“…There are no end of horrifying statistics about
urbanization of humanity…[The Habitat II conference] may now have
to consider the city as a leftover from the Age of Mall, a
destination not envisioned as a haven for hope but as a safer place
to share hopelessness.”
– Richard F. Shepard, environmental writer
The Earth Times
“When I look into a faceless crowd, a swirling mass of grey
and black and white, they don’t look real to me — in fact, I think
they look so strange.”
– Lyrics from the Rolling Stones
“Salt of the Earth”
Cities. Hideous blemishes on the natural landscape.
Perpetually expanding as ever-multiplying numbers of hopeless
masses teem into the concrete jungles and put more and more strain
on the already futile task of meeting even the most basic human
needs. Prospects for the future? None. Environmental impact?
Utter devastation. The only solution? Nothing short of a
wholesale transformation in the social and economic order of our
world’s urban centers.
Travel to Istanbul, Turkey this June for Habitat II, the
United Nation’s next installment in its ongoing series of
international shindigs in exotic capitals, and this is exactly the
alarmist message you will hear. Informally called “The Conference
on Cities,” Habitat II will seek to put forth a comprehensive plan
of action known as the “Istanbul Declaration” that would bring
about radical changes in everything from the production of food and
electricity and the way people commute to work to personal
decisions about the size of individual families.
But is the situation really that grave?
Well, the fact is there are indeed mega-cities, particularly
in developing nations, that desperately need help with such things
as better housing, cleaner water, and basic sanitation. But the premises upon which
the Istanbul meeting will be based could not be more foreign to the
Habitat II is being built upon the notion that around the
world, the growth of cities is racing out of control and
devastating everyone and everything in its path. Specifically, the
Istanbul Declaration states that “rapid urbanization” is among “the
most significant transformations of human settlement,” and that
“increased poverty,” “harmful patterns” of land use, soil, water
and air pollution, and an “irreversible loss of biodiversity” are
the terrible results.
So just what are the facts about the U.N.’s claims? Well much
to the dismay of those about to board the flights of Turkish
Airlines, data about rates of urbanization, poverty, and
environmental impact reveal this doom and gloom rhetoric to be
little more than big-city hype.
Keeping up with the Joneses
Concerning the belief that rapid urbanization is taking place
at a breakneck pace all over the globe, this is simply a distortion
of the facts. To begin with, a great many industrialized nations
have seen the growth of their urban areas grind to a virtual halt
in recent years. Some, like Canada, France, the Netherlands,
Italy, Finland, and Australia, have even experienced negative
growth rates. And as for the developing world where cities are
growing at the brisk rate of 3.5% per year, this is little to worry
about since all they really seem to be doing is keeping up with the
In developed countries, three-quarters of people already live
in urban areas. The percentage in poorer nations is only 37%. So
even with a global urbanization rate of 2.5% per year, still less
than half of the world’s citizens are city dwellers. Developing
nations are simply going through the same changes we in the West
experienced over the last 100 years.
It must further be noted that population growth numbers also
throw cold water on the hype about burgeoning cities. For a nation
to increase its numbers, it must have a total fertility rate, or
TFR, of 2.2 children per woman. But when countries gain more
wealth, people generally choose to have less children. So that
explains why wealthier developed countries have an overall average
TFR of only 1.7. And that also explains why even in the Third
World, fertility rates have dropped sharply from 6.2 to 3.5 in
recent years as prosperity has been on the rise.
More doesn’t mean poor
Turning to the issue of poverty, the U.N.’s own statistics do
not paint nearly such a grim picture of urbanization as the
Istanbul conference will present since it turns out that those
areas in the world that are the most prosperous also tend to be the
most citified. North America and Japan, for instance, respectively
have 76% and 77% of their people living in urban areas, and are at
the top of the financial ladder, while India and China, by
contrast, have just 25% and 26% of their residents dwelling in
cities and are relatively poor.
In addition, in places like Africa and Asia, it is often the
more urbanized countries that have the most wealth. South Africa
and Egypt in Africa, for example, and Hong Kong, Taiwan, and
Singapore in Asia are highly urbanized. But nations like Niger,
Bhutan, Rwanda, Nepal, Laos, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan are poor,
and are at the bottom of the list in these continents.
This issue was best summed up by Steven Moore of the CATO
Institute who commented, “One of the best measures of an area’s
desirability is whether people are coming or going.” So in short,
if people are moving into urban areas, it often means they are
finding opportunities there they aren’t finding elsewhere.
Hardly a silent spring
The third and final major premise of Habitat II is the idea
that a growth in cities has been leading to all manner of
environmental devastation. But upon closer review, this notion
also crumbles like the pillars of an ancient ruin. For starters,
there is a tendency to think that pollution in cities is a modern
problem. In truth, though, urban areas have always had to contend
with their own unique brand of environmental concerns.
Historians speak of urban congestion in ancient Babylon, of
forest destruction in 16th Century Europe, and of species loss well
before modern industrialization. London, in fact, was so thick
with air pollution as early as the 14th Century that it choked
citizens and in 1307, King Edward I issued a royal proclamation
making it illegal to burn coal while parliament was in session.
One man ignored the decree and was actually beheaded for doing so!
More significantly, however, as the U.S. in particular bears
witness, is that even heavily urbanized countries can achieve
excellent environmental standards with the wise use of increasing
wealth and technology. The Istanbul Declaration may point its
finger at the West by claiming that industrialized nations like
America are causing or exacerbating “problems of environmental
degradation,” but the facts speak otherwise.
According to the EPA, nearly all major air pollutants declined
in the U.S. over the past 20 years, despite a sizable increase in
electricity production and the number of vehicles on the road. In
addition, thanks to mitigation efforts, wetlands acreage is
actually increasing, forests, parks and wilderness areas are also
on the rise, and many threatened species like turkey, alligators,
and bald eagles are now thriving throughout the land. This is
hardly the vision of a silent spring.
For those living in the middle of urban areas, the whole world
probably seems all paved over. Add to that images of people
crammed shoulder to shoulder in places like Mexico City, Calcutta,
or even New York and it’s not hard to see why many believe that concrete, asphalt, cars, and people are about to overrun the planet.
Yes there are problems with cities. But if those gathering in Istanbul were actually interested in solving them, instead of attacking nuclear power, pesticides, clean
coal, automobiles, chlorine, waste-to-energy plants, agricultural
biotechnology, and other such technologies we in the West take for
granted, they would embrace them as ways to truly help the people
they claim to care so much about.