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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 13, Number 3, 1991(UNU, 1991, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentCities in the 21 st century - The urban half
View the documentThe pathology of the city
View the documentNew strategies for urban poverty
View the documentLopsided modernization and the urban poor
View the documentUrban transport and urban growth
View the documentThe hub of Japan
View the documentThe land game
View the documentShaping Tokyo for the future
View the documentSeoul: Still a metropolis in the making
View the documentAsia's growing urban rings
View the document"A giant supermarket..." - Is there anything good about mega-cities?
View the documentThe emerging world city system
View the documentUNU update

Cities in the 21 st century - The urban half


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At the dawn of the 20th century, the world was largely a rural place - fewer than one person in seven, it is estimated, lived in an urban area. By the end of this century, a few short years away, we face the prospect of a global population that is half urban. By far, most of this growth will occur in the already overcrowded and unmanageable cities in the third world, particularly in those huge urban conglomerations known as "mega-cities."

The current problems of the world's largest metropolises, and some of the long-term implications for their growth and development, were the focus of a Symposium on the Mega-City and the Future held in Tokyo in October 1990 under the joint sponsorship of the United Nations University and the Population Division of the United Nations. The meeting brought together some 40 experts in various aspects of urban life - environmentalists, geographers, economists, engineers, social scientists and others, including elected city officials and representatives of international organizations - for four days of discussion of the major issues confronting the mega-city today. This issue of WORK IN PROGRESS is based largely on materials presented at that symposium.

Mega-City New to History

The mega-city is a fairly recent phenomenon in human history. At the beginning of the 19th century, the largest city in the Western world was London, with just under a million people, whereas in Asia, Tokyo had just over one million; Paris had about half a million and Osaka had roughly a little more. A hundred years later, at the onset of the current century, there were 11 cities worldwide with more than a million inhabitants - most of them in Europe and North America. By the year 2000, it is estimated that there will be a total of 24 cities around the globe with populations in excess of 10 million. Eighteen of these mega-cities will be in the third world.

The mega-cities, it was observed at the symposium, often tend to have more in common with each other than their rural hinterlands - whether in poor or rich nation. More and more, there would appear to be a kind of urban pathology that crosses ideological, economic and cultural lines. Life in a large city - whether New York, Paris or Calcutta - is too often seen, in the words of Aprodicio Laquian in his overview of world cities, as "dehumanizing, corrupting and degrading." Om Prakash Mathur further argues that in the third world the mega-cities offer "the worst forms of visible poverty" with their slums, squatter settlements and unsanitary living conditions.

Against this justifiably negative perspective, there is the countervailing view of the city as a positive force in human history. The famed French historian Ferdinand Braudel likened towns to "electric transformers" that accelerate the rhythm of exchange and constantly recharge human life. The large metropolis and its environs, it seems clear, is where the latest advances in micro-electronics, computers, communications and other scientific progress are most likely to be generated. It also seems indisputable, as Andrew Marshall Hamer of the World Bank noted at the Tokyo symposium, that the new arrival in a city, on average, will do better economically than had he stayed back in the impoverished countryside.

While the movement from countryside to city has been going on throughout this century, its escalation to crisis proportions is largely a post-World War II phenomenon - with a rapid growth in metropolitan areas in all parts of the world. Previously, it was the rich industrialized countries of the north which were urbanized, while the poor south was predominantly rural. This has been changing rapidly over the past several decades due to the continuing rural flight of millions into the teeming already crowded cities of the third world.

In Asia alone, it is estimated that the second half of the 20th century has seen more than three-fold increase in urban inhabitants. Not all of this, of course, is the result of migration; estimates vary widely as to how much is due to migration, how much to natural increase. Whatever the true figure, however, it is the migrants who are the most highly visible on arrival, and more demanding on most public services than new babies.

The rapid growth of cities everywhere in the developing world raises questions about what rate of urban growth should be supported. What are the limits of urbanization? What should be the proper spatial distribution of human activities - which affect transportation flows and thus energy costs. These were the sorts of questions the mega-city symposium sought to address.

What Is a Mega-City?

There was general consensus at the Tokyo meeting that a definition of a mega-city based merely on population size would not suffice. There must also be some fundamental criteria that distinguish it from other large cities - and these would probably be linked to the city's position in the urban hierarchy, both of the nation in question and in the international city system. A mega-city needs to be defined, therefore, in light of its role as an economic and political centre. There was further recognition that what was being discussed were not just mega-city problems - rather they were often problems shared by urban areas generally, and thus were concerns impacting more or less directly on half of humanity as it enters the 21 st century.

The symposium highlighted the various forms that the urbanization process has taken in different countries and regions of the world. In Asia, where the flight to the cities has been most extensive, population density is not only an urban characteristic - indeed, the Asian countryside supports some of the densest populations anywhere. As a response, several countries of the region have sought to encourage decentralized urbanization. This phenomenon is discussed in the Indonesian context by Terence McGee in an excerpt from his Tokyo paper.

In Latin America, economic development has tended to concentrate in the major ports where the European colonialists arrived - Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro. Yet other, less well-known Latin American cities have also experienced rapid development and population growth. The mayor of one such city, Jaime Lerner of the Brazilian city of Curitiba (pop. 1.6 million with annual growth rate since 1960s nearing 6 per cent), reported to the Tokyo conference on some of the ways he which his city was coping with transportation needs.

African urban development has had yet another pattern. Few urban agglomerations on that continent are seen yet as mega-cities - only Cairo and Lagos would qualify, although others, like Nairobi, Kinshasa and Kano, have the potential. Much of Africa's urbanization is due to the "push factor" from its ravaged and environmentally degraded countryside. Government policies have more often than not favoured the cities to the disadvantage of the rural areas. The terms of trade are generally unfavourable to the agricultural sector. Fu-chen Lo discusses some of the consequences of the collapse of commodity prices for urban areas throughout the third world.

He also considers some of the implications in the increasing dominant role played by modern technology in defining the current international economic paradigm - a process which tends to link the world's mega-cities, often to the exclusion of their own countrysides, into a new kind of world city system.

The City as Ecosystem

A new way of looking at the city is offered by Ignacy Sachs and Dana Silk - one which views the city as essentially an artificially created ecosystem. They argue that this approach could help planners to understand how the complex urban environment combines elements of both natural and artificial systems. Such a perspective would emphasize the many actual and potential interactions between different human activities in urban areas. The Sachs/Silk article is excerpted from their book. Food and Energy: Strategies for Sustainable Development, newly-published by the United Nations University Press and based on the UNU's Food-Energy Nexus project research.

The mega-cities of the world can be divided roughly into two categories. First, there are the thriving metropolises driven by their role - financial, political, technological - in the global network. The big urban centres of the industrialized countries and those of the newly industrialized economies (NIEs) of South-East and East Asia fall into this category. Tokyo, the world's largest city, is frequently held up as the "mega-city" that works. Some of its promise and its problems are discussed here by three Japanese urban specialists: Masahiko Honjo; Hisatake Togo; and Shigeru Itoh. A case history of Seoul, a major mega-city of the newly developing nations is presented by Sang-Chuel Choe.

Whatever their locale and whatever their population ranking, it is clear from the symposium presentations and discussion that mega-cities around the world are in a state of transition and will face new and complex challenges in the 21st century. Their gigantic size, as well as the impressive sum of their economic, social and cultural activities, will continue to shape the mega-cities as vital centres of civilization.

The dynamism of the mega-cities can invigorate old institutions and create new ones needed to cope with the concerns of the 21 st century. But the complexities inherent in their great size impose difficult policy choices in addressing the different needs of their constituents, who make up a vast chunk of humankind today. - Editor