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Watching cities grow

Lifestyle | Explosive urbanization means social risks but also gospel opportunities

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

Trendwatching.com has its eye on urbanization. Drawing from sources including the United Nations, McKinsey Global Institute, Deloitte, and Foreign Policy, the website paints a picture of an increasingly urbanized world. More than half of the world's population lives in cities now, but by 2050 more than 70 percent will. China, India, and Africa will be leading the way. Between now and 2030, "400 million Chinese and 215 million Indians will move to urban areas, more than the population of the U.S. and Brazil combined."

During a visit to Beijing five years ago, I saw row upon row of identical high-rise apartment buildings-but what about rows of identical cities? Some new Chinese urban areas will dwarf in size any existing city. Trendwatching.com notes that Chinese city planners are now merging the nine cities around the Pearl River Delta into a single metropolitan area, containing some 42 million people: more than Argentina, and covering an area 26 times bigger than Greater London.

The website notes that wealth is concentrated in cities. For instance, "Shanghai's economy represents over 13 percent of China's total GDP, despite having less than 2 percent of the population." A growing middle class in formerly poor areas means that consumers aren't just thinking about survival. Trendwatching.com's business readers are trying to figure out how to appeal to these new urbanites, whom it calls Citysumers: "sophisticated urbanites, from San Francisco to Shanghai to São Paulo, who are ever more demanding and more open-minded, but also more proud, more connected, more spontaneous and more try-out-prone, eagerly snapping up a whole host of new urban goods, services, experiences, campaigns and conversations."

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Trendwatching.com concludes its description of the new urbanites with this sobering assessment of those who are "constantly exposed to a wide variety of alternative lifestyles and experience. . . . The clear (if gradual) global social trends are towards more tolerant attitudes towards abortion, euthanasia, casual sex, homosexuality, drug use, women's rights, etc. More diverse living arrangements and the removal of many of the traditional social structures in cities is a big part of this." This trend is also an opportunity for the gospel, since people unconnected to traditional social structures may be more willing to explore the claims of Christ. Many churches and denominations are learning what to do; for example, Redeemer City-to-City helps identify and equip local pastors to plant gospel-centered churches in the great global cities.

Rent and read

Once, Americans who didn't want to buy a book would rent one from a private lending library. Then, city libraries expanded and largely drove the private lenders out of business. Then, as Netflix became popular, some libraries broadened their holdings and began lending movies. Now, private lending libraries may be making a comeback by following the Netflix model.

For the past several months I've been testing out a new book rental service, Bookswim. The company has different levels of service: three, five, seven, or 11 books at a time, with fees ranging from about $24 a month up to $60. All allow for an unlimited number of books per month, with no due dates, late fees, or extra shipping costs. To hold down shipping costs, the company asks that books be returned in bunches, depending on the plan chosen. The books come with a prepaid return label.

Bookswim's selection is heavy on popular fiction and nonfiction: I received in one shipment Technopoly, Super Freakonomics, and Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World. The service was easy to use and the books arrived within several days. A Vince Flynn paperback in a second shipment was well-worn, but the other books were clean and in good condition. Canceling the membership was also easy. I received notice that my membership had canceled the day after I sent back my last shipment of books.

In this age of electronic books, does Bookswim make sense? I occasionally purchase a book for my Kindle, but I usually visit a large public library two blocks from my home. A rental book service doesn't offer anything that I can't get close by at a much lower cost. But if I were going to a place where I had no easy access to bookstores or libraries, and if I had a big family of readers that wouldn't be satisfied by downloading an ebook to my one Kindle, a visit to bookswim.com might be helpful.

Recession protection?

The Great Depression affected almost all Americans. The recent Great Recession is different, according to The National Marriage Project's most recent survey. Half of married Americans say they have escaped three financial stressors listed in the survey: unemployment or underemployment; inability to meet expenses; a home foreclosed or in jeopardy of foreclosure. The other half of Americans are under stress for one or more of those reasons. Another question to ask: How many of the unstressed are government employees?

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