Building the World

Year 2017: Cities

And one by one the nights between our separated cities are joined to the night that unites us.

Pablo Neruda

“Solan city at night” by photographer Garconlevis, 2013.

Cities may contain the essence of what we call civilization. Throughout the course of history, new cities – especially new capitals – have been built as the centers of culture, education, and government. In ancient times, the city-state of Cyrene expanded the reach of Greece to nearby Libya; Baghdad, new capital of the Abbasid Dynasty, was designed as a city of peace. In later times, St Petersburg and Washington, DC were founded by heads of state to mark a turn in their respective nations. Abuja was built with a new vision for Nigeria. Brasilia, built in the shape of an airplane, was the first city designed to be seen from the air. Singapore may have inspired the idea of the city as a specialized economic zone (SEZ). As Toynbee observed in Cities of Destiny, urban settlements may be the way culture fulfills destiny. What can cities of the past reveal about the gathered community? What role will cities play in the future?

Why Cities are Important: A Macro View

“Cities account for about 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions,” stated Michael Bloomberg, UN Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change. Parallel to the Paris Climate Conference in December 2015, a meeting down the boulevard, hosted by Anne Hildalgo, Mayor of Paris, and Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York, welcomed representatives from 500 cities.

The Eiffel Tower of Paris, where 500 mayors of the world convened to work together for a better environment. Photo by Existenz, wikimedia commons.

Cities must be included in global environmental planning. In fact, the participating cities agreed that not only are cities the culprits, they are the potential solution. Why? Municipalities can typically act faster than countries when new policies are needed. Outlaw plastic bags? Done. Tiny towns like Great Barrington in the Berkshires of Massachusetts made the change; in the United States, the city of San Francisco was the first, and the state of California followed suit in 2014. City of the Eiffel Tower, Paris banned plastic bags a decade ago; France imposed a charge for reusable bags. Some places have a tax. Africa is a leader with total bans in many areas from Ethiopia to Uganda. Often the cities take the first step. Another example, city bike lanes? In 2013, 32 cities in the United States had protected bike lanes. Bike lanes such as as those in New York City reduced crashes by 63 per cent. Cities can set new rules. Cities may serve in some ways as solution to challenges felt to be national or global problems. In times when political doctrine moves in one direction, cities can elect to lead in another. For example, Sanctuary Cities like Boston in 2017.

Rebuilding Cities: Forces for Change

Outdated Infrastructure in Many Cities

“Under the 35W Bridge” by photographer Colin Anderson, wikimedia commons. On 1 August 2007, the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, USA, collapsed during rush hour: 13 people were killed; 145 were injured. Saint Anthony Falls replacement bridge opened 13 September 2008. A memorial garden and orchestral work “The Bridge” by Oslo Vänskä paid tribute to the tragedy.

There is likelihood that we will be rebuilding some cities in the future. Many established cities are suffering from aging infrastructure, crumbling bridges, inadequate water and energy systems, roads in need of expansion and update.

Therein Lies the Fault: Seismic Dangers

There is another reason cities will see significant rebuilding. Some of the world’s capitals are built on shaky ground. Earthquakes in a country’s capital are particularly dangerous because the very center of command and control is compromised, making response more difficult.

Port au Prince, capital of Haiti, after 2010 earthquake. Image: wikimedia commons.

While some disasters cannot be predicted, it is known that certain large cities that serve as their nation’s capital were earlier and unknowingly built on seismic terrain. Cities like Port-au-Prince, Haiti proved vulnerable to earthquake. What about Tokyo’s plan to build a “spare-battery” capital?

Coastal Cities and Climate Change: $1 trillion per year

Other cities will be rebuilt, or perhaps even moved, due to sea rise: Boston, Miami, New York to name but a few. New York got a preview during Hurricane Sandy when subways flooded, and Wall Street closed. Because many first cities were built around ports, it stands to reason that some of the world’s largest cities are coastal. All of these cities will have to develop Plan B. If Princeton and Potsdam are correct, by 2100, with a projected possible six feet of sea rise, parts of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island will go blue.

Recent findings predict flooding of coastal cities will cost $1 trillion per year by 2050, up from $6 billion in 2013. That’s if nothing is done. With serious rebuilding, costs will be only $63 billion. That’s still pricey. Would rebuilding protect cities, and generate new jobs? Here’s a snapshot view of cities in trouble by flooding:

Guanzhou, China: $13.2 billion

Mumbai, India: $6.4 billion

Kolkata, India: $3.3 billion

Shenzhen, China: $3.1 billion

Guayaquil, Ecuador: $3.1 billion

Miami, USA: $2.5 billion

Tianjin, China: $2.2 billion

New York, USA: $2.0 billion

Ho Chi Minh City,  Vietnam: $1.9 billion

New Orleans, USA: $1.8 billion

New Orleans, post-Katrina. Image: wikimedia commons.

Also in trouble: Jakarta, Indonesia; Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire; Chennai, India; Surat, India; Zhanjiang, China; Tampa, USA; Boston, USA; Bangkok, Thailand; Kiamen, China; Nagoya, Japan.

Source: “Cities with the highest annual flood costs by 2050.” by Brad Plumer. The Washington Post. 20 August 2013.

Will Kikutake’s proposal for floating cities prove prescient? Designs for a new era of coastal flooding may be among the most important building ideas for a better future. Might Davidson and Frankel’s proposal of “New Land for Peace” combine coastline protection and enhancement with the goal of peace in a region that has argued, and fought, over territory.

Davidson, Frank P. and Erst G. Frankel. “Can Technology Help Solve the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Palestine” 2004, Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Boston University:

Mega-Cities on the Rise

Megacities, urban centers of over 10 million people, are on the rise. Image: “Mega-cities” 1997, Refugees, Migration, and Population, Institute for National Strategic Statistics (INSS). Image: wikimedia.

Cities are going to become even more important in the future. By 2030, 24 cities in Asia will become mega-cities, urban settlements so defined when reaching more than 10 million people. In  1960, there were only two megacities: New York and Tokyo. By 2030, 24 cities in Asia will reach megacity proportions. By 2050, 75% of the world is expected to live in urban environments.

Migrants, Cities, and A Diverse Future

Some of those new city dwellers will be migrants and refugees. In 2015, 21.3 million people moved to new lands, many settling in cities. Immigrants start businesses at a higher rate than a country’s native born citizens. Over 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded an immigrant, or the child of an immigrant, and 25% of all new businesses started in the United States were launched by the newly arrived. While the United States has 14.5% foreign-born residents, and Germany 14.9%, the United Arab Emirates may lead the world with 88.4% of the residents arriving anew. According to UNESCO’s report “Cities Welcoming Refugees and Migrants: Enhancing effective governance in the age of migration,” three priorities emerge: housing, education, and jobs.

“Seeking Fortune” 1887 by Nicholas Chevalier depicts a young migrant leaving Glasgow, Scotland. Image: wikimedia commons.

The Kauffman Foundation estimates 1.5 million new jobs will be created by adhering to three principles: 1) Treat others as you want to be treated; 2) Share life’s rewards with those who make them possible; 3) Give back to society. How can cities prepare to welcome, and benefit, from the newly arriving pioneers?

Rampell, Catherine R. “Immigration and Entrepreneurship.” 1 July 2013. Economix. The New York Times.

Ewing Marion Kauffmann Foundation.


Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

Carl Sandburg, “Chicago”

Cities of Legend and Myth

Let’s take a look at how cities are portrayed in legend and myth, how urban life has inspired music and art to see if we can find a view of the future.

El Dorado

The golden king stepped into the boat shaped as a shining serpent, also shimmering with gilded scales. The King was cloaked in gold and jewels, the very face gleaming as the sun shone upon his uplifted visage. Dusted in gold, young warriors rowed the regent into the middle of the sacred lake where floated the throne. All around the shore stood the king’s people, families, kinsfolk young and old.

El Dorado: Muisca Raft. Image: wikimedia commons.

A hush came over the crowd as the king ascended the throne. Attendants poured gold dust upon the powerful shoulders of the regent. Poised with arms reaching in a dual gesture of sun worship and dive prep, the king bounced into the air and dove straight into the lake. With the splash, waves spread from the center to the shore where the waiting people gathered up gold and jewels bobbing in the arriving waves like shells on Sanibel. The king, and the kingdom, were known in legend as El Dorado.

Synecdoche (from the Greek term meaning “simultaneous understanding”) is a figure of speech in which the part stands for the whole. El Dorado means The Golden One, referring to the king of legend. The story of the legendary king whose realm was paved with gold soon reached shores far away. By the time Sir Walter Raleigh heard of El Dorado, it was a land of intrigue and invitation. Some believed El Dorado was in present day Colombia, Peru, or Venezuela. Ships were setting sail.

Raleigh approached Queen Elizabeth with a proposal similar to the agreement between Columbus and Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Raleigh obtained a contract for certain rights in exchange for one-fifth of the gold he might find. The deal had a time-frame: seven years.

Within that timeframe, Raleigh voyaged with mixed results. The first time, he beached on Roanoke Island, Virginia. Another voyage in 1594 proved inconclusive but provided material for writing, performed while in locked in the Tower of London for treason. Released, in 1617, Raleigh tried again and reached Venezuela, but suffered the loss that no parent recovers from, death of a child, his son Walter. Miserable and sentenced once again, subsequently executed, Raleigh left two legacies. One was the writing about El Dorado that so influenced the world that some historians believe the El Dorado myth in part prompted Hernan Cortes to lead an expedition that caused the fall of the fabled Aztec empire, and lured Francisco Pizarro to sail to Peru to assault the Incan emperor Atahualpa.What changes in the history of the world were caused by the myth of a city of gold, El Dorado?

Edgar Allen Poe penned a satirical poem on the American Gold Rush, titling the 1849 work after the legend, “Eldorado.” The quest for gold, riches to be discovered and perhaps taken, has continued to fascinate. In modern times, El Dorado might mean gold in the form of oil, or rare earths. Perhaps in the future, the gold will be sunlight, endless energy.

Joshua and the Walls of Jericho: 6500 bce – 9000 bce

The ancient walled city of Jericho may have been one of the first to border and protect its populace. Water occasioned the founding, and subsequent success, of Jericho. The Ein as-Sultan spring (later called Elisha’s Spring) offered water to a community of 70 households, circular in form. Later, things got fancier: excavations reveal a tower with a circular staircase of 22 steps. Were the wall and the tower for protection? Certainly, and among the safeguards were walls against floods. Eventually, the walls of Jericho were rebuilt and doubled, but fell in an earthquake in 1573 bce. Among the most haunting artifacts from the ancient city of Jericho? Evidence of the practice of keeping a deceased relative’s head, covering the skull in plaster, and painting a likeness of the beloved. The heads stayed with the family; the rest of the body was buried.

“The Walls of Jericho Fall Down,” 1866, Dore’s English Bible. Image: wikimedia commons.

Still more legendary was the magic falling of the walls of Jericho caused by the trumpets of rams’ horns and the shouts of the Israelites who marched around the city’s walls for seven days. Some say the legend is but an allegory, but others point to the Jericho story as one of the basis documents for establishment of Israel.

Cities in Music and Art

Don’t let it be forgot

That once there was a spot

For one brief shining moment

That was known as Camelot.

Alan Jay Lerner and Fredrick Loewe, Camelot, 1960. Based on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, 1958. With respect to Thomas Malory, Aneirin, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes.

What does one think about in prison? Escape. That’s what occupied the time of Thomas Malory, languishing in London’s Newgate Prison, accused of extortion, murder, rape, and rebellion. His only companion a quill, Malory quelled thoughts of treason by a mental escape to a realm so democratic, so inclusive, so inspiring that its ruler made decisions in council at a round table.

In 21 volumes of tales recounting the battles of knights, the romances of queens, the vision of a king whose legend never died, Malory wrote the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, suggesting that the ideas embodied were eternal.

Camelot’s Once and Future King as played by Richard Burton. Image: wikimedia commons.

Even Arthur’s very tombstone so implied: “Hic facet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futures.” Malory’s story of Camelot endured thanks to the invention of printing, and its debut as a book pressed by William Caxton in 1485. Tennyson wrote of King Arthur and Camelot in a cycle of narrative poems, “Idylls of the King.” Years later, T.H. White would retell the tale, setting the imaginations of Lerner and Loewe on fire. Soon, Richard Burton was onstage singing to Julie Andrews. Give a little whistle?

Medieval monks, gazing out monastery windows, may have glimpsed the world they left behind. As friars illuminated sacred manuscripts in the silent scriptorium, city scenes sometimes appeared in the background of their painted depictions. But art historians often point to “Gezicht op Delft” (View of Delft) as the first work of art that might be termed a cityscape. Jan Vermeer painted three views of the industrious town that is home to Delft University of Technology, TUDelft.

Gezicht op Delft” by Jan Vermeer (painted 1660-1661) is one of the first cityscapes in art. Image: wikimedia commons.

Visible in Vermeer’s cityscape are the industrial aspects of a busy urban harbor. Many of the earliest cities were built on waterways and attracted commerce through trade. Delft’s population was 6,500 in the 1300’s when the city received its charter. and 25,000 when Vermeer painted in 1660. Delft is named after its location on a canal; the word derives from “delven” or digging. Delft gave the world the microscope: developer of the instrument, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was a resident.

In contemporary times, New York city attracts artists who in turn sing the song of their city. Billy Joel wrote “A New York State of Mind” and Drake sang of “6PM in New York,” while Jay-Z and Alicia Keys intoned an “Empire State of Mind” and Frank Sinatra crooned “New York, New York,” perhaps remembering Billy Holiday’s rendition of “Autumn in New York.”

Image: “Manhattan from Weekawken” by photographer Dmitry Avdeev, 2012. Image: wikimedia commons.

“Empire State of Mind”

In New York

Concrete jungle where dreams are made


There’s nothing you can’t do

Now you’re in New York

These streets will make you feel brand


Big lights will inspire you

Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New


– Jay Z, 2009

Great cities have inspired art, literature, and music. From Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” to the more than 200 films set in the city of light, to explorations of cities as sanctuaries or secret corridors of intrigue as described in Durell’s The Alexandria Quartet, the city continues to fascinate denizens and shape destinies.

La Ville” by Fernand Léger, 1919, shows urban life with innovations like billboards, a telephone pole.

Great Cities of History

Cities are among the oldest and perhaps most continuous forms of civilization. History might be said to be built on the founding, and rebuilding, of cities.


Cyrene, founded by drought-driven migrants, was city-state established by pioneers who left Thera (present day Santorini) for Libya. The new city proved successful. Not only was the soil fertile, with magical plants like aphrodisiac sylphium native to the terrain, Cyrene stimulated new thinking. Aristippus, philosopher, advanced Epicurean ideas; poet Callimachus became renowned as a poet and mentor of Eratosthenes; Pindar sang of Cyrene’s prowess in the Greek games.

“Temple of Apollo” by photographer Koperczak, Cyrene, Libya, 1981. Image: wikimedia commons.

The measurement of the earth’s circumference, the mechanics of doubling a cube, research into prime numbers, and one of the first maps of the stars (tallied at 675) all emerged from Cyrene. Founded in 630 bce, Cyrene was one of more than 1,000 colonies established by Greece.

While some historians may compare the Greek movement of migration and colonization to the seventeenth century Europeans, there was a difference. When the Dutch, for example, colonized, the new site became not only the land of the company but of the kingdom. But the Greek mode of expansion was to create independence. When Cyrene, or Syracuse, became established, these new city-states were independent. Evidence of this economic policy can be observed in the founding document of Cyrene, where there is stated a pledge of support for five years, but no mention of taxes or duties owed.

Source: Badian, E and Robert Sherk, eds. The Roman Empire: Augustus to Hadrian (Translated Documents of Greece and Rome). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. 27, 40, 224-26.


This city is amazing:

She was bombed,

Trampled underfoot,

Just as a broken watch is crushed,

But it is as if she

Were just born.

  • “This Is Baghdad…” (excerpt) by Sadiq al-Sa’igh. From Baghdad: The City in Verse, translated and edited by Reuven Snir, Foreword by Roger Allen, Afterword by Abdul Kader El Janabi. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. ISN: 9780674725218.

Baghdad has its roots in the spirit of peace. When the new capital of a new dynasty was built by Caliph al-Mansur in the Islamic calendar year 145 (762 ce), the founder named the new city of Persia Madinat as-Salam, “the city of Peace.” Riding on a white horse to a spot where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers joined, Caliph al-Mansur jumped from the steed, unsheathed a sword, and drew three concentric circles in the sand.

When constructed, the city was enclosed by three concentric circles, giving it the nickname in local parlance, “the round city.” In the center stood the royal palace and central mosque; army quarters filled the next circle; residents ringed the outer zone. Baghdad grew to be the wealthiest city in the world at one time.

Rebuilding Baghdad became a mission for King Faisal II in the 1950 decade when a new vision was invited through the commissions of architects including Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer, and Frank Lloyd Wright. When Wright visited Baghdad in 1957, the architect asked for a small plane to fly over the city, in search of a site for a new opera house. In the middle of the Tigris river, Wright spotted an island; recent flood-prevention initiatives has made the land build able. “This is it,” Frank Lloyd Wright announced, “I have seen the Garden of Eden.”

“Plan for Greater Baghdad” by Frank Lloyd Wright, featuring the island of Edena, from The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright by Neil Levine, Princeton University Press, 1996. Image: wikimedia commons.

Wright designed not only an opera house but a cultural center, in the process renaming the island Edena, an upgrade from its previous nomenclature. The drawings remain; the building is still just a sketch. Wright also left for history a plan for Baghdad University and a botanical garden. The future might see a rebuilding of Baghdad based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision. There is unfinished business: the architect’s bill has still not been paid.

In 2004, the World Bank and the United Nations founded the International Reconstruction Fund Facility for Iraq. A few years later, the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters hosted a conference on Iraq where speakers including Raja’a Al-Khuzai, president of the National Council; Raidh Tapping, architect and city planner; and Berwyn M. Khailany of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research drew a blueprint for rebuilding one of the world’s most important cities. Areas of concentration: the Iraqi oil industry, projects in the Kurdistan region.

Source: Rebuilding Sustainable Communities in Iraq: Policies, Programs, and International Perspectives. Adenrele Awotona, editor. ISBN: 9781847189271.

Millstones: Dangerous problems, threats, and crises

Millstone: a heavy stone used for grinding grain. Also a popular expression based on a passage in the Bible, Matthew 18: 5-6: “it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” But, could it be hoped, that if two millstones are used together to transform fertile grain, nourishment may result.

Cities need rebuilding. There are problems of crime, poverty, nutrition, air quality, traffic, crumbling infrastructure, outdated electrical systems, public transit failures, uneven education and employment. Here are just a few of the millstones:

Cities And Urban Poverty

Over 25% of all city dwellers live in poverty, as defined as living on $1.25 per day. Urban poverty has a special intensity, often resulting in cold, hunger, disease, lack of adequate housing, uneven educational options, and scarcity of certain kinds of jobs. Chief among the United Nations Sustainability Goals: “End poverty in all its forms everywhere.”

“Migrant Mother” by photographer Dorothea Lange, 1936. Image: Library of Congress.

Urban poverty is growing as fast as cities themselves. The percentage of poor in cities was estimated at 19% in  1993, but grew to 24% in 2002. Another way to measure? Between 1993 and 2002, 50 million people fell into the unfortunate category of urban poor surviving on less than $1 per day. During that decade, poverty statistics improved, overall, but only due to a lessening of rural poverty (150 million of the world’s rural poor moved up in standard of living). While overall good tidings, it was actually bad news for cities.

Another trend? Cities with the fastest increase in urban poor are the Caribbean and Latin America, according to Ravallion, Chen, and Sangraula, 2007; that region measured over 60% of the poor as residing in urban areas. Sub-Saharan Africa also saw an increase to 30%, as did the Middle East and North Africa at 20%. East Asia and Pacific remained at 8% urban poor from 1993 to 2002, along with South Asia that held steady at 21%. Eastern Europe and Central Asia fared better: a decline from 50% urban poor to almost 30% marked improvement.

There is encouraging news. The bigger a city gets, the faster poverty decreases. Even if there were stagnant economics, distribution improves. And it is likely that populations growing will soon stimulate job growth by founding new businesses. It is particularly true of immigrants, migrants, and refugees who tend to start businesses at a higher rate than the native born. High technology organizations in Silicon Valley, California, USA, stated the contributions made by the newly arrived. Finally, migrants who come to work but send most of their money home stimulate the economy on both sides of the transaction.

Cities Consume Energy

Cities use 70% of the energy in their area, and that means how cities handle energy greatly affects not just the urban environment but the region. But even with clean energy, the problem for cities is not solved. More than 20% of the residents in some cities don’t have access to regular electricity, or even safe fuels for cooking and heat. Cooking indoors with outdoor fuels kills 1.5 million people per year, according to the World Health Organization.

Logo of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. Image: wikimedia commons.

Because cities use the most energy, improvements in urban environments will also have the greatest benefit. That’s the thinking of C40: an organization of the world’s megacities. Cities could help the realize the needed reductions of emissions to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The future of energy may rest in the hands of the world’s mayors. Will Deadline2020 deliver the Paris Agreement objective of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees?  The plan, developed by C40 and Arup, maps the path.

Trashing the town

Did you know that many cities spend half their municipal budget to haul trash? World Bank studies report bad news on urban habits of tossing rather than returning. Three billion people, approximately, live in cities; those people and the businesses that serve them generate 1.5 billion metric tons of solid waste per year.

Case example Bordo Poniente

The world’s largest trash heap had to close in 2011. Just too stuffed with junk was Bordo Poniente, located in Cuidad de México, one of the world’s largest cities. Two other dumps serving the megacity remained open, but traffic stalled on the roads leading to them, sending the stink of garbage trucks, contents cooking in the oven of the mid-day heat. Scientists estimate landfill gases (a noxious cocktail of methane, CO2, and water) account for 20% of México City’s greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, the 20 million people in Mexico City were generating solid waste at the rate of 14,000 tons – per day. What to do?

How to make a millstone into a milestone?

Biogas. Two Mexican and two Spanish companies signed a twenty-five year contract to generate biogas. BMLMX, the acronym for the partnership, will supply power from biogas to 35,000 households. BMLMX’s partners are:

CLP Organogas

Energía Sur de Europa


JCH Inversion Redituable

Ramp Carbon Mexico


Partners have varied expertise; for example, Energía Sur de Europa,     interlinked with CLP, may build upon “1,000,000 hours of operating experience in the field of power generation from landfill gas.” In Seville, Spain (where the company was established in 2000) , the Montemarta Conica biogas plant yields 9 MW at availability ratio of 95%. Barcelona’s Garraf, and an environmental center in Toledo are in the mix. Bordo Poniente’s site is big: 720 hectares. Since it closed, pickers have been sifting it for any objects of worth, mainly as recyclables. Salvador Rojas Aburto, director of Proyecto Bordo Poniente, stated that by 2019, the project would occupy 1.2 hectares, with a power generation goal of 72 megawatts, and the capacity to produce 560 gigawatt hours per year.

“Mexico City at Night” by Sebaso, 2015. Image: wikimedia commons.

C40, organization of the world’s megacities, calls it “Trash to Cash.” Case in point? Toronto, Canada’s Keele Valley Landfill, a waste facility turned power plant by pipes collecting and routing methane gas. Homes powered? 24,000. Initially, the plant generated 33MW; as the methane is used up, the process will slow as evidenced by its subsequent level of 24 MW. Details of building include 40,000 linear meters of horizontal gas collection trenches and 80 vertical gas collection wells. The plan? Operate until all the methane is gone.

Cities are like badger holds, ringed with trash – all of them – surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered in rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use. – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America (192).


Cities and food waste

Urban dwellers are busy: working, commuting, they hardly have time to cook. Grab a bite seems right, but restaurants never know how many people will show up for those strawberries, or the lobsters on hand. One of the world’s great foodie capitals came up with a solution. TGTG stands for Too Good To Go. Download the app on your mobile phone, as see which restaurants are within an hour of closing and have a bit extra on hand, for quick sale. Partners Jamie Crummie and Chris Wilson launched Too Good To Go in 2015. Immediately, 95 restaurants signed on to sell vittles at day’s end, making money and avoiding food waste. Expansion from founding Denmark to greater Scandinavia, then in 2016 to the UK proved that food waste can be seen as an opportunity to save money on food for urban denizens, and also to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions that would have damaged the environments.

Too Good To Go app checks bakeries, restaurants, and cafes for food available just before closing time – saving money, saving food, and saving the environment. Image: “Bakery Case” by Visitor7, 2013, wikimedia commons

A popular audience? Hungry students. When Too Good To Go launched near Northumbria University in the UK, three sites opened to invite students to engage: CCC, Shop Central, and Cafe Central. One of the goodies up for grabs is the Too Good To Go Movie Pack (popcorn, chocolates, sweet delights and surprises).

Water and Sanitation on a Macro Scale

More than 25% of all city residents in the world do not have water piped into their homes. Drinking water is delivered to some: Agua Para Uso Humano can be seen emblazoned upon cylindrical trucks plying the streets of Oaxaca, México, where houses sign up to tank up. Others less fortunate must lug water in a garrafón. Even less fortunate, and more exposed to the dangers of disease, are the one quarter of the world’s city dwellers who lack safe sanitation. In some areas, the commons accommodates: 497 million share sanitation facilities. Without sanitation, water becomes dangerously polluted: two million tons of human waste is dumped into watercourses every day. Water problems are especially severe in slums where an estimated 828 million people shelter.

Migrants and Cities

Cities welcoming new arrivals experience pressures on water, sanitation, housing, food, health care, education, and jobs. The International Organization for Migration convened a conference on Migrants and Cities at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2015. It was not all bad news: among the findings were encouraging statistics revealing that migrants actually drive prosperity and innovation, connecting cities to the greater world and marketplace. But when first arriving, migrants and refugees need everything, at once. While the rigors of overland trekking and perilous rafting attest to the strapping health of those who survive migration, many arrive wounded, depleted, and in need of sanctuary.

When the pipeline of new arrivals is steady, and can be anticipated, outcomes can be very beneficial. For example, during the building of Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric in Australia, skilled workers were recruited from displaced soldier camps following World War II, invited by a new land. “You won’t be Balts or Slavs…you will be people of the Snowy!” promised Sir William Hudson, first commissioner of the hydroelectric facility who recruited in European camps. Those who had fought against each other in war now competed in friendly intramural teams to race good-naturedly to finish project sections. Families of the workers lived together in towns such as Cooma where the population swelled from 2,000 to 10,000; children learned the new language together and grew up to represent a new vision of an expanded society. When planned, migration can be a source of all things new.

But when unexpected and unplanned numbers proliferate, it is a different picture. In 2015,  more than one million migrants arrived in Europe, from Afghanistan, Albania, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and Ukraine.

Karte Flüchtlingskrisee in Europe. Asylbewerber im Zeitraum 1. Januar – 30. Juni 2015 by Maximillian Dörrbecker. Wikimedia commons.

On the receiving end, Germany had the greatest number of asylum applicants: 476,000. Hungary welcomed 177,000 applicants. Europe became a chorus with new voices: the European Union received 1,321,560 applications for asylum. It must be noted that now all applications are approved, nor are all migrants and refugees given shelter and a new chance: some countries forced pilgrims to move on, barricading the borders and turning a blind eye to children and others in dire need.

Yet those who take root take heart. Immigrants start businesses at a higher rate than a country’s native born. Over 40% of the Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. In the United States, 25% of new enterprises were launched by the newly arrived.

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was the son of a Syrian immigrant. Photo, “Steve Jobs with Macbook Air, 2008” by Matthew Yohe, wikimedia commons.

According to the Kauffmann Foundation, an estimated 1.5 million new jobs will be created in the next decade via entrepreneurship. Ewing Marion Kauffman should know: he started a pharmaceutical business in his basement in 1950, calling it Marion Laboratories, using his middle name so customers would not guess Kauffman was not only the boss but the only employee. First year in business, profit was just $1,000 but by 1989, sales topped $1 billion, Kauffman’s philosophy:

Treat others as you want to be treated.

Share life’s rewards with those who make them possible.

Give back to society.

Cities, Density, and the Problem of Housing

The world’s largest cities hide in plain sight thousands of people who may be among those in greatest need of help. The edges of megacities are walls, cardboard walls that form the edges of lean-to, boxes or sheets of discarded plastic guarding the huddled. Globally, one billion people endure temporary housing. Adding to the suffering is the reality that such structures are most vulnerable to disasters – natural and human. Disasters render 200 million people homeless, every year. Rebuilding is challenging, especially for the poor. Land rights can be messy, delaying construction. Some legal experts estimate that 3/4th of the earth’s land remains legally undocumented.

Urban density and temporary housing. Photo by John Vachon, 1973, of San Juan, for National Archives. Image: wikimedia commons.

The more dense a city (meaning how close together people live in proximity to other households), the more troubles of every kind.

World cities by density. Image: jroehl, wikimedia.

Dhaka, Bangladesh has among the highest density percentages: with a population of 15,669,000 in a density of 112,700 (sq mi). Hong Kong, China measures its population as 7,246,00 with a density of 68,400.

There is another kind of city density, with consequences of sudden homelessness: disaster displaces 200 million people every year. Earthquakes, for example, are more deadly in urban terrain. Collapsed buildings make searches extremely difficult; and blocked roads filled with rubble render roads unusable. Rebuilding is slow, for these reasons and one more: land rights. Some estimate that one-half of the world’s land is legally undocumented. Finding the path to clear documentation is another unintended inhibitor in the recovery from catastrophes, both natural and human-caused.

Finally, there is the intended homelessness of those who leave the countryside and move to the city in search of better work. Sometimes newly arrived job-seekers may live many to a single room, sharing a hot-plate and sleeping in shifts in make-shift litters. Only some make it. But even if they do, complexities of documentation may be found culprit of failure. For example, hukou. Household registration papers are issued by family; hukou link to the province of birth. Family registration may have an ancient origin; records of household documentation date, in China, to the Xia Dynasty 2100 bce. In 1958, movement between city and country became part of the notation. To move from rural to urban, from farm to office, might require six different permission passes. That means when a country girl goes to the big city to work, benefits like health care, education, social services do not follow. Without assistance, many people give up, and return home; some are even encouraged by a one-way ticket.

Cities with extreme density pose many problems, but may offer surprising solutions. In the next section, let’s take a look at innovations that may change the structure and culture of cities.


Milestone: a stone by the side of the road that shows the distance in miles to a specified place: an important point in the progress or development of something, an advance. (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

Teaching Cities to Fish

“An evening fishing.’ Photographer, Francis Hannaway. Image: wikimedia commons.

Urban food deserts, hunger and homelessness, nutrition and environment: these are just a few of the problems plaguing cities. An innovation in Brooklyn, New York, may inspire better health for urban dwellers. “We teach cities to fish,” state the founders of City Farm Fish. Urban agriculture and aquaponics form a symbiotic union. Growing lettuce and other greens, fertilized by fish raised for enjoyment with loaves aplenty, it could be possible to feed the urban multitudes. While that container of chips or box of cereal on a store shelf may have logged thousands of emission-emitting kilometers from land to table, not so with city farmed fish like tilapia. In the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the EBF Greenhouse, in partnership with Germany’s Energy Biosphere Food, salads flourish from the fish termed Blue Nile. Want more flavor? Pluck a sprig of rosemary or thyme: herbs are also part of the mix.

Voices of the Future: Arnold Toynbee, Cities of Destiny

Arnold J. Toynbee, professor of international history at the London School of Economics and the University of London, featured on the cover of Time magazine, 17 March 1947.

“The earliest cities were thinly sown specks on the face of the earth. They were an exceptional form of human settlement, and their abnormality was signalized and symbolized by the wall that demarcated a primitive city’s diminutive area from the vast surrounding countryside. Behind and within these physical defences, a new form of social life could, and did, take shape. The Greek word for city – polis – originally meant a citadel, and this citadel might consist of nothing but a ring-wall surrounding the crown of a hill, or a ridge between two convergent ravines, or some other type of natural fortress. It was, in fact, not so much a city as a ‘city of refuge’ in which the surrounding rural population could find shelter for themselves, and their families, flocks, herds, and harvest if the open country was being attacked by an enemy with superior forces. The word for city in Greek indicates that the city stood for security first and foremost; but security gives the opportunity for freedom. In medieval Germany, there was a saying that “city air makes one free.” This civic security and freedom were exceptional blessings at first. They were so exceptional that the rare cities were the greatest wonders of an incipient human-made world. But, because they were wonders, they had an innate tendency to radiate and grow and spread.

The Parthenon, temple of the Acropolis. Image: wikimedia commons.

The original polis at Athens became the ‘acropolis,’ meaning ‘the summit citidal,’ when a populous city crystalized round the foot of the rock. These were the foretastes of the reversal in the physical relations between city and countryside that is coming to pass in our time. Today, it is the countryside, not the city, that is becoming the exceptional feature in the human occupation of earth’s surface. “(Cities of Destiny, editor, Arnold J. Toynbee. Thames & Hudson, 1967. ISBN-10: 0500250197; ISBN-13: 9780500250198., p. 3.)

Voices of the Future:

Michael R. Bloomberg and Drew Gilpin Faust

Michael Bloomberg, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, co-convener of Compact of Mayors, three-time former mayor of New York City. Image: wikimedia commons.

“Issues that people care deeply about – their safety, their job prospects, their health, their schools, and their pocketbooks – are often shaped largely by local policies. As more and more people around the world live in cities – nearly two in three Americans already do – how well cities are run will affect the future of the planet in profound ways. Helping mayors accomplish their goals and enhancing the performance of local governments would contribute to significant improvements in people’s lives. A new partnership between Harvard University and Bloomberg Philanthropies aims to do exactly that.

Running a city is one of the most complex jobs on the planet. A mayor is responsible for overseeing unwieldy bureaucracies, managing budgets, making policy, implementing programs, bringing legislators together, harnessing technology, building infrastructure, delivering essential services, preparing for and responding to crises, and investing in the future.

Citizens expect mayors to perform at the highest level, but being a public executive – like any other job – is a learning experience. Yet once mayors are sworn into office, they have few opportunities to learn from one another and from experts in the field about best practices and effective management tools so they can expand their knowledge and sharpen their leadership skills. And there is no opportunity to do so as part of a sustained and structured educational program. That’s especially unfortunate because there is a wealth of experience and expertise that would benefit mayors, if only they could access it. The new Bloomberg-Harvard partnership launched in August 2016 seeks to bridge that gap.

Over the past several years, Bloomberg Philanthropies has created a number of programs that are designed to spur and support innovation by local governments, while Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Business School have long set the standard for integrating real-world lessons into their curriculum. Now, we aim to use our collective experience, expertise, and resources to create the most ambitious executive education program ever designed for mayors and city leaders.

Drew Gilpin Faust, 28th President of Harvard University. Image: wikimedia commons.

Over the next four years, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative will bring 300 mayors from around the world, and up to 400 of their senior aides, through a curriculum that sharpens the skills they need to run a 21st-century city. The program will allow mayors and their staffs to remain local while they learn, with occasional sessions in one of the world’s great urban laboratories, New York City.

We are both committed to using research and data to tackle public policy issues, from raising student achievement levels to improving health outcomes to reducing crime and incarceration. And by involving both the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Business School, the program will offer mayors and their staffs the broad perspectives of both management expertise and policy insight.

The new initiative will also support original research that will assist mayors and their staffs in tackling the real world challenges they face. Scholars will analyze and catalogue case studies, creating the world’s largest collection of instructional materials on innovative governance, which will be open and free to all. The program will also place Harvard students in summer internships designed to support mayors as they put into practice the lessons they have learned through the program.

As cities grow, the job of mayors grows more important and influential. Last year, as part of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, more than 1,000 mayors and city officials from around the world gathered for the Climate Summit for Local Leaders at Paris’s City Hall. It was the first time cities assembled on the world stage in concert to push a diplomatic outcome, and it helped produce an ambitious agreement.

More and more, cities sit on the front lines of our most pressing issues, from climate change to public health to terrorism. As we look to cities to take on these challenges, we believe this initiative will help drive needed change from the bottom up.”

Michael R. Bloomberg and Drew Faust. “Helping mayors do their job.” The Boston Globe, 25 August 2016.


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