An overlooked technology in shaping the city

The birth control pill turns 50 this week.  This technology has arguably been a key ingredient in shaping 21st century North American and European economic and urban life.  And yet, I don’t ever recall hearing urban theorists mention it.  So here’s the argument for the Pill as a key technology in shaping the new urban geography emerging today.

Since coming into widespread use in the 1970s, the Pill has allowed women to choose when or whether to have children, and how many.  This in turn has allowed women to imagine themselves in professional careers–and to fulfill those dreams.

Here are four ways the Pill has been re-shaping urban life.1. The fertility rate has dropped from 4 children per woman in her lifetime in Canada in the late 1950s to 1.6 children per women in Canada (and likely similar in urban areas of the US).    Women working in all variety of professions (not just nursing and teaching), is one of the drivers reshaping North America’s cities.

2. The knowledge economy built on collaboration and communication; psychologists will readily tell you that more women than men tend to excel in these areas.  Can you imagine a knowledge economy company with no women working there?  Women now earn more than half of all Bachelor’s and Masters degrees, which has been key to many knowledge occupations.

3. Experience economy–increasingly people have become more interested in consuming experiences rather than goods.  People from most income backgrounds today will spend money on fine dining, the spa, travel, a concert, etc.  Having the spare money and time to indulge in these is a direct consequence of having children later in life and/or having fewer of them. This allows both women and men some disposable income and time with which to have experiences.

4. Apartment and condominium living in dense, walkable and amenity-rich areas has been growing in popularity.  Living in small spaces suits a family of 3 much better than it would suit 6 people.  Suburbia made sense when having 4 or more children was normal.  Plus, living in an apartment near where both parents work, allows for more family time instead of commuting.

In his book The Great Reset, Richard Florida describes a new urban geography emerging in response to the growing “creative” economy (just as suburbia emerged in response to the industrial age).  Unless I missed it in reading the book, he doesn’t mention the Pill as perhaps the greatest labour saving technology for women (pun intended)–having fewer children to mother means more time and energy for contributing to the knowledge economy and makes dense urban living work much better.

4 comments

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  4. TomB says:

    Just over two years after I graduated, my wife (who had finished her two Bachelor degrees earlier that year) gave birth to our first. Within three years, we’d had three kids. So, we skipped most of the above steps. However, in the years before kids, we made use of the “pill”.

    We both know the damage we’ve done to our careers. She has to rebuild from less than nothing in a few years and as a Daddy, I am reluctant to be overworked. But for us, it’s not a cost. It’s a benefit. She used the pill until her early 20′s. When she is in her mid 30′s, she’ll be able to re-enter the work force and give 30-40 straight years.

    Plus, the added bonus is the way reduced rates of birth defects. Check these out:

    http://www.babyhopes.com/articles/birthdefects.html
    http://www.cancerresourcecenter.com/articles/article33.html
    http://www.marchofdimes.com/professionals/14332_1155.asp

    Women NEED and deserve to have the right to choose. We feel that too many women are risking too much for their career. I am not asking for all women to stay at home and bake cookies, that’s not the answer. But, when we celebrate the pill, let’s also look at some of the risks and issues it has introduced (or increased).

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