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Cities of the future: today's "Mega-cities" are overcrowded and environmentally stressed.

We take big cities for granted today, but they are a relatively recent phenomenon. Most of human history concerns rural people making a living from the land. But the world is rapidly urbanizing, and it's not at all clear that our planet has the resources to cope with this relentless trend. And, unfortunately, most of the growth is occurring in urban centers ill-equipped for the pace of change. You've heard of the "birth dearth"? It's bypassing Dhaka, Mumbai, Mexico City and Lagos, cities that are adding population as many of their western counterparts contract.

The world's first cities grew up in what is now Iraq, on the plains of Mesopotamia near the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The first city in the world to have more than one million people was Rome at the height of its Empire in 5 A.D. At that time, world population was only 170 million. But Rome was something new in the world. It had developed its own sophisticated sanitation and traffic management systems, as well as aqueducts, multi-story low-income housing and even suburbs, but after it fell in 410 A.D. it would be 17 centuries before any metropolitan area had that many people.

The first large city in the modern era was Beijing, which surpassed one million population around 1800, followed soon after by New York and London. But at that time city life was the exception; only three percent of the world's population lived in urban areas in 1800.

The rise of manufacturing spurred relocation to urban centers from the 19th through the early 20th century. The cities had the jobs, and new arrivals from the countryside provided the factories with cheap, plentiful labor. But the cities were also unhealthy places to live because of crowded conditions, poor sanitation and the rapid transmission of infectious disease. As the Population Reference Bureau reports, deaths exceeded births in many large European cities until the middle of the 19th century. Populations grew, then, by continuing waves of migration from the countryside and from abroad.

From First World to Third

In the first half of the 20th century, the fastest urban growth was in western cities. New York, London and other First World capitals were magnets for immigration and job opportunity. In 1950, New York, London, Tokyo and Paris boasted of having the world's largest metropolitan populations. (Also in the top 10 were Moscow, Chicago and the German city of Essen.) By then, New York had already become the first "mega-city" with more than 10 million people. It would not hold on to such exclusivity for long.

In the postwar period, many large American cities lost population as manufacturing fled overseas and returning soldiers taking advantage of the GI Bill furled the process of suburbanization. Crime was also a factor. As an example, riot-torn Detroit lost 800,000 people between 1950 and 1996, and its population declined 33.9 percent between 1970 and 1996. Midwestern cities were particularly hard-hit. St. Louis, for instance, lost more than half its population in the same period, as did Pittsburgh. Cleveland precipitously declined, as did Buffalo, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and many other large cities, emerging as regional players rather than world leaders.

Meanwhile, while many American cities shrank, population around the world was growing dramatically. In the 20th century, world population increased from 1.65 billion to six billion. The highest rate of growth was in the late 1960s, when 80 million people were added every year.

According to the "World Population Data Sheet," global population will rise 46 percent between now and 2050 to about nine billion. While developed countries are losing population because of falling birth rates and carefully controlled immigration rates (only the U.S. reverses this trend, with 45 percent growth to 422 million predicted by 2050), population is exploding in the developing world.

India's population will likely grow 52 percent to 1.6 billion by 2050, when it will surpass China as the world's most populous country. The population in neighboring Pakistan will grow to 349 million, up 134 percent in 2050. Triple-digit growth rates also are forecast for Iraq, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Africa could double in population to 1.9 billion by 2050. These growth rates hold despite the world's highest rates of AIDS infection, and despite civil wars, famines and other factors. Despite strife in the Congo, it could triple to 181 million by 2050, while Nigeria doubles to 307 million.

Big Cities Get Bigger--and Pooper

According to a 1994 UN report, 1.7 billion of the world's 2.5 billion urban dwellers were then living in less-developed nations, which were also home to two thirds of the world's mega-cities. The trend is rapidly accelerating. People and the Planet reports that by 2007, 3.2 billion people--a number larger than the entire global population of 1967--will live in cities. Developing countries will absorb nearly all of the world's population increases between today and 2030. The estimated urban growth rate of 1.8 percent for the period between 2000 and 2030 will double the number of city dwellers. Meanwhile, rural populations are growing scarcely at all.

Also by 2030, more than half of all Asians and Africans will live in urban areas. Latin America and the Caribbean will at that time be 84 percent urban, a level comparable to the U.S. As urban population grows, rural populations will shrink. Asia is projected to lose 26 million rural dwellers between 2000 and 2030.

For many internal migrants, cities offer more hope of a job and better health care and educational opportunities. In many cases, they are home to an overwhelming percentage of a country's wealth. (Mexico City, for example, produces about 30 percent of Mexico's total Gross Domestic Product.) Marina Lupina, a Manila, Philippines resident, told People and the Planet that she and her two children endure the conditions of city living (inhabiting a shack made from discarded wood and cardboard next to a fetid, refuse-choked canal) because she can earn $2 to $3 a day selling recycled cloth, compared to 50 cents as a farm laborer in the rural areas. "My girls will have a better life than I had," she says. "That's the main reason I came to Manila. We will stay no matter what."

Movement like this will lead to rapidly changing population levels in the world's cities, and emerging giants whose future preeminence can now only be guessed. "By 2050, an estimated two-thirds of the world's population will live in urban areas, imposing even more pressure on the space infrastructure and resources of cities, leading to social disintegration and horrific urban poverty," says Werner Fornos, president of the Washington-based Population Institute.

Today, the most populous city is Tokyo (26.5 million people in 2001), followed by Sao Paulo (18.3 million), Mexico City (18.3 million), New York (16.8 million) and Bombay/Mumbai (16.5 million). But by 2015 this list will change, with Tokyo remaining the largest city (then with 27.2 million), followed by Dhaka (Bangladesh), Mumbai, Sao Paulo, New Delhi and Mexico City (each with more than 20 million). New York will have moved down to seventh place, followed by Jakarta, Calcutta, Karachi and Lagos (all with more than 16 million).

The speed by which some mega-cities are growing has slowed. Thirty years ago, for instance, the UN projected Mexico City's population would grow beyond 30 million by 2000, but the actual figures are much lower. Other cities not growing as much as earlier seen are Rio de Janeiro, Calcutta, Cairo and Seoul, Korea. But against this development is the very rapid growth of many other cities (in some cases, tenfold in 40 years) such as Amman (Jordan), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Lagos and Nairobi.

The rise of mega-cities, comments the Washington Post, "poses formidable challenges in health care and the environment, in both the developed and developing world. The urban poor in developing countries live in squalor unlike anything they left behind ... In Caracas, more than half the total housing stock is squatter housing. In Bangkok, the regional economy is 2.1 percent smaller than it otherwise would be because of time lost in traffic jams. The mega-cities of the future pose huge problems for waste management, water use and climate change."

In Cairo, Egypt, the rooftops of countless buildings are crowded with makeshift tents, shacks and mud shelters. It's not uncommon to see a family cooking their breakfast over an open fire while businesspeople work in their cubicles below. The city's housing shortage is so severe that thousands of Egyptians have moved into the massive historic cemetery known as the City of the Dead, where they hang clotheslines between tombs and sleep in mausoleums.

By 2015, there will be 33 mega-cities, 27 of them in the developing world. Although cities themselves occupy only two percent of the world's land, they have a major environmental impact on a much wider area. London, for example, requires roughly 60 times its own area to supply its nine million inhabitants with food and forest products. Mega-cities are likely to be a drain on the Earth's dwindling resources, while contributing mightily to environmental degradation themselves.

The Mega-city Environment

Mega-cities suffer from a catalog of environmental ills. A World Health Organization (WHO)/United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study found that seven of the cities--Mexico City, Beijing, Cairo, Jakarta, Los Angeles, Sao Paulo and Moscow--had three or more pollutants that exceeded the WHO health protection guidelines. All 20 of the cities studied by WHO/UNEP had at least one major pollutant that exceeded established health limits.

According to the World Resources Institute, "Millions of children living in the world's largest cities, particularly in developing countries, are exposed to life-threatening air pollution two to eight times above the maximum WHO guidelines. Indeed, more than 80 percent of all deaths in developing countries attributable to air pollution-induced lung infections are among children under five." In the big Asian mega-cities such as New Delhi, Beijing and Jakarta, approximately 20 to 30 percent of all respiratory disease stems from air pollution.

Almost all of the mega-cities face major fresh water challenges. Johannesburg, South Africa is forced to draw water from highlands 370 miles away. In Bangkok, saltwater is making incursions into aquifers. Mexico City has a serious sinking problem because of excessive groundwater withdrawal.

More than a billion people, 20 percent of the world's population, live without regular access to clean running water. While poor people are forced to pay exorbitant fees for private water, many cities squander their resources through leakages and illegal drainage. "With the population of cities expected to increase to five billion by 2025," says Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UNEP, "the urban demand for water is set to increase exponentially. This means that any solution to the water crisis is closely linked to the governance of cities."

Mega-city residents, crowded into unsanitary slums, are also subject to serious disease outbreaks. Lima, Peru (with population estimated at 9.4 million by 2015) suffered a cholera outbreak in the late 1990s partly because, as the New York Times reported, "Rural people new to Lima ... live in houses without running water and use the outhouses that dot the hillsides above" Consumption of unsafe food and water subjects these people to life-threatening diarrhea and dehydration.

It's worth looking at some of these emerging mega-cities in detail, because daily life there is likely to be the pattern for a majority of the world's population. Most are already experiencing severe environmental problems that will only be exacerbated by rapid population increases. Our space-compromised list leaves out the largest European and American cities. These urban centers obviously face different challenges, among them high immigration rates (see companion story):

Jakarta, Indonesia

A Yale University graduate student, who served as a college intern at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, brought back this account: Directly adjacent to the Embassy s high-rise office building was a muddy, trash-filled canal that children bathed in every morning. The view from the top floors was unforgettable: a layer of brown sky rising up to meet the blue--a veritable pollution horizon. In the distance the tips of skyscrapers stretched up out of the atmospheric cesspool below, like giant corporate snorkels. Without fresh air to breathe, my days were characterized by nausea and constant low-grade headaches. I went to Indonesia wanting a career in government, and left determined to start a career working with the environment."

Jakarta is one of the world's fastest-growing cities. United Nations estimates put the city's 1995 population at 11.5 million, a dramatic increase from only 530,000 in 1930. Mohammad Dannisworo of the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) says 8.5 million people live within the city's boundaries at night and an additional 5.5 million migrate via 2.5 million private cars, 3.8 million motorcycles and 255,000 public transportation vehicles into the city during the day. This daily parade of combustion engines clogs the city streets and thickens the air, making Jakarta the world's third-most-polluted city after Bangkok and Mexico City.

Rapid growth has become one of the capital city's greatest challenges, as migrants continue to pour into Jakarta from the surrounding countryside in search of higher-paying jobs. An estimated 200,000 people come to the city looking for employment every year. In the face of such growth, the city has been unable to provide adequate housing, despite repeated attempts to launch urban improvement programs. The Kampung Improvement Program (KIP), established in the 1980s, was initially highly successful in boosting living conditions for more than 3.5 million established migrants, but it has been unable to accommodate the persistent migrant influx. There is an acute housing shortage, with a demand for 200,000 new units a year unfulfilled.

As Encarta describes it, "In the 1970s, efforts failed to control growth by prohibiting the entry of unemployed migrants. The current strategy emphasizes family planning, dispersing the population throughout the greater [metropolitan] region, and promoting transmigration (the voluntary movement of families to Indonesia's less-populated islands). Jakarta is a magnet for migrants ... [During the late 1980s] most were between the ages of 15 and 39 years, many with six years of education or less."

The UN reports that the city's drinking water system is ineffective, leading 80 percent of Jakarta inhabitants to use underground water, which has become steadily depleted. In low-lying North Jakarta, groundwater depletion has caused serious land subsidence, making the area more vulnerable to flooding and allowing seawater from the Java Sea to seep into the coastal aquifers. According to Suyono Dikun, Deputy Minister for Infrastructure at the National Development Planning Board, more than 100 million people in Indonesia are living without proper access to clean water.

Jakarta's environment has been deteriorating rapidly, with serious air pollution and the lack of a waterborne sewer. Jakarta officials have only recently begun to acknowledge the source of over half of the city's air pollution, and have begun to take action against automobile congestion. The Blue Skies Program, founded in 1996, is dedicated to updating the city's public and private transportation technology. The project's successes to date include an increase in the percentage of vehicles meeting pollution standards, a near-complete phasing out of leaded gasoline, and an increase in the number of natural gas-fueled vehicles to 3,000 taxis, 500 passenger cars and 50 public buses.

The Blue Skies Project is pushing Jakarta toward a complete natural gas conversion and is working towards the installation of dedicated filling stations, establishing a fleet of natural gas-fueled passenger busses, supplying conversion kits for gasoline-fueled cars, and creating adequate inspection and maintenance facilities.

Jakarta has acknowledged its traffic problems and undertaken both small and large scale projects to alleviate the stresses of pollution and congestion. The city has launched a "three-in-one" policy to encourage carpooling, demanding that every car on major thruways carry at least three passengers when passing through special zones from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The city has also undertaken the construction of a nearly 17-mile monorail system.

But if Jakarta really wants to alleviate its infrastructure problems, it has to work from within, says Gordon Feller of the California-based Urban Age Institute. "The mayor needs to create a partnership between the three sectors--the government, the local communities and the non-governmental agencies. The job of the mayor is to empower the independent innovators, not to co-opt or block them."

Dhaka, Bangladesh

Dhaka had only 3.5 million people in 1951; now it has more than 13 million. The city has been gaining population at a rate of nearly seven percent a year since 1975, and it will be the world's second-largest city (after Tokyo) by 2015. According to a recent Japanese environmental report, "Dhaka city is beset with a number of socio-environmental problems. Traffic congestion, flooding, solid waste disposal, black smoke from vehicular and industrial emissions, air and noise pollution, and pollution of water bodies by industrial discharge.... Black smoke coming out from the discharge is intolerable to breathe, burning eyes and throats. The city dwellers are being slowly poisoned by lead concentration in the city air 10 times higher than the government safety limit."

Because of a heavy concentration of cars burning leaded gasoline, Dhaka's children have one of the highest blood lead levels in the world. Almost 90 percent of primary school children tested had levels high enough to impair their developmental and learning abilities, according to a scientific study.

Water pollution is already rampant. According to the Japanese report, "The river Buriganga flows by the side of the densely populated area of the old city. Dumping of waste to the river by ... industries is rather indiscriminate.... The indiscriminate discharge of domestic sewage, industrial effluents and open dumping of solid wastes are becoming a great concern from the point of water-environment degradation."

Nearly half of all Bangladeshis live below the poverty line, able only to glance at the gleaming new malls built in Dhaka. Urbanization and the pressures of poverty are severely stressing the country's once-abundant natural resources. According to U.S. Aid for International Development (USAID), "Pressures on Bangladesh's biological resources are intense and growing."

They include:

* Poor management of aquatic and terrestrial resources;

* Population growth;

* Overuse of resources;

* Unplanned building projects; and

* Expansion of agriculture onto less-productive lands, creating erosion and runoff, among other by-products.

Bangladesh's expanding population destroys critical habitats, reports USAID, causing a decrease in biodiversity. Most of Bangladesh's tropical forests and almost all of the freshwater floodplains have been negatively affected by human activities.

But despite all the negatives, there is a growing environmental movement in Bangladesh that is working to save Dhaka's natural resources. The Bangladesh Environmental Network (BEN), for instance, works on reducing the high level of arsenic in Bangladesh's water supply (more than 500 percent higher than World Health Organization standards), combats the country's severe flooding problem and tries to defeat India's River Linking Project, which could divert an estimated 10 to 20 percent of Bangladesh's water flow. Bangladesh Poribesh An dolon holds demonstrations and international action days to increase citizen awareness of endangered rivers.

International development projects are also addressing some of the country's environmental woes, including a $44 million arsenic mitigation project launched in 1998 and jointly financed by the World Bank and the Swiss Development and Cooperation Agency. The project is installing deep wells, installing hardware to capture rainwater, building sanitation plants and expanding distribution systems. A $177 million World Bank project works with the government of Bangladesh to improve urban transportation in Dhaka. Private companies from Bangladesh and Pakistan recently announced a joint venture to construct a waste management plant that could handle 3,200 metric tons of solid waste per day, turning it into organic fertilizer.

Mexico City

Mexico City is like an anxious teenager, growing up faster than it probably should. That phenomenon manifests itself in awkward contrasts: Sports cars zipping down crowded streets, choked with air pollution; a WalMart rising against a skyline of the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan; and trendy designer knock-off bags lining the walls of a grungy street stall.

The locale has long been a cultural hub--the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, where Mexico City now stands, was the largest city in the Americas in the 14th century with a population of about 300,000. When the Spanish razed Tenochtitlan they erected Mexico City in its place, though a smallpox epidemic knocked the population back to 30,000. Mexico City served as the center of Spain's colonial empire during the 1500s, but the modern-day metropolis only began to materialize in the late 1930s when a combination of rapid economic growth, population growth, and a considerable rural migration filled the city with people.

The larger metropolitan area now engulfs once-distinct villages and population estimates range from 16 million to 30 million, depending on how the city's boundaries are drawn. Regardless, Mexico City is now widely considered the world's third-largest city, and still growing; birth rates are high and 1,100 new residents migrate to the capital each day.

With so many people crammed into a closed mountain valley, many environmental and social problems are bound to arise. Mexico City's air was ranked by WHO as the most contaminated in the world in 1992. By 1998, the Mexican capital had added the distinction of being "the world's most dangerous city for children." Twenty percent of the city's population lives in utter poverty, the Mega-Cities Project reports, 40 percent of the population lives in "informal settlements," and wealth is concentrated in very few hands.

A combination of population, geography and geology render air pollution one of the city's greatest problems. WHO studies have reported that it is unhealthy to breathe air with over 120 parts per billion of ozone contaminants more than one day a year, but residents breathe it more than 300 days a year. More than one million of the city's more than 18 million people suffer from permanent breathing problems.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Exhaust fumes from Mexico City's approximately three million cars are the main source of air pollutants. Problems resulting from the high levels of exhaust are exacerbated by the fact that Mexico City is situated in a basin. The geography prevents winds from blowing away the pollution, trapping it above the city."

The International Development Research Center has observed that "despite more than a decade of stringent pollution control measures, a haze hangs over Mexico City most days, obscuring the surrounding snow-capped mountains and endangering the health of its inhabitants. Many factors have contributed to this situation: industrial growth, a population boom and the proliferation of vehicles." More than 30 percent of the city's vehicles are more than 20 years old.

Solid waste creates another major problem, and officials estimate that, of the 10,000 tons of waste generated each day, at least one quarter is dumped illegally. The city also lacks an effective sanitation and water distribution system. According to the United Nations, "Urbanization has had a serious negative effect on the ecosystem of Mexico City. Although 80 percent of the population has piped inside plumbing, residents in the peripheral areas cannot access the sewage network and a great percentage of wastewater remains untreated as it passes to the north for use as irrigation water."

Perhaps three million residents at the edge of the city do not have access to sewers, says the Mega-Cities Project. Untreated waste from these locations is discharged directly into water bodies or into the ground, where it can contaminate ground water. Only 50 percent of residents in squatter settlements have access to plumbing, and these residents are more likely to suffer from health effects linked to inadequate sanitation. Furthermore, Mexico City is now relying on water pumped from lower elevations to quench an ever-deepening thirst; as the city continues to grow, the need for water and the politics surrounding that need are likely only to intensify.

Mexican industry is centered within the city and is primarily responsible for many of the city's environmental problems as well as for the prosperity that certain areas have achieved. Mexico City houses 80 percent of all the firms in the country, and 2.6 million cars and buses bring people to work and shop in them. Sandwiched in between slums and sewers are glitzy, luxurious neighborhoods and shopping centers, as chic as any in New York or Los Angeles.

The streets of the Zocalo, a central city plaza modeled after Spanish cities, serve as Mexico City's cultural hub. Unwittingly, the plaza has become one of the economic centers as well. Most job growth in Mexico occurs in the underground sector--in street stalls that cover every square inch of sidewalk space, women flipping tortillas curbside, and kids hawking phone cards or pirated CDs to passersby. Despite efforts to clean up activities that are illegal or considered eyesores, street vendors make up an enormous part of Mexico's job force and, according to the Los Angeles Times, are primarily responsible for keeping the official unemployment rate below that of the United States.

While problems abound, the city is doing its best to find solutions. Bicycles are the new grassroots rage, carrying everything from tentative tourists to head-high deliveries of Coca-Cola and fresh-baked bread. The city has had a thriving light rail system for years, with nine lines, 75 miles of tracks and more under construction. Neighborhood groups band together to build houses, remove trash and cut down on crime.

Volunteers also bring hope to many of the bleakest parts of the city. San Francisco has long served as a "partner" city to Mexico City through the nonprofit program Partners of the Americas. Through this program, Bay Area residents have worked with a counterpart committee in Mexico City and volunteered to teach English, bring medical supplies and develop micro-enterprises. The program has also developed numerous exchanges--in arts, economics, forestry and education, among others--that benefit citizens on both sides of the border.

Tom Gaman, a California forester and the Secretary of the San Francisco/Mexico City partnership, hopes that population growth will decline as economic conditions improve in the areas. He says of his many trips south, "Every time I go there I fed renewed in hope ... the relevant issues that are so foreign to us Yankees are front and center in Mexico City."

Lagos, Nigeria

In 1950, with just 288,000 people, Lagos wasn't even a speck on the map of the largest urban centers. Today, the rapidly growing city of 14 million in Africa's most populous country is on its way to becoming the third-largest city in the world. By 2015, the Population Reference Bureau estimates Lagos will reach number three status with a population hovering somewhere around 23.2 million people.

According to John Walther, a professor of geology at Southern Methodist University, Lagos grew by 4,761 percent between 1950 and today. In comparison, New York City grew by just 5.1 percent over the same interval.

The discovery of oil in the 1950s and subsequent oil boom of the 1970s--helped by the worldwide oil crisis of that era--encouraged waves of migrants to seek their fortunes in the city. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Mega-Cities Project reports that the city grew by more than 300,000 persons per year, despite the 1981 world recession, which sent Lagos "reeling into debt and runaway inflation." According to the United Nations, Lagos is expected to continue growing by close to four percent a year.

While the city's most affluent can afford to sequester themselves on two islands off the mainland, two-thirds of the city's residents live at or below the poverty line in one of many slums afflicted with a slew of problems. "Unlit highways run past canyons of smoldering garbage before giving way to dirt streets weaving through 200 slums, their sewers running with raw waste," writes Amy Otchet, a UNESCO journalist.

A Lagos factory worker, interviewed by the alternative magazine New Youth, said of living conditions for millions of poverty-stricken Lagosians: "[Workers] live in one-room apartments unfit for human beings. The impression upon entering these districts is one of entering a war zone with row upon row of crumbling houses. The walls have big cracks in them, the plaster is falling away and quite often bits of the roof have been blown away by the wind. In these one-room apartments, it is not uncommon to find a family of 10. There is no water, no proper sanitation. Sewage spills down the roads. There are no medical facilities in these districts, no hospitals or clinics."

Even middle-class people in Lagos live in very crowded accommodations. Unsanitary conditions have led to cholera outbreaks, says Environment-Nigeria, and over 50 percent of the population is infected with malaria, according to the Mega-Cities Project. One of every 20 children is believed to die before the age of five. The population density of the built-up urban areas of metropolitan Lagos is almost suffocating, at nearly 20,000 persons per square kilometer. As a result, says Environment-Nigeria, "Residents live in what are called 'face-me-I-face-you' single rooms with shared kitchen, bathroom and toilet facilities. In some buildings, these rooms can house as many as eight people."

As a result of the staggering growth rate, air pollution is a chronic problem in Lagos, owing in large part to the city's surfeit of smog-producing automobiles and diesel generators. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says that Lagos' central city is "daily plagued by smog shrouding the skyline." Tests have revealed high levels of air pollutants forming a perpetual noxious brew in the worst affected areas. "Studies carried out by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (FEPA) show a moderate-to-high concentration of pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, organic acids and hydrocarbons in the atmosphere," the EIA reports.

A rickshaw transportation system, poorly constructed and maintained roadways, frequent road flooding and auto accidents, and the lack of a subway or intra-city rail service has made Lagos legendary for its chaotic (and pollution-inducing) traffic jams. Native Lagosians typically must rise at 4 a.m. to negotiate the morning rush through the now infamous "go-slow"--a ubiquitous term referring to the ritual slog of cars vying for space on the city's super-saturated highways.

With only three bridges from mainland Lagos to Lagos Island, the commercial and business hub, congestion is chronic and unavoidable. It can take an average of two to three hours to travel just six to 12 miles. Uche Onyabadi, a journalism doctoral student at the University of Missouri-Columbia who lived in Lagos for about 10 years before coming to the U.S., says that the government tried to address the problem of bottle-necking bridge traffic in the 1980s by implementing an "Odd-and-Even" policy. On certain days of the week, Onyebadi says, only cars with license numbers starting with an odd number were permitted across the bridge. Other days were for even-numbered vehicles. "It didn't work," Onyebadi says. "People got creative and would get two cars."

Water quality in the city doesn't fare much better. The fresh water supply is often contaminated with human waste, as only half the population has toilets. Water-challenged citizens have a choice of buying high-priced water or stealing it from neighbor's wells. Flooding is a major problem, as it is in Dhaka, and it is partially caused by similar problems: unplanned buildings block natural watercourses. Solid waste in Lagos is disposed of haphazardly, often in illegal dumps.

For all its crime, poverty and chaos, the city has a vibrant pulse. "Lagos is one city that has some form of magnetism that you can't explain," Onyebadi says. "People hate to go there. They say 'Oh! The traffic is terrible; but then you need a bulldozer to get them out again."

Innovation also breeds in the unlikeliest places. Unesco journalist Amy Otchet explains, "Behind the informal sector lies a powerful if not desperate spirit of initiative: Wheelbarrows are rolled out of a construction site at night to serve as rented beds at 20 cents a shot for homeless people seeking shelter under an overhang. When rain makes a market run with mud, kids wait with buckets of water to wash shoppers' feet for a few coins."

Rein Koolhaas, a well-known Dutch architect, former journalist and Harvard professor, has been taking a group of his graduate design students to Lagos for the past four years as part of an ongoing project entitled "Project on the City" in an effort to study West Africa's urbanization patterns. Koolhaas believes that Lagos' "improvisational urbanism" may become a model for other major cities of the world.

In a report Koolhaas helped prepare after one trip to the city, he writes, "Dangerous breakdowns of order and infrastructure in Nigeria are often transformed into productive urban forms: Stalled traffic turns into an open-air market, defunct railroad bridges become pedestrian walkways." In his view, the "goslow" is actually a prime example of the innovation and ad-hoc efficiency characterizing the city's haphazard march to modernity. "Lagos is not catching up with us. Rather, we may be catching up with Lagos," he writes.

To address the city's rapid growth, Thompson Ayodele, coordinator of the Institute for Public Policy Analysis in Nigeria, says that the government "has approved a new population policy that would force Nigeria's population growth rate from between 2.5 and three percent now to not more than two percent by the year 2015."

In 2000, the state's Ministry of Transport established the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority to help monitor and patrol traffic jams, especially at peak hours. Since then, the major Nigerian newspaper This Day reports that "journeys within the metropolis have become less burdensome."

Additional help may soon be on the way. In 2003, Lagos was chosen by the UN to be one of seven cities to launch the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) Sustainable Cities Program. The UN will work with Lagos "to manage the challenges of its mega-city status."

Mumbai (Bombay), India

The Indian coastal city of Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is home to Indias vibrant film industry ("Bollywood") and probably boasts more cell phones per capita than any other city on the subcontinent. The city is responsible for generating one sixth of the gross domestic product of the entire country. But Mumbai is bursting at the seams. The first glimpse of the city, as the airplane hits the runway, is Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, home to 2.8 million people.

According to a 2004 estimate, the population of metropolitan Mumbai was approximately 17 million. Every year, the city receives more than 250,000 rural-to-urban emigrants. Mumbai could be the world's most populous city by 2020, with 28.5 million, says the Population Institute.

"With this sizeable number of people, resources are getting increasingly scarce. Buildings are getting taller, with no care for where water and space, children's playgrounds and parking areas will come from," says Preeti Gopalkrishnan, Communications Executive of Population First, a sustainable human development program based in Mumbai.

Half of the metropolis' population lacks running water or electricity, and the smoke from hundreds of thousands of open cooking fires joins with the sooty smoke from two-stroke auto rickshaws, belching taxis, diesel buses and coal-fired power plants in a symphony of air pollutants. Breathing Mumbai's inversion-trapped air, experts say, is the equivalent of smoking 20 cigarettes a day.

According to a 2000 estimate by the Mega-Cities Project, 70 to 75 percent of women living in slums complain of general weakness and anemia, while 50 to 60 percent suffer from chronic malnutrition, recurrent gastroenteritis and helminthic [caused by parasitic worms] infections. Malnutrition and paralysis are common causes of mortality.

The water supply situation in Mumbai is critical, reports the UN, with the level of supply so much below demand that water use is restricted and reaches emergency proportions when the monsoon fails. More than two million Mumbai residents have no sanitary facilities, and much sewage is discharged untreated or partially treated into waterways. Attempts have been made to relocate industries outside the island city, but industrial pollution remains a serious problem.

In addition to this, Mumbai is also one of the noisiest cities in the world, a key factor being the considerable number of vehicles on the city's streets. There are more than 500,000 private automobiles on Mumbai streets. Despite a substantial public transit system, congestion in the metropolitan area continues. As Business Week reports, "After years of neglect, combined with helter-skelter growth, Bombay is falling apart. Its suburban train service carries six million passengers a day, which works out to 570 per train car, nearly three times their capacity."

"Public transport in Mumbai has reached a point of almost complete gridlock," says Gordon Feller of the Urban Age Institute. "The emission standards of vehicles in the city are very bad and the local government is shy about talking about alternatives because it doesn't know when it will implement them."

Despite the high level of poverty in the city, however, crime isn't increasing as rapidly as one would imagine. According to the State of the World Cities Report, 2004/05, of all the world regions, developed and developing, Asia ranks lowest in almost all types of crimes. "I wouldn't say there is rampant lawlessness; most people are going about their day-to-day life trying to scratch together a living," Feller says.

Yet daily life in Mumbai is extremely difficult. This is especially true of the city's slum dwellers. As the BBC reports, Mumbai's poor build unstable, flimsy huts on any available land. The city's older slums--such as Dharavi, Byculla and Khar--have houses made of brick and mortar but lack drainage systems and toilets. Many people also live dangerously close to the railway tracks, which cut through the heart of Bombay. The Times of India regularly reports vehicles backing or barreling over children, or rows of sleeping citizens. "Bombay," wrote V.S. Naipaul in the first sentence of his India: A Million Mutinies Now, "is a crowd."

"Although the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme has been implemented to accommodate the city's poor, most often slum-dwellers sell the houses and return to the streets," Gopalkrishnan says. "The rules have to be enforced more stringently."

The Slum Rehabilitation Scheme is one of many ventures created to improve Mumbai's standard of living. According to Feller, several non-governmental organizations are focused on governance issues, as well as on social services. One such project is the Mega-Cities Project's Community of Resource Organization (CORO) Pay Toilet Project.

In July 1992, CORO took over the management of government-constructed toilet facilities in congested slum areas. It proceeded to set up a partnership with its long-standing literacy program, combining community libraries with sanitary facilities. Local groups maintain the toilets on a cooperative basis, sometimes finding sponsors for the poorest areas. Community members benefit from clean facilities and adequate water, while five hundred new maintenance jobs have been created in the bargain.

The Child-to-Child Program, also initiated by the organization, is an activity-based approach to health education for children in formal and non-formal systems of education. The program identifies children as "mini-doctors" who can spread awareness among children regarding their own health. Through these activities, this information is then communicated to the rest of the community.

"Bombay is stretched to the limit," Feller says. "Citizens have a mismatch between what they were promised and what they received. And their patience is wearing thin."

Tokyo, Japan

Far from the struggle to survive that is Mumbai or the baked-in poverty of Lagos, Tokyo is the world's largest and also one of the world s most sophisticated cities. The capital of Japan, Tokyo is every bit the high-powered, tech-savvy city that its reputation suggests. Its residents enjoy one of the world's highest standards of living, with an average income per household of $71,600 in 1994 and an employment rate of 96.5 percent in 1997. Nearly 100 percent of the population has access to health care, and the city's population is treated at 754 individual hospitals. The government has a well-developed plan for the welfare of its senior citizens. Nearly all adults in Tokyo are literate and 45 percent enroll in college.

Calling Tokyo a city would be an understatement and a misnomer. It is technically a metropolis (or to in Japanese), which means a collection of smaller political units. Twenty-three distinct city wards form the heart of Tokyo along with 26 individual cities, five towns, and eight villages. Included in this group are the islands of Izu and Ogasawara, located off the coast of the main island of Honshu. Tokyo spans 237 square miles and includes the cities of Yokohama and Kawasaki. Tokyo proper has less than 15 million citizens, but the entire metropolitan area has well over 30 million.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) is adept at planning and is constantly seeking to alleviate the effects of having so many people in such a small space. While the high standard of living buffers Tokyo from many problems faced by mega-cities (like sanitation concerns and access to water and sewerage), some problems simply come with the territory.

Japan's cultural, economic and political center is the Tokyo-Kawasaki-Yokohama region, which accounts for 23 percent of Japan's industrial manufacturing, 52 percent of all financial accumulation and 76 percent of stock market trading. The Tokyo economy grew so fast in the 1980s that the city faced a shortage of blue-collar workers. "The gap has been filled with foreign labor and illegal immigrants, who ... often create their own ethnic ghettoes" according to Junjiro Takahashi and Noriyuki Sugiura of Tokyo's United Nations University.

The vast array of production and destruction, transactions and interactions, result in massive amounts of shipping, trading and, of course, waste. Local governments have worked hard to increase recycling and decrease waste production, but it is often community efforts that work best. Abiko City started Ecopure Abiko, the Citizens' Campaign for Reduction and Recycling of Garbage. This program helps residents collect compostable waste and deliver it to local organic farmers.

Twelve subway lines provide convenient transportation in and around Tokyo. The impressive public transportation sys tem alleviates pressures on roads and eliminates much of the traffic and accompanying air pollution found in other major cities (nearly 90 percent of workers in Tokyo commute by rail).

Tokyo's cars, asphalt, buildings and people cause another problem--heat. The "heat island phenomenon" has become a major problem for the city; thermal loading in the jam-packed, hectic urban centers contributes to global warming and health problems, as well as making things downright uncomfortable. The TMG has now mapped the regional thermal environment and the city is planting trees, creating more lawns, and paving streets with water-retentive asphalt.

Official regional planning began here in 1956 with the passage of the National Capital Region Development law, which was intended to limit the growth of urban Tokyo. The law failed to stop the expansion of the city, though, and was soon amended to include a "Suburban Development Area." According to a United Nations University report, "In the late 1960s, [Tokyo's] suburban fringe already stretched as far as 25 miles from the city center." While this trend eliminated some of the downtown congestion, it magnified transportation problems dramatically by increasing the number of commuters.

Under today's plan, the suburbs expand in and among the existing city structures while green spaces are protected. Most importantly, satellite towns are developed to accommodate new industries and economic booms. This plan is pushing Tokyo away from the single-city mode and toward a concept of "multi-core" urban zones, each of which can draw congestion and people away from the center city. The Japanese government also increased spending in outlying areas to encourage further growth and development of "micropolitan areas."

CONTACT: Mega-City Task Force, (011)49-221-470-7050, www.megacities.uni-koeln.de; Mega-Cities Project, www.mega citiesproject.org.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E. The city profiles were co-written by Divya Abhat, Shauna Dineen, Tamsyn Jones, Rebecca Sanborn and Kate Slomkowski.
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