In Epochal Shift, Half Humanity to Become Urban
AMBOSELI, Kenya -- With the world poised to enter an urban age when more people will live in cities than in the countryside, Josiah Tobiko sees no need to move from his cow dung-covered hut in rural Kenya.
"You can choose city life with televisions and mobile phones but I prefer living here," said Tobiko, a Maasai teacher who lives in a settlement of 125 cattle and goat herders with no electricity or piped water at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Tobiko, 35, moved into a new one-storey home this year -- made of tree branches tied with sisal and coated with about six inches (15 cms) of cow dung and mud.
Here in Amboseli, lions and elephants are residents' most pressing concerns, not road accidents or muggers.
"People go and live in the towns but most come back because they feel there's no culture there," Tobiko said.
He may be right but for now, more and more people are moving to the world's cities and this population shift promises to usher in an urban age -- 6,000 years after the first cities emerged in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley.
According to U.N. data, the world's urban population is poised to surpass the rural total for the first time in history.
One U.N. estimate says Aug 16, 2008 will be the day the shift will happen, with the urban population expected to overtake the 3,349,383,005 estimated rural total. Officials admit that is based on projections and incomplete censuses.
By 2030, two-thirds of humanity will live in cities. New buildings are likely to dwarf what are now the tallest icons of urban life -- the Taipei 101 building at 509 metres (1,670 ft) or the 452-metre (1,483 ft) Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
By that year, more than half of all Africans will live in cities, making up a larger population than the whole of Europe.
The date of the overall shift may still be under debate but experts say the change is inevitable.
"We live in an age of unprecedented, rapid, irreversible urbanisation," said Anna Tibaijuka, head of the U.N. Human Settlements Programme U.N.-HABITAT. "The cities growing fastest are those of the developing world, and the fastest-growing neighbourhoods are the slums."
One billion people -- a sixth of humanity -- live in slums.
MEGA OR HYPER
This population shift will lead to a new kind of city -- "mega cities" with more than 10 million people will soon be eclipsed by "hyper cities" with more than 20 million.
So far, only Tokyo qualifies as a "hyper city" but the greater city areas of Mumbai, Lagos, Dhaka and Sao Paulo will also surpass 20 million by 2015, according to U.N. projections.
Urban life offers everything from restaurants, bars, Internet cafes, cinemas, nightclubs, museums and theatres. Some people move to cities to experience living in a cultural melting pot, or in places seen as centres of power and innovation.
At the other end of the scale, many poorer people move to cities in search of work. Those who are unsuccessful can easily slip into a kind of city underworld, living hand-to-mouth in dangerous slums, far from family support.
But in wealthier lands, some find the opportunities offered by cities outweigh problems such as cramped spaces, higher costs, long commutes and often more crime and pollution.
"I like it here," said Elisabeth Andvig, 20, who lives in a an apartment by the fjord in Oslo, Norway's capital. In a German survey this year, the Aker Brygge district where she lives was named the urban area with the highest standard of living in Europe.
"You can just go out the door and (you) are in the middle of the city with access to shops and all kinds of services. And at the same time you live by the sea," she said.
Urbanisation is often credited with bringing better health, literacy and wealth. But people who live in slums suffer as much as the rural poor, according to a U.N. study.
In Brazil, malnutrition among children stands at 19 percent in slums against 5 percent in non-slum residential areas.
"Things are getting worse, not better. I'm looking for a job but I can see no hope," said Thomas Ongez, 22, in Kibera, east Africa's biggest slum which sprawls on the edge of Kenya's capital Nairobi.
"Kibera is not the way to go," UN-HABITAT's Tibaijuka said during a recent visit to the slum, where stinking trash and sewage clog narrow, muddy streets between homes of corrugated iron, mud or wood. A space to sleep can cost about $5 a month.
VULNERABLE NEW WORLD
The trend to urbanisation may be irreversible, but cities and towns are not eternal:
Babylon, Troy, and Machu Picchu have come and gone; other cities have been destroyed by sieges, bombs or natural disasters like earthquakes, fire and disease. Some like Rome have been rebuilt on the ruins of former grandeur.
New threats are emerging all the time: the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States exposed modern cities' vulnerability to a handful of suicidal hijackers.
Then there are the human risks: the United Nations has warned that the growing number of poor slum dwellers is a ticking time bomb that governments dare not ignore.
Longer-term risks include rising sea levels linked to global warming, widely blamed on human use of fossil fuels. Scientists who advise the United Nations say ocean levels may rise by 9-88 cms (3.5-35 inches) by 2100.
"If sea levels rise by just one metre, many major coastal cities will be under threat," Tibaijuka said. These include Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Cairo, Tokyo and Lagos.