Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Megacities and Environmental Catastrophes: An Update

All over the developing world, ultra-modern megacities are being built. In Egypt, two new megacities are rising from the desert about 20 miles outside Cairo because city planners have deemed the existing city center to be "overtaxed beyond repair." In the Philippines, a new "Global City" with modern high rises, shopping centers, and hospitals has sprung up on the high ground of a former military base near the existing business center.

These new, modern cities are essential. As reported in an earlier post, more than 5 billion people, or 60% of the world's population, will live in cities by 2030 -- and many of those cities will have populations in excess of 25 million people. Unless we build new infrastructure and even new cities, the pollution and waste generated by megacities will literally kill millions of people.

The problem is what we are leaving behind. Critics of the new cities say they are only for small populations of the rich, while tens of millions of poor people will be left behind in the old cities. Without investments in the old cities, they will turn into massive shantytowns as the existing infrastructure decays. Critics see a future not all that different than the animated movie Wall-E, where all the humans left earth to live on a space ship because cities had become massive garbage dumps surrounded by decaying infrastructure. It turns out in real life that we have enough vacant space outside existing cities so we need not move to outer space. We are just moving 20 miles outside the existing city instead.

The impacts of cities, however, have never been contained within their geographic boundaries. Throughout history, cities have influenced the culture, politics, and commerce of entire nations. That is as true today in the internet age as it was at the dawn of civilization. (My recent-college-graduate son, for example, is considering employment opportunities in the web-based video game industry. All the job offers are in either New York City or Irvine, California, and none allow telecommuting. It appears that even those who spend most of their waking hours in virtual worlds on the internet want to physically live and work in the same city as everyone else working on their virtual worlds.)

Cities also have tremendous impacts on a nation's ecology. Highly efficient housing, energy, waste disposal, and mass transportation systems can dramatically reduce pollution not only within a city, but also throughout a region and across national boundaries. On the other hand, inadequate housing, energy, waste disposal, and transportation systems result in increased pollution that create health risks to everyone who shares the air, groundwater, rivers, streams, lakes and oceans. Even if they live 20 miles or more away.

These new, ultra-modern cities are a step in the right direction. They will provide more efficiency in energy, housing, waste disposal, and transportation. It just makes no sense to build them if we are going to ignore the environmental catastrophes that will develop in forgotten urban wastelands 20 miles down the road.

John Howley
Orlando, Florida

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