City as Man’s Fate, Planet of Slums

September 28, 2007

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I’ve been reading an old book by Wolf Schneider, Babylon is Everywhere: The City as Man’s Fate. I read it first when I was a teenager, and it fired my imagination with images of urban splendor and excitement, both historical and contemporary. Later, I traveled a bit, and my priority was to see cities, to walk their streets, visit the museums, gaze at the monuments, drift in the currents of their surging crowds. I loved it. Cities, civilization, human history.

Some of the cities I eventually visited had a lot of slums: Delhi, La Paz…, Bombay. My appreciation for the accomplishments of western sanitary engineering (drainage) grew apace, and one of the enduring sensation-memories of my stay in India is the foul smell of human excrement, everywhere. Now I am reading another great book, Planet of Slums, about the large portion of urban humanity that lives in these filthy, dangerous, polluted, rickety shantytowns, slums, favellas, bustees, or whatever they are called locally. The picture is depressing. Human life reduced to a basic struggle for survival, but not in the wild, in the man-made environment of the peripheral city.

Interesting that both of these books agree on one point, the city is man’s fate! In Planet of Slums, there is a remark that the city holds the solution to the global environmental crisis, as cities are vastly more efficient in their use of energy and space than rural areas, and they provide for human interaction beyond “commoditized leisure consumption.” Well, I agree completely. As one colleague of mine remarked a while ago, “farming is the most environmentally destructive activity invented by man.” So much for “back to the land,” recreating the garden, and the typical American anti-urban, Jefforsonian fantasy of agricultural utopia. Let’s all move to the city – see you there!

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