Street Smarts

Half of the world’s population now lives in cities. How do they make it work?
This coming year, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population will be living in cities. (In Canada, we’re ahead of the curve by 80 percent.) Cities are engines of growth, but cheek-by-jowl existence also poses a problem or two. Here’s how a few are making it work:

Eight years ago, planners in Drachten, a city in the Netherlands that sees 22,000 cars pass through its main intersection each day, started removing traffic signals and curbed sidewalks, road signs, and most street markings from the city centre. Remarkably, the traffic fatality rate dropped to zero. “It works well because it is dangerous,” said Hans Monderman, the Dutch traffic guru who pioneered the theory, which he likens to skaters navigating their way around one another on the ice — when there are no lanes and no green lights, people take responsibility for their actions and become better decision-makers. Now other EU towns are trying it: Bohmte, Germany; Ipswich, England; Ostend, Belgium; Ejby, Denmark; and Makkinga, the Netherlands, where a sign at the town entrance reads Verkeersbordvrij (Free of traffic signs).

The picturesque island of Pulau Semakau lies eight kilometres off the coast of the bustling city state of Singapore. Great-billed herons fly over its lush mangroves, and dolphins frolic along the coral reefs offshore. Nature-starved Singaporeans can take a twenty-minute ferry ride from the mainland to snap pictures on guided walks or relax on a sweet-smelling patch of grass, content in the knowledge that beneath them lies Singapore’s national landfill. Since 1999, the city’s trash — some 2,000 tonnes per day — has been incinerated and dumped into leak-proof cells that form the base of the artificial island. The $375-million project is expected to fulfill all of the city’s disposal needs for the next forty years.

Mimicking American thug culture, youth gang members in Wellington, New Zealand, speak in the rhetoric of hip hop, wear colours, and viciously defend their turf. In an effort to stop spiralling violence, one activist devised an intervention that would play on the kids’ strengths. Exchanging “bro” and “mo’fo’ ” for “my honourable opponent,” twenty or so young Maori men spent several days honing their debating skills and preparing arguments to the proposition that “The Pakeha [non-Maori] owe Maori a decent living.” In front of a large audience, the gang members took on a team of debating champions, successfully arguing the negative.

Billboards have been banned in São Paulo, New York outlawed trans fats, and countless cities around the world are smoke free. Hundreds of US municipalities have gone a step further, passing resolutions against the war in Iraq. While their effect on federal policy is unclear, these resolutions are a way for cities and their constituents to voice an opinion. “We are the elected officials closest to the American people,” said Joe Moore, an alderman who championed the initiative in Chicago. Now cities are taking a stand against something more abstract: in February 2007, Santa Cruz, California, pre-emptively voted against US military action in Iran, followed in March by Berkeley, California, and Portland, Oregon. “If we can spark a conversation in city halls across the country,” Portland city commissioner Erik Sten said, “we can have a real political impact.”

The Yemeni city of Shibam, known as “the Manhattan of the desert,” is home to close to 500 multi-storey mixed-use buildings built primarily of mud. The Aga Khan Foundation recently bestowed its architecture award on the German-Yemeni Shibam Urban Development Project, which is restoring the 500-year-old structures. Its goal is to preserve the architecture (local builders had to be convinced to return to long-abandoned techniques) while making the city a viable living and working environment. This will include everything from modernizing the electrical system to providing literacy training for women. The Aga Khan jury praised the project for treating the unesco World Heritage Site as “a living community rather than a historical artifact frozen in time.”

Every day, scores of homeless children from across India find their way to the central train station in New Delhi, joining over 100,000 others already living on the city’s streets. But modern Indians, obsessed with economic growth and Bollywood, are apt to overlook this problem. In response, the Salaam Baalak Trust has organized the City Walk to make sure the story of Delhi’s street kids is told, in their own words. The youths guide walking tours of the impoverished neighbourhood that surrounds the train station, recounting tales of violence, drug addiction, and scamming, as well as freedom, friendship, and hijinks. The walk raises awareness and generates funds for education and housing programs.

Plans for municipal broadband initiatives, such as free Wi-Fi in parks, have often fizzled because coverage was expected to be spotty and service providers predicted financial losses. The new future of the wired city is wimax, or WiBro, a variation of the technology being tested in Seoul, South Korea. WiBro is cheap high-speed wireless with a range of several kilometres, and users can connect from subway stations, tunnels, and cars moving at 120 kilometres an hour. Its North American cousin is “the be-all and end-all of wireless,” according to University of California, San Diego, computer engineer Lawrence Larson, and communications companies will be rolling it out as soon as next year.

Across North America, sheep and goats are becoming the star employees of city parks departments. More cost effective and environmentally friendly than gas mowers (which can emit as much pollution in one hour as a car does over 550 kilometres), the animals gobble up encroaching brush and nip invasive species in the bud. “The sheep are a great solution on every level,” explains Tanya Stilborn for the city of Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, where between June and September fifty Finnsheep — supervised by a shepherd and a border collie — maintain eight hectares of parkland. “People, especially those with mental or physical disabilities, love visiting the sheep,” says Stilborn, “and our flock has become one of Fort Saskatchewan’s major tourist attractions.”

In Kibera, one of the largest slums in sub-Saharan Africa, just down the hill from the Royal Nairobi Golf Club and seven kilometres from the Kenyan parliament, it’s often 150 people to a latrine. Kiberans have responded with the “flying toilet,” which involves defecating into a plastic bag, knotting the top, and hurling it as far as possible. Organizations working to improve conditions in the slum have come up with other creative solutions: portable vacu-pumps empty overflowing pits and provide income for their operators; bio-latrines use sewage to produce compost, and biogas, which is piped to homes and schools; and, raising awareness outside the slum last year, the Kibera Public Space Project blanketed Nairobi with posters declaring Vyoo Havifai Kupaa Hewani (Toilets aren’t supposed to fly).

1 comment(s)

ian brookesJanuary 01, 2008 18:25 EST

The entire issue of the world's increasingly "urban" population teeters on the fine edge of definition. That is, there is no clear, universal definition of "urban", or "city", so that discussion must crumble under the lack of definition.
In Canada, for example, "urban" is defined for administrative convenience only, and "city" is a status which is usually claimed by an urban place for financial benefits accruing to such places. Thus, this country's population is usually claimed as 85% "urban, which includes towns large and small, larger villages, and municipalities whose population is largely (>50%) "urban", but which to drive through one would appreciate more for their rural qualities.
At the global scale, more complex difficulties of definition apply, so, while I can accept the general statement that the world's population is increasingly "urban", we are far from accurately putting percentage figures to it.

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