Critical masses

Sao Paulo, Mumbai and Istanbul foretell humanity's urban endgames

Text by Shumon Basar

Tank _vol 7issue 22

Tuca Vieira, São Paulo's flourishing city-centre street market

The Japanese Earthquake this March brought disaster-movie scenarios to disturbing life and, at the time of writing, the consequences are still unfolding with worrying uncertainty. One scenario that was imagined in the days after the Fukushima Daiichi plant collapsed is the emergency evacuation of Tokyo, one of the world’s most populous cities. Imagine 13 million people trying to escape. Where would they go? How? And what would they leave behind – Tokyo as an abandoned relic? It’s unlikely. As the sociologist Saskia Sassen writes in a new book, Living in the Endless City, “Within a given period of time – centuries or millennia – enterprises, kingdoms and nation-states are born and die in their thousands. With rare exceptions, cities go on.” Since 2007, the Urban Age Project has explored the resilience, robustness and responsiveness of three mega-cities: São Paulo, Mumbai and Istanbul. Statistics ash in front of our eyes, testifying to the rampant urbanisation of the earth: “With a population share of just above 50 per cent, but occupying less than 2 per cent of the earth’s surface, urban areas concentrate 80 per cent of economic output... Seventy-five per cent of the world’s population is expected to be concentrated in cities by 2050 – a large proportion in megacities of several million people each and massively urbanised regions stretching across countries and continents.” Lagos, Dhaka and Delhi are today increasing by 300,000 people a year each. What are the environmental, political and humanitarian consequences of this hyper-concentration? The bigger a city, the greater its economic polarities between rich and poor. Slums are the unsavoury, inevitable flipside to almost every mega-city. Through a series of informed essays, graphs and statistics, Living in the Endless City highlights the challenges – both hidden and visible – not only for these three cities but also, by extension, for mankind. §

Living in the Endless City: The Urban Age Project by the London School of Economics and the Deutsche Bank‘s Alfred Herrhausen Society is published by Phaidon.