Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Skywalks & Sidescrapers: Urbanization and Our Crowded Future

The latest issue of The New York Times Magazine (June 8, 2008) is extremely interesting and a bit alarming. The theme is "The Next City," and it's full of articles approaching the issue of urbanization in the new millennium from a number of different angles.

Included is an illuminating interview with Enrique Peñalosa, the progressive former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia.  He makes you think differently about urban planning; particularly sidewalks.  Here's an excerpt...
As a former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, who won wide praise for making the city a model of enlightened planning, you have lately been hired by officials intent on building world-class cities, especially in Asia and the developing world. What is the first thing you tell them? 
In developing-world cities, the majority of people don’t have cars, so I will say, when you construct a good sidewalk, you are constructing democracy. A sidewalk is a symbol of equality.

I wouldn’t think that sidewalks are a top priority in developing countries. 
The last priority. Because the priority is to make highways and roads. We are designing cities for cars, cars, cars, cars, cars. Not for people. Cars are a very recent invention. The 20th century was a horrible detour in the evolution of the human habitat. We were building much more for cars’ mobility than children’s happiness.
And the main feature, "Inside the Mega-Megalopolis," is an eye-opening look at the current state and possibly frightening future of our rapidly urbanizing world.  Here are some statistics:

by Peter Funch for The New York Times
• New York City has 4.2 million people in 1900; it now has 18,650,000.
• Mumbai has 76,790 people per square mile.
• 58 new people will be added to the population of Lagos every hour by 2015.

And adding to my list of reasons I want to move to the Netherlands, several articles refer to the Dutch as leaders in addressing increasing urban demands with innovative planning and architectural ingenuity. As Peñalosa says, "The best-designed cities are in northern Europe, like the Dutch and Danish cities." In his article, "Crowded House," Darcy Frey writes: "The Netherlands, prosperous and progressive, has long been one of the world's leading exporters of architectural talent... Fighting their battles not just building to building but on a sweeping, citywide scale, Holland's architects and designers were, in the words of the Dutch culture minister, "heroes of a new age."

That particular piece is essentially a profile of Rotterdam-based firm MVRDV, who warn in one of their publications (the group organizes exhibitions, publishes books, and creates films in addition to their architecture, urban-planning, and landscape-design work) that if the world's population "behaved with U.S.-citizen-like consumption," four additional earths would be needed.

It's shocking how little governments seem to be worrying about population growth. I remember one of the conservationists in one of the Planet Earth documentaries saying that he didn't think over-population should be considered one of the leading threats to the environment. I just don't see how that can be true. Perhaps it's because I'm one of the 50% of people living in an urban environment (it'll be 75% by 2050), but I often think there are just far too many of us... 

Obviously I'm not advocating lemming-like* population reduction, but shouldn't we be thinking about this as a species?  Shouldn't ethical people stop fooling themselves about abstinence education and start educating kids to use contraception?  Shouldn't there be economic incentives for responsible family-planning (and manageable family size)?  Shouldn't more of us adopt before we reproduce?  Like Angelina Jolie.

Clarification: Lemmings, despite the well-known myth, do not voluntarily plunge en masse to their deaths.

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