The Potential Perils of Rapid-Fire Urbanization

Former Barcelona mayor Joan Clos warns that a lack of urban planning could turn our expanding cities into powder kegs.

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Former mayor of Barcelona Joan Clos has an easy manner and tousled white hair, like an amiable uncle. He seems too laid-back to be delivering such a harrowing message. But as he surveys the world’s fastest growing cities, he sounds the alarm about the millions of people suffering in terrible living conditions -- and the millions more on the way that could turn the metropolis into powder keg.

As executive director of UN-HABITAT, the United Nations organization concerned with helping developing world cities establish basic services, housing, and infrastructure, Clos has come to terms with the numbers: half the world’s population of 6 billion lives in cities, and in the years ahead roughly 6 of the anticipated 9 billion people on the planet will be concentrated in urban areas, primarily in Asia and Africa.

The peril lies in the fact that the cities accommodating these many millions of mostly poor, rural migrants seem to be almost completely unprepared – barely hanging on under current conditions, let alone ready for expansion. Those moving to cities in search of a better life are going straight to the slums. In sub-Saharan Africa, Close says, 65 percent of the urban population is in informal settlements. Slums in general, he says, range from 200,000 to 750,000 in size; for comparison, the entire city of Boston is a bit over 600,000. Families live in 10 by 10-foot spaces with a crude cooking stove and no toilet, and wait in – or more often bail out of -- long lines for public restrooms.

"The urbanization taking place is spontaneous and unplanned," Clos said at a symposium last week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology honoring the SPURS fellowship at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. The fellowship takes mid-career professionals from around the world for a year of training and recharging batteries at MIT. “Governments are overwhelmed."

Rapidly growing cities in the developing world must start with the basics, Clos said, thinking about just one thing to start: the street grid and the public realm. In New York City, planning commissioners laid out “the streets in 1811 that we’re still walking on today.” The zoning and regulations and real estate development changed many times over in the two centuries that followed; Manhattan was designed before there was such a thing as a car. Yet the grid has been a remarkably resilient and enduring feature of the city. “The street pattern is the foundation of urban planning."

The same can be said about Philadelphia, where the framework for urbanization was similarly established, in a timeless manner. “In Barcelona, I walk down streets built by the Romans."

But while an average 32 percent of the land in successful cities is devoted to streets and sidewalks and public space making up the public realm, that figure is only 2 percent in the cluttered shantytowns and favelas of informal settlement.

Better organizing urban land would seem to be the very essence of planning. So why aren’t there platoons of planners ready to deploy in this next round of cities poised for explosive growth? For one thing, there is a cultural lack of acceptance of the profession that is leading to inaction, Close says. “Urban planning has a bad reputation. It’s seen as a colonial thing."

If the bad associations are from places like Brasilia or Chandigarh, the reticence is justified, Clos said. "We’re still building cities like it was the first quarter of the 20th century, he said.

Instead of master plans and eminent domain, Clos prescribes a set of refined, roll-up-the-sleeves methods such as participatory land readjustment to set the street network, and value capture – though he prefers the term "value sharing," which seems less “predatory” – to help finance basic infrastructure and the public realm.

The payoff is better living conditions, basic sanitation and drinking water, and the promise of all that human capital participating in a well-functioning economy. In addition to the work of Solly Angel, who in Planet of Cities calls for minimal preparations for massive urban expansion, Clos cites the Stanford Physicist Geoffrey West and his calculation that cities keep getting better, in terms of economic activity and increased productivity, as they double or triple in size. Once investments in basic infrastructure are made up front, few additional resources need be added.

Peril waits around every corner, along with success. Detroit can barely collect its remaining property tax bills; but Medellin, once a dystopian murder capital, is now a model city. (The mayor of Medellin, Anibal Gaviria Correa, addressed the MIT group just before Clos). The remarkable thing, Clos observes, is how few cities actually die. Corporations come and go; national governments, too. But cities endure. What might be most unbearable for leaders like him is the prospect of the 21st century breaking that winning streak.

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