Thanks to rapid urban growth not just in China but elsewhere in Asia and Africa, some time in the coming year or so the population of the world will become mostly urban. By 2005, the world’s urban population of 3.18 billion people constituted 49 percent of the total population of 6.46 billion. Very soon, and for the first time in the history of our species, more humans will live in urban areas than rural places.
In parallel, human activity has emerged as an environmental force of planetary proportions, replumbing watercourses, exterminating species, and altering the global climate. These changes have brought unprecedented material gains to our species, particularly in the high-income nations. Whether these gains can be shared with all of humanity, and whether they can be sustained, are questions that now seem increasingly urgent, as the impact of humans on the natural world can no longer be considered negligible.
At first sight, cities seem to be the problem rather than the solution: the number of people living in slums has steadily increased, and industrial pollution in rapidly growing economies fouls water and air. Yet the flow of people toward cities seems unlikely to stop or even slow, in part because life chances and economic opportunities are often better in cities, even for many of the poor. From that perspective, urbanization provides a crucial opportunity: to create living patterns harmonized with nature’s rhythms as people continue to create urban habitat.
Kai N. Lee is Rosenburg Professor of Environmental Studies at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
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