Welcome to the new world of cities


Flying into Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, just after sunset last month, I could have sworn we’d overshot the airport and were heading for the distant, frigid waters of the South Atlantic.

I wasn’t the only one. Mariko, one of the seven young women traveling with me, was peering out of the window straining to find a light somewhere in the darkness below. It was the dry season and the night sky was cloudless. Still, there were no lights to be seen.

But within minutes, the small British Airways jet made a sweeping arc, leveled off and came in for a smooth, fast landing on a dark airstrip. After two days, three flights from Tokyo, and two missed connections along the way, I understood why people kneel down and kiss the ground when they deplane.

Minutes later we were walking across 200 meters of empty tarmac to the airport terminal, the only building in sight with the only lights to be seen apart from our aircraft’s.

I assumed we were in the right place; after all, how wrong can commercial pilots go on a cloudless night in a vast country that has only a handful of airports? (Don’t answer that!)

Still, my urban born and bred students had never set foot in Africa, and I am sure a few were thinking, “What has Hesse got us into this time?”

Just two weeks later, though, as we flew out of the same airport on yet another hot, cloudless day, we felt like we were leaving home. The endless expanses of parched, rocky hills covered with golden grasses, brown spindly bushes and gnarled trees had become as familiar and reassuring to us as the evergreens of Japan.

Namibia is as diametrically opposed to Japan as could be imagined: besides being on the opposite side of the globe, it is hot and dry and, for the most part, sparsely vegetated.

Still more notable, and most appealing to me, was that even after crisscrossing Namibia, through towns and deserts and along its misty coastline, we saw fewer people in our two weeks of travel than would cross the road on one pedestrian green light outside JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo at rush hour.

A nation more than twice the size of Japan with a population of just over 2 million, Namibia is seriously unpopulated. And rightly so, considering that it is a desert land that can be ruthless on plants, animals and humans.

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However, this column is not about Namibia. It is about what Namibia brought home to me once again: The inspiration found in vast open spaces; how few chances most of us have to see these; and how few of us even make an effort to explore beyond our urban jungles.

In short, what are we losing by becoming a species confined within our cities, in much the same way as we contain wildlife within our zoos?

For my Chuo University law students this trip was a chance to leave Tokyo behind and learn firsthand about conservation programs in Namibia. But now I wonder how many of them will return there or visit other places with so much space and so few people.

I wonder because, very soon, my city-dwelling students will join a majority of people on this planet: According to researchers, within the next year or so humans will reach a critical threshold, and from that point on more than half of us will be living in cities — a majority that will steadily grow as the global population continues to rise.

“Urbanization is one of the dominant demographic trends of our time,” writes environmental-policy guru Lester Brown, in an article titled “The Ecology of Cities.” He continues, “In 1900, 150 million people lived in cities. By 2000, it was 2.9 billion people, a 19-fold increase. By 2007, more than half of us will live in cities, making us, for the first time, an urban species.

“In 1900 there were only a handful of cities with a million people. Today 408 cities have at least that many inhabitants,” Brown adds. “And there are 20 megacities with 10 million or more residents. [The metropolis of] Tokyo’s population of 35 million exceeds that of Canada. Mexico City’s population of 19 million is nearly equal to that of Australia.”

“The Ecology of Cities” is adapted from a chapter in Brown’s book, “Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble” (W.W Norton & Co.; 2006).

With so much at stake, cities are becoming the line in the sand between a sustainable human future and simple survival. “It is vital we get cities right if we are to deal with such pressing global issues as climate change,” noted Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in June this year.

“The urban environment is inextricably intertwined with the rural one and inextricably linked with the way local, regional and global natural resources are soundly and sustainably managed,” he added.

Steiner made his comments at the World Urban Forum, an annual event organized by the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN HABITAT) that was held in Vancouver, Canada, in June. Delegates from more than 150 nations attended the five-day forum.

By 2050, about 6 billion people will live in cities, a number equal to just about the entire human population on Earth today, according to UNEP.

As urban areas become more crowded, more resources must be shipped in larger amounts from greater distances. “Cities require a concentration of food, water, energy and materials that nature cannot provide. Concentrating these masses of materials and then dispersing them in the form of garbage, sewage and as pollutants in air and water is challenging city managers everywhere,” writes Brown.

Of course there is no need to look any further than Japan to understand Brown’s concerns.

Although Japan depends on domestic farmers for much of its rice, most of its wheat comes from the United States and Australia. Most of its corn, too, comes from the U.S., while the majority of soybeans are imported from the U.S. and Brazil.

Water is another example. Los Angeles gets much of its supply from the Colorado River some 970 km away, while Beijing has plans to pull water from the Yangtze River basin, nearly 1,500 km away, according to Brown.

As for energy, except for solar, wind, geothermal and other sources of alternative energy that can be exploited on site, traditional fossil-fuel resources must be hauled long distances, often from overseas.

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So are the mass of humans fated to urban lives?

Many assume that increasing urbanization is inevitable, but Brown is not so sure.

“The growing scarcity of water and the high cost of the energy invested in transporting water over long distances may itself begin to constrain urban growth. For example, some 400 cities in China are already facing a chronic shortage of water,” he points out.

And, perhaps, rather than being forced by constraints to decentralize our urban centers, we will make a conscious choice to do the right thing.

Citing Richard Register, the author of “Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature,” Brown argues that it is time to fundamentally rethink our cities.

“A city should be seen as a functioning system not in terms of its parts but in terms of its whole. Register makes a convincing case that cities should be integrated into local ecosystems rather than imposed on them,” Brown observes.

Something else to consider: “[If] land and water become the scarcest resources, then those in rural areas who control them may sometimes have the upper hand,” notes Brown. “With a new economy based on renewable energy, a disproportionate share of that energy, particularly wind energy and biofuels, will come from nearby rural areas.”

Which has me thinking that — rather than a condominium in the concrete jungle of Tokyo — maybe the wisest investment for the future is desert land in a place like Namibia, where deep-well water is potable and the sun offers abundant energy potential . . .