Living on the Edge

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Humanity will continue to move toward city centers where the population, empowered by technological advances, will create societies in which everything necessary will be within everyone’s reach. Civilization is entering the utopian age of the megacity.

Or maybe not.

Writing for Foreign Policy(Sept.-Oct. 2010), Joel Kotkin suggests that cities may not be all they’re cracked up to be. The worst income disparity in the West is found in large cities; half of the children in inner London live in poverty, and the majority of Mumbaikars live in slums. “As unfashionable as it might sound,” Kotkin writes, “what if we thought . . . more about the many possibilities for proliferating more human-scaled urban centers; what if healthy growth turns out to be best achieved through dispersion, not concentration?”

While “urban boosters” trash suburbs, Kotkin points out that cities may be the true enemy. The concentration of materials used to build modern cities can create “heat islands” six to ten degrees Celsius hotter than the areas around them. And because of the “lethal combination of chronically high housing costs and chronically low opportunity in economies dominated by finance and other elite industries,” the working class gets hit hardest, Kotkin writes. But even those elite industries don’t always look to set up shop in the “urban core”; Silicon Valley, for instance, is located in a large suburb on the outskirts of San Francisco.

What is needed, Kotkin argues, is a more human approach from urban planners, one that does not aim “to fulfill . . . grandiose visions of mega­cities on a hill, but to meet the needs of the people living in them, particularly those people suffering from overcrowding, environmental misery, and social inequality.”

Image by Zoom Zoom, licensed under Creative Commons

This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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