban populations in Europe and North America swelled as factories were formed and people swarmed into the cities to get jobs that didn’t rely on the vague whims of the weather and the isolated life of the countryside.

So, here we have the cities of the Western world booming with work and people, and of course an urban culture developed to meet the needs of these people. In Europe, this culture already existed, it just needed to expand and evolve a bit, but in North America this culture was something entirely new. The whole Western urban cultural system developed based on the idea that the majority of people would be either working in factories or working to support those who were working in factories.

And, of course, this worked great because there was lots of work and lot of people, that is, until the Great Depression hit and the factories started to close. Suddenly there were a whole lot of people and not a whole lot of work, which as any economist will tell you is a really bad thing because people without work can’t buy stuff so money isn’t circulating. The whole system was starting to break down, and probably would have collapsed entirely were it not for a short Austrian who decided to use the German army to invade Poland.

World War 2 created a whole industry in and of itself, and suddenly there were weapons to be made and people to be sent off to war. The economy boomed, the population problems were solved (dead men don’t need jobs) and even when the war ended the boom continued because the economy had been given a massive boost. Factories were now open again producing all the new technologies that the war had developed, construction projects were everywhere, and the culture and economy were back in sync again. Urban life was about people who worked for companies and supporting those who worked for companies.

This system continued to work pretty well for a while, and it even survived the beginnings of outsourcing as factory jobs (the ones now too low for North Americans) were shipped first to Japan, then Taiwan, and later other parts of Asia and South America. But, eventually North American’s own wealth caught up with them, and it just became too expensive to make things in North America for North Americans. By the 1990’s the writing was on the wall, not just the Industrial Age, but the age of stable corporate employment was ended. Now was the time of downsizing, of maximizing corporate profits, things like society and culture and countries didn’t matter anymore, only money did.

So, we had a whole lot of people out of work.

In the “old world”, this wasn’t a huge problem because there had already been a culture there which predated the “factory age” that told people how to survive and live in crowded cities. People just kept doing what they always did, running mostly small businesses of one kind or another, often from part of their homes, providing goods and services that their neighbor’s needed, and life (with various hurtles to be overcome) went on.

But North Americans have a problem, our culture was designed ONLY based on the “factory age” and it’s assorted service industries. People in North America don’t know how to survive if you don’t show them a direction to take when the factory closes down because they don’t have any skills or family trades to fall back on. I’m not saying this is true in all cases for North Americans or (in the case around me) Taiwanese; there are definitely Urban cultures that have developed in places like Manhattan or Vancouver (mostly areas with limited space to “sprawl” to) which are much more self-sufficient than most.

I have heard it said that in North America we currently have too many people for the jobs and resources available, but I don’t think this is quite true. I think it would be more accurate to say that we have too many people who lack the cultural instinct, drive, training and know-how to help build the new economic ecosystem we’re going to need to succeed as a people in the future.

It’s not that people in North American aren’t capable of developing a self-sustaining urban eco-culture, they just don’t know how.

Well, more on this topic later and comments are always welcome…

2 thoughts on “Urban Life

  1. I don’t understand. I guess I’m slow or your bad at explaining? Can I get a point form on the differences between the cultures? Or a basic description of what you mean by “that city life is about the service industry, that you simply make money by providing goods and services to other people.” and how that applies to each culture differently?

  2. No problem. Here’s the Coles Notes version:

    North American city life developed based around factories, so we think of employment in terms of “working for a company”. Old World city life developed based on the idea of individual employment to begin with, then they added the whole factory/company thing in later. So, when the factories (and companies) started to go away, North Americans didn’t know what to do because they had only known the “factory based” lifestyle. Taiwanese, on the other hand, when they lost their factories to mailand China, just went back to running small businesses the way they always had. Is that clearer?

    Another way to think of it would be that old world cultures never learned to rely on social institutions (like welfare) whereas North Americans have gotten too used to having a safety net.

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