EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth

Chapter 9. Redesigning Cities for People: Introduction

As I was being driven through Tel Aviv en route from my hotel to a conference center in November 2000, I could not help but note the overwhelming presence of cars and parking lots. Tel Aviv, expanding from a small settlement a half-century ago to a city of some 2 million today, has evolved during the automobile era. It occurred to me that the ratio of parks to parking lots may be the best single indicator of the livability of a cityan indication of whether the city is designed for people or for cars.

We live in an urbanizing world. Aside from the growth of population itself, urbanization is the dominant demographic trend of our time. The 150 million people living in cities in 1900 swelled to 2.9 billion people by 2000, a 19-fold increase. Meanwhile, the urban share of world population increased from 10 percent to 46 percent. If recent trends continue, by 2007 more than half of us will live in cities. For the first time, we will be an urban species.1

Urbanization on anything like the current scale is historically quite new. For most of our existence, we have lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers in a natural environment. As recently as 1800, only Peking (now Beijing) had a million people. Today 326 cities have at least that many inhabitants. And there are 19 megacities, with 10 million or more residents. Tokyo's population of 26 million approaches that of Canada. Mexico City's population of 18 million is nearly equal to that of Australia. Mumbai (formerly Bombay), São Paulo, New York, Lagos, Los Angeles, Calcutta, and Shanghai follow close behind.2

Cities are unnatural. They require a concentration of food, water, energy, and materials that nature cannot provide. These masses of materials must then be dispersed in the form of garbage, human waste, and air and water pollutants. Worldwatch researcher Molly O'Meara Sheehan reports that although cities cover less than 2 percent of the earth's surface and have less than half the world's people, they account for 78 percent of carbon emissions, 60 percent of residential water use, and 76 percent of the wood used for industrial purposes.3

Cities, particularly those centered on the automobile, deprive people of needed exercise, creating an imbalance between caloric intake and caloric expenditures. As a result, there is a rapid growth in obesity in both industrial and developing countries. Overweight populations in industrial countries, sometimes in the majority among adults, combined with the swelling ranks of overweight people in developing countries, have pushed the global overweight population to 1.1 billion. Epidemiologists now see this as a public health threat of historic proportionsa growing source of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and a higher incidence of several forms of cancer.

The process of urbanization is changing. Whereas migration to the early cities came largely from urban pull, it is now driven more by lack of opportunity in the countryside. In most developing countries, this flow from rural areas far exceeds the capacity of cities to provide jobs, housing, electricity, water, sewerage, and social services, thus resulting in squatter settlements where multitudes live in marginal, often subhuman conditions.

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1. Urban population in 1900 cited in Mario Polèse, "Urbanization and Development, Development Express, no. 4, 1997; United Nations, World Urbanization Prospects: The 1999 Revision (New York: 2000).

2. Molly O'Meara Sheehan, Reinventing Cities for People and the Planet, Worldwatch Paper 147 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, June 1999), pp. 14-15; United Nations, op. cit. note 1; United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2000 Revision (New York: February 2001).

3. Sheehan, op. cit. note 2, p. 7.


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute