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Sydney, Australia

Photo by SMH/Sam Mooy

Urbanisation, Building Stories and Compassionate Cities

By Excellence Reporter on September 5, 2017

Sydney, Australia

“Urbanization is the process by which rural communities grow to form cities, or urban centres, and, by extension, the growth and expansion of those cities. Urbanization began in ancient Mesopotamia in the Uruk Period (4300-3100BCE) for reasons scholars have not yet agreed on. It is speculated, however, that a particularly prosperous and efficient village attracted the attention of other, less prosperous, tribes who then attached themselves to the successful settlement”. [1]


What is urbanisation?

I grew up in the late 1950’s with stories that told of forests, quiet country life and long journeys to cities for excitement. I myself took to travelling when I was barely 16 years old, deciding that I wanted to see for myself the diversity of life that I had grown to imagine.

That was many years ago, and one of the memories that significantly impacted on the way I see human life, was the distinction between the country people, people who lived amongst nature and the city dwellers who lived in the built environment. No matter where I went in the world I saw a significant change in culture, in habits and interactions depending on the density of the urban space. As a child coming from urban Sydney, trips to the natural environment revolved mainly around the local beaches and Katoomba, which at that time was a country town in the blue mountains, that thrived on tourism. Hence travelling around the world staying in youth hostels in country areas, and living in small towns amongst the natural environment were all new experiences and expressions of what life could be.

Building cities has been one of the hallmarks of civilization, in fact the word civilize refers to a complex human society, in which people live in groups of settled dwellings comprising cities[2]. What is noteworthy in the 21st century is that wherever you go in the world now, there is an exponential shift from country living to urban city life.

Looking back over time, Joshua Mark explains in the Ancient History Encyclopedia,

“The artificial environment of the city, which subjugated the surrounding natural environment to the needs of the populace, consistently is seen to eventually deplete and destroy the very resources which gave rise to the city. As urbanization increased, rural lands decreased… This cycle of rise and fall of cities is seen repeatedly in many cultures around the world. Why it happened so frequently in some regions, such as Mesopotamia, and not in others, such as Greece, is a question still debated by scholars and historians. Some assert it is simply a matter of over-population (as in the case of the Maya) while others point to an overuse of the land (as at Ur and other Mesopotamian cities). Neither answer is completely satisfactory and most likely it is a combination of many factors, a lack of forethought among them, which led to the destruction or abandonment of so many ancient cities.”[3]

Today, the most urbanized regions of our world include Northern America (82 per cent living in urban areas in 2014), Latin America and the Caribbean (80 percent), and Europe (73 per cent) [4]and Australia leading urbanisation with 90% of Australians living in urban areas (cities or towns of more than 1,000 people), and another 3% living in smaller towns or localities.[5]

An urbanisation view does away with any reference to the capital city and looks just at the difference between urban and rural locations. The Australian Bureau of Statistics loosely defines an urban area as a centre with a population of at least 1,000, and a population density at least 200 people per square kilometre connecting with this centre.

Rapid urban growth is not unique to Australia, but in no other Western country are cities growing as fast as ours. It is not unique to our time, but it does pose unique challenges.[6]

The Nature Conservancy is the world’s largest conservation organisation working around the world to conserve the lands and waters. This organisation started in 1950 and has this to say about Australia and urbanisation.

“Home to big sports and fancy coffees, the best in health and education, astonishing food choices and entertainment for every taste – cities are increasingly the preferred habitat for humans. And while many have perhaps romantic colonial notions of us being a typically bushwhacking bunch Down Under, Australia is in fact one of the most urbanised countries in the world.  That’s right, 90% of Aussies live in cities compared to 82% in the USA and just 56% in China”[7].

The Industrial Revolution and Urbanisation

The First Industrial Revolution took place from the 18th to 19th centuries in Europe and America. It was a period when mostly agrarian, rural societies became industrial and urban The iron and textile industries, along with the development of the steam engine, played central roles in the Industrial Revolution.

The Second Industrial Revolution took place between 1870 and 1914, just before World War I. It was a period of growth for pre-existing industries and expansion of new ones, such as steel, oil and electricity, and used electric power to create mass production. Major technological advances during this period included the telephone, light bulb, phonograph and the internal combustion engine.

The Third Industrial Revolution, or the Digital Revolution, refers to the advancement of technology from analog electronic and mechanical devices to the digital technology available today. The era started during the 1980s and is ongoing. Advancements during the Third Industrial Revolution include the personal computer, the internet, and information and communications technology (ICT).

The Fourth Industrial Revolution builds on the Digital Revolution, representing new ways in which technology becomes embedded within societies and even the human body. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is marked by emerging technology breakthroughs in a number of fields, including robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, The Internet of Things, 3D printing and autonomous vehicles.[8]

We may not have personally witnessed the first two Industrial Revolutions, but we certainly have lived with their impact and consequences for its good and not so good realties. Some of us may remember the beginning of the third Industrial revolution, remembering when we needed to be still whilst on the telephone and correspondence meant sending a letter with a stamp that took at least 2 days to get to its destination. We are all however present in being part of the witnesses to the fourth generation of Industrial revolution. And it is to this account of being alive and witnessing change in society that is being addressed in this article.

Just before we move into a deeper analysis of our responsibility, let us remember what Yuval Harari, a present day Historian is saying about being human.

“The romantic contrast between modern industry that destroys nature and our ancestors who lived in harmony with nature is groundless. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of life.”[9]

Since the early 1800s we have seen three waves of the Industrial revolution, that have by their nature changed life from farming to urban living. The inventions that brought with them factories and transportation created the context for the environmental revolution and eventually the conservation movement, giving rise to a response to the smoke pollution and damage being made to the natural environment. As Yuval Harari reminds us, we as humans create and we destroy, that is our nature.

So what is the moral dilemma of the fourth Industrial Revolution, expressed by Vinayak Dalmia and Kavi Sharma writing for the World Economic Forum:

“Traditionally, technology progress outpaces the political process: we already missed drafting the moral charter for the internet, and continue to play catch up till this day. We cannot afford to be blind-sided by the next frontiers, be it in biotechnology or AI. Our future is increasingly being scripted by engineers and entrepreneurs, who are not necessarily being held to account.

Society is good at adapting to change – from the steam engine to the iPhone to markedly increased lifespans. As Bill Gates put it, “technology is amoral”. It is up to us to decide how to use it and where to draw the line.”[10]

If it is up to us, then we need to keep up to date with not just the benefits of the fourth Industrial Revolution, but also with the collateral damage that comes with it and we cannot rely on the Environmental and Conservation revolution to deal with the third and fourth Industrial revolutions, they were responding to the first and the second IRs. The collateral damage refers to the side effects, the suffering fall out that we may or not be aware of just yet.

Compassionate cities?

Suffering has always been part of our personal and social reality, and the revolution that is responding to the 21st century urbanisation and fourth IR is coming from a diverse group of scientists, psychologists and social researchers. The revolution is being called, the Compassion revolution, and it is revealing itself not always by that name. The call to create Compassionate Cities[11] has excited many people around the globe and so now the challenge is how to create a Compassionate City? What would it look like, feel like, be experienced as? How would it be, if this civilization were to be archeologically discovered in 200 years, what would be the telling signs that scientists would note,: here was a compassionate city?

One suggestion is coming from Japan. On the frontier of responding to the question is urbanisation a health issue?, Qing Li, MD, PhD, Associate Professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, Japan has since 2004 to 2012, led a new field of health research into the physiological and psychological effects of being in the urban space or being in the forest amongst nature and trees. The Japanese government has spent millions of dollars in this research and it is clear that urbanisation and the fourth Industrial Revolution is impacting on peoples wellbeing. Shinrinyoku, or Forest Bathing is now being seen as a government response to the public health issue of modern society. There are now in Japan 48 therapy trials that measure the activity of human natural killer (NK) cells in the immune system before and after exposure to the woods. These cells provide rapid responses to viral-infected cells and respond to tumor formation, and are associated with immune system health and cancer prevention. In a 2009 study Li’s subjects showed significant increases in NK cell activity in the week after a forest visit, and positive effects lasted a month following each weekend in the woods.

“These cells provide rapid responses to viral-infected cells and respond to tumor formation, and are associated with immune system health and cancer prevention. This is due to various essential oils, generally called phytoncide, found in wood, plants, and some fruit and vegetables, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects. Forest air doesn’t just feel fresher and better—inhaling phytoncide seems to actually improve immune system function…Experiments on forest bathing conducted by the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences in Japan’s Chiba University measured its physiological effects on 280 subjects in their early 20s. The team measured the subjects’ salivary cortisol (which increases with stress), blood pressure, pulse rate, and heart rate variability during a day in the city and compared those to the same biometrics taken during a day with a 30-minute forest visit. “Forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments,” the study concluded.”[12]

The benefits of being in nature are directly related to our physiological and mental health and so it could be that the challenge of the 21st century response to the fourth Industrial Revolution and Urbanisation reality, is to create compassionate cities. These will look very different from the past civilizations. The research that is now growing as a study in Korea and the USA, along with an Association of Nature Forest Therapy Guides who are being trained to facilitate and guide people in how to benefit from this research, could offer an urban planning shift in 21st century urbanisation. The challenge is here; will we create a compassionate city that will survive the test of an archaeological discovery?

  1. Mark. Joshua J. published 7 April 2014
  3. Ibid Mark, Joshua 2014
  4. World Urbanization Prospects The 2014 Revision Highlights United Nations
  10. Yuval Noah Harari, From Animals into Gods: A Brief History of Humankind 2012
  13.   October 12, 2016 and


Michelle Brenner has been in the field of Conflict Resolution for over 25 years. She was one of the first to graduate university in Conflict Resolution from Macquarie University in the early 90’s and has had a career within a variety of contexts, local government, education, police and family. More recently she has published 2 books based on her more current adult education teaching. The  books are Conscious Connectivity: Creating Dignity in Conversation and Conversations on Compassion. Both books include chapters from a broad diversity of contributors. Her present work is as a Nature Forest Healing Guide as well as her consultancy in Conflict Resolution. She is a founding member of Holistic Practices Beyond Borders.




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