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State Of The World: Our Urban Future 2007

by Worldwatch Institute
Earthscan Publications, London,UK, 2007
250 pp. $270.00
ISBN:978-1 84407-391-7.

Reviewed by Mit Mitropoulos
Brussels, Belgium


How could it be that I, in fact, live a simpler life in downtown Brussels than many locals do in my Greek village (population: less than 2000, no. of photocopiers: 2 (one of which in the municipality office), Internet cafes:0, restaurants: one too many and counting. The village is now a three hours drive from downtown Athens that has just sucked in more than half of the total population of Greece. With an ages-old island mentality (accessible only by boat up to late 1960s), the village was a time-past choice destination for those travellers visiting Delphi but thrives since 1990 on Athens-based weekenders (and currently also to Athenians frolicking in Arachova as a wintertime Myconos). Have I been right in claiming the village runs for the last 10 years as a one-dimensional suburb of Athens and that in environmental economic terms it has been losing out in accumulated resources we cannot replace, rather than apparently gaining an easy income?

State Of The World (SOFTW) raises the issue for the need to have and share definitions necessary to carry out comparisons following the collection of statistical data. One example is what makes a settlement qualify as 'urban': Is it the number of citizens living within a city's jurisdiction, and/or any high density areas, and/or those economically directly linked to that downtown center? Or is it (I would add) the population/servicers ratio, as with the services phonebook in Brussels being twice the size of the one for subscriber individuals——whilst Athenians are four times as many as the services available to them? And what about calling London/Brussels/Paris (centers of information) from Athens (periphery lacking information), having been more expensive that any phone calls in the opposite center-to-periphery direction? After all, if we are networked Europeans(as we claim to be, in response to political hype and marketing), why shouldn't we live in nodes that function both as center and as periphery at any time——which is my definition for a 'network', see my positive downtown Brussels experience for instance? Or why do we accept the negative experience of a German/Dutch/British tourist in need (to match healthcare at home) of telemedicine in the Aegean islands of Greece (long overdue for the last 25 years)?

As SOFTW tells us: "Despite apparent differences in politics, economics, and culture, cities in developing countries and the industrial world have many problems in common, often more than they share with small towns or villages in their own countries" (p. 189). Quite so, of course, and how would I like the Worldwatch Institute (WI) to have provided us with a few mapping efforts of this reality still inconvenient to many in their SOFTW as 'annual report on progress toward a sustainable society 2007'?

On the cover of the report we have a Dubai (United Arab Emirates) hotel array of lifts on their effortless vertical trips surfing along the inside wall within the outside skin, whilst the picture below is of ground level dwellers going nowhere as stuck in their slums at Kroo Bay, Freetown, Sierra Leone. It is true that 1-in-3 of urbanites (now exceeding the rural population worldwide——as it was indeed anticipated) live in such slums. To give an idea of the proportion of city people living in slums, it was reported elsewhere one year ago that 37.8% goes for the Chinese, 55.5% for Indians, 36.6% for Brazilians, 79.2% for Nigerians, 73.6% for Pakistanis, 84.7% for those in Bangladesh, 23.1% of Indonesians, and 44.2% for Iranians (keeping in mind that the percentage for China actually means 193,8 million people). 90% of these are found in Asia, Latin America, and Africa——but SOFTW does not differentiate in contrast what I learned recently: the two former areas enjoying emerging-markets visibility including India and Indonesia (besides Hong Kong and China for Asia) this mid-October, whilst Latin American art sales at Sotheby's and Christie's have been reported to run together up to the $ 50.3m this May past, as compared to $ 39.3m last year and $21.1m of just two years earlier——this in contrast to the cost of wars for Africa going up to 13 billion Euros, the child mortality 50% higher than other similar parts of the world, and with 20% more illiterates, and 2.5 times less doctors per patients.

SOFTW this year is focusing on cities. It presents us with a list of most welcome case studies and programmed projects to monitor that are really worth checking as they fit many a reader's research or travel agenda: Timbuktu (Mali) and Loja (Eduador), Los Angeles and Melbourne, Rizhao (China)and Malmo, Jakarta and Mumbai, Nairobi and Petra, Lagos, Freetown, and Brno (Czech Republic). They help us check on managing tourism, collapsing infrastructures, environmental injustice, urban transportation, carbon emissions, reduction of natural disasters impact, clean water, urban farms, policing by the people, river management, solar power, and more.

But on the level of policy agenda, SOFTW is losing out. The no-need-to-change camp always believed in man's ingenuity and fixed keen on new technologies. Similarly, this year's SOFTW's trust goes specifically to Urban man's innovations——and a European Commission's presentation I am now looking up is backing the argument up, no questions asked: In that Economies Of Scale create energy and resource efficiencies. In consequence, it is urbanization (already happening and not thanks to our planning——and especially with no-need-to-change, isn't this fantastic?) is providing us with a splendid opportunity to provide the world's poor with decent living conditions and furthermore to do exactly that whilst conserving the resources on which we all depend. Isn't that neat and tidy? SOFTW goes on to add that after all human development has been highest in countries with mostly urban populations. But I would suggest that the economies-of-scale reference require a closer look to include both the Increasing returns to scale as well as the decreasing ones, and how diseconomies of scale 'internal' to a firm include optimum technology production levels beyond which costs do rise, and bureaucracy increases with the firm's size. On the other hand, diseconomies that are 'external' to firms include pollution and traffic congestion. I would invite SOFTW to provide each topic tackled, and invite each writer of a case study to provide us with: a) the level of required/exercised change in every instance, and to b)give us one environmental economics reference to go by.

Take Fair Trade, meaning that trade should not be exploitative as an exchange, but run on the long-term benefit to both parties. It would mean 1)healthy and safe working conditions excluding child labour, 2)environmentally sustainable practices, and 3) prices paid to small independent producers. SOFTW mentions FLO (Fair Trade labelling organisations)as a smooth run, not raising the question whether we Northern consumers are prepared to: a)read the Eco-labels, and b) be prepared to pay a higher price that could result in fair-trading with the South producing. This is assuming the issue is left to the consumers alone; see the marketplace——and I will skip here the interdependence between fighting corruption whilst improving governance in the South, a connection that SOFTW doesn't make.



Updated 1st April 2008

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