National Geographic : 2011 Dec
in developing countries most cities are spreading out faster than people pour into them; on aver- age they're getting 2 percent less dense each year. By their built-up area could triple. What's driving the expansion? Rising incomes and cheap transportation. "When income rises, people have money to buy more space," Angel explains. With cheap transportation, they can a ord to travel longer distances from home to work. But it matters what kind of homes they live in and what transportation they use. In the 20th century American cities were redesigned around cars---wonderful, liberating machines that also make city air unbreathable and carry suburbs beyond the horizon. Car-centered sprawl gobbles farmland, energy, and other resources. ese days, planners in the U.S. want to repopulate downtowns and densify suburbs, by build- ing walkable town centers, for instance, in the parking lots of failed malls. Urban ight, which seemed a good idea a century ago, now seems in the West like a historic wrong turn. Meanwhile in China and India, where people are still ood- ing into cities, car sales are booming. "It would be a lot better for the planet," Edward Glaeser writes, if people in those countries end up "in dense cities built around the elevator, rather than in sprawling areas built around the car." Developing cities will inevitably expand, says Angel. Somewhere between the anarchy that pre- vails in many today and the utopianism that has o en characterized urban planning lies a modest kind of planning that could make a big di erence. It requires looking decades ahead, Angel says, and reserving land, before the city grows over it, for parks and a dense grid of public-transit corridors. It starts with looking at growing cities in a posi- tive way---not as diseases, but as concentrations of human energy to be organized and tapped. commercial streets and Arts and Cra s houses, Letchworth, England, today feels a bit like the garden city that time forgot. Ebenezer Howard's ideal of a self-sustaining community never happened. e farmers in Letchworth's greenbelt sell their sugar beets and wheat to a large cereal company. e town's residents work mostly in London or Cambridge. John Lewis, who runs the foundation that Howard started, which still owns much of the town's land, wor- ries that Letchworth is "in danger of becoming a dormitory." Still, it has a key aspect of what many planners today think of as sustainability: It wasn't designed around cars. Howard ignored the new invention. From anywhere in Letchworth you can walk to the center of town to shop or take the train to London. e truth is, Letchworth looks like a very nice place to live; it's just not for everyone. No place is. irty- ve miles to the south, London re- mains unsupplanted. Eight million people live there now. All attempts to impose sense on its maze of streets have failed, as anyone who has crossed the city in a taxi can attest. "London wasn't planned at all!" Peter Hall exclaimed one a ernoon as we stepped into the street in front of the British Academy. But the city did two sen- sible things as it ballooned outward in the 19th and 20th centuries, Hall said. It preserved large, semiwild parks like Hampstead Heath, where citizens can commune with nature. Most im- portant, it expanded along railway and subway lines. "Get the transportation right," said Hall. " en let things happen." With that he disappeared into the Under- ground for his ride home, leaving me on the crowded sidewalk with a great gi : a few hours to kill in London. Even Ebenezer Howard would have understood the feeling, at least as a young man. When he returned a er a few years in the U.S.---he'd opped as a homesteading farmer in Nebraska---he was jazzed by his native city. Just riding an omnibus, he later wrote, gave him a pleasantly visceral jolt: "A strange ecstatic feeling at such times o en possessed me... e crowded streets---the signs of wealth and prosperity--- the bustle---the very confusion and disorder appealed to me, and I was lled with delight." j The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and PBS NewsHour join us in reporting on population issues throughout the year. The magazine thanks the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Wallace Global Fund, and National Geographic Society members for their generous support.