The future of the world's great cities

The future of the world's great cities

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Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge between Brooklyn and Manhattan in New York City, I observed the abandoned structures on one side of the East River, on the other huge apartment buildings built many decades ago and in the background, in the distance, a sea of ​​streets with buildings imposing. A scenario where millions of human beings circulate daily. Since I was a child, big cities have caused me a kind of fear, of getting lost in that sea of ​​people, noise and distances; I didn't understand them and I wondered why people live like this, being able to live in a town that took less than an hour to walk, like mine. The answers to the questions we ask ourselves can only be found in the walk of life.

Cities that impress for their activity, such as New York or Buenos Aires, keep their mysteries, their secrets, that coexist in silence - their history, their architecture, their infrastructure with their present of opulence on the one hand and survival and sometimes misery on the other. . Due to its importance in the history of humanity, the city has been the focus of much narrative and scientific analysis. Some writers even invented cities, for example, the Uruguayan Juan Carlos Onetti created his city, Santa María. Others like the historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford in his work "The City in History" analyzes and visualizes the balance of culture and technology necessary in the city. Regardless of the perception, experience and opinion that we have of large cities, it is inevitable to see that today these large urban centers face an uncertain future.

The city emerged from the Neolithic Age, when agriculture increased the density of settlements. The first city believed to be such was Uruk in Mesopotamia, where later Babylon also existed, which in history is described as a rich and ideal city. However, medieval European and Islamic cities have been defined as gray or gloomy, they had marked boundaries that were no more than half a kilometer long and were very manageable. Later the Renaissance would create a new urban architecture, cities like Florence emerge. The Industrial Revolution built other types of cities for another economic and social reality and also other problems appeared as observed by Patrick Geddes, a Scottish biologist and sociologist who lived during the last half of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th, and that it was the first thinker on the subject and the first ecological town planner. His great follower was precisely Lewis Mumford.

Interestingly, cities not only concentrate people and activities but also power; half of the world's population lives in urban areas, although these occupy less than three percent of the earth, and consume most of the planet's energy. The spectacular growth of many large cities is due to the increase in the world's population but also to the massive movement of people from rural to urban areas - something particularly important in the West and Asia. For example, in the United States in 1850 only 12 percent of the population lived in cities, but by 1910 that percentage had already increased to 40 percent. Today more than 80 percent of Americans live in cities or their suburbs.

Today we have historical cities that were built more with hands like Venice, Havana or Barcelona and other cities built with machines like Dubai, Miami or Shanghai. We also have 22 mega cities with populations of more than 10 million inhabitants; 40 years ago we only had three mega cities. Among the mega cities are, for example, London, Paris, Mexico City, Los Angeles, New York, Shanghai, Beijing, among others. It is precisely the megacities and large cities that face the greatest difficulties now and in the future because many of them are unsustainable for reasons that are sometimes visible - air pollution, and sometimes not as visible as fatigue linked to resource depletion. and spaces.

Almost all large cities and all mega cities today, more than ever before in history, are noisy, congested despite the fact that some have formidable highways and modern public transportation, wasteful of resources, devouring of water, food, fuel and energy and producing mountains of garbage, polluting dust, smog, ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and more. The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation for Development) estimates that cities today use most of the energy flow produced in the world - they dominate 82 percent of world consumption of natural gas, 76 percent of coal and 63 percent of oil consumption. The 25 largest cities produce more than half of the world's wealth.

The Canadian writer Andrew Nikiforuk in his book "Energy of the Slaves" shows us several examples of what he calls the pathological metabolism of mega cities, describing London in England (the mother of mega cities ) and quoting the urban planner Herbert Girardet who informs us that London, with 15 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area, converts resources and energy that come mainly from outside London into 15 million tons of solid waste and discharges 66 million tons of Carbon, by time consuming 22 million tons of oil each year. London monopolizes three-quarters of the energy of the island of Great Britain although its inhabitants occupy only 1,580 square kilometers. To feed London you need to grow food, raise edible animals and provide wood on 196,800 square kilometers, or three-quarters of all of Britain.

One known and gigantic impact of big cities and mega cities is air pollution; in Paris it extends for more than 100 kilometers outside the metropolitan area. According to the Clear Air Institute (Clean Air Institute) in Latin America, Mexico City, Santiago de Chile, San Salvador and Montevideo have excessive pollution that causes serious health problems for their inhabitants. The other known impact is with respect to water; in large and mega cities on average a third of its inhabitants live in poor neighborhoods with little or no security of water supply. With the end of cheap oil comes the increased cost of energy therefore it becomes more difficult to treat the water and obtain clean water. Mexico City with 21 million inhabitants is close to drying up its already contaminated aquifers. The Riachuelo river in Buenos Aires, where 12 million people live and almost four million of them live from its drainage basin, has 50 times more heavy metals than allowed. Shanghai, with 23 million people, has rivers polluted with salt water. Bangkok, the great city of Thailand, the so-called “Venice of the East,” has noise pollution and pollution that exceed all limits and the polluted water of its canals has become fetid. As a consequence of climate change, the sea level has risen, affecting cities like Mumbai in India, located on flat coasts and with 25 million inhabitants - already affected by heavy rains that make their sewage system collapse. A rise in sea level means that eventually entire parts of the city will be submerged, poisoning its aquifers.

Added to this irrationality of deformed growth in urban areas is the capitalist madness of eternal growth to which even China succumbs; According to calculations by its authorities and promoters, in the next 25 years 50,000 skyscrapers will be built in that country, half of what is planned to be built around the world - even if this becomes a reality given the increasing cost of energy. China already has 120 cities with more than a million inhabitants that consume 55 million tons of coal each year, cities populated by the more than 400 million people who have left the countryside in search of opportunities.

The explosion of mega cities has created a class of advisers and academics who are active promoters of the growth of these cities with the idea that in this way wealth is created; there is a complicity that serves speculators in the real estate and financial sector, which, although discredited, continues to promote growth based on credit. There is a dominant ideology in favor of eternal growth that is propagated thanks to the false media that functions more than as information agencies as propaganda agencies of a system that is clearly collapsing. For example, the Economist magazine, and its pompous "Intelligence Unit" (Intelligence Unit) has given a report as doubtful as it is fanciful about the most livable cities in the world, which are of course all located in the First World, saying what many want Listen, there are cities that are paradises and others that are far from being, such as Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Caracas.

The existence of megacities is linked to the world's economy and the failure of the dominant economic model cannot be far from its own failure resulting from the reality of the impossibility of continuous and infinite growth, as stated by Richard Heinberg, writer and environmental educator American, in his book "The End of Growth" (The end of growth). The verifiable depletion of important resources, such as fossil fuel and minerals, lack of energy and water; the proliferation of negative impacts on the environment as a result of the extraction and use of natural resources, climate change that has already transformed regions through regular droughts or floods, and financial disruption as a result of the inability of our monetary and banking systems , and the imposition of carrying huge private and public debts, since much of the economic growth of the Western world has been due to the generation of debts of all kinds in recent decades, speaks of this collapse. The solution to these serious problems cannot come from the hands of technology, communications or the internet. These are basic and material problems that require fundamental and material solutions, a rational plan that considers reality and not fantasy and that takes into account the size of the danger of a collapse with the potential to end human existence.

An important barrier that blocks a general understanding of the severity of the problems we face is undoubtedly the prevailing lack of ethics and the generalized corruption of the elites that wield power and their political administrators in the most aggressive countries in the world. An irrational system of unlimited growth of the economy has been imposed that favors the formation and establishment of huge urban centers, the bigger it seems the better, of unsustainable megacities. Although reality always finds a way to bring us to the table, and eternal and unlimited growth is a fantasy with its days clearly numbered, the problem must be the trauma that this awakening to this reality has to bring us. Trauma due to the high level of dependency that we have reached. And yet even though it is difficult to adapt to a more elementary, more sober and balanced life, we must not rule out the possibility in some parts of the world that common sense prevails and we develop the necessary potential to face the difficulties that await us on a personal level. , of human groups and even of

By Mario R. Fernández, Rebelion

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