Meditations on Megacities
When I purchased an impulsive solo ticket to the largest city in the Southern and Western Hemispheres, I knew the city was huge. But knowing is not the same thing as understanding. The sheer expanse of São Paulo is hardly comprehensible when viewed from above. Leaving the airport, the heavy humid air was filled not, as I expected, with the trills of unknowable numbers of tropical thrushes, but with the low-frequency chuf-chuf of mechanical rotary wings.
“Where were all the helicopters coming from?” I asked my guide. São Paulo, he explained, has the most heliports per person of anywhere in the world. For the mega-rich magnates who call the megalopolis home, helicopters seem an inviolable escape from the traffic.
But actually hearing the bourgeoisie shuffling from one luxurious cross-town high rise to another, feeling the vibrations in my body, made the injustice visceral. As my driver skillfully navigated the on-the-ground chaos of screeching motorcycle horns and hellish gridlock, I turned my head to the passing still lifes. Tent encampments, sidewalks overflowing with garbage, decaying buildings, commuters with backpacks clutched protectively to their fronts. Each as characteristic a scene of a city as familiar to me as my hometown in San Francisco.
From these blurred impressions, a question crystallized. Is urbanization — as closely related to human development and progress as environmental damage, vulnerability to disease, and inequality — a net good for people and the planet?
Case Study: The Rise of a Megacity
São Paulo is the world’s 4th largest city, behind Japan’s Tokyo, India’s Delhi, and the PRC’s Shanghai. The rapid growth of Brazil’s major metropolis is history-book defying. Curiously, it had none of the classical prerequisites like proximity to sea ports, a strategic location, or longstanding historic significance. It wasn’t until the 19th century coffee boom (where soil erosion and exhaustion shifted cultivation to its more inland province) brought population growth and wealth that the city made its ascendance to the global financial powerhouse we know today.
Unusual origins aside, São Paulo is emblematic of the coming reckoning in how we all live. By the numbers, we are witnessing the single greatest migration in history. I, myself, can be counted among the more than half of the world’s population living in cities; and we’re on track to hit two-thirds in less than 30 years. At no other point has our relationship with the natural world veered so dramatically. A phenomenon necessitating new words to describe it.
Like São Paulo, the most visible example of this emerging global reorganization are fellow megacities: urban areas with populations exceeding 10 million. Once recognizable only in the research literature as “human population agglomerations,” cities on this scale serve as critical economic cores, while also producing challenging problems.
To paraphrase the Swedish geographer and researcher Torsten Hägerstrand, the ‘fate of the individual is in an increasingly complicated environment.’ Cities offer high concentrations of resources, information, and talent spread over a relatively small area. It’s the very tenet underscoring São Paulo’s rise. Individual workers are drawn to places with more widely available employment opportunities in an interdependent dance between labor and capital. Migration has been as key to the developmental trajectory of São Paulo in the nineteenth century as it is in the twenty-first.
But the sticking point remains. Before asking how it is possible to build a city such that people can take advantage of agglomeration and scale economies while optimizing for livability, mental health, and sustainability I have a more basic question. Are they even compatible?
Economics and the City
The idea that cities simultaneously nurture the best and worst sides of humanity is not new. In the 4th century BC, Epicurus outlined his vision for an alternative society in the Garden School, partly as a rejection to the corruption and emptiness he witnessed throughout his native Aethenean settlements. In his teachings achieving ataraxia (true mental and physical equanimity) only comes from withdrawing from the masses, and with it the chase for empty desires. Sounds like a fairly modern dilemma to me.
There is a stunning historic continuity in how human settlements have organized around beliefs in commerce, private property, and competition — as well as the psycho-physiological distress that follows. Credit tools, profit motives, and social stratification were just as present in ancient Babylonia as in 19th century Britain. Urbanization ultimately reflects human economic organizing. Where dense living in early civilizations enabled commerce and specialization, today’s megacities are intimately connected to the dominant modern form: capitalism. When that process undergoes transformation of scale, the consequences turn global.
Capitalist economies bring with them regular boom-and-bust cycles along with an emphasis on values like materialism and consumerism. And income gains tend to concentrate among the top. According to research conducted by McKinsey Global Institute, by 2025, 440 cities — only 7% of all people — will hold half of worldwide gross domestic product (GDP). In Brazil, São Paulo state alone, a region occupying 3% of the country by area, accounts for a third.
Worldwide decreases in economic mobility are leaving fewer and fewer able to participate in the formal sector of the economy, which skews towards a select few. In America, increases in income inequality augur the ironic appeal of shows like “Succession” and a pop culture obsession with ‘old money’ style. The belief that hard work pays off and that only the best and brightest get ahead is central to the capitalist ethos. If the market is open for anyone to try and succeed, if income is based on your individual contribution, that’s motivating. But true equality of opportunity is hard to achieve. And the market value of work is not necessarily related to moral worth.
In reality, discrimination, access to education, and familial wealth give advantages to some while limiting the self-determination of others. One of my favorite summations of this meritocratic ideal in practice comes from the writer and historian Ronald Wright.
“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
– Ronald Wright
Capitalism’s focus on profits over people fosters many of the conditions counter to well-being. In exchange, we’re told we get growth, innovation, and more degrees of individual choice. Yet, these things don’t have to be at odds. Urbanization also enables a kind of sharing, collaboration, and community-driven development that doesn’t conform to pure capitalist logic.
To avoid going off brief here and outlining an alternative economic model, let me put a few stakes in the ground. Want more livable cities? Stop privatizing profits and socializing losses. Reframe efficiency to consider real human and environmental costs, not just unit economics. Value resilience and community cohesion as much as productivity and property rights.
Maybe I’m a bit more radical in my politics and optimistic in personality than I realized. Still, I believe drivers of agglomeration can coexist with human happiness, provided there’s enough political will and ethical economic governance. Productive advantages play out in how we self-organize, where cities offer the closeness, collaboration, and competition that these upsides need. Economists praise this as the clustering effect, where densification equals good — both for how it facilitates the kind of information flow critical to growth and productivity and for the ways in which it lessens our impact on the environment.
But, as more people migrate to cities from rural areas in search of opportunity, as populations balloon, are our cities actually becoming more dense?
The Delusion of Density
Where traditional environmentalists see technology and affluence as antithetical to sustainability, a new school of thought is gaining mainstream prominence. Emerging in the 1990s, ecomodernism provides an alternative vision of human progress threaded with ecological sustainability. While some in this camp give off techno-utopian red flags and consumptionist vibes, I am behind them 100% in their arguments for urban densification.
Concentrated city living has the potential to enable efficiency, innovation, biodiversity, and broader socio-economic welfare. However, this all hinges on very deliberate city planning. Since 2000, the total number of buildings over 150 meters has increased fivefold. Rather than pricing people out, research suggests the reverse is closer to the truth. Higher gaps in building height: differences between a country’s total stock of tall buildings and the stringency of building height regulations are positively related to sprawl, air pollution, and higher housing prices.
Exemplifying the resistance: Paris. A city as famous for its price per square meter as its romanticized city-walking flâneurs. A June 2023 plan to limit future construction by 37 meters (approximately 12 stories) puts its finger right on the anxieties about the modern city.
Authors behind the ‘Plan Local d’Urbanisme’ cite ecological and historic reasons for their decision. Hard to fathom on both points — though I’ll tackle the former a little later. In terms of the heritage argument, modern Paris is practically the invention of a single public administrator. Backed by Napoleonic imperial power and the vision for a more scientific city, Georges-Eugène Haussman’s Paris remains one of the most systematic mass demolition, eviction, and construction plans in history. An underappreciated tidbit.
The Paris of today was scientifically planned and dispassionately executed over 15 years. It’s one the most remarkable examples of technocracy in urban planning. And more technocracy, as demonstrated with height regulations, means more unaffordability. As with most major metropolises, like Paris, there is not enough housing. Building height restrictions may even explain 20% of the global housing price boom observed since 1950.
If you, like me, are a total sucker for the Los Angeles real estate porn in Netflix’s “Selling Sunset,” it can be shocking how much airtime height restrictions get once you start paying attention to them. “Don’t worry,” a Playboy model-turned-realtor will say. “The maximum building height in this area is 30 feet. Your view will never be blocked.” Cue a pregnant pause as her anxious client, a pistachio orchard businessman, rubbernecks at the construction one lot down. “Good,” he’ll finally grunt, ostensibly assured that preserving his view of the smoggy Los Angeles skyline justifies the $12 million price tag.
Shows like “Selling Sunset” provide a glitzy glimpse into how speculation, perception, and influxes of affluence can rapidly transform neighborhoods — particularly at the expense of pre-existing communities. Developers seem to share near-identical tastes for pocket doors, infinity pools, and warm-wood on cold-metal accents (or as Mia Mercado writing for “The Cut” hilariously puts it “reminiscent of the ‘Ex Machina’ murder house or an Apple store with a bit more fabric”). Their latest high-end construction tear-downs are stylishly promoted in each episode. The show glamorizes the changing neighborhoods as hot, desirable areas. And the agents, as the mass messengers though admittedly towards the bottom of this particular food chain, profit from the turnover and rising property values of gentrification dynamics.
If the housing crisis gets a lot of play among pundits, it’s for good reason. The past couple decades are wringing major transformations in global financial systems. More and more complex repackaging of capital flow into mortgage assets, exposing an increasing number of investors to housing debts, and with rollbacks in regulation allowing excessive risk-taking. It’s not a hindsight is 20/20 situation either. The cycle risks repeating as rising home prices continue to rapidly inflate past income and population growth. Housing finance is no longer regional. The bubble is global. In today’s world, housing and the economy are interdependent.
Like the agents in “Selling Sunset,” the policy-makers in Paris, and the helicoptering habits of the Paulistano elite suggest, the real truth of the city is found not vertically, but horizontally. The traditionally compact city has broken free and spread. Our metropolises now occupy entire regions where urban growth is more out than up. To paraphrase historian and author Ben Wilson, we are living in a suburban, rather than an urban, world. A 1950s post-war American ideal of low-density suburbanization and automobile-centric cities.
Climate Change and the Sub-Urban Footprint
My fascination with megacities can be traced back to the nature documentary, “Planet Earth II.” It’s like a flashbulb memory. The terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, the announcement of the Coronavirus lockdown, and David Attenborough’s vignette of Manhattan as the record-holder for the most nesting peregrine falcons in the world.
America’s financial capital, itself a megacity since the early 1930s, is filled with the kind of craggy ultra talls mirroring the steep cliffs of the raptors’ natural habitat. Plus a near-endless supply of small avian prey. It’s not so dissimilar from the life-imitating-art migration of King Kong from Skull Island. However, what felt at the time like a warm anecdote obscures a more dire truth.
Successful urban exploiters are not the norm. Peregrines are among a select group of so-called synanthropic species. Raccoons, coyotes, flamingos, macaques, magpies, and mice are among the rarified few able to thrive in human-made environments. Outside the simulacrum of the city, paving paradise to put up a parking lot and rapid sub-urban growth is directly linked to mass species extinction and irreparable biodiversity loss.
Whereas the urban population is set to double between 2000 and 2030, the urban footprint will triple — further eroding surrounding habitats, poisoning the air with smog, assaulting us with noise pollution, and monumentally squandering resources. Right now, cities produce up to 70% of global CO2 and the trend of low-density, car-dependent sprawl is projected to increase emissions by 137%.
Not all countries followed the auto-centered boom of the U.S.. Instead, these places bet on public transportation, more efficient than car-based travel and key to enabling density. In America, personal cars (on average 2 tons of steel and most frequently driven by a single person) sit parked 95% of the time. Over 45% of car trips are less than 3 miles (or 5 kilometers). In American cities designed first for motor vehicles and lastly for pedestrians, these trips cannot be done any other way. And the share of real estate dedicated to supporting just our cars is shocking. Parking lots, garages, freeways, stroads, parking spaces. The dominant physical feature of our cities truly is the automobile. In Los Angeles, parking occupies more land than housing. In San Francisco, on-street parking spaces alone account for the same area as Golden Gate Park and 120 Transamerica buildings.
Our compact, walkable cities have been bulldozed. If we can remove the car, significant areas of urban spaces could be reconstituted for more productive, green uses. With fewer people driving, cities would be immediately more livable. Instead, miles of concrete create desolate urban heat islands, waste infrastructure lags behind the two billion tons of annual output, and land reclamation of sloughs block water drainage and make our cities more prone to extreme flooding.
As a native San Francisco Bay Area resident, I was shocked to learn how many of the cities of my childhood were built over the top of key transitional zones. Significant parts of Cupertino, Daly City, Los Gatos, and Newark are all reclaimed tidal marshes, riparian habitats, and ancient sand dunes. I had no idea that in all those years of soccer practices, on pitches a thirty minute drive away mind you, I was running over landfills. Since the 1850s, roughly 40% of San Francisco Bay has been filled in and more than 80% of the original tidal wetlands converted to other uses.
This trend of reclamation and auto-dependent city planning is one of America’s most prolific international exports. In Eastern Asia, Singapore added nearly 35,000 acres to its landmass by draining marshes and filling mangrove swamps shortly before and after independence. Ongoing plans aim to reclaim a further 5,200 hectares by 2030. The large-scale dredging boosted commerce and development, but at major environmental costs. Expanding the city-state’s footprint has destroyed coastal ecosystems, impacted water quality, and increased flood vulnerability.
On the African continent, the Nigerian capital of Lagos expanded from a population of roughly 300,000 to 21 million in fifty years and is set to be the largest metropolis in the world by 2050. Emblematic of other cities, Lagos’ infrastructure has been unable to keep pace with growth. The daily commute in the oil rich capital is derisively called the “go slow” where commuter gridlock starts at 4:00 a.m. For every car per kilometer of road in New York City, there are ten times more in Lagos. Around the world, we’ve made our environments less resilient through hard engineering to future megastorms, zoonotic disease, and climbing temperatures.
“…The ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking. But it’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world. Yet, it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend. And surely, it is our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth.”
— David Attenborough, in closing of Planet Earth II, Episode: Cities
Our cities are the frontlines of climate change. From Singapore to San Francisco, Lagos to Los Angeles, if growth rates of land continue to outpace population we face severe ecological catastrophe. And ecological in this sense may just as well be subbed with anthropic, however easy it is for our ‘there is nature and then us’ mentalities to forget. Recognizing the interconnectedness of all things is a worldview directly in contrast to the endemic libertarianism of where I’m writing this: the indeterminate sprawl of Silicon Valley. Free market fundamentalists constantly moving fast and breaking things are fragilely offended by the idea of treaties, regulations, or any way of being accountable to others — let alone nature.
Paradoxically, the solution to our present climate crisis seems to be to make the world more urban and the urban more wild. To begin to live more in harmony with the natural world, conservation and biodiversity efforts must include the city.
Re-Wilding Our Urban Jungles
Urban environments have spaces that can relatively readily be applied to address ecological health. Endless flat roofs, streets, even parking lots. Access to nature famously improves mental well-being so perhaps it is not shocking that we thrive in the same environments as biodiversity. Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries — building on the association between nature immersion and improvements in stress, mood, fatigue, and immunity — coined the term shinrin yoku. Colloquially known as ‘forest bathing,’ the therapeutic practice encourages city dwellers to spend time in forests without distractions.
Increasing canopy cover makes cities more resilient to climate change while making them more attractive places for us. Trees increase natural water preserves, while reducing air pollution, erosion, and heat island effects. In a world with simultaneously too much and not enough water, trees intercept and store between 18-48% — depending on species. Those adapted to wetland environments, like mangroves, play a critical role in defending against rising sea levels, not to mention their miraculous abilities for carbon sequestration. Coastal wetlands are estimated to annually sequester ten times more carbon than mature tropical forests.
However, a stark warning. As Ben Wilson writes in Urban Jungle: “Trees help mitigate the effects of climate change, they cannot cure it.” Wetlands, rivers, lakes, and trees are some of our best defenses against the natural impacts of climate change, but planting trees in cities that continue to reclaim land from the sea and deforest local old-growth forests is not a true offset. Zooming in on the impacts to urban water preserves alone, Wilson goes on to add: “The loss of 6% of forest-covering watersheds between 2000 and 2015 is estimated to deprive 700 million urban dwellers of adequate drinking water and cost 5.4 billion dollars a year in water treatment.”
Cities are packed with life by default. They are not spaces we can afford to neglect nature. Look at what happened to urban environments around the world during the Coronavirus lockdowns of 2020. Wild boars roamed old towns in Barcelona and Bergama, water in Venetian canals became so clear that jellyfish were visible, coyotes escorted their pups through San Francisco’s financial district along roads cleared of foot traffic and cars. It didn’t take long for nature to begin a reclamation of its own. Despite whatever tiny designer dog owners may think, making cities more hospitable for coyotes is a sign of a healthy human habitat. What makes cities good for a variety of plants and animals makes them healthier and happier for us. If the moral argument doesn’t sway you, how about an existential one: this is not an aesthetic preference, but for our own survival.
Now for the ethical imperative. To extend the benefits of nature to all is a core element of social justice. And it should not remain concentrated to the wealthy. Urban greening alone is associated more with gentrification and rising property prices than moving the needle meaningfully on climate change. Take Singapore, hailed by David Attenborough in the final episode of the Planet Earth II BBC documentary as a model for inviting nature back into our cities. Conservationists around the world raised their eyebrows.
Greening initiatives in the country smaller than New York City focus on high profile parks and gardens. Isolated and upscaled green spaces bring hyper localized cooling effects, affluent residents, and tourism over meaningful ecological preservation or resilience. For starters, none of the plant species growing on the famous Garden by the Bay installation are native. Not to mention animals tend to not like man-made structures that light up and play music. Artificial nature is not a substitute for forests.
We can’t entirely innovate or superficially beautify our way out. The solution requires not just the tools of technology, but changes in beliefs and behavior. Americans, for one, need to end our obsession with the other suburban staple: Kentucky bluegrass lawns. This high-maintenance monoculture, itself an indulgent vestige of aristocratic European tastes, carpets millions of acres across the country. In a 2005 NASA-sponsored study, lawns were found to cover more surface area in the U.S. than any other single crop.
Monoculture is dangerous. Expansive bluegrass plots are sterile, weed-free environmental dead zones prone to erosion. Roadsides, gardens, and yards need to be filled with diverse flora, not green deserts for pollinators hoarding irreplaceable freshwater and requiring immense chemical inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. Our existing yards can be reconstituted, but not while civic codes and private HOAs still penalize homeowners for deviating from turf, as seen in recent cases from Florida to Iowa where residents faced fines for allowing native wildflowers to bloom.
Cities can grow, but we need to begin limiting our impact on the environment by concentrating human development in dense population centers while threading green spaces to preserve wildlife habitat and nature access. The patch-corridor-matrix model of conservation biology offers one vision for such sustainable development. Here, an urbanized “matrix” of high-density built up areas with “patches” of parks and native habitats is connected by wildlife “corridors” that ensure survival of indigenous species and connect ecologies through linked greenbelts, rivers, and animal crossings. Now that is a city I’d enjoy living in.
It’s time we transcend our short-termism to think deeply about what the market does and does not provide when left to itself. How we design, build, and value our environments can’t be driven only by what is profitable unless profit is willing to undergo a radical redefinition. If we can keep in mind natural resource use, accessible transportation, environmental hazards, social justice concerns, and other issues of the modern city then urban planning can serve the needs of all — synanthropic or not.
So how do we sustainably develop and organize our cities to harness advances in technology while being mindful of the tradeoffs of urbanization? Is there only Haussmann’s Paris or is there a better way?
The Wisdom of Communities
Much like environmentalism, how we think about designing, organizing, and regulating our cities is shifting. Whereas the 20th century brought a focus on grand designs, order, and monumental civic buildings, some urban planners are moving away from a single cookie-cutter approach.
Megacities are not monoliths. This fact can be difficult to fully appreciate when their complexities are routinely reduced to a series of cliches. Just last month, I found myself watching an ever-more elaborate airline safety briefing. In the video, United Airlines crew members share cheery instructions for proper seat belt use and oxygen mask protocol from a series of generic international sets. Through the lens of corporate advertising, I (along with the rest of the target American market) swallowed stereotypical sets of palm trees and pagodas.
But Delhi isn’t a throng of white-clothed celebrants throwing colored powder just as much as Bangkok isn’t a queue of identically dressed actors releasing floating lanterns. What we think of as a single, homogenous city are actually bunches of local, heterogenous segments. Character and innovation arise first on a neighborhood level — the most populous of which are slums.
One out of every four city dwellers live in an informal settlement, those community-built and self-governed areas colloquially called ghettos, favelas, and inner cities (among many others). Driven by a mix of migration, social barriers, and economic necessity, slums provide de-facto housing for the excluded around the world and income through the informal economy.
In a staggering estimation of its size, 61% of the global workforce are believed to make their living off the books: all the work required to feed, clothe, and support the commerce and construction needed for our rapidly expanding urban populace. Estimated by A.T. Kearney to be nearly $11 trillion a year in global GDP, street vending, waste picking, domestic work, and home-based microenterprises are simultaneously survival strategies, providing subsistence earnings and safety nets, and important micro-economies spurring grassroot innovations.
Necessity and economic incentives bring resilience, social cohesion, and sustainability. Slums foster tight social networks, shared communal spaces, and a sense of identity that provides security. (Source: Sanyal, 2005) In the absence of formal utilities, decentralized infrastructure provides water, power, and sanitation — with new construction added incrementally over time as opposed to upfront demolishing and rebuilding. Informal e-waste dismantling and metal recovery in Chinese urban villages is estimated to account for about 70-80% of total electronics recycling. And a study in Mumbai found 90% of plastics discarded were recycled through an intricate chain of waste pickers, given the materials’ value for informal enterprises.
Slums are overlooked and undervalued, even though they have implemented innovative practices that make them more autonomous, walkable, and environmentally sustainable compared to formal city centers. This lack of recognition is because they are not major hubs of power and profit. Slums demonstrate the potential of bottom-up, community-led organizing, but their overall quality of life is constrained by poverty, social marginalization, and inadequate access to infrastructure. But, if we are willing to pay attention, they reveal a wisdom that successful, resilient cities are community-built, rather than decreed top-down by urban planners.
A Blueprint for Blending Grassroots and Governance
Where slums offer a case study of grassroots development without government involvement, Tokyo demonstrates how bottom-up urban growth can successfully interface with top-down state support. Orderly on the surface, it has a churn that many who visit, live in, and study the city say makes the experience of inhabiting it feel consistent yet surprising, organized but messy. Unique and strangely…human.
A population larger than the entire country of Canada nested compactly with walkable streets, diverse neighborhoods, low crime, extraordinary character, attention to design, efficient infrastructure, and an exceptionally high quality of life — Tokyo is at once colossal and communal, complex and comprehensible. Through the interplay of engaged citizens and government policies over time, Tokyo managed to retain the spirit and identity of its local neighborhoods while integrating the infrastructure and services needed for progress.
The ancient fishing village first named Edo has a long history of living at the edge of disaster. Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and war have wrought an urban planning credo eyes wide open to the cycles of destruction and rebuilding, as well as the importance of micro-urban communities. In contrast to the paternalism of Paris, residents of the Japanese capital play an essential role in its development. The chōnaikai, voluntary and self-organized neighborhoods, largely fronted the post-WWII redevelopment that transformed Tokyo from devastation to the greatest global metropolis in ten years. That the reconstruction was incremental and undertaken by residents themselves, using local methods and resources, highlights how the bedrock of strong growth stems from community, not top-down directed corporate development.
In an interview with Max Zimmerman writing for Bloomberg, research editor and co-author of the book Emergent Tokyo, described the prevailing paradigm of what he terms corporate urbanism.
“You see it around the world — these large scale, usually high-end developments that shape a whole district according to a grand corporate plan. But when you walk through them, you don’t really feel like you’re in a particular place. You’re in this generic place that’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time.”
– Joe McReynolds
I know exactly what he’s describing. Gleaming luxury highrise buildings with spectacular city views sit largely empty in the ex-industrial area of SoMA (South of Market Street) in San Francisco. Each may have its own first floor Starbucks, maybe a high-end specialty grocery or gym, but the sidewalk just outside is filled with filth, despair, and screeching horns from thousands of irritated commuters.
Even outside the dystopian setting, where suburban developments look like stacked, prefabricated shipping containers with huge windows and clean streets, the sterility doesn’t quite translate to a feeling of home. Anytown USA looks shockingly similar whether you’re in Des Moines, Philadelphia, Houston, or Washington DC. There’s a McDonald’s, a strip mall, a four lane road with little-to-no pedestrian sidewalk, and an overwhelming sameness. Idiosyncrasy resonates more strongly than the orderly rationality of technocratic designs. Layered complexity is more relatable. Chaos has soul.
The Complexity Lens
Cities harbor complex dynamics and patterns not so dissimilar from natural organisms. Each has metabolisms, networks, flows. They adapt, learn, and self-organize. This biological perspective is the domain of complexity science, which provides a toolkit to see cities not as mechanical systems, but as living, adaptive ones. Concepts from complexity help explain how cities emerge from bottom-up rules and local interactions. Neighborhoods, communities, businesses — these diverse components constitute a city’s ‘urban DNA.’ They co-evolve, trading resources, information, and energy in a dance of mutual interdependence.
Understanding cities through complexity science means seeking solutions not in infrastructure alone but in the improvised creativity of residents. “What is the city but the people?” wrote William Shakespeare in “Coriolanus.” We underestimate the strengths of large scale human settlements when residents participate in the development of their communities with enablement by their institutions. If we organize our cities around “rational,” scientific lines we suffer unanticipated consequences. There are nonlinear dynamics at play.
To try and top-down direct urban development forgets that policy decisions have non-intuitive cascading effects. Take zoning, for example. Cities are divided into areas each with different rules about how the land can be used and what can be built. In the 1980s, the term NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) emerged as a shorthand for the growing movement of activist property owners exploiting restrictive zoning policies that ultimately reinforced housing shortages, inequality, and a lack of community growth and spontaneity.
Debates in the US about city planning get twisted fast by the fact that home ownership is as close to a thing as Americans have to a savings or retirement fund. According to the Census Bureau Survey of Income and Program Participation, for example, in middle class households “home equity is the largest single financial asset, representing between 50% and 70% of net wealth.”
If you’re counting on the value of your property to rise for your own financial stability, I understand the trap. Community predictability assures property owners (and buyers) that the neighborhood will at minimum maintain its safety, appearance, and market values. Unpredictability erodes those expectations fast. But much of the dynamism that comes from model megacities like Tokyo are things that reduce predictability. Narrow, irregular streets, accessible public spaces, and unique small businesses tucked away on upper floors or down side alleys. Tokyo welcomes the discovery and exploration Victor Hugo and his fellow flâneurs lamented after Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris.
Relying on the value of our own private lots to appreciate at the expense of everything else makes us resistant to all of the pieces that make life in a city inspired, healthy, and livable. It means seeking explanations not from top-down policies focused on efficiency and optimization, but from citizen-level interactions. And then using our institutions as enabling conditions for civic engagement, social equity, and community identity.
Like Tokyo, vital infrastructure must fit around the existing city and communities, not in line with a master plan. Every city’s needs depend on its cultural context. There is no one size fits all. We cannot formalize or regulate change, only provide the conditions and investment capital. After thousands of years of engineering our environments, we are only now beginning to understand that organic organization is the most successful. Policy and planning must be enablers, rather than directors, of the process.
An Alternative Vision
As they stand, cities are the most destructive forces on earth. They are the primary source of the environmental challenges we face and, paradoxically, the places we have to solve it. Unlike the billionaire men who all seem to think becoming a real-life Dorian Gray in space is the better response to existential peril, I see this as a call for a complete cultural shift. Away from endless abundance and open-ended growth to a sustainable economy and stewardship of our limited resources. The tools of technology must be guided by conservation ethics and environmental wisdom. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb outlines:
“…There is a logic to natural things that is much superior to our own. Just as there is a dichotomy in law: ‘innocent until proven guilty’ as opposed to ‘guilty until proven innocent’, let me express my rule as follows: what Mother Nature does is rigorous until proven otherwise; what humans and science do is flawed until proven otherwise.”
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb
It’s easy to say, harder to do. I feel so much dissonance between my lifestyle and my values. Yes, I do own a car and drive a not insignificant amount. I don’t bike to as many places as I should. I garden but I haven’t quite embraced the unkempt aesthetic of resilient and biodiverse flora. I don’t eat seasonally or have a proper appreciation for where my water comes from. I have yet to do an internal audit of my electricity and gas use and still get anxious anytime I have to choose between landfill, recycle, and compost waste bins.
After months of personal reflection, research, and three books, my elliptical quest to answer a self-imposed question on whether cities are a positive force have become a personal call for action. I’ve lost my connection to the natural world. Maybe, in part because of the place I was raised, I never truly had it.
None of us can rely on technology as a panacea for the fundamental excesses of western living. This is a test of our collective ability to respect our interdependence, not only for each other but for our world. We have to expand our framework for how we expect cities to be. And change our behavior.