Megacity Series on GlobalPost


Not long ago I wrote on the issue of cities becoming more and more powerful, perhaps even more powerful than countries.

As a nice follow-up to that, GlobalPost has created a new 5-part multimedia report titled “Rise of the Megacities” on “the coming dystopia that is urbanization,” starting off by delving into the slums of Dhaka.

In an email to me, Jess Frank of GlobalPost wrote: “Overcrowding, pollution and poverty are rampant in the world’s megacities, which the UN defines as having a population greater than 10 million. But along with the peril comes new hope that the efficiencies of urban living on such a large scale may in fact save the planet.”

Definitely an interesting-looking report and something to take a look at.

Delving into Dhaka, Bangladesh

Dhaka is Fastest-Growing Megacity in World

Dhaka is huge, and growing faster than any other megacity in the world. “Among these megacities, The World Bank says Dhaka, with its current population of 15 million people, bears the distinction of being the fastest-growing in the world. Between 1990 and 2005, the city doubled in size — from 6 to 12 million. By 2025, the U.N. predicts Dhaka will be home to more than 20 million people — larger than Mexico City, Beijing or Shanghai,” Erik German and Solana Pyne of GlobalPost report.

“You are seeing the early future of the world, which is not a very pleasant thought,” says Atiq Rahman, a Dhaka climate and migration researcher who heads the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies.

Dhaka, Bangladesh traffic

Extreme Poverty Not Like in London or New York

Extreme levels of poverty is one of the unique features of these growing megacities. “A few of the elder giants — New York, Tokyo, Paris — grew huge under the influence of forces that helped give birth to modernity itself: the rise of nation states, manufacturing and mass domestic markets…. Many new cities are getting big without growing rich,” German and Pyne write.

“These are poor cities, and that divide is really important,” Deborah Balk, an urbanization specialist with the CUNY Institute for Demographic Research in New York City, says. “There was poverty in London, New York, and Paris and Tokyo 100 years ago — and there still is poverty in some of those cities — but they never had slums in the way you see in today’s contemporary poor cities.”

Dhaka is one such poverty-stricken megacity.

Urban geographer Nazrul Islam, a native of Dhaka, estimates that approximately 70% of the city’s households earn less than $170 per month.

And the bottom 40% of the population earn less than half of that!

Disasters from Climate Change Drive Waves of Internal, City-Ward Migration

Quick climate and environmental changes and disasters spurring mass human migrations are one major cause and concern of climate change. The poorest countries, of course, are at the most risk when it comes to climate change. And these rapid migrations can be especially hard for poorer nations to handle. Bangladesh is already seeing such migrations.

“Each season, cyclones, floods and creeping sea-level rise drive thousands of Bangladeshis from their villages,” German and Pyne write.

“The country is always facing some disaster,” says aid worker Ranajit Das. “Every year.” Das has spent his whole career in Dhaka slums.

And for a little geographic comparison, look at this:

Bangladesh’s population of 150 million people — about half the United States — is crammed into an area smaller than the state of Iowa. The country has but one administrative and economic center. For Bangladeshis on the move, Islam said, “their first destination is the large city, Dhaka.”

Dhaka as a Sustainable Development Example

Dhaka is a unique example, but it is also a preview of things to come. And if we don’t learn to manage unique urban migrations and the growth of megacities, we are in for a bleak future.

There are some features of existing megacities that can definitely be seen as positives:

  • “As countries urbanize, birthrates tend to decline;”
  • 1/3 of Dhaka newcomers see their incomes fall arriving in the slums there, but many others do find a way to move up economically and socially from the migration;
  • “Cities — even slum cities — use energy more efficiently than villages do;” and
  • “leaving villages behind helps blunt the environmental devastation wrought by subsistence farming.”

While there are huge livability problems in poverty-stricken megacities, there are also a lot of opportunities.

“The old thinking is that slums were the problem,” environmental theorist Stewart Brand says. “The new way of thinking is they’re the solution.”

For more detail on the growth of megacities and the situation in Dhaka/Bangladesh, check out GlobalPost’s piece, “Dhaka: fastest growing megacity in the world.”

Photo Credits: joiseyshowaa via flickrAhron de Leeuw via flickr; via flickr