The Good That Comes from Cities Though Routinely Criticized, Large Urban Areas Provide Ingredients for Progress

Article excerpt

Cities are monsters. Cities are bad for your health. Cities are impersonal and alienating. And the bigger they get, the worse they are. That is the general tone of the rhetoric at the Habitat II Conference on Human Settlements, which has gathered 10,000 diplomats, experts, and international civil servants in Istanbul for two weeks to discuss big cities. But it is nonsense.

When I first lived in Istanbul a quarter-century ago, the city had only 3 million people - and that was three times its normal size. After the fall of Rome it was the biggest or second-biggest city in the world for a thousand years, but it had never exceeded a million people before.

In the early '70s, however, the older inhabitants were alarmed. Hundreds of thousands of rural immigrants were arriving each year, and the city's identity and traditions seemed to be vanishing under an avalanche of newcomers - it was being "villagized."

Well, Istanbul's population is now 10 million, and it has not become a village. Its character is intact, and few of its residents envy the lives of their grandparents. Bigger is not always worse, no matter what the experts at the Habitat II conference say.

The conference, sponsored by the United Nations, is based on a report produced by the U.N. Development and Environment Programs, the World Bank and the World Resources Institute. At the beginning of this century, the report's authors point out, only 5 percent of the world's people lived in cities of over 100,000.

In a single century we have completely reversed that situation. Forty-five percent of the world's people now live in big cities. In Istanbul's heyday, it was one of only two cities on the planet that reached a million people. By 2015, the world will contain around 560 cities with more than a million people, and dozens with over 10 million.

Indeed, by 2015 there will be seven "mega-cities" of over 20 million people, warns the U.N. report, and every one of them except Tokyo will be in what is now the Third World: Bombay, Lagos, Shanghai, Jakarta, Sao Paulo and Karachi. Vast suppurating cancers spreading across the once-green land, blighting lives and shackling people to an unnatural, unsustainable servitude far from the nourishing bosom of Nature. . .

Sorry. Disregard that last sentence. I went to get a coffee, and the column-writing program started spewing out the anti-big city rhetoric and second-hand nostalgia for a mythic rural Eden that is usual when people discuss this subject. The truth is most people in big cities, though they w hine endlessly about their lot, would hate the alternative (which is not to live in a big city).

The U.N. report is studded with panicky factoids that, on closer inspection, turn out to be no cause for panic. For example, we are told that soon 80 percent of the world's big-city dwellers will live in Third World countries. But if the rest of the world is going to follow a path of economic development anything like that once traveled by the West, what else would you expect? …