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Cities: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Giftwrapped building in AmsterdamJesus and Muhammad traveled to the wilderness to develop their teachings. Even Gautama Buddha is said to have sat quietly beneath the rural Bohdi tree while he waited for enlightenment. But once they knew what needed to be said, all three men travelled to the closest city to convey the message.

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a city to change the world. Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, and influential mortals like Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Eva Peron, Marie Antoinette, Chairman Mao; they all gave their impassioned speeches, teachings, and at-times arm-twisting arguments, in cities. Cities are where the spokespeople for civilization come to urge the rest of us to follow a new path.

#8 from 2012: How Does Your City Make You Feel?

Darshana Patel's picture

Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2012

Originally published on April 4, 2012

Cities are often associated with mixed emotions. They can sometimes make us feel insecure, disconnected and lonely, even in a crowd; while, in other moments, they provide the setting for the happiest events in our lives. 

Whether we are conscious of it or not, urban spaces have a huge impact on how people participate in public life. Regular readers of this blog know that the original concept of the public sphere originates from the agora in ancient Greek city-states. The agora was a physical place where people gathered to deliberate and exchange their opinions – a true marketplace of ideas. The modern public sphere has now shifted more into the virtual realm, through various technologies and social media.

Cities Now On the Third Wave

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Breaking waveAround 5000 years ago, the first cities emerged in Mesopotamia and the fertile valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Agricultural surpluses enabled a few people to start specializing in something other than agriculture. The farmer who now had extra grain could trade for a better spear or a winter fur coat. This specialization and the ability to trade goods and services is the basis of urbanization. And, there was enough food that the starving artist didn’t starve completely, so along with trade, culture emerged.

Cities grew at a modest pace until about 1800 when the Industrial Revolution took off in the UK and cities developed at staggering rates. Manchester, for example experienced a six-fold population increase from 1771 to 1831. London went from about one-fifth of Britain’s population at the start of the 19th Century to about half the country’s population in 1851. This rate of urbanization has not let up for the last two hundred years; in fact it is still accelerating. The growth of cities seen over the last two hundred years will now be repeated, but this time in just forty years.

Why a City’s Not a Country

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Flags in front of UN headquarters, New York City

We all have the currency of a country or two in our wallets; maybe a passport too. We can be brought to tears when we see ‘our’ flag unfurled at the Olympics or a World Cup. Sure there are great sporting rivalries between cities like Milan and Barcelona, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and (in that other football) Dallas vs. Washington. But it’s countries that need flags and currencies, languages and laws, to inspire passion and fidelity. Running a country is about protecting an idea, an ideal, and a dream. Psychologically and physically countries have borders – barriers to entry and exit; people, ideas, money – it all needs to be controlled by a national authority.

Cities are different. Cities are anchored to a specific place. A sheltered port, the mouth of a river, a fertile valley, or a strategic vantage point: cities emerge where geography and opportunity combine. Much has been written on the creative class – that fickle, mobile group of professionals wandering the planet looking for their next engagement. City officials may actively seek them, but far more important are those people willing to stay and fight for their city. With links and roots like children, mortgages, and history, people who feel they belong are the foundation of every city.

Cities and Their Underwear

Dan Hoornweg's picture

BoxersThe next time you're in a new city, maybe jet-lagged, try to wake-up early and take a walk: The earlier the better. Watch as the city wakes, the merchants restock their shelves and workers take away the waste. Street sweepers and garbage collectors take advantage of the quiet streets; people open offices and stores; the calm before the rush. Perhaps your hotel is near a market – check out how early the bakers and farmers start working. A few newspapers are still delivered before the sun rises.

While walking and watching the city wake, also look beneath your feet. There the pipes deliver water and gas; sewers take away wastewater. And if you’re in Europe most of the electricity is delivered through underground piping as well (strange how cities in the US and Canada, where hurricanes are common, have most power lines above ground, while Europe, with fewer storms but more concern for aesthetics, have most power lines buried).

Cities in the aftermath of great recession

Jean-Jacques Dethier's picture

Cities around the world face a serious fiscal crisis following the Great Recession of 2008. Five years later, the after-effects of this crisis continue to be felt and limit economic opportunities in cities.

Revenue of cities around the world—either generated by municipalities or derived from State transfers—have decreased sharply because of the economic slowdown, as did the fiscal value of real property. Some local governments also lost major assets that they invested in risk funds and banks that collapsed during the crisis. City expenditures—especially spending to address social needs—rose because of the slowdown in economic activity and the corresponding increases in unemployment and social welfare needs.  The decline in revenue and increase in expenditure led many cities to experience the worst “fiscal crunch” in decades. Financing capacities shrank owing to the difficulty in obtaining loans and the increase in the cost of money. Banks and bond issuers—the main financiers of cities—have been heavily impacted. The credit rating of cities was heavily impacted because of declines in the tax base, expenditure pressures and increasing debt. Foreign investment to finance infrastructure has declined; operations underway have been put on hold and many projects have either been cancelled or delayed.

Challenges in Alleviating Poverty through Urbanization

Yue Li's picture

A streetscape in Korea shows bustling urban growthOver the last quarter-century, the number of urban dwellers in South Asia has more than doubled to almost 500 million. In India alone, the number of city dwellers has grown by 122 million. Delhi, Karachi, Kolkata and Dhaka have all joined Mumbai in the league of mega-cities. And yet, urbanization in South Asia has barely begun. With about 30% of its population living in cities, South Asia is the least urbanized in the world. But in the 20 years to come, South Asia will urbanize faster than any other region of the world, with the exception of East Asia. This rapid urbanization can be a powerful engine in accelerating poverty alleviation. But most cities in the region are struggling to cope with even the current level of urbanization. Can South Asian cities support the growing urban economy and population and become centers of shared prosperity, or will they become centers of grief?

The End of Men: And the Rise of “Men”-tors

Artessa Saldivar-Sali's picture

Penguins in AntarcticaAs a (somewhat) young, professional woman, Dan Hoornweg’s latest blog resonated with me.  On particularly difficult days, unsure of how to find my place in the world, I have to remind myself just how lucky I am to have what I call “Men”-tors to help me navigate this maze of possibilities.  For better or for worse, I have had 2 male research advisors, and 6 male bosses — most of whom pushed me to stretch further than I ever thought I could, and who happily enable me to set my sights on the next challenge.

My personal numbers also include: 

  • one accomplished husband, who cheered me on as I spent the better part of our year-long engagement halfway around the world to work for the Philippine Government; 
  • a father (and mother!) who groomed me all of my life to take over his work — and then watched me fly away to Washington DC to pursue my own dream of working in international development; and 
  • a string of (male) mentors (guilty as charged, I was one of the 17 women on Dan’s running tally of junior staff). 

City District Shrinks Its Impact by Using Water 5 Times Over

Michael Peter Steen Jacobsen's picture

Hammerby Sjöstad, in central Stockholm, is integrated urban water management in action. The district, which was intended to be an Olympic Village, once was an old industrial area, but it has been transformed into a sustainable city.

Starting about a decade ago, the planners took on the ambitious goal of reducing the environmental footprint of the neighborhood by 50% compared to other recent developments in Stockholm. They brought in new ideas and put them into practice at surprisingly low costs.

While I was in Stockholm for World Water Week this past week, I spoke to Erik Freudenthal from GlashusEtt in Hammerby Sjöstad about the project.

Answers to more of your questions on rapidly growing cities

Dean Cira's picture

Cũng có ở Tiếng việt

Dean Cira

 (Urban specialist Dean Cira recently answered in a video 5 questions on rapidly growing cities that had been submitted to us by internet users. This post addresses a few additional questions).

 Manh Ha from Vietnam asked:  Urban planning currently focuses too much on having new buildings, which increases the population and construction density and reduces living environment in size. What planning model do you think Vietnam should follow?

 

There is a popular belief among planners and among Vietnamese generally that densities of the major urban centers of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City need to be reduced to improve the quality of life.  But if we look at the density of Hanoi, we actually see that by Asian standards, it is not particularly dense.


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