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How to Plan Cities for 2.7 Billion More People?

Neal Peirce / Oct 12 2012

For Release Sunday, October 14, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceNAPLES – Where in the world – literally – will affordable, developable land be found to house and service the stunning population growth of world cities, now estimated to rise from 3.6 billion souls today to a projected 6.3 billion by 2050?

Will cities move aggressively enough to gain clear control of outlying land, so they can plan for roads and infrastructure and stop rampant land speculation?

The issue bubbled to the top at the recent World Urban Forum of some 8,000 public officials and other urbanists convened in Naples under the sponsorship of UN-Habitat.

As Joan Clos, Habitat’s executive director, put it: “If city expansion is not planned, well, it’s going to happen anyway. Cities need planned extensions – otherwise you’ll have people living in slums. And to correct that will be very expensive, and it will be a mess.”

But how can cities cope – smartly? Shlomo “Solly” Angel of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy brought unique research on that topic to Naples. He noted that most people assume that cities, which are growing especially rapidly in Africa and Asia, are getting more densely packed with people. Pictures of frightfully crowded slums only confirm the impression.

But Angel painted a different picture. Using census population data and satellite imagery tracking changes in 120 major world cities between 1990 and 2000, he found they were expanding their territory, on average, twice as fast as their populations were actually growing. Census maps of 30 global cities from as early as 1800 illustrate the same phenomenon – humans, as their living standards rise, opting for dramatically expanded amounts of living space.

Angel calls this “the inevitable expansion proposition” – something so inherent in human nature it can’t or shouldn’t be altered. In his new book, Planet of Cities, he dismisses the U.S. smart growth movement as “purist,” “uninformed,” a misguided “containment” approach that shouldn’t be applied in the developing world.

For new world cities – medium- to large-sized metropolises plus hitherto obscure towns only now reaching city dimensions – Angel’s prescription is to acquire vast amounts of land on the periphery for future expansion. He’d have the cities divide the new lands into a master-arterial grid of superblocks 1 kilometer (1,100 yards) square. Developers could then carve territory out of the blocks for housing and commercial projects. He’d also have the cities reserve adequate open space, a perennial wish of city dwellers, in each superblock.

The core idea makes a lot of sense – acquiring land while it’s inexpensive and plotting it to create coherent neighborhoods for settlers still to come.

Still, there are issues. Top example: Where’s the money? Today’s city halls, struggling to serve the population they already have, will find it tough to find the funds – or muster the political will – to buy up large swaths of rural territory they may not need for years to come. Plus, if the city is already hemmed in by other towns, however small, it may be unable to expand at all.

Second, why not plan for reasonable compactness, creating livability without unnecessary sprawl? – a point UN-Habitat’s Clos stresses.

Third, must farmlands near cities be mindlessly sacrificed for urban growth? They’re often in especially fertile river valleys. Angel’s not concerned, asserting the planet has enough reserves of cultivatable lands to feed mankind in perpetuity. Others might demur, noting recent years’ alarming spikes in international commodity prices, plus the danger of climate change disrupting the food production necessary to feed those billions of new city dwellers.

Then there’s the issue of transportation. Angel recommends broad roadways around the superblocks – wide enough for bus lanes, bike paths, a median, plus several lanes for auto and truck traffic. He acknowledges that without strong political alliances in cities to introduce and strengthen public transportation, private motorized vehicles will rule the day.

Superior strategies might be devised. New Urbanist architect-planner Peter Calthorpe, for example, suggests newer urban neighborhoods such as Angel’s superblocks should include, from their start, totally auto-free boulevards. Why? To assure a shared, amenable environment for pedestrians, cyclists, residences and shops. The boulevards would be open only to those users, plus bus rapid transit lines. Cars and trucks, with their noise and pollution, would be relegated to parallel one-way streets. Public transportation would become a keystone, not a maybe alternative for cities’ expansion.

Angel acknowledged some barriers at the Naples sessions, adding: “I’m dedicated to getting this done in a few places. Just to protect the right-of-way and protect some open spaces… The whole idea is protection.”

What’s certain is that he’s onto a key, unavoidable, 21st-century issue. It’s one thing to wonder in awe about 2.7 billion still-to-arrive city dwellers. It’s another to ask how cities can create livable “people space” for their torrents of newcomers.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com.

7 Comments

  1. Richard Wakeford
    Posted October 12, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Angel’s approach could be seen in Beijing, where the Regional Studies Association held their first global conference, but the resulting development seemed pretty dense (ie high apartment blocks rather than North American style suburbia. While cities still don’t cover much land area, compared with agriculture, it must be wrong to dismiss the increasing pressure on land as something that can easily be dealt with. It’s also rather important to address the challenge of emissions that create climate change. If we don’t mitigate these, city design for 2100 will need to be rather more robust.

  2. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted October 12, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    They were built in the era of cheap energy and their planners were not in thinking of costs of maintenance. I am so glad this issue is being raised by the Strong Towns initiative.
    http://globalpublicsquare. blogs.cnn.com/2012/07/31/the- cost-of-americas-inefficient- sprawl/
    The cost of America’s inefficient sprawl
    http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/kbenfield/a_fiscal_conservatives_manifes.html
    A fiscal conservative’s manifesto against sprawl

  3. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted October 12, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I think sprawl within cities (and related rationing of services) is also reason for the move to suburbs and further perpetuation of sprawl due to zoning limitations in the suburbs.
    http://www.uic.edu/cuppa/gci/uar/abstracts.htm
    Rethinking the Dual City , vol. 42, no. 5
    Exit, Voice, and Electoral Turnover, vol. 47, no. 2
    http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1469&context=ulj
    Toward Equal Delivery of Municipal Services in the Central Cities

  4. Mary DeWolf
    Posted October 12, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    No expansion will happen if the spray against mosquitoes kills the bees. I am most worried about our food supply in the future.
    Revelations: end of the world: no bees: no food: no living creature

  5. Gary Braswell
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    This is one of the best articles I have read on Citiwire to date. Unlike most other articles where Democrats are good and the Republicans and Tea Party bad, I found absent in this article the typical language of division and instead a real attempt to conquer issues with reason and planning. As stated in the article there are huge issues to overcome such as money and political will but in my opinion the first and largest issue is overcoming division and the tone and reasoning found in this article should be a template for future Citiwire articles and discussion.

  6. Ruth L. Love
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    Some of Oregon’s citis could exemplify the concerns Peirce raises regarding urban sprawl and loss of farm land. State land use law requires cities to form urban growth boundarie in which urban growth is to be accomodated with minimal effect on prime farm land. Within its boundary, Portland growth is accomodated via in-fill and building cautiously upward.

  7. David
    Posted October 15, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Expansion is not inevitable, or preferable. China’s cities have been expanding on Angel’s model (1km superblocks, consuming farmland or converting it to unproductive generic ‘open space’) and the result is a nightmare. Left to their own devices, developers won’t provide public through-access, and the ‘open space’ is fragmented, isolated, and privatized. Island biogeography / landscape ecology applies to the human species as well.

    An exciting alternative idea has been imbedded in a just-announced competition for the Huadi area in Guangzhou: No net increase in developed land; no net decrease in productive agricultural land (here, largely flower production). If we can extend that to include no net increase in carbon emissions, water consumption, or waste production, we will be on our way to a model for sustainable development.

    The question is, how much can population, and quality of life, increase, within those limits? And at what economic cost.