January 3, 2011
National Geographic’s recent article, “The City Solution: Why cities are the best cure for our planet’s growing pains,” argues that urbanization is not only “good news,” but also, “the best hope for lifting people out of poverty without wrecking the planet.” Making the argument, National Geographic cites Harvard economist Edward Glaeser who considers Wall Street as the “quintessence of the vibrant city.” He insists that the trading floor exemplifies the valuing of information over space and that cities in general produce more because “the absence of space between people” reduces costs on transporting goods, people, and ideas. There is also David Satterthwaite of the International Institute for Environment and Development, London, who claims the problem of growing cities isn’t that too many people are being drawn into them, but rather the inability of mayors to “govern them.”
Cited by National Geographic as a “hopeful example” of how to manage rapid urbanization is the South Korean capital of Seoul. Described is a centrally planned totalitarian dystopia literally started in the wake of the near total destruction the city saw during the Korean War and its reemergence under military dictator Park Chung-Hee. In this model of recommended urbanization, entire districts can be bulldozed to make way for denser housing and features serving whatever the “greater good” might decide. The metric of success and livability is apparently the material wealth and the superficial trappings residents adorn their uniform living quarters with, signifying that it’s not that bad after all.
One picture featured in the article shows identical apartment blocs with different families occupying them and decorating them differently. Without National Geographic’s captions coaxing a reader along, one might conclude they are well-dressed, spacious jail cells.
While the story National Geographic tells does explain why urbanization is taking place now, it fails entirely to justify why it should continue or why it is supposedly our “best hope.”