Last week, I participated in a discussion panel on urban poverty and urbanization. Over the course of the session, a fellow discussant highlighted the potential of working-from-home phenomenon in reducing the need for urban centers.
I am unsure if I could agree with the suggestion.
First off, such decentralization is possible. It is not out of this world. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted discussions on living away from cities. We could work from everywhere now. Some have even thought perhaps it is time to go rural altogether. There is a logic behind it.
Beyond the panel, there is a rethinking about high-density area. As it goes, maybe we should spread it out a little to make our society more resilient against future outbreaks. WFH is one of the ways that could be achieved. We can work remotely, and therefore we do not need a place in the city. Ditch the city, the slogan might sound.
If pandemic is the only thing to worry about, sure. Decentralizing the population into many smaller low-density towns would be the way forward.
But cities are not just about working culture, and pandemic is not the only thing that concerns us.
If I remember my lesson back in university, there is such a thing as agglomeration. If enough companies—and indeed people—gathered together, they would enjoy some kind of economies of scale in more than one way.
In terms of services, the more people there are in a place, the cheaper it is to deliver those services. This is relevant to both public and private services. Think of mass transit, or better city trains. Super-expensive to build and operate. Having it in Kuala Lumpur might make sense with its 2 million-4 million people depending on the definition used to define the city along with its satellites. Less so in smaller cities such as Kuantan that does not even hit one million population mark. Malacca Town with its low population city has a monorail, but we all know it is a bad, expensive joke.
And it is not just mass transit. Think about utilities. Think of roads or better in these days of interconnectivity, fiber optics network. It is cheaper to lay the cable for city use, like in Kuching, than in the interior of Sarawak. Indeed, communication tower is generally the preferred cheaper method of expanding internet services into rural areas.
There are plenty of examples across many sectors. Cost consideration alone make cities capable of providing services rural areas struggle to provide.
Large population is also a theme central to growth theory. As one growth theory puts it, beyond capital accumulation and technological progress, population growth is really the ultimate driver of growth. With population, comes new ideas. Edmund Phelps long ago wrote the following that pretty much summarizes mainstream growth theory:
One can hardly imagine, I think, how poor we would be today were it not for the rapid population growth of the past to which we owe the enormous number of technological advances enjoyed today… If I could re-do the history of the world, halving population size each year from the beginning of time on some random basis, I would not do it for fear of losing Mozart in the process. [Edmund Phelps. Population Increase. Canadian Journal of Economics. August 1968. Page 511-512]
To put it simply, technological progress itself is a function of population growth.
Good stuff tend to be created when people congregate in a place. New observation, innovation, idea exchange and all that happen more often among large population located in a dense area than in a sparsely populated space. The residents of large cities also make sophisticated demands arising from urban life. Without these demands, nobody would think of the solution and no progress would be made.
There might be an optimal population size. But for Malaysian cities, I think we could make it denser. I prefer denser cities not just because of the factors mentioned above and more, but also because the toll sprawls exert on the environment. Big cities tend to share resources better.
Finally, it is true that the pandemic lockdown has proven that we have the technology to work from home.
But it also proves we do not enjoy being stuck at home.
We do not just live within the space of our four walls. It is the culture, the connections and the values that matter as well. We yearn society. I yearn the city.
Many options available in the cities are available on the internet not because online services are taking over those services previously provided physically. Rather, the internet accommodates the provision of those services. It does not make cities irrelevant. Ultimately, those very services are made possible by cities.