Today’s cities are awash with unending issues. How can they be fixed?
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Crystal spires and earthquake-proof mega-rises pierce the sky above the evolving Los Angeles skyline. Snaking around the massive structures, the elevated metro-tube transports millions of people to work daily. Traffic jams are obsolete and smog non-existent given that self-driving electric cars have replaced gas-guzzling automobiles.
LA has become a world hub for technology, business and industry. Successful redevelopment plans have eliminated slums and homelessness. Urban problems of the past have been eradicated. Los Angeles stands as a beacon of light to cities across the world.
While this description sounds as though it is a picture of the city’s future, it actually comes from a 1988 article in Los Angeles Times Magazine that theorized what the year 2013 might look like.
Obviously, these estimates were woefully inaccurate.
The Los Angeles in which I live today is a vastly different place from what the LA Times pictured: the few electric cars that exist are stuck in traffic alongside nearly 1.4 million other commuters. Mega-structures are non-existent (the tallest building has just 73 stories) and townships-grown-large blend together into one continuous concrete super-metropolis.
Passing through downtown, 82,000 homeless people blanket the city. This contributes to growing sanitation and trash removal problems. Instead of the bright future forecasted in 1988, Los Angeles exemplifies the persistent and growing struggles of a city affected by overpopulation.
Globally, over 200,000 people move into cities every day—72.8 million people every year. This is equivalent to nearly double the number of people that live in Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolitan area.
The pace of growth is set to continue for the next 30 years, with much of this urban influx happening in Asia.
A report by Prudential Investment Management used a Chinese city to demonstrate the rapid pace of growth: “Just three decades ago, Shenzhen was a modest fishing village of 30,000 people on the south coast of China. Today, it is a booming metropolis of 10 million inhabitants, boasting modern skyscrapers, packed shopping malls, and a state-of-the-art transportation system. The breathtaking speed at which Shenzhen became one of the world’s largest cities typifies the ‘prime time’ of urbanization that is now upon us. The growth of cities is a well-told story. But never before has the pace of urbanization been so rapid…”
Despite being a young city, Shenzhen still grapples with the same problems as metropolitan areas such as LA: there is pollution, poverty and crime.
The global urban explosion brings with it countless weighty problems. The Prudential report stated that “the unparalleled pace of urbanization means that by 2030, about 200 cities worldwide are likely to join the ranks of metropolitan areas with at least one million people. As the rate of urbanization ramps up, global infrastructure needs are projected to top $50 trillion through 2030, with heavy spending required in both developed and emerging-market cities.”
Unbelievably, the report states: “…the world may need to produce about 50% to 70% more food by 2050, thanks in large part to the swelling ranks of middle-class city dwellers.”
Put this all together: 200 new million-plus cities, $50 trillion in infrastructure costs, an up to 70 percent increase in food production. All of this is on top of long-standing problems in existing cities!
Urban planners desperately want to bring about gleaming, futuristic metropolises. And, despite the troubles gripping cities, people continue to flock to them. In metropolitan areas, they see more opportunities, a better chance to earn a living, and the potential for a more prosperous life.
To make these dreams a reality, however, mankind must solve the urban problem.
In defense of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, it offered a caveat to its 1988 vision for 2013: “Twenty-five years from now Los Angeles might well be an amazing place to live—a technological utopia, an economic giant, a true world city, a harmonious melding of cultures and races. But that will only happen if we develop strategies to solve a host of problems ranging from crime to pollution to overcrowding.”
Today, crime, pollution and overcrowding remain towering concerns for modern metropolises.
An obvious symptom of overcrowding is traffic congestion. For example, during the workweek in San Francisco, traffic on the Bay Bridge is stop-and-go from 1:25 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.—a seven-hour rush hour!
Congestion is more than a nuisance. There is wasted time for motorists, more instances of road rage, less time spent with family, increases in automobile accidents, and wasted fuel, which means more pollution.
Pollution’s health effects are troubling. In China, millions of commuters in Beijing have intensified the smog problem to the point that the city is “not suitable for living,” as Mayor Wang Anshun told BBC. As a result, lung cancer cases have risen more than 50 percent over the past decade.
India’s Centre for Science and Environment estimated the amount of air pollutants in New Delhi to be 60 times higher than the level considered safe. According to Time, air pollution is the fifth largest killer in India. Further, low visibility frequently causes delays in plane flights and traffic jams on major highways.
Overcrowding puts a tremendous burden on cities’ infrastructure. According to The Atlantic magazine, in New York City, the average age of the 6,400 miles of sewage mains is 84 years old. The annual increase of around 77,000 residents taxes the already deteriorating system. It is only a matter of time before it literally crumbles beneath the city’s streets.
Infrastructure includes highways, roads, sewer and water systems, dams and bridges. Most of these are “out of sight, out of mind” until sudden catastrophic failure. (Think of the levees that broke in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.)
The American Society of Civil Engineers analyzed U.S. infrastructure in 2013 and gave it an overall grade of a D-plus (barely passing). They estimated it would take approximately $3.6 trillion to repair the crumbling infrastructure by the year 2020.
A $3.6 trillion price tag is the same as 20 percent of the $18 trillion America already holds in debt!
Another tragic consequence of urban boom is poverty, which usually manifests itself in slums.
This is abundantly evident in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The rural exodus from the nation’s countryside to urban areas has many families crammed into favelas, vast expanses of unplanned housing. These impoverished areas house an estimated 1.3 million people.
Favela homes built into the mountainside consist of stacks of crumbling bricks and rusted corrugated-metal sheets. Offering shelter to families of five or six, these makeshift structures have minimal plumbing and electricity. Narrow stairways weave haphazardly between the masses of decrepit buildings, which have been built by poverty-stricken residents.
Encyclopaedia Britannica explained the results: “The lack of infrastructure gives rise to improvised and jerry-rigged plumbing and electrical wiring. Often water must be ported great distances, and rudimentary methods of waste disposal pose health hazards. As a result of the crowding, unsanitary conditions, poor nutrition, and pollution, disease is rampant in the poorer favelas, and infant mortality rates are high.”
Favelas—and all impoverished areas around the globe—are also breeding grounds for violent criminal activity.
Crime and violence are natural byproducts of cities with impoverished areas. A 2014 study by the British Journal of Psychiatry revealed a critical link between poverty and criminal conduct. According to the research, teenagers whose family income was in the bottom 20 percent were seven times more likely to use drugs or commit violent crimes.
With the continued urban explosion, all cities—from Shenzhen to New York to Rio de Janeiro—face increased overcrowding, pollution and crime. These urgent problems demand new and innovative solutions.
Architects and engineers are looking to technological solutions for today’s urban problems. Techno-utopias were the vision for the future in 1988 with the LA Times, and they continue to be today. BBC reported: “The time is ripe, say experts, to start designing smarter urban environments, both new cities needed to sustain an ever-growing population, and retro-fits on the ones that we have lived in for centuries.”
Another BBC article described one vision of the future as a “city that acts more like a living organism, a city that can respond to your needs. In the future everything in a city, from the electricity grid, to the sewer pipes to roads, buildings and cars will be connected to the network. Buildings will turn off the lights for you, self-driving cars will find you that sought-after parking space, even the rubbish bins will be smart.”
Such technological amenities sound appealing and could somewhat alleviate problems such as traffic congestion and pollution, but they do little to address poverty and overcrowding. Likewise, environmentally friendly green architecture—while having many promising benefits—suffers from the same problems.
Smart technologies and green solutions seem to have loads of promise. Yet there have been promising ideas before for cities, which always fail to pan out. In fact, many of today’s urban problems are the result, though unintended, of past attempted solutions.
In the early 20th century, modernist architecture was heralded as the solution to the problem of the day—overcrowding in urban slums. By the 1930s, as much as 15 percent of city dwellers lived in poverty.
The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century caused a massive migration of workers into cities. The conventional urban design of the time was not suited to accommodate the population influx. As a result, shoddy tenements had to be quickly developed. Workers and their families flocked into these slum areas, which became overcrowded and subsequently disease-ridden, polluted, unsanitary and centers of criminal activity. Housing units developed too quickly to put basic utilities into place. In some areas, entire neighborhoods shared a single water faucet.
In an article for Failed Architecture, an online platform that discusses city problems, Daryl Mulvihill, an urban designer based in Amsterdam, wrote: “The alternative to this city was found in the design of high-rise estates and suburban new towns connected by new road networks…The slums were real. Poverty, dilapidated buildings and inner-city overcrowding were genuine urban problems that had to be dealt with. There was no simple solution and in the spirit of the times those solutions favoured held firm to the belief that design would solve all problems.”
City planners believed that by relocating workers to residential areas outside of the city and making cars the primary mode of transportation, the effects of overcrowding could be eliminated. The design of modern, beautiful buildings and facilities would fix issues such as poverty, crime and overcrowding.
Yet unforeseen consequences developed. Moving residents away from cities opened up more urban space for homeless and the ultra-poor, who flocked to these areas. Pollution from traffic spread everywhere roads did. Moving people away from the city did not move them away from poverty, pollution or crime.
In his article, Mr. Mulvihill summarized that “suburban sprawl exacerbated rather than solved the problems of the American inner-city, which suffered for decades, resulting from the flight to the suburbs and the associated motorway building programmes.
“This is the real narrative to be derived from [20th-century] urbanism, which was repeated in numerous locations around the world, and has become all too familiar. Problem slums are cleared and replaced with a poorly executed version of a modernist utopia…This is an improvement at first and welcomed by residents, but it then in turn becomes a problem, the real social ills remaining the same.”
The reason mankind’s solutions to urban problems always fail stems from the motivation for cities in the first place.
Ancient Rome is a perfect example. It was located on the Tiber River amid the Alban Hills, strategically placed for trade. Trafficking goods to and from the city was possible due to this extensive waterway. Rome’s economic and regional success came from a focus on money, which enticed more people to come.
Economics have been a main motivation for almost every city throughout history. Prior to Rome, the cities of Nineveh, Babylon and Jericho grew for the same reasons. Reaching back even further in history, the first city, Enoch, was also built on the desire to acquire wealth.
The Bible describes this urban development in Genesis 4. It was constructed by Cain, son of Adam and Eve, after he killed his brother Abel. Verse 17 states: “And Cain…built a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.”
While the Bible does not say much about the city itself, we can learn a lot about it by looking at Cain’s personality. Famed Jewish historian Flavius Josephus described what drove Cain’s thinking in The Antiquities of the Jews: “For he only aimed to procure everything that was for his own bodily pleasure, though it obliged him to be injurious to his neighbors. He augmented his household substance with much wealth, by rapine and violence.”
The city of Enoch was built on this same, selfish foundation. Josephus continued, “He [Cain] first of all set boundaries about lands; he built a city, and fortified it with walls, and he compelled his family to come together to it.”
These walls were constructed for the same reason Rome, Babylon, Nineveh and Jericho built them: selfishness and self-sufficiency. The walls were to protect what they had from those who wanted to take it.
Clearly, not all cities have been built by murderers in which the selfish motivation to get was obvious.
The greatest achievements of all time have only been possible through urban centers: the Pyramids at Giza, symphony orchestras, sending a man to the moon. All of these required man to live together. Yet all cities today still have money as their main motivation, which carries with it the ever-present problems of overcrowding, pollution and crime.
Unknown to almost all, the Bible has much to say about the urban problem. In fact, the words “city” and “cities” are used 1,316 times throughout the Book’s pages. But it does not just address the fundamental problems with cities, it also offers urban solutions for the future.
While the Bible states that future cities will be spread across the globe, its most detailed descriptions are of Israel and the city of Jerusalem. As you read, look at the principles laid out—and how they would drastically improve cities as we know them.
The book of Zechariah paints this picture: “Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein” (Zech. 2:4). Chapter 14 adds more: “And men shall dwell in it, and there shall be no more utter destruction; but Jerusalem shall be safely inhabited” (vs. 11).
This clearly describes a city as it states that a “multitude of men” live there.
Such cities will be built following biblical principles. All points of urban planning and construction will be done “decently and in order” (I Cor. 14:40). Accounting for population, infrastructure, climate and location, each city’s plan will be unique in its design approach.
Following Isaiah 5:8, the Bible’s plan for future cities eliminates wall-to-wall houses and buildings. In addition, all will adhere to the command to not destroy the Earth (Rev. 11:18). Also, everyone will be required to grow much of their own food: “And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them” (Isa. 65:21).
Yet trade will still exist. A major highway will connect Egypt to Israel to Germany. This roadway described in Isaiah 19:23-25 reveals the beginnings of worldwide unity, connectivity and development.
These clues and principles can be used to paint a picture of what it could be like during that time.
While cities will likely be centers of business and industry, they will not be forced to support massive populations. People will have greater access to habitable land and will have better access to sunlight, the natural environment, and clean water.
Urban areas will work with the natural environment in a sustainable way. Buildings will be well-planned from initial design phases, taking into consideration their inhabitants’ well-being. While efficiencies in all systems will be stressed, city and building design will not be solely dependent on monetary concerns, where developers are encouraged to cut costs at the expense of the occupants or the environment.
City streets will no longer be lined with skyscrapers. Instead, open spaces will be the norm. Inefficient buildings will be replaced with environmentally friendly structures. Advancements in technology will help builders create pollution-free architecture. The damaging effects of smog will be replaced with crystal-clear skies and fresh air.
The city will be a vibrant center for culture, adding life and excitement to the streets through art, music and dance. Social connectivity and face-to-face interaction will be a large part of the urban fabric.
Community gardens and places for recreation will encourage healthy lifestyles as well as beautify the urban landscape. These public spaces may become the thread tying the city center to the residential areas surrounding it.
Infrastructure within the city will be built in accordance to the population’s needs. Highways, roads and bridges will not be crowded or crumble from overuse.
In short, overpopulation, crime and pollution will be gone!
While these ideas can seem impossible, the Bible describes how this vision of the future will be brought about.
The blueprint for tomorrow’s cities can only be implemented through the guidance of a coming world supergovernment, which the Bible calls “the kingdom of God.” This is the gospel—the good news—that God’s Word discusses constantly.
The word kingdom is synonymous to the word government. Just as there are governments set up today ruling over people within a nation or territory, God too has a government—a kingdom—that He will soon bring to Earth.
God’s government will be “established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it” (Isa. 2:2). It will cut through the bureaucracy and inefficiency of today’s divided governmental systems.
Long-sought-after solutions to urban problems will be found. The glistening future city that seems impossible today will soon become a reality worldwide. Homelessness will be gone, pollution will be eradicated, and problems of overpopulation will be solved.
David C. Pack described the impact and necessity of this coming world government in his book Tomorrow’s Wonderful World – An Inside View!
“For all these things to be possible, the world would require one supergovernment to enforce them. The nearly 200 sovereign, disagreeing, competing, warring, and fighting governments of this society—in their numerous different forms and shapes—could never bring this to pass. If they could, it would have happened by now…When fully implemented, the government of God will be a picture of harmony and unity, with all those in administration being the right choice for each job—perfectly qualified for the tasks they face.”
As a result, “The cities of the world to come will present a far different—and infinitely better and more beautiful—picture than the cities of today.”
The Bible reveals a most exciting preview of tomorrow’s cities. Yet cities are just one aspect of how society as a whole will be changed for the better. If you would like to learn more about these coming transformations, read Tomorrow’s Wonderful World – An Inside View!