The history of humanity traces the flow of the earth’s inhabitants into cities. For thousands of years, that flow was slow, but still traceable. In 1800, only 3 percent of the human population lived in cities. By 1900, cities held 14 percent of the population. By 2000, fully half of all human beings lived in urban areas. We are fast becoming an urban species.
As Stewart Brand argues, we are becoming a “city planet.” Vast populations are moving into huge international cities, drawn by the hope of a better life. As Brand notes, cities have always been wealth creators, and the exploding populations of the largest cities draw even more inhabitants with the hope of securing an economic future. “At the current rate,” Brand writes, “humanity may well be 80 percent urban by mid-century. Every week there are 1.3 million new people in cities. That’s 70 million a year, decade after decade.”
This represents a truly incalculable transformation of human life. The Financial Times recently published a massive survey of “The Future of Cities.” Its report includes a remarkable analysis of the emergence of the new “metacities.”
As the report indicates, in 1950 there were only two cities classified as “megacities,” and these were London and New York, each of which claimed populations of more than 8 million. Roughly a decade later, Tokyo became the third megacity. “The wealth of the world passed through these cities–even if only on paper–and they expanded rapidly as people crowded in for a share of the opportunity,” the paper reports.
In 2010, Tokyo remains one of the world’s largest cities, but London is no longer in the top ten and New York barely makes the list. New York will not remain on any such list for long. With the exception of Tokyo, the largest cities of the world are now in the “global south.”
“To earn a place in the top 10, cities will soon need to boast a population of 20 million or more,” the paper reported. “This is a new breed of city — the metacity.”
The new metacities — far larger than the megacities — will include Tokyo, along with cities such as Mumbai, Shanghai, Jakarta, Beijing, Karachi, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, and Lagos.
Lagos, Nigeria may well point to the new urban future in all its promise and peril. As the Financial Times acknowledges, Lagos is “a city that forces us to confront our fears of what will happen if we do not sort out our cities.” Why? “Lagos has become the cipher for the urban nightmare–a city without structure, infrastructure, social provision, amenities or basic property rights for its citizens.”
In cities like Lagos, “citizens have to work to carve out their niche in a city that does not care.” These vast cities are growing without planning, without adequate services, and without the social institutions that reinforce civic order. They are expanding through the emergence of vast slums and areas of virtually no civic government. They are drawing populations by the multiple millions.
The Financial Times also sees these new metacities as engines of growth and potential wealth. Rather than following the American pattern of a dense city core with far less density in surrounding suburbs, these cities are marked by a constant density. There is hope for new economic models and the development of new ways of governing and organizing these immense metacities.
The paper’s analysis offers additional insights and information points. Rather than creating greater ecological threats, cities actually serve to reduce overall the ecological impact made by humans. Putting the urban population of Brazil back on farms would require the virtual elimination of the Amazonian rain forests.
The report suggests that Tijuana is now, in effect, an extension of a metacity that would include both Los Angeles and San Diego. This makes Tijuana an example of a new development, the “transnational suburb.” Another American metacity would include the corridor from Washington D.C. to Boston. Nevertheless, the world’s largest cities will dwarf the most highly populated cities of today.
As the paper explains, “the city is itself a traditional response to crisis–a huddling together of humanity, a symbol of hope for a better life, a pooling of natural and intellectual resources.”
Looking to the past, rather than the future, historian John Reader explains the meaning of cities to human life. “Cities are the defining artifacts of civilization. All the achievements and failings of humanity are here. Civic buildings, monuments, archives and institutions are the touchstones by which our cultural heritage is passed from one generation to the next. We shape the city, then it shapes us.”
These new metacities will shape the future and, by extension, all of us. The Financial Times produced this important report with primary concern for the future of the cities as engines of economic development and political innovation. Christians must look to this report with a sober acknowledgment that the church is falling further behind in the challenge of reaching the cities. The emergence of these vast new metacities will call for a revolution in missiology and ministry.
This much is clear — the cities are where the people are. In the course of less than 300 years, our world will have shifted from one in which only 3 percent of people live in cities, to one in which 80 percent are resident in urban areas.
If the Christian church does not learn new modes of urban ministry, we will find ourselves on the outside looking in. The Gospel of Jesus Christ must call a new generation of committed Christians into these teeming cities. As these new numbers make clear, there really is no choice.
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“The Future of Cities,” Financial Times, April 7, 2010. A supplement to the April 7, 2010 edition of the paper. These articles are not available online, except by subscription or purchase.
John Reader, Cities, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004.
Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, Viking, 2010.