Cities—Why in Crisis?
“Come on! Let us build ourselves a city and also a tower with its top in the heavens, . . . for fear we may be scattered over all the surface of the earth.”—Genesis 11:4.
THESE words, spoken over 4,000 years ago, heralded the building of the great city of Babel.
Babel, later called Babylon, was located on the once fertile plains of Shinar in Mesopotamia. Contrary to popular opinion, though, it was not the first city of Bible record. Cities actually got their start before the Flood of Noah’s day. The murderer Cain founded the first one on record. (Genesis 4:17) This city, called Enoch, was probably little more than a fortified settlement or village. Babel, on the other hand, was a great city—a prominent center of false worship that featured a spectacular religious tower. However, Babel and its infamous tower stood in utter defiance of God. (Genesis 9:7) So according to the Bible, God intervened and confused the language of the builders, putting an end to their ambitious religious scheme. God “scattered them from there over all the surface of the earth,” says Genesis 11:5-9.
Not surprisingly, this led to the spread of cities. After all, cities afforded protection from enemy attack. Cities provided locations where farmers could store and distribute their produce. The advent of the marketplace also allowed many city dwellers to pursue livelihoods other than farming. Says The Rise of Cities: “Once freed from the constraints of a hand-to-mouth existence, city dwellers could turn their hands to a plethora of specialized trades: basketry, potting, spinning, weaving, leather working, carpentry and stoneworking—whatever the market could hold.”
Cities served as an efficient distribution center for such goods. Consider the Bible account of a severe famine in Egypt. The prime minister, Joseph, found it expedient to settle the people in cities. Why? Evidently because this made for a more efficient distribution of the remaining food supplies.—Genesis 47:21.
Cities also enhanced communication and interaction between people at a time when transport was slow and limited. This, in turn, accelerated the rate of social and cultural change. Cities became centers of innovation and promoted technological development. As new ideas flowed freely, innovation in scientific, religious, and philosophical thought emerged.
In modern times, cities continue to offer many of the same advantages. Little wonder, then, that they continue to attract millions—especially in lands where life in the rurals has become unbearably difficult. However, for many people who migrate to cities, the dreams of a better life go unfulfilled. The book Vital Signs 1998 says: “According to a recent study by the Population Council, the quality of life in many urban centers of the developing world is poorer today than in rural areas.” Why is this so?
Henry G. Cisneros writes in The Human Face of the Urban Environment: “When poor people become concentrated in precisely defined geographic areas, their problems grow exponentially. . . . The increasing concentration of poor, mostly minority people has been accompanied by soaring unemployment, increased and prolonged welfare dependency, profuse public health problems, and, most startling, rising crime.” The book Mega-city Growth and the Future similarly observes: “The massive inflow of people often leads to high levels of unemployment and underemployment because the market for labour may be unable to absorb the expanding number of job seekers.”
The growing number of street children is heartrending evidence of the deep poverty that exists in the cities of the developing world. According to some estimates, there are as many as 30 million street children worldwide! Says the book Mega-city Growth and the Future: “Poverty and other problems have eroded family ties so that the street children have been forced to fend for themselves.” Such children often eke out a miserable existence by scavenging, begging, or doing menial work at local markets.
Other Grim Realities
Poverty can lead to crime. In one South American city noted for its innovative modern architecture, crime has become so rampant that the city is rapidly becoming a landscape of iron railings. From the richest to the poorest, citizens are erecting iron fences to protect their property and privacy. In effect, they live in cages. Some even put up the railings before their house is finished.
Large populations also strain a city’s ability to provide such basic services as water and sanitation. It is estimated that in one Asian city, 500,000 public toilets are needed. Yet, a recent survey indicated that only 200 working toilets could be found!
Not to be overlooked either is the devastating effect overpopulation often has on the local environment. Nearby farmlands disappear as city boundaries expand. Former United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization chief Federico Mayor says: “Cities consume enormous amounts of energy, exhaust water supplies, and devour food and materials. . . . Their physical environment is worn out because it can no longer provide the input or absorb the output.”
Big-City Problems in Western Lands
The situation in Western lands may be somewhat less dire, yet an urban crisis still exists. For example, the book The Crisis of America’s Cities says: “American cities today are marked by violence of extraordinary proportions. . . . The prevalence of violence in American cities is so severe that medical journals have begun devoting significant space to it as one of the major public health issues of our day.” Of course, violence is a plague in many major cities throughout the world.
The deterioration of city life is one reason why many cities have become unattractive to employers. Says the book The Human Face of the Urban Environment: “Businesses have moved to the suburbs or overseas, shutting down plants, leaving behind ‘brown fields’—empty buildings on contaminated lots, with toxic materials buried in the ground, totally unfit for development.” As a result, many cities find poor people concentrated in areas “in which environmental problems are too easily ignored—where sewerage systems break down; where water purification is inadequate; where vermin infest garbage-filled lots and invade dwellings; where little children eat lead paint from the walls in deteriorating apartment buildings . . . where no one seems to care.” In such an environment, crime, violence, and despair flourish.
In addition, Western cities are having difficulty providing basic services. Back in 1981, authors Pat Choate and Susan Walter wrote a book with the dramatic title America in Ruins—The Decaying Infrastructure. In it they stated: “America’s public facilities are wearing out faster than they are being replaced.” The authors expressed great alarm over the number of rusting bridges, deteriorating roads, and crumbling sewerage systems in major cities.
Twenty years later, cities such as New York still have ailing infrastructures. An article in New York Magazine described the massive Third Water Tunnel project. It has gone on now for some 30 years and is called the single biggest infrastructure project in the Western Hemisphere. It involves an expenditure of some five billion dollars. When finished, the tunnel will deliver one billion gallons of fresh water a day to New York City. “But for all this prodigious digging,” says the writer, “the tunnel is meant only to supplement the existing pipes, enabling them to be repaired for the first time since they were laid down in the beginning of the century.” According to an article in The New York Times, repairing the rest of the city’s crumbling infrastructure—its subways, its water mains, its roads, its bridges—will cost an estimated 90 billion dollars.
New York is hardly the only city that has difficulty providing needed services. Actually, a number of large cities have proved to be vulnerable to disruption from a wide range of causes. In February 1998, Auckland, New Zealand, was crippled for over two weeks by a devastating power failure. Inhabitants of Melbourne, Australia, went without hot water for 13 days when gas supplies were shut off because of an industrial accident at a production plant.
Then there is the problem shared by virtually all cities—traffic jams. Architect Moshe Safdie says: “A fundamental conflict—a misfit—exists between the scale of cities and the transportation systems that serve them. . . . Older cities have had to adapt their downtowns to traffic volumes unimagined at the time they were built.” According to The New York Times, in cities such as Cairo, Bangkok, and São Paulo, traffic jams are “the rule.”
In spite of all these problems, there seems to be no letup in the ongoing move to the cities. As an article in The UNESCO Courier put it, “rightly or wrongly, the city seems to offer progress and freedom, a vision of opportunity, an irresistible lure.” But just what does the future hold for the big cities of the world? Are there any realistic solutions to their problems?
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“The massive inflow of people often leads to high levels of unemployment and underemployment”
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Traffic jams plague many cities
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Millions of street children fend for themselves
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For many city dwellers, dreams of a better life go unfulfilled