Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The International II - Planet Slumville

The year 2007 was significant because it was the first year in human history that we passed 50%...more than half of the humans in the world lived in cities than in rural areas. Africa's urban population has increased tenfold from 33 million to over three hundred million since 1952 and Asia is also following this tendancy with the same galloping rates. Wealthy nations are already almost totally urbanized and continue their trend towards this as we speak passing 80% and moving towards 100% urban dwelling, and poor nations, for better or for worse, are following them.

The most extreme example of the consequences of the folly is Port-au-prince which double-quintupled its size (what I mean is increased x10...is there a word for that? Dixtupled?) in a very short period of time, without any expansion plan or building code, which is why it literally collapsed like cards in January. A natural disaster was at fault here, but what I think we really need to be asking ourselves is what this means, this unfettered and continued expansion of the industrial revolution, the same industrial revolution that started it all (England, highly urbanized in 1720 with 20% of its population in urban areas, was 80% urban 150 years later)?

It means that capital, money, commerce, and most importantly, work, are in cities. Cities are where you go to work, make money, get money, grow and grow like our system does and tells you to do. The cities grow and get more expensive, and expand and get more expensive. Neighbourhoods and areas experience ups and downs. And every city is different.

But all cities have one thing in common. Everything must circulate, all the time. Populations outgrow roads which must be expanded but are never big enough. And there are 55% more heavyweight trucks on the road in Ontario than there were 15 years ago. A tunnel that opened in Antwerp in 1970 for 65,000 vehicles a day now sees more than 300,000 a day. A third of that is heavyweights. Unlike the ancient city states, we have created a network of "poles of commerce" which are all connected and all play their role in the world economy, and when I think about it this way I get the impression that all the activity is building up to this crescendo after which...after which we will have nowhere to go but down.

If in 20 years since I was six being a six year old entertainment has gone from watching the polka dot door to having an iphone, and if in the same 20 years every major city on earth has gone from being itself to becoming obsessed with skyscrapers, golf courses, condos, conference centres, gated communities (which the emir of Dubai has bragged about introducing to the middle east) and of course, highways to carry more heavyweights to its growing population filled with things for it to consume, all in the name of attracting more foreign investment and hitting that elusive GDP growth target so the Wall Street Journal and the Economist can go easy on us and praise us to attract more investment, I can't help but seeing the connection between the two and the paradoxical evolution upward but also way downward.

Because an Iphone might be infinitely more complex and smarter than the polka dot door, but I'm pretty sure it's a lot more dangerous for someone who doesn't know its own strength. And it will be thus, I'm convinced, with our network of glitzy shiny megapoles we're building.

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