“The City That Was Abundant With People”
TOKYO, São Paulo, Lagos, Mexico City, and Seoul fit the description, though it was not of them that the Bible prophet Jeremiah spoke. He was referring to Jerusalem shortly after its destruction by the Babylonians in 607 B.C.E.—Lamentations 1:1.
With world population now some five and a half billion, cities abundant with people are not hard to find. The unmistakable trend of the past half century has been toward bigness. Whereas only 7 urban centers in the world numbered five million inhabitants in 1950, estimates are that by the turn of the century, at least 21 cities will have over ten million inhabitants, including the 5 cities mentioned above.
How Did They Get So Big?
Megacities are formed when rural residents move into the city in search of work and when city dwellers move out of the inner city in search of more spacious and pleasant surroundings, from which they then commute to work by car, bus, or train. These suburbs, together with their mother city, soon join to form a metropolitan area.
Some megacities became such as “teenagers.” Tenochtitlán—today we call it Mexico City—was founded about 1325. By 1519, when the Spaniards arrived, this capital of the Aztec Empire already had a population possibly approaching 300,000.
However, like people suffering from middle-age spread, other cities have widened out only with advanced age. Seoul, site of the 1988 Olympics, has roots that go back to pre-Christian days, but some 50 years ago, its population was still only one-tenth of what it is today. Now it is called home by almost a fourth of the country’s 43 million inhabitants.
Like Seoul, Tokyo’s name also means “capital.” Actually, in Tokyo’s case, “eastern capital.” Originally Edo, the name was changed to Tokyo in 1868 when the capital was moved from the more westerly located city of Kyoto. The area around Edo was already inhabited in pre-Christian times, but the foundation was not laid for today’s megacity until 1457, when a powerful warrior built a castle there. During the 17th century, the city was founded, and by the mid-1800’s it had a population well in excess of a million people. Once said to boast more neon signs than any other city in the world, Tokyo is very up-to-date.
Another equally modern megacity radiating youthful charm is São Paulo, Brazil. With wide avenues and modernistic skyscrapers, it looks remarkably young for its age, having been founded by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 1554. Now, during January, its residents—Paulistanos—are celebrating its 440th anniversary. São Paulo remained quite small until the 1880’s, about which time the money of Brazil’s newly born coffee industry served as a magnet to draw emigrants from Europe and later from Asia.
The Portuguese also had a part in developing a megacity in Nigeria. Of course, long before the Europeans arrived in the late 15th century, the Lagos area was inhabited by one of Africa’s most populous and most urbanized tropical peoples of precolonial times, the Yoruba. The city was a noted slave market until the mid-1800’s. In 1861 it was annexed by Britain, and in 1914 it became the capital of what was then a British colony.
“Big Is No Longer Better”
Bigness has advantages. Generally, the larger the city, the greater the chances its citizens have to live a rich social and cultural life. Economic factors also favor bigness, since a large population provides greater market and job possibilities. Like a powerful magnet, the economic benefits of cities attract people looking for the promised land. But when they fail to find jobs and end up living in slums, possibly begging in order to survive, or when they go homeless, because of the shortage of suitable housing, how quickly disillusionment and bitterness set in!
The magazine National Geographic argues that too big is simply too big, saying: “Not many years ago, cities proudly drew attention to their growth. Large was good, and the largest cities bragged of their rank in the world. But big is no longer better. Today, to be a contender for the title ‘world’s largest city’ is like a healthy young person’s being told he has a serious illness. It may be cured, but it cannot be ignored.”
Preventing people from flocking to the cities in unacceptable numbers is almost an impossible task. So megacities try to meet the challenge in other ways, perhaps by building row after row of drab, look-alike tenement buildings, by erecting skyscrapers that stretch ever higher into the heavens, or by turning to completely new concepts. Japanese construction companies, for example, now toy with the idea of building huge complexes underground, where millions of people could work, shop, and even live. “An underground city is no longer a dream,” says one building executive, “we expect it to actually materialize in the early part of the next century.”
Even from a physical standpoint, big is not always better. Disasters can—and do—strike everywhere. But when they strike cities, the destruction of life and property is potentially greater. To illustrate: Tokyo has suffered severe disasters, both natural and man-made. In 1657 some 100,000 people perished in a calamitous fire, in 1923 a similar number in a murderous earthquake and fire, and possibly as many as a quarter of a million during the heavy bombing raids at the end of World War II.
World problems are mirrored in its cities—urban pollution and traffic congestion. Both problems are graphically illustrated by Mexico City, once described as a “case study in urban disaster.” In excess of three million cars choke the streets. These, together with factories representing over half of total Mexican industry, create such a daily dose of pollution that, according to a 1984 report, “just breathing is estimated to be equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.”
Of course, Mexico City is not unique. What modern industrialized city does not have its own pollution and traffic congestion? In Lagos, rush-hour traffic is called the “go-slow,” appropriately enough. The city spreads across four main islands; bridges from the mainland are unable to handle the growing number of cars that clog the roads, bringing traffic almost to a standstill. The book 5000 Days to Save the Planet muses: “The time has almost arrived when it would be quicker to walk.” Almost?
The Even More Serious Problems
Megacities are plagued by even more serious problems. Besides insufficient housing, overcrowded schools, and understaffed hospitals, psychological aspects are also involved. Dr. Paul Leyhausen, a leading German ethologist, claims that “a great number of neuroses and social maladjustments are, partially or totally, directly or indirectly, caused by overcrowding.”
Megacities rob their citizens of a sense of community, turning the city into a faceless mass of numbers. In the midst of hundreds of neighbors, a city dweller can be lonely, yearning for friends and companions he can find nowhere. The sense of alienation created by this situation becomes dangerous when it causes multinational populations to break up into racial or ethnic groups. Economic inequalities or acts of discrimination—real or imagined—can lead to disaster, as Los Angeles learned in 1992 when outbreaks of racial violence resulted in more than 50 deaths and 2,000 injuries.
The greatest danger connected with city life is its tendency to crowd out spirituality. City life is expensive, so those who live there can easily be distracted by the anxieties of life. Nowhere else are so many things readily available to sidetrack people into neglecting the things of real and lasting importance. Nowhere else are the opportunities for entertainment—good, bad, and indecent—as great. It was just such a lack of spirituality that doomed Jerusalem, the city abundant with people of which Jeremiah spoke.
What Does the Future Hold?
In view of such overwhelming difficulties, 5000 Days to Save the Planet concludes that “the task of providing a decent standard of living for today’s city dwellers, let alone those of future generations, poses seemingly insurmountable problems.” Just meeting present demands “is placing an intolerable burden on the environment and society.” And with an eye to the future, it notes: “To expect to meet them when cities have swollen to three times their present population is simply wishful thinking.”
No doubt about it, cities are in trouble. And megacities, because of their size, even more so! Their illnesses have helped put the entire world on its deathbed. Is there a cure in sight?
Megacities affect us. Even smaller cities can influence us, some in a way completely out of proportion to their size. For examples of this, consider the additional cities to be discussed in our next issue.
[Picture on page 25]
Lagos, abundant with people