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Sunday, May 16, 2010

The state of our cities

Dr Muzaffar Iqbal  

When I left the hotel in North Tehran, there was ample time to reach the airport, but an hour later, I found myself hemmed in; there was an unending line of vehicles in all six lanes all around us.
There was no way to turn back or go forward. The traffic jam was so bad that the road looked like a huge parking lot. The driver had been trying to move to the far left lane, but the traffic was crawling so slowly that he could not even do that.
Finally, he went out, stood in front of the vehicle on the next lane and, when a little space became available, he simply pushed the car on to that lane. He did the same for the next two lanes. We now had the possibility of making a left turn at the next exit to one of the side roads. It took us another fifteen minutes before we could do that and enter the maze of narrow streets in residential areas which Ali knew like the back of his hand.
“Don’t worry,” he kept on saying, “I will get you to the airport in time.”
Pic: Tehran city skyline
Ali had grown up in a small village in north of Tehran at a time when this lush and beautiful area was no more than a distant suburb of what is now Tehran. Today, the city sprawls from the enchanting Alborz Mountain in the north to the Shrine of Imam Khomeini on the road to Qum.
Tehran is not alone in this transformation of cities from manageable units of human habitat to unmanageable megacities where millions of human beings struggle to survive. Cairo, Karachi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Toronto, Chicago, Beijing, and London – all suffer from the same choking roads.
The number of vehicles registered in Beijing crossed the four million mark in December 2009 and will cross the five million mark later this year. What this means for the air quality and inevitable respiratory diseases can only be imagined. This is the state of all major cities of the world.
In 1800, 978 million people lived on Earth and only 3 per cent of them lived in cities. By the end of the twentieth century, the world population had increased to 5978 million (5.97 billion) and 47 per cent lived in cities. In 1950, there were 83 cities with populations exceeding one million; by 2007, this number had risen to 468! The UN forecasts that today’s urban population of 3.2 billion will rise to nearly 5 billion by 2030, when three out of five people will live in cities.
Almost all the emerging megacities are mostly in that part of the world where urban planning is at its lowest level of sophistication: Mumbai (33 million), Shanghai (27 million), Karachi (26.5 million), Dhaka (26 million) and Jakarta (24.9 million people). Included in these emerging cities are overpopulated slums, disease-ridden shanty towns where every sixth person now alive lives in unsanitary conditions.
This was not the case prior to the emergence of the modern world. In the past, Baghdad, Córdoba, and many cities in Imperial China each had over a million inhabitants, who lived surrounded by green pastures and orchards. What was so different is simply amazing: there were no motorised vehicles, there was no way to pollute air in the manner we now do, no one had air conditioners, fridges, and thousands of other gadgets that we now use, and yet, people lived life to the full.
Of course, there was poverty, hunger, and disease, but all of this was of a different order. Humanity did not suffer from catastrophic environmental disasters which now surround us. The damage done to the environment during the last three hundred years is far greater than thousands of years which preceded the modern era.
Cities have become so unmanageable that no amount of urban planning can now save those who live in overcrowded cities from daily existential struggles. The only answer available to resolve various problems of mega- and large cities is ‘de-urbanisation”. This can only succeed if alternatives are available which will allure the city dwellers.
In recent decades, Turkey has emerged as a major player in finding creative solutions for its urban sprawls.
The Turkish government launched an experiment with the help of the United Nations which provided city-amenities (electricity, schools, internet, library, etc.) to a few selected villages and then invited their previous residents to return. The experiment has been so successful that it is being hailed as one of the most creative solutions to urbanisation. Perhaps other governments can follow this example.
Such an experiment, however, needs careful planning and screening of those who would return to the villages, because there is great danger that these city dwellers will bring the pollution of the cities to the remaining places on earth, rather than act responsibly and live a life that Earth can sustain.


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