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?
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 counterparts.
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.
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 Caribbean.
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.
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.
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 prosperous.