Megacities And The Urban Future

Courtesy of the Utne Reader, an interesting article on the rise of megacities in which – by 2025 – at least 27 cities will have populations greater than 10 million and more than 600 cities will have populations greater than one million:

We live in the age of the city. The City is everything to us—it consumes us, and for that reason we glorify it. —Onookome Okome

There was a time when the city was the dominant political identity. Centuries and even millennia ago, the most advanced societies in the Mediterranean, the Near East, and South America revolved around cities that were either states in themselves or were the locus of power for larger empires and kingdoms. The time of the city is coming again, though now in a considerably less benign way.

With the rise of massive urban centers in Africa and Asia, cities that will matter most in the twenty-first century are located in less-developed, struggling states. A number of these huge megalopolises—whether Lagos or Karachi, Dhaka or Kinshasa—reside in states often unable or simply unwilling to manage the challenges that their vast and growing urban populations pose. There are no signs that their governments will prove more capable in the future. These swarming, massive urban monsters will continue to grow and should concern the world.

By 2015 there will be six hundred cities on the planet with populations of 1 million or more, and fifty-eight with populations over 5 million. By 2025, according to the National Intelligence Council, there will be twenty-seven cities with populations greater than 10 million—the common measure by which an urban population constitutes a “megacity.” If measures are not taken soon, some of these megacities will pose the most significant security threat in the coming decades. They will become havens for terrorists and criminal networks, as well as sources of major environmental depletion. They will serve as freakish natural laboratories where all the elements most harmful to international and human security are grown. If crowded masses within these unaccommodating spaces are left to their own devices by inept or uncaring governments, their collective rage, despair, and hunger will inevitably erupt. And when inhabitants tire of the lawlessness, poverty, and instability of the megacities, they will leave—those that can—bringing violence with them. In the face of rising expectations that globalization inevitably entails, these petri dishes of despair and danger will spill over municipal boundaries and international borders with rapidly spreading contagion.

Although there are significant differences in the cultures and histories of emerging megacities, from the dangerous streets of Karachi to the sprawling shantytowns of Lagos, basic similarities are dramatic. All have experienced recent and rapid population booms during unsettled periods in national histories, driven in large part by internal migration from depressed or chaotic rural districts. In each, municipal and national governments failed to either govern or provide for exploding urban populations. Continued failure seems preordained without some form of external assistance.

Life in the 10/40 Window

A number of megacities of greatest concern are located in or situated close to the so-called 10/40 Window—the area in Africa and Asia between 10 and 40 degrees north latitude. A term both human geographers and Christian missionaries use, the 10/40 Window demarcates regions of the world where socioeconomic challenges are the most daunting, where two-thirds of the world’s population and four-fifths of the world’s poor live. This “window” is a veritable stew of competing religious identities and ethnic groups. Preponderant faiths are Hinduism, Islam—in its various sects—and Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and tribal animism. As journalist Robert Kaplan’s The Arabists points out, people in much of this part of the world have been resistant not only towards Christianity but to Western political and social culture in general—yet mass media and the Internet have made them aware and desirous of at least some of the materialism associated with Western modernity.

The friction between the thesis of traditional beliefs and the antithesis of Western modernity (better hospitals, longer life spans, healthier children, and more comfortable homes, among other things) has yet to yield a synthesis in many parts of the 10/40 Window. Until it does, chaos and carnage will persevere. Some of this violence will be internationalized; it already has been, as the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai in India, repeated attacks on the World Trade Center, and the bombings of European mass transit systems demonstrate.

These megacities have become Leviathans—in biblical terminology the name for an uncontrollable entity. The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes used the term as the title for his classic text; for him, the Leviathan was the state that supervised or managed the city (and the rest of the territory claimed by the state). The Leviathan-state in Hobbes’s view may itself be uncontrollable; it was nevertheless all that ultimately stood between the individual citizen and a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes argued that the citizen essentially had to relinquish individual rights to the state in return for state protection against the violence and chaos of the world. Tragically, that bargain is not holding for the people living in many of the world’s largest cities—particularly those cities in the 10/40 Window where Hobbes’s Leviathan-state has ceased to perform its protective function. Residents of these cities are largely condemned, as his fellow Englishmen may have been in the early seventeenth century, to poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives precisely because the Leviathan-city is beyond the control of non-Leviathan states.

This work focuses on the dramatic effects that these massive, underserved, and undergoverned cities will have on international stability, human security, and environmental degradation, as well as offers strategies for mitigating those effects. We specifically examine the impact of crime, inequality, and violence in some of the largest cities in the world. We show how developments in these cities threaten to destabilize entire states and regions—and plunge the entire world into cycles of crises, conflicts, and wars that will do little to resolve underlying issues. We compare these cities to other densely populated areas of the globe, from the violent “mini-megacities” in Gaza to the new million-plus cities of China and India. We also look for lessons in the history of the great metropolises of the past (New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris), which in their early days also teemed with slums and unrest. Each, nonetheless, overcame the challenges of growth and proved capable of delivering public services and maintaining order in the face of mushrooming expansion—something that few of the cities we examine here will be able to do.

Welcome to the Urban Century

In 1905 only 10 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. Today over 50 percent does. By 2030, likely much sooner, two out of three will live in cities, and 90 percent of population growth will occur in cities of the developing world—what we should properly call the “majority” world. This massive shift to urban landscapes has never occurred on such scale before in human history. Citizens flock to the city for opportunity, employment, health care, and education. Today one in six lives in cities with unhealthy air quality; one in fifteen has inadequate sanitation; one in thirty lacks access to safe drinking water.

According to the United Nations, by the year 2025 there will be at least twenty-seven cities with populations greater than 10 million. In 1950 there was only one: New York. In 1975 there were only three: Tokyo, New York, and Mexico City. Tokyo and New York are located in economically advanced nations with governmental institutions and economic infrastructures able to effectively manage urban growth. Less well supported by its government and economy, Mexico City has nonetheless been a relative success, though it remains to be seen whether that will still be the case in 2025 when its population reaches 21 million.

There are, naturally, significant differences in the cultures and histories of the world’s largest cities. One of the most important differences is the timing of their growth spurts. Paris and London, despite the challenges faced during their emergence as major cities, never experienced the wrenchingly sudden growth spurts that new megacities have recently experienced and will continue to suffer. The population of Dhaka, for example, will have virtually exploded by more than 5,400 percent between 1950 and 2015. (If New York had grown at such a pace, its population would now be a staggering 684 million.)

In the nineteenth century, London grew by seven times. By contrast, projected population growth from 1950 to 2015 is significantly more dynamic—and frightening—for megacities in the 10/40 Window. Kinshasa will grow by a factor approaching fifty times, Lagos by a factor of twenty-five, and Karachi by 2,000 percent during the same period.

The population of New York City will have grown only 30 percent between 1950 and 2015—and in 1950 the city already had a capable government and healthy public infrastructure of schools, hospitals, water and sanitation systems, roads, mass transit, and communications. New York City also began the 1950s with a robust housing stock that could be easily expanded to accommodate its population growth. Los Angeles, as another example, grew as a direct result of a preexisting and relatively effective national economic, transportation, and legal infrastructure. Its growth spurts also occurred long after the United States had secured its borders and solidified citizens’ perception of a common national identity.

By contrast, some of the states that house the new megacities had to spend their first decades establishing and defending their national sovereignty, at the evident expense of building governmental and economic infrastructure. Pakistan fought a civil war that dismembered the country, as well as several wars and near-war skirmishes with its larger neighbor, India, in the decades after independence in 1947. Similarly, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s independence in 1960 was followed by secessionist civil wars in the 1960s and again in the 1990s and 2000s. All the while, both Pakistan and the DRC’s major cities kept growing ever more rapidly and ever more uncontrollably.

Megacities that have emerged in the last half-century have passed the tipping point. They have become overwhelmed, dangerous, ungovernable, and, remarkably, still grow. Compared to urban centers of the West, they are unlike anything the earth has ever seen. They pose major threats to global security as they become both platforms and havens for extremists and criminal networks, which recent events in Gaza, a much smaller but densely populated and uncontrolled city, amply demonstrate.

If we seek to understand the world of tomorrow, a good place to start is in Gaza—an entity that has for years been functioning in defiance of its parent “national” government and has provoked a war with Israel and launched hundreds of cross-border terror attacks. It has also tried to undermine its parent government in the West Bank through violence and the intimidation of its representatives. Unlike Gaza—which even in the best of times exported little, and in recent years has been effectively isolated—some of these “new” megacities are intimately connected with the rest of the world through trade and easily available transportation for businessmen, diplomats, and ordinary citizens, as well as criminals, weapons dealers, terrorists, and insurgents.

The New Alignment: Megacities and Splintered States

The end of the Cold War precipitated the search to comprehend the best responses to an increasingly fragmented—and increasingly dangerous—world. That search continues today, with no clear answers revealed. What pundits once considered the benchmarks for integration and global peace and security—privatization, deregulation, and globalization—are recognized today as imperfect solutions, even in advanced states. Moreover, unlike during the Cold War, with its clearly articulated threats, we have moved into a world defined by “entangled vulnerabilities,” where disproportionate population growth; disease; climate change; depletion of water and other natural resources; decline in food production, access, and availability; soil erosion and desertification; and rapid urbanization, pollution, and infrastructure decay in megacities form one part of the new problem set.

All these vulnerabilities are interwoven—with complex linkages, interdependence, and often unpredictable and chaotic causes and effects. In many instances, these effects have led to conflict and bloodshed. We have only begun to appreciate the truths that many of these negative outcomes came from “the City” and grievances within them. Twenty-first-century warfare, after all, did not begin on September 11, 2001. It began with the death of Yugoslavia in 1991, the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, the siege of Sarajevo, and the genocide in Kigali that spread throughout Rwanda, with the bombings of U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

And while much has been written about the notion of “failed states,” little attention has been given to the concept of “failed cities.” Certainly when the Foreign Policy “Index of Failed States” proclaims (in comments that senior State Department officials echo) that there exist between thirty to fifty failed or failing states in the world today, insufficient focus centers on cities within such states that are driving forces for deterioration—and are the locus of the greatest trials ahead. Similarly, in works such as Thomas P. M. Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century, the notion that those most disconnected from the flows of globalization are where we will be most likely to intervene is simply wrong.

We mean to change the conversation. All of the emerging powers of the twenty-first century—Brazil, India, China—are intimately connected to globalization. But they face extraordinary obstacles and (unlike Western Europe or the United States during their periods of emergence) will drag these impediments alongside as they become twenty-first-century powers. These are the pivotal “splintered states.”

These states are not disconnected from globalization; to the contrary, they are intimately connected to it. Both prominent and deficient, these new great powers share more in common with the splintered states of the rest of the majority world—where the consequences and human impacts of climate change, resource scarcity, disease, demographic shifts, declining productivity, transnational criminality, and terrorism as factors that lead to destabilization and potential conflict and will define the human landscape. Unquestionably, the locus of all these intensely concentrated critical uncertainties will be in one place: the City.

On the positive side, the emerging megacities of Brazil, India, and China offer lessons that can be shared across boundaries and borders. From the uneasy but acknowledged acceptance of Rio de Janeiro’s favela slums to Mumbai’s civil society arrangement of community-police cooperation for local governance known as panchayat, new methods of adaptation and accommodation may emerge.

Old and New Worlds

A handful of new megacities should be of particular concern because of their size, strategic locations, roles in the global economy, or their environmental vulnerabilities. As illustration, Lagos, Kinshasa, Cairo, Dhaka, Karachi, Lahore, and Rio de Janeiro will each have populations in excess of 10 million in 2025. Five of these seven (Lagos, Karachi, Kinshasa, Dhaka, and Rio) will have populations of 15 million or more. All are located in states that have largely proven incapable of providing the scale of law enforcement, public health, education, and social services that such large populations require. And all are located in states that are strategic pivots in their respective regions and important to global stability.

While terrorism, homelessness, poverty, and failure of any effective governance to provide support are not one and the same, they often coexist and collectively are symptomatic of a severe “dis-ease” within the system—one with which the system in many countries is demonstrably unable to cope. There are practical applications that the larger international system can and should take on to strengthen governance in states where megacities present the greatest direct challenges.

Dangers That the Leviathans Pose

Life in megacities will deteriorate as populations surge beyond carrying capacity. The teeming populations of Lagos, Karachi, Cairo, and Dhaka have few options. In Lagos one could almost say that the rule of law does not exist. Police are corrupt and government services close to nonexistent. Residents in most neighborhoods have to provide transportation for officers in order for local crimes to be investigated. Urban “bustle” is not a lively scene of pedestrians enjoying the streets or shops. Rather, jostling street gangs and militias fight each other while nudging aside overmatched and all-too-often exploitive government agencies—peeling away whatever thin layers of protection the state provides and setting the stage for the eventual storming of a by-then hollowed-out Bastille. In Lagos life expectancy is less than forty years. Thirty-eight percent of Lagos’ children under five suffer from malnutrition stunting; 50 percent have never received an inoculation; only 60 percent attend school. Fishing is a main livelihood for many—in a place where raw sewage is routinely dumped in the same waters. As conditions in Lagos deteriorate, a stampede of refugees into nearby Benin (a half-day’s walk from the city) could result and would unsettle an already fragile West African region.

One result of municipal failure in emerging megacities is “contagion effect,” which will swallow host states and entire regions in whirlpools of collapse—and bring about cycles of military intervention by the United States or by the UN, the European Union, or other coalition to restore peace after collapse and to reestablish order. Such costly interventions, however, never have appreciable effect on underlying social circumstances. As our experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere illustrate, military interventions address symptoms, not diseases. Unless underlying diseases in megacities are cured, violence will recur after peacekeepers withdraw. Even as military action will not solve the problem, the costs of intervention will remain exorbitant.

Another result entails environmental catastrophe. Bangladesh nestles in the most ecologically vulnerable delta in the world. With a population half the size of the United States squeezed onto territory roughly the size of Iowa, 60 percent of its land floods each year—and drought is now a major threat during nonmonsoon seasons. At the heart of this explosive and yet decaying ecosystem, residents of the capital, Dhaka, have experienced the most rapid urban growth ever known. Preoccupied with and overwhelmed by the need to placate the huge population of the capital, the government failed and continues to fail to provide meaningful assistance to desperately needy rural communities.

The delta is vulnerable to even the slightest climatic variations. Ten million people will be stranded or driven off the land if sea levels rise by a mere twenty centimeters in the Bay of Bengal. Seawater is creeping ever northward, replacing precious freshwater resources the huge population depends on. With the effects of climate change more evident, declining freshwater runoff of snow from the Himalayas in the north and rising sea levels in the south only exacerbate an already dangerous, destructive feedback loop. Recognizing the likely outcome of Bangladesh’s plight, India in 2007 completed a four-thousand-kilometer, three-meter-high barrier separating the two states—a Maginot Line supposedly designed to keep illegal immigrants and militants out (as well as thwart the smuggling of weapons and narcotics). In reality, it will seal off what could be the world’s first massive wave of environmental refugees, bringing anomie, violence, and desperation in their wake.

Conditions in megacities in many states have already created fertile recruitment grounds for terrorist, criminal, and extremist organizations. In Cairo and Karachi, urban poverty and chronic instability leave populations with few options for a better life. Is it any surprise that these cities, with their crumbling services, poverty, and basic unfairness, rank among the world’s top sources of Islamic extremism? Moreover, some of what we term indigenous “non-state actors” and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) have the potential to become so powerful within megacities as to be virtually invulnerable to the power of the governments of their respective states.

Others may actually seize control of the state. This is what happened in the Gaza Strip, a place so densely populated it qualifies as a mini-megacity, sharing many of the same problems of larger urban masses. Wretched living conditions and an unresponsive government led to Hamas’ victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections and, portentously, to its success since then in violently driving out rival elements of the parent Palestinian Authority government.

At the same time, the strain of attempting to manage fast-growing cities will force some national governments to make a Faustian bargain to maintain control over urban turbulence. In terms of politics, it makes sense for governments to concentrate energies and spending on megacities—where, after all, problems are most immediately threatening and the need for public services is quantitatively greatest. In so doing, remote, underpopulated rural areas are inevitably written off. As a result, ungoverned rural areas will proliferate and become havens for terrorists, insurgency, and criminal organizations—not unlike what took place in the tribal agency areas of Pakistan, the cradle of Al Qaeda—and the remote valleys of eastern Colombia. As Al Qaeda’s attacks on 9/11 made clear, in the modern, globalized economy even small terrorist outfits in isolated havens can target the United States and other economically advanced states at a time and place of their choosing. They can achieve horrific destruction.

In some states the consequences will be bitterly ironic: undergoverned rural areas, remote from metropolitan (and ineffectively governed) centers, will engender parallel universes of insurgency, violence, and crime. While much has been written about extremists setting up camps and training bases in ungoverned rural areas, the reality is that they also operate—often freely—out of undergoverned cities. With hydra-headed networks that know no borders, along with access to Internet and digital communications technology (as well as rail connections, airline hubs, and seaports), sprawling cities—themselves concentrated, high-value targets—offer extremists the perfect place to export violence, as well as recruit and maintain networks, and yet remain invisible.

The time for action is short. We are already in a race against time. Cities such as Karachi and Lagos may boil over as civil distemper permanently fouls relationships among economic, ethnic, and religious groups and between the population as a whole and governments. If cities descend into complete anarchy, vicious consequences will include an increase in more powerful terrorism, violence against U.S. interests here and overseas, new havens for international criminals, the potential mass exodus of peoples, and dramatic increases in smuggling, drugs, and other forms of criminal activity.

The human impact and human toll are in themselves staggering. With the world’s population now well past 7 billion, there are 1 billion “squatters” on the planet, with their density rising daily. As investigative reporter Robert Neuwirth writes in Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, two hundred thousand people daily leave their rural areas and move to cities—1.5 million a week, 70 million a year. By 2030, if conditions and social support systems do not improve, the number of city squatters may well double to 2 billion, almost one in four people on the planet.

Our Road Map

There have, of course, been environmental studies that predicted dire consequences from overpopulation in general. These predictions have proven untrue in part because they underestimated the impact of technology on agriculture and discounted the likelihood of decreased fertility in Europe, Russia, and other parts of the world. The most notable book, written in 1968, was Paul Ehrlich’s bestseller, The Population Bomb. Warning of mass starvation that would come in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation, Ehrlich suggested a premise similar to that Thomas Robert Malthus put forward in 1798: the world’s population would outstrip food production and securing of critical natural resources. Nonetheless, thanks to innovations such as Norman Borlaug’s “Green Revolution,” agricultural initiatives that increased production around the world beginning in the 1960s, as well as declining general world fertility rates, the worst of Ehrlich’s warnings never came to pass. Despite his dire tone and unfulfilled predictions, he stands by his central argument to this day. And what he predicted for the globe may well prove true for some of our largest cities.

With the rapidly increasing concentration of human populations within cities, we are witnessing a real population bomb. The urban growth of the twenty-first century, however, results from human migration as much as higher birth and lower death rates—and there are no quick technological fixes for the problems of cities because they already have grown too large, too fast. This may well be the central challenge of our times.

Perhaps the most significant academic work to address the new urban challenge remains Joseph Tainter’s concept-driven The Collapse of Complex Societies—a work that influenced Pulitzer Prize-winner Jared Diamond’s widely popular Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Just as Diamond successfully incorporated highlights of intense archaeological studies to present powerful portraits, in this work we follow a similar strategy. While we cull from recent data and demographic projections, as well as draw on historical examples, our central focus is to present a human face—through human narratives—in this unfolding and enormous global drama. Our goal is to present the political, economic, social, and environmental contours and contexts as we “map” the new megacity terrain.

We identify emerging problematic megacities, examine why their populations continue to surge, and explain how conditions there often lead to terrorism, war, criminal violence, human rights abuses, and flagrant pollution. We further address why many states fail to manage urban challenges and analyze the dire implications for international efforts to suppress terrorism and promote international relations and peace and security in strategically critical regions. We discuss why the UN, along with the United States and other economically advanced states, have not taken effective action to offset looming disasters. We examine specific challenges in critical cities. We conclude with policy recommendations that we must adopt to help better manage challenges that have already emerged as populations skyrocket.

There is no widely circulating work available on the rise of the twenty-first-century megacity—despite its rapid emergence on the global stage and its attendant global security implications. While specific case studies do exist of some megacities—such as James Pick and Edward Butler’s Mexico Megacity and Christopher Silver’s Planning the Megacity: Jakarta in the Twentieth Century—these works are not accessible for a larger reading audience and retain a highly specialized focus on landscape design and environmental impact. One of the few works to consider the broader implications of urban growth is Norman Myers’ The Gaia Atlas of Future Worlds: Challenges and Opportunities in an Age of Change, published in 1991. He particularly recognized the “termite queen phenomenon,” in which urban centers, acting as a kind of supernest, attract resources—both positive and negative—from rural centers, including human capital and labor, skills, food, water, and raw materials. Myers’ projections, while fascinating, are now decades old. New events, trends, effects, and phenomena have emerged.

What we offer are hardly panaceas for what may seem to be insurmountable problems. Moreover, actions we offer cannot be taken in isolation from each other. As practical means to achievable ends, they should be synergistically applied to deal with specific environments as well as common symptoms within the megacities of Lagos, Kinshasa, Cairo, Dhaka, Karachi, Lahore, and Rio. Notably, as a number of pundits have focused on Southeast Asia as the next “hotbed” of foment and instability, any reasonable reader may ask why we do not focus on Manila or Jakarta (in the world’s largest Muslim state, with a population of 250 million).

Jakarta is an example. With over 25 million residents in the extended Jakarta-Bandung megalopolis, it is the fourth largest urban area in the world. Jakarta suffers—as do most megacities—from “urbanization overload.” Growing from a population of slightly over 1 million in 1960 to 9 million in 2004, Jakarta’s government is unable to meet basic infrastructure needs for residents. Air pollution and garbage mismanagement create severe problems. With a population that doubles on weekends with the influx of residents to markets and access points, coupled with the lack of adequate transportation systems, massive traffic congestion is constant. The urban financial, economic, and environmental challenges facing Jakarta reflect the obstacles all megacities will have to confront: proliferation of slums, high disease rates, unchecked industrial growth, poor air quality, high pollution, and almost nonexistent sanitation and waste disposal.

Much like Indonesia itself, Jakarta remains a critical pivot largely ignored except in times of crisis. While many remember the massive impact of the Sumatra tsunami in 2004, fewer recall that U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin declared in 1997 that Indonesia “was critical to the national security and economic interests of the United States.” Despite the dire predictions of the late 1990s that centered on Indonesia as a pivotal state on the verge of collapse, however, present realities are quite different. In contrast to Pakistan—which is in danger—Indonesia today, as Steve Coll of the New Yorker writes, is “a comparably bland, democratic archipelago.”

Redrawing the Map of the Future

In attempting to address the present and future trials that megacities present, the international community has already begun to prepare itself to mitigate at least some negative consequences. After all, one could argue that this is really what the “long war on terror” is about. Still, no state, international regime, or organization has directed sufficient strategic attention, planning, or investment to reversing trends that created challenges in the first place. One reason is that statesmen continue to think in terms of states, not subordinate polities. Perhaps there is good reason for this: states have improved security globally but not universally. Secondarily, national governments in states in which ungoverned megacities are located are averse to acknowledging their failures to others, for fear of undermining their own claims of national sovereignty and calling into question their political legitimacy in the eyes of constituents.

By calling attention to these challenges, and to opportunities that exist, we hope to provide ideas, means, and methods for addressing problems that megacities of the developing world—and through them, the rest of the world—face as the new Leviathans arise. The time to act is here.


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