Anybody looking out over any of the world's megacities might have doubts about the viability of mankind as an urban creature.
The crowding, the pollution, the poverty, the elitism seem to be universal factors in the city scene whether in India's Mumbai, Brazil's Sao Paulo, or Turkey's Istanbul.
But like it or not, man's future lies in ever-growing conurbations, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). In a report issued today, the fund says that for the first time in history, the number of people living in cities will exceed the world's rural population by 2008.
That accounts for some 3.3 billion people living in cities. But the UNFPA says the trend will accelerate with breathtaking speed, and that in less than 25 years the number will grow to 5 billion.
This phenomenon is occurring particularly in the developing nations in Asia and Africa, and the fund says the decisions taken now will decide the quality of life for the teeming urban dwellers in the years to come.
Does that mean that more people will be born into sprawling shack communities on the edges of the cities, putting pressure on infrastructures already tottering toward collapse? It probably does mean that, in addition to the continued growth of middle-class suburbs in so many of the world's cities.
But then, the rural idyll of the farmer living a hard but virtuous life is in decline in some parts of the world. The resulting human dilemma is vividly portrayed on the streets of cities everywhere.
The UNFPA predicts that some 3.3 billion people will be living in cities by next year, growing to 5 billion in less than 25 years. Take, for instance, the Afghan capital Kabul. RFE/RL spoke to two men who came to the city to find a better life.
"There are no jobs and workplaces, or such a company or an institution [in Takhar]," says Muhammad Javed, who came from the northeastern Takhar Province to seek work to support his family. "You can only work in some farm or be a shepherd. But your income there wouldn't be enough to support a family even for one day. So I came to Kabul to find a better life, but I can see nothing is available here either."
"There was not enough work and income, there's no security [in Badakhshan]," says another man, Mahmadullah, who came to the capital from the northeastern Badakhshan Province. "So I had those problems and decided to come [to Kabul]. I joined the national police force four years ago. Now I work as a police officer in Kabul's Wazir Akbar-Khan area."
But Mahmadullah says he had to leave his family back in Badakhshan, and that his pay as a policeman is barely enough to cover his own living.
The author of the UNFPA report is demographics expert George Martine. Martine told RFE/RL from New York that the growth of urbanization in the next 25 years will be on a scale never before seen in history.
There is a precedent, however, in the European experience of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the industrial revolution coincided with a drift to the cities by the starving landless. Gradually, over more than a century and a half, the developed world has largely eradicated the poverty which accompanied that urbanization.
But Martine says that example hardly offers adequate lessons for the coming influx, which he says will be of unprecedented size and scale. At the same time, he describes his message as one of "hope."
"We definitely feel optimistic about the perspectives of the huge, inevitable [urban] growth; we feel it offers opportunities for development, but taking advantage of them will require new, more pro-active approaches than those which have been used in the past," Martine says. "We cannot continue to simply wait for things to happen and then try to fix them. So there is hope, there is optimism, but that definitely requires that we change our attitudes."
Martine argues that urbanization must be accepted and the positive sides to it must be developed. It offers better educational facilities, a broader job market, better health-care possibilities, and gender-equality opportunities.
City administrations must plan for growth, installing basic water supplies, power, street access, waste disposal, and secure land tenure for future poor inhabitants. Good and cheap public transport is another basic essential.
Martine believes the poor will be able to provide their own housing; even if at first it's made from flattened biscuit tins, he says it will gradually improve as wealth increases.
And he says the environmental sustainability of cities is greater than one might think. While it's true that cities cause serious pollution, both to water and air resources, as well as eating up fertile land, they relieve the surrounding regions of excessive population pressures.
"Just imagine that urban populations in some parts of the world were sent back to rural areas, there would be very little left in terms of [natural] biodiversity," he says.
Martine calls the UN report a "call to action" to governments and city administrations everywhere to start planning for the inevitable, and not try to pretend that the problem will go away if it is ignored.
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