Pictured above: Seoul, South Korea
Cities can become a huge headache if not managed well – numerous examples, say, Lagos or Jakarta, can say a lot about it. But, looking at it on the other perspective, cities can also offer a great lesson for some of the world’s most cumbersome problems in 21st century, in particular the solutions policymakers are seeking.
Take a look back at this National Geographic’s December 2011 edition article.
The fear of urbanization has not been good for cities, or for their countries, or for the planet. South Korea, ironically, has never quite shaken the notion that its great capital is a tumor sucking life from the rest of the country. Right now the government is building a second capital 75 miles to the south; starting in 2012, it plans to move half its ministries there and to scatter other public institutions around the country, in the hope of spreading Seoul’s wealth. The nation’s efforts to stop Seoul’s growth go back to Park Chung-Hee, the dictator who jump-started the economy. In 1971, as the city’s population was skyrocketing past five million, Park took a page from the book of Ebenezer Howard. He surrounded the city with a wide greenbelt to halt further development, just as London had in 1947.
Both greenbelts preserved open space, but neither stopped the growth of the city; people now commute from suburbs that leapfrogged the restraints. “Greenbelts have had the effect of pushing people farther out, sometimes absurdly far,” says Peter Hall, a planner and historian at University College London. Brasília, the planned capital of Brazil, was designed for 500,000 people; two million more now live beyond the lake and park that were supposed to block the city’s expansion. When you try to stop urban growth, it seems, you just amplify sprawl.
Sprawl preoccupies urban planners today, as its antithesis, density, did a century ago. London is no longer decried as a tumor, but Atlanta has been called “a pulsating slime mold” (by James Howard Kunstler, a colorful critic of suburbia) on account of its extreme sprawl. Greenbelts aren’t the cause of sprawl; most cities don’t have them. Other government policies, such as subsidies for highways and home ownership, have coaxed the suburbs outward. So has that other great shaper of the destiny of cities—the choices made by individual residents. Ebenezer Howard was right about that much: A lot of people want nice houses with gardens.