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Cities of Today, Cities of Tomorrow

Unit 1: What is a City?
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Urban definition...Urban Evolution...Urban revolution...
Urban Definition
The city is a part of our lives and our language: we might say, "I live in a city" or "I live near a city" or "I am moving to a city". We know what we mean when we make these statements because we have certain ideas about the city: the bright lights, the tall buildings, the traffic jams.

But, if asked, could we really define a city? Where would we draw its boundaries? How do we distinguish a city from a "town" or a "village"? There used to be a time when it was easy to identify a town or city. A town was a living space with a place of worship, like a Church, Mosque or Synagogue, a town square, a central market and a town hall. Many large cities were encircled by walls. But what about today when the old walls are no more than tourist attractions and every little settlement has a market and a town hall? How do we identify or define a city?

We can check the dictionary.

Going to the dictionary, however, does not help us be more precise in defining the physical aspects of a city. While it tells us about the general concept of a city, it does not tell us at what point in its growth a "town" can be considered a "city" or where a "city" begins and where it ends.

The problem is that there is no agreement on these matters. Different countries, municipalities and scientists use different definitions. For example, Shanghai, China, uses a vast area of 6,000 square kilometres to define itself. Nineteen million people live within those boundaries, but the area covers large patches of farmland as well as some villages. The city of London, Great Britain, on the other hand, has more than 7 million inhabitants. But the city boundaries used to define London do not include an extended "metropolitan region". If considered as a metropolitan region, London would have a population of 14 million. Other large cities have similar problems with ambiguous definitions.

In trying to define themselves, some cities use physical attributes: only an area that is "continuously built up". Others extend their definitions beyond this to include nearby settlements because the population and economy of those outlying areas are closely tied to the central city -- in this case, the definition is "economic". In yet another case, a larger area may be defined, which, as with Shanghai, would include some farmland and typically rural areas. Such a vast definition is often useful for planning and administrative purposes.

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Urban Evolution
Cities have been called the highest forms of social organization. Think of the complexity of road systems, transportation, building laws, markets, food distribution, educational systems, etc., and you get an idea of what is meant by that statement. But that complexity didn't spring up over night. It is the result of long years of human development.

While the origin of cities dates back thousands of years, the city as we know it today dates back a few hundred years. Following industrialisation, large numbers of people moved to cities in search of jobs, mostly in factories, and since then there has been an unprecedented growth in the number and size of cities worldwide. This process is called "urbanization".

Cities in contrast Urbanization is measured by the percentage change in a city's population from year to year. This is called the rate of "urban growth". For example, if your city had 200 people last year and has 210 people this year, its urban growth rate is 5%. On a global scale, the most rapid urban growth in history has taken place over the past 50 years. Whereas in 1950 fewer than 30% of people lived in a city, today 50% of humanity are urban dwellers.

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Urban Revolution
Cities are a fact of life for half of the world's population. For the first time in history, urban dwellers outnumber those living in traditionally rural areas. By the year 2025, the global urban population will have more than doubled from 2.4 billion in 1995 to 8 billion -- that means the equivalent of 57.2% of everyone alive on earth today will be packed into cities. This population shift from rural to urban has been called the largest migration in human history.

Consider the importance of this migration. Our world is predominantly urban not just because there is a large urban population, but because the key features of contemporary life are located in cities. For one thing, technological advances -- such as the one that has allowed the development of this on-line project -- are taking place in cities. At the same time, cities are important cultural centers, with their museums and galleries, newspapers and publishers encouraging creativity and artistic production. Cities have also turned into the economic engines of most countries, in some cases accounting for up to 80% of the gross national product (GNP). Finally, positive social change takes place faster in the city. There is usually better health, higher literacy, more varied employment options and greater equality between men and women.

Yet, for too large a number of urban dwellers the dream of a better life in the city is dashed on the garbage-filled streets of shanty towns and slums. According to the biennial report State of the World's Cities 2010/2011: Bridging the Urban Divide, some 827 million people in cities and towns throughout the world live in slums and this number is expected to grow.

Here is an interesting problem to consider: From 2000 to 2010 the proportion of the urban population living in slums has decreased from 39% to 32%. However, during the same period the number of slum dwellers has actually increased from, 776.7 million in 2000 to 827 million slum dwellers in 2010. How is it possible for the proportion to decrease while the numbers of slum dwellers is increasing?

Overcrowding in cities causes problems with waste disposal, health and pollution. There are other salient urban problems as well, among them violence, crime, drugs, and the over-consumption of energy and other resources. Most of these problems affect not only the city itself but the countryside and often the entire world. In short, cities contain within them the key challenges facing our civilisation.

These are the two sides of the city, the positive and the negative, the promise of success and the threat of disaster. We may never be able to create a perfect city, but we can certainly make improvements. The international community must devote more attention to cities. UN Habitat's recent report, State of the World's Cities 2010/2011: Bridging the Urban Divide, stresses that city planners must improve access to affordable housing and land, enhance public services, and tackle the plight of slum-dwellers whose situation has hardly changed despite lofty agreements that have been made in the past. The problem is not with cities. The problem lies in the management and the development of cities.

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