Cities that grow themselves

Should we rein cities in or embrace their biomorphic growth? | Aeon Essays
The Nile River delta resembles a long-stemmed flower, with urban Cairo as its bright centre. Photograph taken from the ISS and courtesy NASA Earth Observatory

They are spreading like branching plants across the globe. Should we rein cities in or embrace their biomorphic potential?

Josh Berson is an anthropologist and the author, among other things, of The Human Scaffold: How Not to Design Your Way Out of a Climate Crisis (2021) and The Meat Question: Animals, Humans, and the Deep History of Food (2019).

Edited by Sam Haselby

In 1996, one in three inhabitants of China lived in an urban setting. In 2021, the figure was close to two in three. In the United States, in comparison, the figure is four in five. The construction boom in China tracks a moment of transition of geological significance in Earth’s history: humans are now a modally urban species. Sometime less than 15 years ago, the population of urban areas surpassed that of rural areas for the first time in history, and trends in the size of Earth’s cities show accelerating growth over the past 200 years. Approximately 250 years ago, there were three cities on Earth with more than a million human inhabitants: Edo (present-day Tokyo), Beijing and London. Today the figure is around 550.

Though it receives less attention than the climate crisis, food security, energy consumption, demand for industrial commodities, biodiversity loss or ageing populations, urbanisation is implicated in all of these. It is among the exemplary phenomena of a wide-ranging crisis of intensification – the growing risk, you might say, that humanity will default on its carbon debt – whose scope we are just starting to appreciate. As we’ll see, perhaps more than any other component of the intensification crisis, urbanisation is tied to the question of what it means to lead a good life, not to say to the rubrics of value that govern our economic behaviour.

Imagine the human clade endures another 10,000 years on Earth, at length summoning the will to conduct an inquest into What Went Wrong in that period – our present and near future – that the novelist William Gibson has evocatively termed ‘the Jackpot’. Among the things these future archaeologists would observe is that, in the generations leading up to our present, humans piled into cities like there was no tomorrow. What would they make of this?

The interpretive challenge is twofold. First, from a distance of 10,000 years, the appeal of urban living would be far from obvious. Second, social scientists’ habits of reasoning about the dynamics of intensification often obscure more than they reveal. As we’ll see, these two phenomena go together. Our epistemic framework for reasoning about urbanisation has been shaped by a need to make it seem, after the fact, desirable if not inevitable.

By treating the two dimensions, the material and the ideological, in tandem, we can open up a space in which to imagine ways of living that, at present, remain inaccessible. We begin with an obstinate fact: cities are engines of debility.

Cities are hard on the body. We are all familiar now with how dense living facilitates the spread of airborne disease. But the stressors of urban life are manifold. They include air- and waterborne pollution, noise, heat, light – and an excess of social contact. Pollution represents, as a 2017 report by the Lancet Commission on pollution and health puts it, ‘the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death’ among humans, responsible, in 2015, for ‘three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence’ – and the burden will grow as wildfire becomes a year-round phenomenon. Pollution is neurotoxic, mutagenic and endocrine disrupting, to say nothing of its effects on breathing, vision, smell and touch.

Like factory farms and oil refineries, cities rely on surrounding areas to serve as pollution sinks. But, in most places, it is city dwellers themselves – and above all residents of low-income communities – who bear the brunt of the burden.

Then there is noise. Exposure to sound-pressure levels in excess of 90 decibels – common in restaurants – causes mechanical trauma to the hair cells of the basilar membrane. Even exposure at pressure levels long considered mechanically safe can, over time, yield irreversible changes in audition.

And the effects of noise extend beyond the auditory. Across a broad range of animal taxa, including mammals, chronic acoustic stress has been found to negatively affect reproduction, childhood development, metabolism, cardiovascular health, sleep, cognition and immune function…


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