Megacities must not lose their humanizing qualities

May 20, 2010

Download Story
A multilane highway connects skyscrapers and sprawl in Lagos, Nigeria.

Barry Weisberg, our global cities contributor, will be in Shanghai, China for the 2010 World Expo, which runs through October. And he'll report for us as part of our new series, “Global Cities: Challenges and Choices.”

Shanghai's population is approaching 20 million and as it and other mega cities expand, Barry hopes that our global obsession with development doesn't come at a great cost.


Traveling through the world's megacities has resembled the journey described in Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. In this fictional masterpiece Marco Polo describes to Kubla Khan what he saw on his journey. After four decades of visits to megacities, it is also difficult to describe, let alone understand, the modern megacity, world city or global city. What they have in common are qualities of size, scale, shape and speed that are new in human development and unique in the history of globalization. For example, size proportionately affects both the physical and mental health of people and geometrically increases the global footprint of a city. We make cities, but they remake us.

The megacity, determined by a population of ten million or more, or the global city, determined by capital concentration, signals a new partition of the world. This spatial partition is represented within the city by formal vs. non-formal settlements or vertical vs. horizontal growth.

These new (in)human settlements are full with both promise and peril, beauty and barbarism. More important than the fact that half the world's population is living in cities is the emergence of the very large city. It is in the megacities that the fate of global and planetary development rests. In such cities there is a dance between promise and peril, each partner uncertain of who is leading.

The promise of the megacity can be the diversity of experience, people and cultures; economies of scale; human capital; or the concentration of science-technology-innovation. The peril of the megacity includes both planetary and global threats, such as inequality, pollution, violence or earthquakes. Martin Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, recognized that “Today's city is the most vulnerable social structure ever conceived by man.”

The bewildering methods of defining and measuring urban population suggest that even our conception of the city is indefinite. The megacity has been the subject of numerous horrific fictional accounts. But no one has managed to depict a city of twenty, thirty or forty million people as equitable and ecological. Such an idea cannot be sustained in the imagination.

Cities are problems in “organized complexity,” stated Jane Jacobs in 1961. The most difficult challenge facing megacites is to discover the challenge of this “organized complexity”. It is the interaction between the hard and soft infrastructure that sustains the urban area, including the full array of global and planetary systems that engage or are engaged by cities. One obvious example is the Icelandic Volcano. A planetary event dramatically impacted the global system of air traffic, and related activities.

Looking at the movement in and out of people, freight, power, ideas, services, waste in cities, it is obvious that Tokyo, New York, Shanghai, Mumbai, Sao Paulo or Lagos represent distinct examples of “organized complexity.” They are driven by factors that are poorly understood in isolation, let alone in their interaction.

That is why the ideas of “best practice” and “better city” fail to offer strategic conceptions of equity or ecology. Such perspectives are relegated to “themes” such as inclusion or sustainability. This suggests that the fate of a city is only amenable to minimal, fragmented change. The approach fails to address the organization of complexity and instead, settles for gains for the few, often at the expense of the many.

Megacities must resolve how they will position themselves in the very real contradictions between rural vs. urban development; local vs. global flows; equality vs. inequality or global footprint vs. local autonomy. Cities must discover the most humanizing scale at which basic services – food, energy, transportation, education, health or safety – should be provided? Is it the unit of 50,000 or 500,000?

Thus, more is needed than a “better city.” We must redefine what is equitable and ecological for cities of every scale. This requires that we redesign the systems of production, consumption and distribution that fuel the megacities. We must rediscover the humanizing qualities of cities before they became supersized.

Barry Weisberg is global cities contributor for Worldview. His commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Worldview or WBEZ.