Of American-English origin, the phrases asphalt jungle and concrete jungle designate a city or urban area which has a high density of large, unattractive, modern buildings and is perceived as an unpleasant living environment.
—Cf. also blackboard jungle.
These are the earliest occurrences of the phrase asphalt jungle that I have found, in chronological order:
1-: From The Fable of the Spotlighters and the Spotter, published in Hand-made Fables (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920), by the U.S. author and columnist George Ade (1866-1944):
Once a Traveller arrived at a Cure where the Water of the Healing Springs smelled so awful that the Management felt justified in asking $10 a Day.
This Traveller was a City Yap […].
After the newly arrived Delegate from the Asphalt Jungles had read a Telegram saying that Frazzingham Preferred had advanced from ¾ to ⅞ on a Report that the King of Rumania had received a Letter from the King of Greece, he brushed up a little and then sauntered back to the Bureau of Information and asked the Room Clerk if any one was stopping in the House.
2-: From a letter to the Editor, published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri, USA) of Tuesday 4th March 1924:
In connection with your charge of “ignorance and indifference,” consider that this election was called for winter, in the snow and over muddy roads with little opportunity for country folks to investigate or confer on a subject matter admittedly abstruse and technical.
Consider that in spite of barriers thus purposely raised, the farmers trudged in arctic overshoes, or leaving their cars and knotting up their horses’ tails out of the mire, rode miles to the polls, to cast their so-called negative ballots, which nevertheless was their most affirmative expression of loyalty to their sovereign Constitution.
And yet the country cast as large percentage as the city vote.
Compare their arduous labor with the lily-fingered denizens of the asphalt jungles, the curled and perfumed darlings of the limousine districts, the adipose Apis of the market temples chauffeured to the ballot box. Coaxed by a big campaign fund and spurred by the organization of local selfish interests, the languid electorate of St. Louis, failing to register a quorum, may with some show of fairness be branded “ignorant and indifferent.”
3-: From Adventures of a Bell Pusher, the confessions of a door-to-door salesman, published in the San Pedro Daily Pilot (San Pedro, California, USA) of Tuesday 13th April 1926:
I won’t attempt to catalogue all of the names I was called while exploring the asphalt jungles of the residential section.
One woman called me a “goof” for ringing her bell while some delicacy was being concocted in the kitchen, “You peddlers worry me to death,” she moaned.
4-: From the review by W. A. Martin of Mannequin (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926), a novel by Fannie Hurst—review published in the Buffalo Evening Times (Buffalo, New York, USA) of Sunday 15th August 1926:
The nurse, who is a moron with a mad infatuation for the baby, carries out an impulse which she has long felt and steals the child.
Under a fictitious name little Joan grows up in the Lower East Side of New York, believing that this nurse is her mother. She is exposed to the most horrible and degrading human contacts, but, like Browning’s Pompilia *, she is immune to any of the poisonous influences of her environment. The squalor, the gloom, the sordid animality of those asphalt jungles leave her quite untouched.
* Pompilia Comparini is a character in The Ring and the Book, by the English poet Robert Browning (1812-1889).
These are the earliest occurrences of the phrase concrete jungle that I have found, in chronological order:
1-: From The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California, USA) of Friday 13th June 1924—here, the author specifies that the concrete jungle is constituted by lofty apartment houses:
Dies With Only Pets Near—Attended in death only by her canary and pet cats, the body of Miss Fallie Pearce, aged 60, was found yesterday by Policeman Rauer in her tiny, humble home on Mason Street, in San Francisco, lost in a concrete jungle of lofty apartment houses.
2-: From this advertisement, published in The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland, USA) of Sunday 5th July 1925:
Poor old soul, he knows that all these years his city-bred heart has bottled up a love for green grass, trees and flowers. That’s why he’s so crazy about golf; taking pleasure in little sips when he might live in Ten Hills and enjoy hour upon hour out of doors… It’s positively foolish to live in the “concrete jungles.” Buy in Ten Hills and start LIVING.
“The Country Suburb”
Caughy & Company, Inc.
220 E. Lexington St.
3-: From Loose Ends, by H. B. W., published in the Victoria Daily Times (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) of Wednesday 30th November 1932:
We drive on again, up Granville. (Yes, I am aware that this is getting pretty dull, but the fact is, I bet a Vancouver fellow that I could fill a column about one evening in Vancouver and I am going to win no matter how you suffer). […] At the other side of the bridge there is such a blinding collection of signal lights, such a maze of roads crossing one another like the fingers of two folded hands, that I cannot imagine where we are going or how we are going to escape destruction. You have to be born in this concrete jungle to know your way about.
Desmond Morris (born 1928), English zoologist and writer on animal and human behaviour, contrasted concrete jungle with human zoo in the introduction to The Human Zoo (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969):
When the pressures of modern living become heavy, the harassed city-dweller often refers to his teeming world as a concrete jungle. This is a colourful way of describing the pattern of life in a dense urban community, but it is also grossly inaccurate, as anyone who has studied a real jungle will confirm.
Under normal conditions, in their natural habitats, wild animals do not mutilate themselves, masturbate, attack their offspring, develop stomach ulcers, become fetishists, suffer from obesity, form homosexual pair-bonds, or commit murder. Among human city-dwellers, needless to say, all of these things occur. Does this, then, reveal a basic difference between the human species and other animals? At first glance it seems to do so. But this is deceptive. Other animals do behave in these ways under certain circumstances, namely when they are confined in the unnatural conditions of captivity. The zoo animal in a cage exhibits all these abnormalities that we know so well from our human companions. Clearly, then, the city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.
The comparison we must make is not between the city-dweller and the wild animal, but between the city-dweller and the captive animal. The modern human animal is no longer living in conditions natural for his species. Trapped, not by a zoo collector, but by his own brainy brilliance, he has set himself up in a huge, restless menagerie where he is in constant danger of cracking under the strain.