What Future for Cities?
“TO LOOK at our cities is to see into our future.” So said Ismail Serageldin of the World Bank. But from what we have seen thus far, that future does not look bright.
Commendably, serious efforts are being made to improve life in many urban areas. New York City recently completed a refurbishment of Times Square in Manhattan. Previously, it was notorious for its pornography establishments, drug culture, and crime. New retail outlets and theaters now line the streets, luring visitors by the thousands. Naples, Italy, “a brilliant, cultivated city that once ranked with London and Paris,” according to National Geographic magazine, suffered devastation during World War II. Naples became a virtual symbol of crime and chaos. However, when the city was selected as the site for a 1994 political conference, it enjoyed a rebirth of sorts with a major renovation of the city’s center.
Of course, having safer, cleaner cities comes at a price. Increased safety often means an increased police presence. Another cost might be privacy. Some public areas are under the constant surveillance of TV cameras and plainclothes police officers. As you walk through a park and pass by fountains, sculptures, or flower beds, you may unwittingly be passing by security checkpoints.
Sometimes improvements also come at a high cost to the poor. Consider what some call gentrification—the process by which higher-income families take over formerly poor neighborhoods. Gentrification results from a changing economy—a “shift from manufacturing to services, from reliance on mid-level skills to automation.” (Gentrification of the City, edited by Neil Smith and Peter Williams) As blue-collar jobs become obsolete and the demand for professional and technical workers grows, the demand for convenient middle-class housing also grows. Rather than commute to the suburbs, many highly paid professionals prefer to refurbish homes in relatively run-down neighborhoods.
Naturally, this results in substantial neighborhood improvement. But as neighborhoods improve, prices go up. The poor often find themselves unable to afford to live in the neighborhoods where they have worked and lived for years!
Death of the City?
Cities may have just begun to feel the forces of change spawned by new technologies. As the Internet grows in popularity as a way to shop and carry on business, this could have dramatic results. The new technologies have already made it easier for some businesses to relocate outside cities—drawing many workers with them.
As shopping and working on-line become mainstream, people may feel less inclined to travel to crowded business districts. The book Cities in Civilization suggests: “We might foresee some routine workers, especially part-time workers, working entirely from home or neighbourhood workstations, . . . thus reducing the overall volume of traffic.” Architect Moshe Safdie likewise speculates: “In this new environment, we might have a universal scattering of millions of villages, giving individuals locally the comforts of village-scale life and electronically the cultural richness of great historic cities.”
What Future for Cities?
Many observers believe that technology notwithstanding, cities offer services and advantages that will continue to draw people. Whatever the future may hold, today’s cities are in trouble now! And no solution is in sight for the massive problems of housing and sanitation for the growing millions of urban poor. Nor has anyone come close to finding a means to eliminate crime, environmental decay, or urban pollution.
Some would argue that governments should simply funnel more money into their cities. But given the track record that many governments have in managing their assets, is it realistic to think that solving the problems of cities is as simple as writing out a check? Decades ago the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities said: “There is a wistful myth that if only we had enough money to spend . . . , we could wipe out all our slums . . . But look what we have built with the first several billions: Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace.” These words continue to ring true.
But if money is not the solution, what is? We must remember that cities are made up of people, not just buildings and streets. So in the final analysis, it is people who must change if city life is to improve. “The best economy of a city is the care and culture of men,” says Lewis Mumford in The City in History. And if drug abuse, prostitution, pollution, environmental decay, social inequality, vandalism, graffiti, and the like are to be eliminated, more is required than an increased police presence or a fresh coat of paint. People must be helped to make dramatic changes in their thinking and behavior.
A Change in Management
Effecting such sweeping change is clearly beyond the capability of humans. So attempts to solve the problems of today’s cities—no matter how well-intentioned they are—will ultimately fail. Students of the Bible do not despair, however, for they see today’s urban difficulties as just one more example of man’s inability to manage our planet properly. Today’s sprawling, chaotic cities dramatically underscore the words of the Bible at Jeremiah 10:23: “To earthling man his way does not belong. It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step.” Man’s attempts to rule himself have resulted in misery on a grand scale—problems that are simply magnified in our cities.
City dwellers the world over can thus take comfort in the Bible promise recorded at Revelation 11:18, that God will “bring to ruin those ruining the earth.” Far from being negative, this points to a positive future for mankind. It promises that God will take over the management of our planet by means of a government, or Kingdom. (Daniel 2:44) No longer will millions live in unimaginable poverty, deprived of proper housing and basic sanitation, deprived of dignity, or deprived of hope. Under the rule of God’s government, people will enjoy material prosperity, vibrant health, and fine housing.—Isaiah 33:24; 65:21-23.
This new world is the only realistic solution to the problems of today’s cities.
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Serious efforts are being made to improve life in many urban areas
New York City, U.S.A.
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God’s new world offers a solution to the problems of today’s city dwellers