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The (Free) City Solution!

January 8, 2012

National Geographic has an excellent article on why cities are the best solution to humanity’s problems. The ‘slums’ of Mumbai are signs of progress and growth, not poverty. Urban life makes everyone greener, smarter, and richer.

Funny enough, the author suggests that the problems of rapid urbanization in developing countries are not troubles of cities themselves, but problems of institutions:

“I meet African mayors who tell me, ‘There are too many people moving here!’ I tell them, ‘No, the problem is your inability to govern them.'”

Amen to that!

  1. anon permalink
    January 16, 2012 6:10 pm

    I can barely believe how idiotic that statement is. City dwellers ecologoical footprint is generally more 10 times that of naturally living humans. The broad scale monoculture required to feed cities is massively destructive to the environment and vastly less inefficient than permaculture food forests.
    Most city dwellers are completely incapable of long term survival in a wilderness. Is someone with a college degree who can’t keep themselves alive really more intelligent than a naked bushman?
    As for wealth I’d have to go with the old adage ‘He is richest whose pleasures are cheapest’. Economic growth is a mostly a lie when you take into consideration the environmental degradation it causes. We have more extreme poverty and a far greater disparity between the rich and the poor than ever. Cities make a tiny minority super wealthy, many comfortable and leave billions in the third world starving. But thats okay because they’re hidden from view: Out of sight, out of mind.
    The person who wrote that article should try travelling around Africa and Asia on the roads less travelled and see how most of the world really lives.

    • Z. Caceres permalink
      January 16, 2012 6:27 pm

      Hi anon, thanks for your comment.

      You should have a look at the original article as well as Glaeser’s book. In fact, the efficiencies created by cities lower ecological footprints, especially our carbon footprint since people can bike, take public transit and drive less. Ed Glaeser’s work shows this with strong empirical evidence. If we care for the environment, we should head to cities, which we can build up instead of out and return vast tracts of forest back to nature instead of building suburia.

      The skills needed to live in a city are different than those needed to live an isolated life in the wilderness. But why is one set better than another? Glaeser doesn’t assert that being an accountant is ‘superior’ to being a farmer. He’s talking about economic efficiencies of having people with many different skills and ideas nearby you.

      Obviously economic growth is not everything, but it is a powerful enabling condition to allow people to achieve the kinds of pleasures that they truly want. People don’t want ‘a better clothes dryer’, they want to be able to spend less time washing clothes and thus more time writing novels or playing with their children or fishing or what have you. Before condemning others for ‘not knowing about life among the poor’, you should consider how your argument against economic growth would sound to someone who lives in a low or no-growth economy in the developing world. You are effectively saying, “I do not care what you want, enjoy ‘simple pleasures’ because economic growth isn’t everything.” I think you would find most of the world’s poor wants economic growth and the opportunities that it offers.

      In fact, cities are currently the engines of economic growth and increasing prosperity in the developing world, especially because of their large informal sectors that employ the majority of the world’s poor. If it’s true that they only work for elite minorities, why is there such a massive exodus in the developing world to cities? People are voting with their feet against rural poverty and for the possibilities of urban life. We should respect these decisions, they are expressions of the poor’s autonomy.

      I have traveled in Africa, and my own experience suggests that people in urban areas were much better off than the rural poor who — because they lived as subsistence farmers or (‘naked businessmen’ as you say) — were prone to famine and other shocks to the economy. Urban life brings people together, and it opens possibilities for specialization and trade. We shouldn’t write it off because of a romanticized ideal of rural life.

      • Z. Caceres permalink
        January 16, 2012 7:21 pm

        I have turned this comment into a post, if you’d prefer to respond there.

  2. January 10, 2012 4:56 pm

    You pit slims in scare quotes, but they are are still slums. They may be better than the alternative, but they are still slums. Freedom to make them better without having to rely on possibly corrupt local and national governments would be a good start though.

    • Z. Caceres permalink
      January 10, 2012 6:25 pm

      Thanks for your comment Ian,

      The quotes are around slums because the word has a severely negative connotation that I’m not sure is deserved. Because of legal barriers to the ownership of land and the formal building of homes/businesses, slums are homes for many. I agree wholeheartedly that the residents should be free to make them better (which they already do, all over the world). The bigger challenge is removing the barriers that prevent hard working people in slums from building the kinds of longer-term homes protected from arbitrary eviction and environmental hazards.


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