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City Planet Redux
Chris Coldewey, 11 Jan 06

brand_speaks.jpgThe redoubtable Stewart Brand gave a talk at GBN last night on global urbanization, expanding the "City Planet" material he first outlined at a Long Now talk and WC covered in detail. As we stand in 2006 at a point where the world's population tips from mostly rural to mostly urban, Stewart considers this a good time to ruminate on the nature of cities and the causes and implications of a rapidly urbanizing world.

In typical Brand form, the talk swept from the beginnings of civilization -- with a view of one of the oldest continuously occupied areas and discussion of how Jerusalem has been sacked or taken over 36 times -- to the future of the world, with a look at the largest megacities of 2015. While the largest cities one hundred years ago were primarily in the US and Europe, these 21st century megacities are profoundly global. With cities such as Mumbai, Sao Paulo, and Karachi dominating the list, Stewart noted the similarity to another era of international cities -- 1000 AD.

In asking himself how cities "learn" over time in the way that buildings do, Stewart found that while cities do learn, they also teach: they teach civilization how to be civilized. He discussed Levittown as a counterintuitive example, with its lenient do-it-yourself home customization policies actually facilitating the development of community. Squatter cities in the developing world were another example, with the view that squatter cities are what a population getting out of poverty ASAP looks like: self-constructed, and self-organizing, and vibrant.

Stewart sees cities playing out the same patterns of "pace layering" that he sees in civilization overall. Nature changes the slowest, with culture, governance, infrastructure, commerce, and fashion as progressively faster changing "layers." Cities specialize in acceleration, in the faster cycles of commerce and fashion, but must balance those with the slower layers at the risk of collapse.

While Stewart's talk was excellent and the material compelling, I too have reservations about some of the urbanization projections. The most prominent UN chart illustrating urban vs. rural population growth has a somewhat Malthusian feel to it, with the urban population extrapolated straight up to the sky. If we mistook an S-curve for a J-curve once, with world population, might we do it again? What, if anything, might cause that urban population curve to flatten out?

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I'm certainly no expert but, from what I've read, I see nothing that's going to stop the global shift from rural and agrarian to urban life. Eventually the whole world will reflect a balance similar to that found in post-industrial countries, where less than 5% of the population will live in the countryside or work in argricultural trades.

I don't really know what this portends for the environment. It's pretty clear, despite some reversals, that standards of living are increasing in the developing countries and this will place greater stress on the environment even if the global birthrate is declining.

Maybe this should be viewed as an incentive for people in the post-industrial world to figure out as many ways as possible to reduce their own environmental impact. That seems the only way to make this planet able to support all of us as standards of living continue to equalize. Do more with less energy, resources and waste, as Bucky Fuller might say.

As a WC reader, I think we can do it. We really have no choice; the alternatives are horrible.

Maybe, in the centuries to come, most economic activity will eventually shift to outer space and slowly most people will migrate there. Perhaps at that distant date, the Earth will be mostly depopulated of humans (Or whatever we turn ourselves into.) and allowed to go wild again.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 11 Jan 06

I've heard it said (source?) that the Americans with the lowest environmental impact live in New York City: close packed housing is easy to heat and cool, people walk everywhere and use public transport, car ownership is relatively uncommon etc.

Global urbanization might be just what we need if it's done on the New York model, and not the more sprawling cities of other parts of America.

Posted by: vinay on 11 Jan 06

I have heard Stewart Brand give his urbanization talk, and his discussion about squatter cities is provocative, to say the least. While it is hard to disagree that squatter cities are self-constructed and self-organizing, to call them "vibrant" is a value judgment and should be labeled as such. It would be more helpful to know what residents themselves (not outside experts, no matter how "visionary") think of the places they live, because then it might be possible to create policies and direct resources toward their motivations for change.

Posted by: Ted Wolf on 11 Jan 06

That urban vs rural link had some problems through the auto posters, with the ampersands being HTMLed... try this:

urban vs rural

Posted by: fartles on 11 Jan 06

Pace, Vinay: You may be interested in Toronto's ecological footprint study, which Stewart Brand mentioned in his talk. Your comments are in line with his thinking on ecological impact of urban residents vs. rural.

Ted: Agreed; vibrant was his personal view. A more objective descriptor which he used and I left out was "incremental." As for what squatters wanted, he reported (I believe drawn from Robert Neuwirth and/or Mike Davis) that their worries were security of tenure, location, water, sanitation, electricity, and protection from crime. And that they don't worry about housing, phone service, or unemployment...

Posted by: Chris on 11 Jan 06

To be fair, the "vibrant" depiction is also used (if I recall correctly) by Robert Neuwirth, who lived in squatter cities around the world for years.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 11 Jan 06

Neuwirth's book is a great read: Shadow Cities. Squatter neighborhoods are complex and their form is highly shaped by the specific local rules, regulations and customs. The way people who live in these spaces feel about them is highly complex and changes as the areas are built up and evolve.

Posted by: Scott T. on 11 Jan 06

Steweart sees population declining after slowing as people move to cities. Period. But another perspetive is that population slows when economic future looks bleak, as in some ways it does in the cities. But rises with rising expctations. David Hackett Fisher's Long Wave, a history of world inflation from about 800 AD showed that inflation goes with rising prices and declining wages, and lead to collapse, but low to negative inflation, fter collapse, lead to falling prices and rising incomes - and earlier marriages and more babies.

So as the population turns down summing across declining birth rates, the time will come when things start looking well for people, and that they can afford earlier marriage and children. This seems to put a lower limit on population decline and lead to a new rising of population rather than to a very long term decline.

Posted by: Douglass Carmichael on 11 Jan 06

Well then Douglass how does that theory address the plummeting of birthrates during the 80s and 90s. There were many properous phases in that generation and yet the Birth Rate in Canada, USA and Europe continues to fall. If it weren't for Immigration our populations would be falling right now not growing.

In Rural area's having more children is a blessing as you have more hands to help out on the farm/ranch, wereas in the City raising a child can be a very expensive endevor putting a finacial ceiling on how many children you can realistic afford to raise. Only the Rich are not bound by this economic limit but they are not a population driver.

Posted by: Chris on 12 Jan 06



re population:
Low birthrates in the West are not simply 'future looks bleak' - seem to be a result of highly educated women, with very high requirements (2 incomes) for middle class life. Humans are unusual mammals - give the females a choice and they dont breed! (actually its not a free choice when they have been convinced that 2 100kW vehicles and a huge house and a mid-level management career are essentials)

re 'vibrant' townships. I've spent a lot of time in a poor barrio, and I wouldnt say 'vibrant' because the employment ideas are so limited. People are not miserable, there's a lot of joy. There is a lot of self-sufficiency re building. BUT every metre of space is used, so come oil-crash there is nowhere to grow anything. Weststyle suburbia at least can dig up those lawns for spuds.

Posted by: g bruno on 12 Jan 06

From listening to the Long Now talk he gave I remembered towards the end he talked of a plague or epidemic as something that could quickly reverse the trend, as a modified Bird flu virus might spread quickly through the cities.

Posted by: James Morrison on 13 Jan 06



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