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close this bookDiversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature (IDRC, 1995, 234 p.)
close this folder12. The urban environmental challenge
View the documentThe development of modern cities
View the documentLarge cities in the Third World
View the documentThe megacities of today

The development of modern cities

Modern cities are a result of the industrial age. In the 14th and 15th centuries, before the industrial revolution, Venice and Paris were the only European cities whose populations had reached 100 thousand; London, at that time, had a mere 50 thousand inhabitants. Shanghai, the largest city in China, had about 100 thousand people and, Fez, the capital of the Moorish empire, was smaller. Timbuktu in the Sahel contained fewer than 80 thousand people and the populations of the largest American cities, Tenochtitlan and Cuzco, probably did not exceed 100 thousand.

To a large extent, the 16th century Renaissance was the result of the incorporation of large nonecumenical areas of the world into the European “civilized fold” as a result of discovery and the political and military imperialism of the European powers. This trend toward globalization of trade and political might allowed the consolidation of the main European states, as well as the accumulation of enormous financial resources. These, in turn, provided the investments required to begin the industrial revolution.

European cities, which had originally developed as commercial centres, became the sites of the first industrial experiments. Industrial processes required many workers to manipulate the new machines, and gradually thousands of labourers from the impoverished European countryside began moving to the urban areas. By the end of the 18th century, cities had grown considerably: Hamburg grew from 70 thousand in 1700 to about 130 thousand in 1800 and New York from 33 thousand in 1790 to 60 thousand in 1800. The rapid growth did not allow time for urban planning. These cities did not have adequate services, and the quality of life of the working class was poor and unhealthy.

The large industrial megalopolises developed in the 19th century. London was one of the first cities to surpass I million people; at the beginning of the 19th century, it had a population of 1.12 million, increasing to 6.59 million by 1901. Paris expanded from 550 thousand people in 1801 to 2.5 million in 1891, and the largest industrial city in North America, New York, which had reached 1 million people by 1870, had a population of 5.6 million in the 1920s. Berlin grew from 830 thousand people in 1871 to 2 million in 1912; Hamburg from 130 thousand in the early 1800s to 700 thousand by 1900; and Cologne from 42 thousand in 1801 to 370 thousand in 1900. In Japan, Tokyo (then Edo) had reached 1.2 million people in the 1850s. By the early 20th century, at least 10 cities in the world contained 1 million inhabitants or more.

During the last decades of the 19th century, some of the most pressing urban environmental problems (water supply and sanitation) were addressed, but many new problems (contamination of rivers and air pollution) continued to develop. This was a time when smog threatened the health of urban dwellers in the industrial world and the stench of the filthy water of the Thames and Hudson rivers pervaded their adjacent cities.

This unprecedented urban growth was related to the competitive edge imparted by industrial production systems. These systems were based on the use of engines of various types running on fossil fuels, and later hydroelectricity, and on complex production methods in which each worker specialized in a specific task while a centralized management oversaw all the steps of the process and ensured their coordination. The new sources of energy and the effectiveness of its use permitted mass production, which, in turn, attracted increasing numbers of rural dwellers to work in city factories or the myriad service activities that were developing as a result of the economic growth.

The bigger-is-better model was applied to all aspects of life: large cities, tall buildings, giant engineering works, huge hospitals, wide highways, large schools, and universities were the rule. The development of a city was measured by the height of its skyscrapers, the length and width of its highways, the size of its factories, and the number of its inhabitants. Quality of life was secondary.

The environmental problems of London and New York at the end of the 19th century had been more or less solved, but new ones kept appearing. Supplying water to so many people became a difficult enter. prise. In New York, the aquifers of Long Island were depleted and saltwater intrusion ensued. In London, the Thames became an open sewer. Similar situations could be found in Frankfurt on the polluted Mainz River, Cologne on the Rhine, and Moscow on the Moscova.

Suddenly, solutions had to be found. Urban planners became important people, large investments were made, a drive to decentralize developed (partly as a result of planning, partly spontaneously), and the growth of the industrial urban areas slowed. Today, the populations of the largest European cities are largely stable. In the 1990s, London’s population is smaller than it was in the 1950s. The population of Paris peaked at 10 million in the early 1970s and has not increased much in the last two decades. Hamburg’s population decreased from 1.85 million in 1965 to 1.7 million by the end of the 1980s. The cores of the largest northeastern American cities (New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc.) have stopped growing and a new, less-concentrated urban model, more focused on urban development, is taking form.