How Cities Stir Revolution

It wasn't so long ago that we thought the world was flat.  Globalization had leveled the playing field, technology spelled the death of distance, and people were fleeing the cities for the comfort of the suburbs. We'd reached the end of history. And social media could never, ever be a tool of social activism.

Taken collectively, these popular nostrums shaped a vision of an unreal world inhabited by billions of solipsists -- where, as Blair Kamin of The Chicago Tribune recently described it, people "lived in lonely isolation, lured away from the public square by the seduction of Internet chatrooms." But the lesson of Egypt--and of Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, Iran, and everywhere else that has been swept up in the wave of revolutionary activism--is quite the opposite. "The Web doesn't supplant the public square," Kamin declares. "It pushes people to it."

Cities push us ever closer, enabling the rapid spread of new ideas.  This accelerates the flow of new technology, increases the rate of new business formation, and makes for vibrant artistic and cultural scenes. And those very same mechanisms that unleash our innovative and artistic energies also make cities veritable cauldrons, in which political energy and activism are pressurized and brought to a boil.

Consider the Boston Massacre of 1770, the Paris Commune of 1871, the October Revolution of 1917 in St. Petersburg, the Chicago Convention in 1968, the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989, Cairo's Tahrir Square last month, and many more--all of them were events of global consequence, but they were each the product of individual cities. "These uprisings aren't just accidentally urban," noted economist Edward Glaeser. "They would be unthinkable at low densities. Cities connect agitators, like Sam Adams and John Hancock. Riots require a certain kind of urban congestion; police power must be overwhelmed by a sea of humanity."

The Middle East and the Arab World are highly urbanized, and their rate of urbanization has increased substantially over the past several decades, according to data pulled together by my Martin Prosperity Institute team.  While it is true that Egypt has seen a much slower rate of urbanization than the rest of the world, as The New York Times's David Leonhardt recently observed, Greater Cairo, which stretches to Alexandria and Suez, is the world's second largest mega-region, with a population of more than 75 million people and an economic output of $91 billion.  The Tel Aviv-Amman-Beirut mega is the world's 15th largest, with more than 30 million people, making it bigger than the So-Cal mega surrounding Greater LA and economic output of $160 billion.

The map above shows the level of urbanization for the Middle East and the world.  2009 was the year the world went urban--for the first time, more than half of its total population was living in urban areas.  About eight in ten Americans live in urban areas, and roughly three-quarters of the citizens of EU countries.

Kuwait (98%), Qatar (96%), Israel (92%) are among the most urbanized nations in the world, while  Bahrain (89%), Lebanon (87%), Saudi Arabia (82%) are all more urbanized than the United States (82%). Jordan (78%), UAE (78%), Libya (78%) are slightly more urbanized than the OECD nations on average. Oman (72%), Iran (69%),Tunisia (67%), Iraq (66%) are two-thirds urbanized. Morocco (56%), and Syria (55%) are above the world average. Egypt, where just four in ten people live in urban areas (despite being home to the gargantuan Great Cairo mega), is the exception to the rule. The Middle East as a whole is 61 percent urbanized, while the level for the Arab nations is 56 percent.

The Middle East and Arab nations have also seen a startlingly fast pace of urbanization over the past several decades. The share of Middle Eastern people living in urban areas increased from 35 percent in 1960 to 60 percent in 2009, while urbanization in the Arab nations jumped from 30 to 56 percent.  Urbanization increased from slightly less than a third (32.8%) to slightly more than half (50.3%) of the world during the same period. The advanced nations increased more slowly, which makes sense since they started with a much higher level of urbanization to begin with; the U.S., for example, increased by just 12 percentage points, from 70 to 82 percent.

Middle Eastern nations have seen some of the largest jumps, as the graph above shows.  Three nations posted gains of more than 50 percentage points: Oman (55%), Saudi Arabia (51%) and Libya (50%); Lebanon (45%) and Iran (35%) also saw significant gains. Urbanization levels in Tunisia increased by 29 percentage points, and by 27 percentage points each in Jordan and Morocco.

Middle Eastern cities are also quite dense. Density is key because it is what causes to people to connect and the pot to stir. It enables new ideas--whether about technological innovations, new artistic or musical styles, or revolutionary memes-- to move quickly through the population. These density statistics, compiled by the consulting firm Demographia, are eye-opening.  (One caveat: These data cover entire metros, so density in the center of the city is undoubtedly higher). Cairo has 9800 people per square kilometer. Yemen's Sana is even denser with 11,100 sq/km, while Iran's Qom, another hot spot, is home to 11,000 people per sq/km, and Tehran10,300. Amman, which has felt rumblings, has 7000 per sq/km. All of these cities have greater densities than Shanghai (6300) or London (5100). Riyadh has a density of 3000 people per sq/km. And Bahrain's Al Manamah, a significant locus of unrest, has only 1700 people per sq/km, but it is still on a par with greater Chicago (1500 per sq/km).

Unrest requires urbanism. Cities push us together and accelerate the spread of political activism. The same forces that are making the world spiky are making it increasingly volatile as well.