Published on Sustainable Cities

A Tale of Too Many Cities: Happy Birthday Charles Dickens

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Charles DickensThis year marks the 200th birthday for Charles Dickens who is likely the best-known social commentator who documented the more troublesome aspects of the Industrial Revolution and the start of the world’s headlong rush to urbanize. Dickens’ writings give a ringside seat to the turmoil London, and Paris, faced over two hundred years ago. That Dickens’ vantage point was London only made sense; it had just surpassed Beijing as the world’s largest city, and arguably is the birthplace of capitalism and industrialization.

The big question now is, where in the world would today’s most important social commentator choose to live? We obviously know it would be a big city as cities are the most powerful determinants of our futures. But what city best captures today’s and tomorrow’s social milieu?

Washington, DC might be a possibility, but most writers here are often too inward looking. The US will need to better share global management over the next 100 years. Maybe it’s New York City – big and bustling, cosmopolitan and open – but today’s writers are likely where tomorrow’s action is. Asia? Beijing and Shanghai are possibilities, but China may not be seen as open enough for the average modern-Dickens. Cairo’s a good possibility; all that youthful energy and ushering in a warming spring. Today’s Dickens would certainly teach himself (or as likely herself) Arabic, as he’s supposed to have done with French.

Delhi and Mumbai are possibilities with all that new development taking place, and being from London, Dickens might love a good curry. Rio de Janeiro is a strong contender. Copacabana Beach with samba between sessions at the laptop is enticing, and Brazilians are among the world’s most gracious hosts. Jakarta is the other obvious choice, with lots of fallow time in Bandung and artsy-Bali. Indonesia, with its independence and openness, is one of the bright stars in the East, and Indonesians are just as welcoming as Brazilians.

But if Charles Dickens were alive today and thinking about how best to capture the next 100 years of the second half of the world’s urbanization, I’ll bet he would live in Africa. Maybe Johannesburg. Or he could take the more comfortable route of Cape Town. But our modern Dickens would likely be a bit more intrepid than that. He would certainly visit Lagos as it is likely to stay Africa’s largest city, and probably with Tokyo and Mumbai, one of the three largest cities in 2100. Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Kinshasa, and Addis Ababa would also be good cities to visit when looking for a new home base.

Africa, the last continent to urbanize, but the one that will have the largest urban population, will determine the world’s ‘common future’. Dakar, Senegal with its 2.5 million residents and greater than 3% annual growth is one of Africa’s larger cities and its location lends itself to being the entrée to the Continent; with relatively good flight connections to New York, London, Paris, Istanbul and Johannesburg. Today’s Dickens is probably as much video-taping the show as he is writing about it. Of course the Facebook page for his upcoming 300th birthday is already up, ‘Dakar 2112’.


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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