City Life. It's in Our Nature

Humans move to cities to satisfy an overwhelming natural instinct to connect with each other.

By Naser Al Wasmi, NYU Abu Dhabi Public Affairs

People sacrifice a lot to move to cities. Smaller spaces, higher rent, more congestion, and a costlier life. We abandon nature to exist in a concrete and metal landscape that couldn’t be further from how the majority of our human ancestors survived. Yet today, humanity is moving away from the countryside to these hubs at a rate faster than ever before. The allure of living in an urban environment continues to drive millions to consider the move to cities despite the stresses it brings with it. 

Saif Jabari, assistant professor of civil and urban engineering, gives an example of what people are willing to pay in rent in New York City neighborhoods. “A studio apartment in Williamsburg will set you back the same amount as a three-bedroom house in Riverdale, and your commute would be the same if you work in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.” 

“It gives you an idea of what we’re willing to give up to live in cities. It’s nice to walk outside your front door and see art, people, go to a coffee shop and strike up a conversation that could lead to opportunities, that’s what makes cities so attractive, these interactions that really broaden your horizons,” he said.

Jabari does research on urban traffic. Specifically, he develops models that aim to capture the build-up and dissipation of congestion and attempt to find solutions for congestion in urban settings. His revelations have shown that roads are not the problem.

“More roads is not the solution. Infrastructure is very costly; at some point, it will deteriorate and then you’ll have to pay to fix it but we still see cities building more roads to mitigate congestion. It’s a mistake that some developed cities have made in the past, and it’s a mistake that younger cities continue to make today,” he said.

His solution is to stop building more roads and do more on public transportation. However, that places people in direct contact with each other all the time. Those interactions, although the reason behind why people typically move to the city, could illuminate how we choose to live together. 

“Automobile traffic is like comment sections on social media. People tend to be more impulsive than they are normally. When in close proximity to one another, we tend to be more tolerant.”

Jabrari understands that traffic is stressful for everyone, and the same reasons that make people move to cities — the interaction and opportunity — could lead to conflict and social compartmentalization.  

Longing to Belong

Traffic aside, people move to cities for valid reasons. There is potential in cities to provide individuals with opportunities for upward mobility. Urban environments are also hubs for creativity and productivity that can unlock limitless human potential. But, on a base level, people move to cities to connect.

Jaime Napier, assistant professor of psychology, says at the core of our survival instinct, humans are social animals — constantly striving to be a part of a group that possess “a fundamental motive to belong.” In moving to cities, humans are attempting to create that collective experience and create what she terms as a “shared reality,” or a series of experiences that connect two people who are otherwise complete strangers.

Her idea of a shared reality explains why unbearably awkward silences between two people have gallantly been saved by one single question: “So, how about this weather?” she says. “People talk about that because it’s a shared reality that we’re both experiencing, but if I said ‘it’s hot out today and you said I’m freezing’ we would have ruined our attempt to connect. In small group cases, people end up conforming to feel part of the group. But you can also imagine cases where people avoid contact because they fear not having these kinds of connections.” 

“So, how about this weather? People talk about that because it’s a shared reality.”


Jaime Napier, assistant professor of psychology

This is also the reason people are choosing to move to cities that better represent their world views. In the US, more young people are moving to cities that reflect their political and social identities. On one hand, this is making cities more harmonious but on the other it’s eroding at the idea that cities are these concentrated, diverse microcosms of the world where people from different backgrounds can come together and coexist.

However, people from different backgrounds will continue to move to cities for financial opportunities and a slew of other reasons. However, with the growth of xenophobia and an increasingly isolationist world, the diversity of cities that was once celebrated could lead to civil disunity. 

Urban Culture Clash

Kinga Makovi, assistant professor of social research and public policy, works on social networks. More people are moving to cities than ever before, at the same time more people from different countries are migrating than at any point in history. In 2018, there were 272 million migrants in the world, 50 million more than there was in 2010, and that number is poised to grow. But people from different nationalities need to manage how to live in new environments that, at times, share no cultural similarities with their backgrounds.

“That’s the question. How do people manage fitting in, while preserving their identity that links them to home? People will look to develop new relationships in their new environment but how do they negotiate that with strong positive relationships they have with their home environments, at times can prove tricky. Possibly, this may be the most challenging for youth who were brought to a new country by their parents,” she said.

Attempts by people to segregate these two worlds are not sustainable over time. It becomes particularly difficult if the identity required by the new peer group and their cultural identity are in conflict.

Makovi looks at how minorities in both cities and other environments are perceived. She says decisions are made on the basis of how well migrants are thought to be integrated culturally. One core finding from a recent study of hers, together with NYUAD colleagues Melina Platas and Anahit Sargsyan, is that differences in religion may pose the most important barrier for integration into neighborhoods, schools, and the labor market.

Makovi also conducts research on how people manage their other identities, in particular how people manage information about their partisanship. “If we are different, I might be afraid to share that information with you. So I might try to hide it or I might try to pretend that my political beliefs are different for fear of mistreatment,” she said. 

“This phenomenon may be especially relevant in cities where we are interacting with so many people whom we don’t know or know only superficially. In other words, these processes may not be as relevant in less densely populated areas where everyone knows everyone. There’s not much room, for instance, for misrepresentation in this context,” she said. She finds that misrepresentation, when suspected, is punished severely in another study with Maria Abascal and Anahit Sargsyan.

Openness in the so-called era of globalization is a fragile value. Countries are increasingly keen on electing officials that represent majority populations and close the door to the diversity that was once celebrated. However, with this research and more coming from NYUAD, intricate and subtle urban interactions could be better understood and could lead to some capacity for policy makers and those in power to make decisions that could create more welcoming cities of the future.