Big, bad cities, where folks like to be

June 14, 1996|By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON -- Cities are monsters. Cities are bad for your health. Cities are impersonal and alienating. And the bigger they get, the worse they are.

That is the general tone of the rhetoric at the ''Habitat II'' Conference on Human Settlements, which has gathered 10,000 diplomats, experts and international civil servants in Istanbul for two weeks to discuss big cities. But it is nonsense.

When I first lived in Istanbul a quarter-century ago, the city had only 3 million people -- and that was three times its normal size. After the fall of Rome it was the biggest or second-biggest city in the world for a thousand years, but it had never exceeded a million people before.

In the early '70s, however, the older inhabitants were alarmed. Hundreds of thousands of rural immigrants were arriving each year, and the city's identity and traditions seemed to be vanishing under an avalanche of newcomers -- it was being ''villagized.''

Well, Istanbul's population is now 10 million, and it has not become a village. Its character is intact, and few of its residents envy the lives of their grandparents. Bigger is not always worse, no matter what the experts at the Habitat II conference say.

The conference, sponsored by the United Nations, is based on a report produced by the U.N. Development and Environment Programs, the World Bank and the World Resources Institute. At the beginning of this century, the report's authors point out, only 5 percent of the world's people lived in cities of over 100,000.

In a single century we have completely reversed that situation. Forty-five percent of the world's people now live in big cities. In Istanbul's heyday, it was one of two cities on the planet that reached a million people. By 2015, the world will contain about 560 cities with more than a million people, and dozens with over 10 million.

By 2015 there will be seven ''mega-cities'' of over 20 million people, warns the U.N. report, and every one of them except Tokyo will be in what is now the Third World: Bombay, Lagos, Shanghai, Jakarta, Sao Paolo and Karachi. Vast suppurating cancers spreading across the once-green land, blighting lives and shackling people to an unnatural, unsustainable servitude far from the nourishing bosom of Nature. . . .

Sorry. Disregard that last sentence. I went to get a coffee, and the column-writing program started spewing out the anti-big-city rhetoric and second-hand nostalgia for a mythic rural Eden that is usual when people discuss this subject. The truth is most people in big cities, though they whine endlessly about their lot, would hate the alternative -- which is not to live in a big city.

The U.N. report is studded with panicky factoids that, on closer inspection, turn out to be no cause for panic. For example, we are told that soon, 80 percent of the world's big-city dwellers will live in Third World countries. But if the rest of the world is going to follow a path of economic development anything like that once traveled by the West, what else would you expect? The Third World is where 80 percent of the world's people live.

Cities are not bad for us. If the 6 billion people on Earth were spread evenly across the rural areas instead of heaped up in cities, we would have little countryside, and little by the way of art, science, literature or technology, for those are all mainly urban activities.

Cities are where almost all innovation happens, because they, and only they, contain a critical mass of people with different experiences and differing perspectives. Their populations are generally better educated and healthier than those of the rural areas around them, because it is easier to provide services to concentrated groups of people.

So why are cities seen as the problem, not the solution?

One reason is that when cities grow fast, huge slums and even street-sleepers proliferate. It looks horrifying, and it feels hopeless. But it is generally a transitional phenomenon: Visit the areas that were squatter settlements 30 years ago in Istanbul or Manila or Rio and you will find that most of the dwellings have been steadily upgraded until they provide decent shelter. In many older areas, the residents now have water, electricity and even sewers -- while raw new shantytowns go on springing up around them. This is how cities have always grown.

Dickens meets Blade Runner

The other reason is a panic about sheer numbers. Mega-cities of 20 million-plus sound rather frightening: Charles Dickens meets Blade Runner. And this image persists even though the world's biggest city -- Tokyo, at 24 million -- is also its most orderly.

Somehow, nobody believes that Jakarta or Shanghai or Sao Paulo can achieve the same result when they reach a similar size, but why not? They are pretty olderly now. And hardly anybody understands that this is not runaway, limitless growth. There is a ceiling.

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