Why Cities Are the Best Cure for Our Planet’s Growing Pains

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1 Why cities are the best cure for our planet’s growing painsBy Robert Kunzig Photograph by Chia Ming Chien
At the time of Jack the Ripper, a hard time for London, there lived in that city a mild-mannered stenographer named Ebenezer Howard. He's worth mentioning because he had a large and lingering impact on how we think about cities. Howard was bald, with a bushy, mouth-cloaking mustache, wire-rim spectacles, and the distracted air of a seeker. His job transcribing speeches did not fulfill him. He dabbled in spiritualism; mastered Esperanto, the recently invented language; invented a shorthand typewriter himself. And dreamed about real estate. What his family needed, he wrote to his wife in 1885, was a house with "a really nice garden with perhaps a lawn tennis ground." A few years later, after siring four children in six years in a cramped rental house, Howard emerged from a prolonged depression with a scheme for emptying out London. London in the 1880s, you see, was booming, but it was also bursting with people far more desperate than Howard. The slums where the Ripper trolled for victims were beyond appalling. "Every room in these rotten and reeking tenements houses a family, often two," wrote Andrew Mearns, a crusading minister. "In one cellar a sanitary inspector reports finding a father, mother, three children, and four pigs! … Elsewhere is a poor widow, her three children, and a child who had been dead thirteen days." The Victorians called such slums rookeries, or colonies of breeding animals. The chairman of the London County Council described his city as "a tumour, an elephantiasis sucking into its gorged system half the life and the blood and the bone of the rural districts." Urban planning in the 20th century sprang from that horrified perception of 19th-century cities. Oddly, it began with Ebenezer Howard. In a slim book, self-published in 1898, the man who spent his days transcribing the ideas of others articulated his own vision for how humanity ought to live—a vision so compelling that half a century later Lewis Mumford, the great American architecture critic, said it had "laid the foundation for a new cycle in urban civilization." The tide of urbanization must be stopped, Howard argued, by drawing people away from the cancerous metropolises into new, self-contained "garden cities." The residents of these happy little islands would feel the "joyous union" of town and country. They'd live in nice houses and gardens at the center, walk to work in factories at the rim, and be fed by farms in an outer greenbelt—which would also stop the town from expanding into the country. When one town filled to its greenbelt—32,000 people was the 2 right number, Howard thought—it would be time to build the next one. In 1907, welcoming 500 Esperantists to Letchworth, the first garden city, Howard boldly predicted (in Esperanto) that both the new language and his new utopias would soon spread around the world. He was right about the human desire for more living space but wrong about the future of cities: It's the tide of urbanization that has spread around the world. In the developed countries and Latin America it has nearly crested; more than 70 percent of people there live in urban areas. In much of Asia and Africa people are still surging into cities, in numbers swollen by the population boom. Most urbanites live in cities of less than half a million, but big cities have gotten bigger and more common. In the 19th century London was the only city of more than five million; now there are 54, most of them in Asia. And here's one more change since then: Urbanization is now good news. Expert opinion has shifted profoundly in the past decade or two. Though slums as appalling as Victorian London's are now widespread, and the Victorian fear of cities lives on, cancer no longer seems the right metaphor. On the contrary: With Earth's population headed toward nine or ten billion, dense cities are looking more like a cure—the best...
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