ONE of Habitat Ws - the next mega UN conference (scheduled
for June 1996) - primary emphasis will be on the future of
cities worldwide. What will be the future city like? Will it
resemble one of the 'science cities' being developed in Japan
and the Republic of Korea, or will it be similar to the
'technopoles' of Europe and North America which concentrate on high-technology firms and research?
If the future city is simply an extrapolation of current
trends, then for much of the world's urban population, their
habitat of tomorrow will secure for them nothing more than a
shelter within an illegal settlement and an insecure job that
provides an inadequate income. These shelters will be made of
temporary materials, with whole households cramped into a
single small room, often on land sites subject to flooding, with
little or no provision of water, sanitation, drainage, garbage
removal and health care. This is the reality for some
600 million urban dwellers around the world. This, logically,
leads one to that all-important question: how will the decisions made at Habitat ii affect the people (and the numbers)
living in this kind of city in the future?
Urbanisation: 'no-growth' phenomenon
Census figures suggest that contrary to most predictions, the
world will be less urbanised and dominated by mega-cities
(cities with eight to 10 million or more inhabitants; there is
disagreement as to how large a city must be before it becomes
a 'mega-city') in the future. This indicates not to a complete
stoppage in global urbanisation, but to a marked decrease in
its rate. Similarly, population growth rates of many of the
largest cities have also come down. This suggests that the
future city for most people in both the North and the South,
would not be a 'mega-city'; for many, it would not even be a
large city. Yet, mega-cities and
their problems have grabbed
the lion's share of the attention
in the build-up to Habitat II.
Perhaps the most striking
thing about mega-cities is that
only a very small proportion of
the world's population lives in
them. In many countries, it is
the smaller cities that are
showing more dynamism and
innovation. Advances in
telecommunications, computer technology and transport
systems are undermining
many of the advantages of
large cities. In 1990, less than
five per cent of the world's
population lived in mega-cities. Some mega-cities have less than eight or 10 million
inhabitants within the borders of the actual city itself. For
instance, while the populations of both Shanghai and Beijing
were reported to be over 10 million in 1990, in both cases they
included the populations of a city-region that was also inhabited by large numbers of rural dwellers.
During the '80s, most large cities had more people moving
out than in. This is true for Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Calcutta,
Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. In the North too, most mega
and many large cities (New York, Osaka, Paris, Chicago and
London) had populations that grew very slowly. Census
reports have pointed out that many of the South's largest cities
- including Sao Paulo and Mexico City - had several million people less than the predicted numbers.
Forecasts based on data over the last 10-15 years suggest
that Calcutta and Mexico City would have 30-40 million
inhabitants by the year 2000 - but in reality, Calcutta is likely to have less than 13 million inhabitants, while Mexico City's
populace will number less than 18 million. The contention
that the South has all the world's fastest growing large cities is
also untrue, as several cities in the US figured in the list of
fastest growing 'million -cities' during the '80s. The Kenyan
capital of Nairobi is often held up as one of the world's fastest
growing cities. But both Miami and Phoenix in the US had
larger populations than Nairobi in 1990, while all three had
been small settlements in 1900. The population of Los Angeles
was around one-tenth that of Calcutta in 1900, yet in 1990, it
had about the same number of people in its metropolitan area.
Besides, many cities in Europe, North America and
Australia had population growth rates that were just as rapid
as the rates in the fastest growing cities in the South today.
Mega-cities are not always the most prosperous cities. For
instance, Singapore, Amsterdam, Zurich, Sydney, Vancouver and Frankfurt, all play major roles in
the world economy - but while not
one of them is small, none is close to
being, nor likely to become, mega-
cities. Many of the European and North
American cities (and some in Asia and
Latin America) with most serious economic and urban problems are those
large cities that grew as the centres of
industry or trade during the 19th or
early 20th centuries.
As transport and communication
systems improve - both intra- and
inter-country - companies and organisations no longer feel the need to be
based in the largest cities. A more likely
urban future in developed countries is a
dense network or system of cities in
which many of the smaller cities are as
prosperous as the largest, and
attract enterprises from their larger
Virtually all cities experience a
decentralisation of population and
production as they grow, generally
beginning with suburban housing that
develops at ever greater distances from the city centre. The
efficiency and cost of transport significantly influences the size
and nature of this 'commuting field'. At the same time, more
and more new business move to suburban locations or to belts
around the metropolitan area, so that the traditional city
pattern is lost.
Telecom's telling effects
Two of the most profound influences on cities worldwide are
advances in telecommunications and the large and increasing
concentration of the world's economy in the hands of
multinational corporations. A few of the world's largest cities
- such as London, New York and Tokyo - have had their
economic base considerably enhanced by acting as centres for
financial markets and multinationals and for all the
enterprises that are attracted to serve them.
But these 'command and control' centres for the world
economy need not be the hubs of manufacturing. The reason
is that there
can be a complete separation between production
and control; a
corporation based in London can commission a design studio in Milan
(Italy) to design a new good, a bank in Tokyo to finance
it, a factory in Shenzhen (China) to produce it, and an advertising firm in New
York to promote it - with the corporate
office (and the city where it is
based) never having to handle the good whose
production and sale it has
organised. So, it is not clear where the actual production of goods
will take place in the
future, except that less and less of it will
take place in the largest and most prosperous cities.
Apart from the production of goods,
many services and employment opportunities too show an increasingly distinct
(thousands of inhabitants) in tendency to move out of the major
cities or the more expensive countries.
Initially, companies and government
agencies in Europe and North America
believed in moving much of their staff
to offices in cheaper locations outside
the major cities. Now, offices can function from cheaper countries, as
telecommunication systems allow
1.3" companies with headquarters in
Europe and North America to have
much of the 'information processing'
in their accounting, payroll, invoicing
or sales done in nations in Asia and the
There are also hundreds of ways in
which telecommunication systems
reduce the necessity to work in or visit
cities. For instance, 'tele-shopping'
allows people to purchase goods from
their homes, 'tele-banking' allows
miami many banking transactions to be done
over the telephone, and 'tele-commuting' (working) is also made much
easier through a computer in the home
connected to the computer system at the workplace.
A role to play
Cities always reflect the nature and organisation of societies in
which they are located. They reflect not only the level of wealth
of their inhabitants, but also the level of inequality that is so
visible when comparing the homes of the high income groups
with those of the lower income groups.
They also bring to notice the quality of governance - the
extent of democracy and the competence and accountability
of their public authorities, perhaps best measured by the
extent to which the poorest proportion of the
city's population have access to secure
homes, potable water, sanitation,
drainage, schools and health care.
Cities reflect the levels of social
and environmental responsibility of their citizens but, perhaps as importantly,
they also reflect the extent to which urban and national
authorities allow or even encourage this responsibility.
The fact that cities concentrate people and business, makes
the case for an efficient public transport, that can minimise the
need for private automobiles even in relatively wealthy
societies, stronger. The fact that cities concentrate production,
should encourage the reduction and efficient disposal of
wastes and high levels of recycling.
Cities can also provide opportunities to channelise the
energy and originality of their youth, and support their idealism. At their best, cities bring out the best in their citizens.
They reflect the culture (or cultures) of their inhabitants.
Cities also concentrate the visual and decorative arts, music
and dance, theatre and literature that are precious to each
society. As such, city authorities have a preeminent role in
encouraging and supporting the initiatives of their house-
holds, community organisations and business, and also in fulfilling their social and environmental responsibilities. The fate
of the future city looks bleak, if city authorities do not do so -
or national governments do not permit them the resources
and political structures to do so.
Disparities in 'sameness'
Meanwhile, urban inequalities often become so extreme that
they threaten social disorder. Many cities have become the
natural breeding grounds of crime, alienation, domestic violence and drug abuse - much of it underpinned by the lack of
opportunity for most young people. This commonality or
,sameness' can also be seen in the homes and neighbourhoods
of the wealthy, as they embrace a high consumption 'international' lifestyle so often divorced from local, knowledge. It is
also evident in central business districts and tourist areas of
many successful cities where the increased control of multinational corporations is reflected in the uniformity of their
buildings, shops, advertising and television channels, and in
the lifestyles of their better-paid employees. And, as Argentine
urbanist Jorge Hardoy pointed out long ago, poverty imposes
its own uniformity on the settlements of low-income groups
as they struggle to survive in shelters made largely of temporary or scrap materials.
There is also the question of what happens to cities in
countries which are not blessed with successful economies.
There are thousands of urban centres in the South where there
is little prosperity and where the provisions for water, sanitation and health care are almost non-existent. In the poorest
nations of the world - most of them in sub-Saharan Africa
and parts of Asia - the city is being ruralised.
Thus, a single prototype for the future city is hard to come
by; instead, there are many possible future cities. If inequalities
in income and in access to adequate living conditions continue
and are reinforced, the future city for the rich is bound to
become very different from the future city for the poor, even
within the same physical city boundaries.
The future of all cities will be influenced by the extent to
which they can attract profitable enterprises or wealthy inhabitants. Cities having strong cultural identities and public authorities who respond to the needs and priorities of their
inhabitants, will undoubtedly be nicer places to live in. In a
world where business is always on the move, this may prove to
be the 'comparative advantage' that will keep them