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Challenges of Urbanization

January 20, 2010

Cesar Chelala in The Globalist:

The basic health and well-being of the inhabitants of the world’s cities is being robbed as a result of unregulated environmental pollution, shrinking green areas, inadequate housing, overburdened public services, a mushrooming of makeshift settlements on the outskirts lacking in both infrastructure and services, mounting anomie — and the sheer numbers of neighbors who do not know neighbors.

Beijing, a city of over 17 million inhabitants, exemplifies this social alienation. Until the early 1980s, the Chinese capital was constructed as a multitude ofsiheyuans, or one-story complexes built around a common courtyard that were inhabited by three or four families who shared a single kitchen and water spigot.

These courtyards were connected by narrow streets called hutongsthat formed a grid from north to south and east to west.

This open structure greatly facilitated contact between neighbors, encouraged the sharing of resources, fostered relations between contiguous families and enabled the elderly to care for children and share with them their passion for songbirds. Because of these characteristics, these almost idyllic structures were described as “collections of small rural villages.”

Until the mid-1980s, only a few skyscrapers disrupted the harmony of the landscape. Today, that panorama has the look and feel of the ultimate modern city, where, with few exceptions, these “small rural villages” have been supplanted by sterile, towering skyscrapers. This striking change is not limited to external structures. It has dramatically altered the fabric of human relations as well. [More]

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