Great cities of the world: planning for the 21st century

The Great Cities of the World Conference opening in Boston today comes on the heels of a United Nations conference on cities in Rome earlier this month. Action within each city and country may be more essential than conferences, as enormous growth of cities is forecast around the globe. But, if these meetings can help raise the international consciousness to the need for measures to forestall equally enormous hardship, they will have been well worth while.

Boston's conference, with representatives of 36 cities from four continents, is in part frankly an occasion to showcase what has been accomplished in Beantown as it celebrates its 350th anniversary. But the various meetings, some of them under academic auspices, are also intended to help the participating cities help each other through launching an exchange of information on how to do things better.

The latter intention fits with what happened in Rome where the meetings on "population and the urban future" sought to help the emerging big cities learn from the older big cities. And there are plenty of emerging cities to welcome all the aid and instruction they can get. By the year 2000 half the world's population will be living in cities, up from 25 percent in 1950 and 40 percent now, according to UN projections. More than 600 million will be in the "supercities" of more than 5 million.

In one of the background documents for the UN session, the Worldwatch Institute notes that 12 of the world's 15 largest cities will be in the third world. In most of these the sad finding is that slums and shantytowns are expanding two or three times as fast as the cities in which they are located. Among the problems is the squeeze between the escalating costs of imported fuel and the escalating environmental costs of traditional fuels such as charcoal and wood. Another challenge is providing jobs when present-day urban industries cannot be expected to absorb more than a fraction of the people being added to city work forces.

What can be done about such matters was discussed in Rome and will be in Boston. In Rome, for example, Shanghai offered a model of planned parenthood as cutting population growth rate in half in a decade.

Worldwatch warns against the fatalism of assuming that the growth in cities will come no matter what. It points out that the urban concentration of people can work against the best distribution of a nation's resources, since in most poor countries investment in agriculture offers higher returns; that it can worsen quality of life, as in those mushrooming slums; that it can threaten national unity through an urban-rural split which one analyst finds to be the "most important" class conflict in the poor countries of today.

In other words, attention should be paid not only to planning cities of the 21st century, as a panel will do in Boston's first discusstion today, but to stemming the march to the cities through the improvement of rural conditions.

For instance, the surplus obtained from agriculture now is often invested in industries that do no good for rural people. With rural incomes remaining depressed, the rural demand for manufacturers remains low and industries continue to look to the cities or abroad. This cycle of urban depletion of rural areas needs to be broken.

By looking searchingly at all the options now, there could be more "great cities" for the next Boston anniversary meeting -- and more great countrysides, too.

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