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A planet full of cities

Our planet is getting urbanised. Every week 1,2 million people draw from the countryside to the city. These are five million people per month and sixty million people per year. Around 1950, about 750 million people lived in cities. Today almost 4 billion live in urban areas. That is more than half the world's population. The fastest growing cities can be found in developing countries. Mumbai in India receives 60 thousand new residents every year. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, grows with 400 thousand people a year. In 1950, only 300 thousand people lived in Lagos, Nigeria. Today, Lagos is home to 21 million residents. Today it is the largest city in Africa.

How should we judge this urbanisation? Answers to this question partly depend on the intel-lectual tradition in which someone argues. According to the romantic tradition, large, busy cities are disastrous for the people that live there. This is a conception that dates back to biblical stories such as the immoral ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ or the immodest ‘Tower of Babel’. At the start of our modern time, the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) powerfully brought this idea to the fore. Today, Rousseau’s ideas are embraced by large parts of the environmental movement. For Rousseau, city dwellers were greedy, superficial and vulgar people, detached from their natural environment. 'Cities are the ruin of the human species', he wrote. Rousseau advised the city dwellers to move back to the countryside.

In his famous book ‘Planet of Slums’ (2006) Mike Davis a self-declared ‘Marxist environmentalist, argues that the modern, large cities, with their enormous concentrations of poor people, are 'biologically and ecologically' unsustainable. Not only the poor, but also the rich will suffer. 'Today’s mega slums are unprecedented incubators of new and re-emergent diseases that now can travel across the world at the speed of a passenger jet.' From Rousseau to Davis, romantics advocate a revaluation of the rural area. They advocate an organic lifestyle and a greater commitment to our natural environment. Policymakers and NGO’s in this tradition try to withhold farmers from quitting their life in the villages to move to the cities. Some promote 'Slum Clearance', which usually means that shabby settlements are demolished, leaving their inhabitants in despair.

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This web-documentary stands in another tradition, the tradition of the Enlightenment. Enlightened ideas can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who emphasised the importance of their Polis. These city-states were the incubators and testing grounds for new ideas. According to Aristotle, the Polis was the only place where a person could be a true citizen. Only in the city-state, a person could fully participate in the jurisdiction and the governance. The natural environment of human beings is not the countryside, let alone the wilderness. People flourish in the workshops, lounges and restaurants of the city. These are the sites where people meet, talk and interact. ‘Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London’, Vol-taire (1694-1778) wrote. A place ‘where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Muslim and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts.’ Today, Voltaire’s position is strongly defended by the liberal economist Ed Glaeser (1967). In his book The Triumph of the City (2011) Glaeser emphasizes the importance of the modern, large city, including its slums. Enlightened intellectuals depict that most people flourish in the city. Glaeser notes that ‘cities bring out the best in humankind'. ‘Towns make the cooperation possible, allowing humanity to prosper. (…) The city is humanity's greatest creation and our best hope for the future.’ A recent division within the environmental movement, the so-called 'Eco Modernists', also defend the city. Eco Modernists state that ‘cities are performing far better than rural economies in providing efficiently for material needs while reducing environmental impacts'. Urban dwellers take up much less space than rural folks. Paradoxically, people in cities use much less energy, often take public transport and move more frequently by foot. Even more importantly, people in cities are generally wealthier, healthier, smarter, and happier than people living in the countryside. In addition, city dwellers get older than villagers. That also applies to people in slums.

© Ralf Bodelier, December, London, 2011
© Still from 'koyaanisqatsi, life out of balance', 1982