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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

The pathology of the city

By Aprodicio Laquian

Whether in a rich or poor nation, the urban landscape has many common, and disturbing, elements. For many millions of its citizens, modern urban living can be put in Hobbesian terms: it is "poor, nasty, brutish and short."

The gap between the very rich and the very poor - whether it be in London, New Delhi, Caracas, or Lagos - continues to widen. In the industrialized world, the homeless warm themselves on sidewalk subway grills in front of the apartments and hotels of the very wealthy. In the developing countries, the continuing flood of poverty-stricken rural villagers into urban areas are essentially little more than a shift of the poor from an already miserable countryside to an even more forlorn and despairing urbanscape.

This is the pathology of modern cities, argues Aprodicio Laquian, a reality that transcends religious and ideological differences. Dr. Laquian is with the United Nations Population Fund. The following is excerpted from his paper to the Tokyo Mega-City Symposium. - Editor

In the mega-cities of both industrialized and developing countries, the gap between the very rich and the very poor seems to be widening. In 1980, the UNDP estimated that 40 million urban households were living in poverty. This was projected to grow to 72 million by the year 2000 - a 76 per cent increase. The polarization of affluence and poverty is seen in more developed countries as well. US Senator Patrick Moynihan of New York has estimated that more than half of the babies born in New York City by the year 2000 will be to parents who are on welfare (that is, government assistance). He blames government policies that cut back welfare assistance for the further impoverishment of the already poor.

In developing countries, the global recession and economic difficulties in the 1980s have significantly weakened the capacity of central governments to respond to urban needs. Hyper-inflation, the debt burden and the structural adjustments imposed on many developing countries have combined to make national survival a more pressing problem than that of the cities.

Strain on Infrastructure

Urban infrastructures in most developing country mega-cities have not been able to keep up with expanding need. In Nairobi, for example, the per capita spending for water and sewerage fell from $28.00 to $2.50 in 1987. In Calcutta, about 3 million people live in shanty towns without potable water. In Karachi, only a third of urban households have a piped water connection. In Bangkok, less than a third of the people have access to piped water; so many households have dug wells that the water table has been causing the land to subside.

The Homeless: From New York to Bombay

Pavement dwellers and the homeless used to be found mainly in third world cities like Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. Now, an estimated 600,000 to 3 million people in America are homeless, with about 35,000-70,000 in New York, and 6,000 in San Francisco. The conservative ideology and fiscal policies of the Reagan administration severely cut back federal grants for social and welfare programmes. Appropriations for subsidized housing were cut from $33 billion in 1981 to $8 billion in 1988. The effects of such policies have been hardest on the mega-city poor. In Los Angeles, welfare payments have gone down by 33 per cent.

In New York, programmes for the homeless have increasingly relied more on community philanthropy, providing shelters and soup kitchens for the homeless, transitional housing, and health and counselling. While these efforts have been able to help a few, authorities and NGOs are finding that quite a proportion of the homeless are beyond their reach. It was estimated, for example, that about half of women in transitional housing in New York have a drug problem. The problem of the homeless in America has reached a point where President Bush himself has called it "a national shame." The problem seems to be intractable as it involves so many sectors.


"Smoky Mountain" garbage dump in Metro Manila, Philippines

The "Metropolitan Solution": What Went Wrong?

In the mid-1960s, the metropolitan solution was hailed as the cure to mega-city problems. In such experiments as Greater Miami, Metropolitan Toronto, Greater London, the Bangkok Metropolis and Metro Manila, metropolitan government provided the comprehensive planning, wider and stronger tax base, area-wide services, broad-scale representation and participation - along with administrative efficiency that promised to cope with the problems of the mega-city.

Barely two decades after the flouring of the metropolitan approach, however, this solution is in retreat. In 1989, the Greater London Council was abolished. The Metropolitan Manila Commission was also abandoned (although here the reasons were due more to national politics than metropolitan disaffection).

What brought about the weakening of the metropolitan approach is a complex of factors rooted in ideology, economic recession and civic reactions. The past two decades have seen the rapid growth of a conservative ideology that railed against big governments, bureaucracies and higher taxes, while at the same time hailing popular participation, private enterprise and voluntarism. The increasing costs of providing metro-wide services, the growing assertiveness of local units, and the general ineffectiveness of some area-wide solutions further eroded the capacities of metropolitan governments.

The Pathology of the City

There are few areas where traditional religions and Communist ideology agree totally: the city as the source of evil is one of them. Recent developments in urban pathology seem to bear out their dire prophecies about urban living as dehumanizing, corrupting and degrading.

Even a cursory reading of recent headlines leaves one with the impression that mega-cities are falling apart. Inner city schools in New York City are braced for the entry into kindergarten of a generation of five-year olds prenatally exposed to the drug, crack - "little monsters" with neurological, emotional and learning problems put under the charge of poorly paid and ill-trained teacher.

Bangkok and Manila admit that AIDS cases are badly underestimated even as tourism officials warn against alarmist statements that may scare tourists away. Tokyo's rapidly aging work force worries about future security at the same time that younger couples are faced with the counter-pressures of caring for elderly parents in cramped, over-priced housing or evading their responsibilities and pursuing a consumer-oriented way of life. Drug-related bombings and assassinations plague Bogota while gangs battle each other for turf in Miami, Boston and Toronto. Riots break out in Berlin, Amsterdam and London as squatters are evicted from dilapidated buildings, or as ethnic conflicts erupt between Asians and Caucasians.

Recent urban pathologies include rising incidents of "hate crimes" or bias-related random violence. New York tabloids have sensationalized gang rape, assault on strangers, and random terrorism of innocent citizens. So-called "thrill killings" have been known in Bangkok and Manila. Ethic and religious tensions in mega-cities are indicated by assaults and boycotts. Live television coverage has given urgency to urban violence, be it the shooting down of demonstrators in Beijing, tear gas attacks in Seoul, artillery duels in Beirut or coup attempts in Manila. While there may be some positive images of mega-cities in some areas, in general they have been depicted in recent times as violent, decadent and falling apart.

Mega-City Victims: Women, Young, Elderly

Some of the most disadvantaged groups in the mega-cities are women, youth and the elderly. Women who head urban households are particularly vulnerable as they try to fulfil the twin roles of income-earner and home-maker. The young, particularly those living outside the traditional support net of the family, present enormous problems. The elderly are also victims of the weakening of family ties; where they do not have sufficient savings, assets or social security, they find it difficult to survive in the mega-city.

Understanding Dynamics

The social and welfare needs in the mega-cities - in both the developed and developing world - have not received the attention they demand. Popular imaginings of the mega-city of the future dwell primarily on technological marvels: anti-gravity trains, greenhouse agriculture, computerized home shopping, solar-power cars, etc. In contrast, research and thinking on the social and welfare aspects of mega-city life harks back to nostalgic ideals of the small community, the traditional family, reliance on civic conscience, charity.

It is only natural for a time lag between technology and social change - and sometimes urban societies seem to be reverting to old norms instead of adapting to new technologies. But what cannot be ignored is the increasing deterioration of social life in the mega-cities of this world. There seems to be an inability to apply some of the marvel and promise of scientific and technological innovation to the human condition. But if this incapacity persists, the future of the mega-city - and indeed the future of the human species - may not be so bright.