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 / Spring 2006 / Issue 42(originally published by Booz & Company)


City Planet

The new levels of communication and trade linkage worldwide mean that every city of size becomes in effect a world city, with the accompanying multipliers of cultural diversity, financial flow, and people flow. In the vast worldwide migration toward jobs, the poor hardly limit themselves to cities in their own countries. There is also a large population of global urbanites who live at large, at home not in any one locale but “in cities.” These peripatetics include thousands of professionals and many of the world’s wealthy. We’re still discovering how the totality of an urbanized world will differ from our experience of urbanized nations and regions.

How does all this relate to businesspeople in the developed world? One-fourth of humanity trying new things in new cities is a lot of potential customers, collaborators, and competitors. C.K. Prahalad’s book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (Wharton School Publishing, 2005) spells out how companies can reach the poor and deliver goods and services at the interface between the formal and informal economies. Those concerned about widespread piracy of intellectual property (such as music, movies, books, software, and brand names) in emerging-market cities may want to follow the example of the Rio water and power companies and find ways to treat the pirates as people trying to become customers. The world should be attuned to what is going on in the squatter communities, because more than just music is coming out of them. Lively new forms of self-organizing behavior are taking shape there.

For environmentalists, the massive urbanization could represent a huge opportunity, though most haven’t realized it yet. The “ecological footprint” of cities is indeed large (and well studied), but the per-person environmental impact of city dwellers is generally lower than that of people in the countryside, and it can be made lower still. In many regions the emptying of the countryside means that the pressure on natural systems is suddenly reduced. Replacing the widespread subsistence farmers and herders, who treated wild animals as pests or food and wild trees and shrubs as firewood, is efficient industrialized agriculture in more localized areas (with less herbicide and pesticide impact thanks to genetically modified crops). The trees and wild animals are coming back. Now is the time to set in place protection for the rural natural systems, so when people return, as they surely will, the places they return to will be on a path of increasing biodiversity and health.

As reflected in the United Nations’ “Green Cities Declaration” last year, a worldwide movement is under way to reshape cities toward better ecological and economic fitness. The “new urbanists” rightly push for dense, mixed-use urban forms (articulated in a vocabulary of lot sizes, building shapes, use mixes, and code nuances), plenty of mass transit, and limitations to diffuse sprawl. I would like to see ecological-footprint analysis of squatter cities, with their extreme density, low energy use, and ingenious practices of recycling everything. Maybe there are ideas there that could be generalized.

What the world has now is new cities with young populations and old cities with old populations. How the dialogue between them plays out will determine much of the nature of the next half century. The convergence of the two major trends, globalization and rampant urbanization, means that all cities are effectively one city now.

The demographic literature refers often to the “bright lights” phenomenon that draws people to cities. People want to be where the action is. Thanks to satellite imagery, those lights and that action are now visible from space. The night side of the Earth, these decades, displays dazzling webs of light, with incandescent nodes at all the metropolitan areas and a bright tracery of transportation corridors between them. That web of light is the sign to visitors that they are approaching not just a living planet, but a civilized planet.

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  1. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (forthcoming, Verso, 2006: Views massive urbanization as a crisis caused by capitalism, “rushing backwards to the age of Dickens.” Click here.
  2. Arie de Geus, The Living Company (Harvard Business School Press, 1997): Source on the oldest surviving corporations and why “economic purpose,” as Mr. de Geus puts it, makes many companies short-lived.
  3. “Green Cities” issue, Our Planet (magazine of the United Nations Environment Programme), vol. 16, no. 1, 2005: Emerging movement of ecologically conscious urbanism, highlighted with examples from Bangkok to London to Sevastopol to Bogotá. Click here.
  4. Art Kleiner, “The Philosopher of Progress and Prosperity,” s+b, Summer 2004: Hernando de Soto’s concept: fostering wealth creation by building ownership legitimacy in squatter cities everywhere. Click here.
  5. Phillip Longman, The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity [and What to Do about It] (Basic Books, 2004): “Not since the fall of the Roman Empire has the world ever experienced anything on the scale of today’s loss of fertility.”
  6. Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (Knopf, 2004): “Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us.” Portrait of Mumbai with the perspective of decades.
  7. Robert Neuwirth, Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World (Routledge, 2004): The thriving and vibrant dimension of the squatter neighborhoods, by a journalist who lived there and spoke the languages.
  8. C.K. Prahalad and Stuart L. Hart, “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” s+b, First Quarter 2002: Impoverished urbanites as an emerging global market... Click here.
  9. C.K. Prahalad, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits (Wharton School Publishing, 2005): …plus cases and practices for companies seeking to reach them.
  10. Robert Skeldon, Migration and Development: A Global Perspective (Addison-Wesley Longman Higher Education, 1997): How rural-to-urban migration can unexpectedly lead to economic growth.
  11. United Nations Human Settlements Programme, The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements (Earthscan Publications, 2003): Statistics and figures to make visible the trends. As Mike Davis says, it’s “the first truly global audit of urban poverty.” Click here.
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