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The world as 'a city'--but how to shape it?

The world is on a path of "blind urbanization." And the issue is not just in sheer numbers, the amazing country-to-town migration that last year pushed cities to a majority of mankind, roughly 3.4 billion inhabitants with an added 2.3 billion predicted for 2040.

Rather, writes Jeb Brugmann in his new book, "Welcome to the Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury), the crucial question is how world cities now grow--how they make smart decisions for their own well-being, as well as the entire world.

Cities, for example, use 80 percent of the world's energy supplies. Can they cut their demand so there's at least hope of taming perilous carbon emissions? Can they manage population growth to provide decent shelter for their new migrants, to create coherent, compact neighborhoods rather than sterile sprawling extensions into their surrounding countrysides?

Cities are what really matter for our time, Brugmann argues. He says we're stuck in a 20th-century view of the world as a system of powerful nation-states and aggressive multinational corporations. But urbanization is so dominant, he argues, that our world "has become a City." It's a city that constantly surprises us, recalibrates the global compass as it triggers political revolutions (witness Tehran this summer), develops creative new business models--and, on the negative side, breeds epidemics and creates connections for transnational criminal networks.

Sometimes an individual city registers amazing positive impacts. In 1989, the city of Irvine, Calif., initiated what would become worldwide talks--and landmark worldwide accord--on controlling ozone-depleting compounds that threatened destruction of the Earth's atmospheric ozone layer.

City-based jobs provide the biggest share of the wealth behind another modern city phenomenon: "remittances" sent to relatives back home by migrants to urban areas. Remittances total about $300 billion yearly--nearly 40 percent of the total investment of foreign corporations and private investors in all developing countries. They're a godsend for thousands of poor rural villages.

Yet when thousands of Salvadorans flowed into Los Angeles' Pico-Union neighborhood in the late 1980s and couldn't find jobs, some of their youth created the notorious Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, gang, which in time merged with other networks into today's trillion-dollar transnational criminal economy.

The developing world's massive slum settlements of migrants also have two faces. On the one hand slums can be nightmares of makeshift buildings, trash underfoot, outdoor latrines and disease-breeding pollution.

But the massive Dharavi slum, Mumbai's unplanned settlement of about 1 million people, exhibits more than that. Waves of poor rural migrants from across India have infused Dharavi with energy and specialized skills brought from their home provinces. The result: a thriving global manufacturing and trading city within a city, now exporting its leather, garments, pottery and more across the world.

Part of the Dharavi secret: tight density, cheap land, low overhead, many homes doubling as stores or manufacturing sites. In a single street, Brugmann relates, one finds shops for engine repair, hardware, phones and food, a barber, cobbler, tailor and pharmacy, all connected to owners' residences.

Are Americans smarter city builders than that? We have our standout cities. But think what we've let become of vast stretches of Detroit--more than 100,000 abandoned land parcels, and bitter, racially tinged city-suburban conflicts.

No single "best practice" set matches all cities' needs, Brugmann asserts. Instead, he picks out a set of world cities--among them Curitiba (Brazil), Barcelona (Spain), Vancouver (Canada)--he says have done well by developing strong "regimes." By that he means durable alliances of political and civic leaders that assemble the political," financial and legal powers--and the will--to transform their cities, as he puts it, into "more equitable, ecological, stable and creative places."

Many of us will flinch at the "regime" word. The iron-handed patronage machine of Chicago's late Mayor Richard J. Daley might come to mind. But Brugmann celebrates today's Chicago mayor, Richard M. Daley, not just for breaking down the old party patronage machinery but for introducing a reform-oriented politics of inclusion--embracing, importantly, leaders of grassroots community organizations that often fought his father.

From parks to schools, the younger Daley brought in talented young professionals to introduce corporate-style turnarounds. He had the vision to make Chicago a lead American city embracing "green" development principles. Of course, Chicago harbors major inequities among its many problems. But for a major metropolis, it's an optimal American vision of what the new world city ought to look like.

Brugmann knows the world urban scene he writes of--he's visited and analyzed hundreds worldwide. He founded and for 10 years led ICLEI, the still-vibrant global alliance of 1,000-plus Local Governments for Sustainability, formerly known as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.

It's true--cities have complex personalities, and no reader is likely to agree 100 percent with Brugmann's diagnoses.

Still, for a deep dive into creative city-watching and prognosis, it would be tough to top his insightful "Welcome to the Urban Revolution."

Neal Peirce 's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

[c] 2009, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.
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Author:Peirce, Neal
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 27, 2009
Words:841
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