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By Erla ZwinglePhotographs by Stuart Franklin

By 2030, two out of three people will live in an urban world, with most of the explosive growth occurring in developing countries. For a preview of the future, the last in the Challenges for Humanity series explores São Paulo, Brazil; Lagos, Nigeria; Bangkok, Thailand; and Hyderabad, India.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

There once was a time when big cities thrilled and amazed people. "It is the metropolis of the universe, the garden of the world," Ibn Khaldun, the Arab historian, wrote of Cairo in 1382. English traveler Thomas Coryat described Renaissance Venice as a "beautiful queene." French artist Marcel Duchamp, in 1915, called New York City "a complete work of art." Since their appearance about 3000 B.C., cities have always been the natural center of everything that mattered: the temple, the court, the market, the university. And for anyone with a particle of ambition, there is little choice. Shakespeare left Stratford to go to London, after all; not the reverse.

Of course, your own city may not immediately inspire words like "peerless" or "paradise." Even though cities have been the fountains of civilization, many thinkers, from Rousseau to Jefferson to Thoreau, have regarded cities as the source of corruption and evil. The universal myths of earliest Edens are always set in the country; the city is what happens after sin sets in.

However urban life strikes you, cities worldwide have been growing ever more rapidly. Some of this growth has occurred in the developed world—Las Vegas, for example, grew by 83 percent in the nineties. But the most dramatic increase has been in the Third World. Almost all the world's population growth over the next 30 years will take place in the cities of developing countries. By the year 2030, for the first time in history, 60 percent of the world's people will be living in cities....

This is actually good news in some ways. "Cities are the fundamental building blocks of prosperity," says Marc Weiss, chairman of the Prague Institute for Global Urban Development, "both for the nation and for families." Industrial and commercial activities in urban areas account for between 50 and 80 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in most countries of the world. "There's the crazy notion that the way to deal with a city's problems is to keep people out of them," Weiss continued. "But the problems of rural life are even more serious than those of the city." For better or worse, urban-watchers are clear on one point: The quality of life for most people in the future will be determined by the quality of cities.

Those cities will be bigger than ever. A megacity has more than ten million inhabitants. In 1995 there were 14; in 2015 there will be 21. And the ranking will have shifted: Today the five largest cities are Tokyo, Mexico City, São Paulo, New York City, and Mumbai (Bombay), and in 2015 they will probably be Tokyo, Dhaka, Mumbai, São Paulo, and Delhi.

And yet, population numbers by themselves don't determine a city's prospects; after all, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Hamburg, Germany, have the same population. Nor is explosive growth necessarily the determining factor. "City problems," one authority points out, "mostly have to do with weak, ineffective, and usually unrepresentative city governments."

None of this is inevitable. Lest we imagine that slums and misery are somehow the fate of the Third World, it's worth recalling the horrific lower depths of London, Paris, and New York that inspired the great social movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the crusading zeal of novelists Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo and photographer Jacob Riis against the festering tenements, sweatshops, and child labor that blighted these cities, now among the First World's proudest metropolises. Solutions have been found before.

To discover how people are coping with drastic urban growth, photographer Stuart Franklin and I went to São Paulo, Bangkok, Lagos, and Hyderabad. I was prepared to be overwhelmed, and I was. But it wasn't the shapeless turmoil, the choking air, the crushing slums and mindless skyscrapers and fetid streams that left the deepest impression. It was the people, so tenacious, gallant, ingenious, and hopeful. These massive cities are not, as they may first appear, overloaded freighters with no rudder and a large hole in the hull. In the anonymous stretches of city peripheries and the deepest pockets of teeming old quarters, I found that what appeared to be each city's greatest burden—all those people—is in fact her richest resource. How to make it work is the problem.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

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The stresses of slum life manifest themselves in myriad ways—drugs, crime, family violence, disease, fires, and hopelessness—that can frustrate and even defeat grandiose municipal schemes. But in most big cities in the world, scores of private organizations, some foreign, many homegrown, are working at street level to provide what the government isn't able to.

I visited many such projects: In São Paulo the nuns at Monte Tabor run a school and a farm, where growing corn and nurturing the baby goats helps the tense children become more gentle themselves; or the Ashoka Foundation (, where Leonardo Pessina has spent 30 years helping the formerly homeless build their own houses and, at the same time, build a sense of community. These nonprofit, multifaceted organizations fill in the gaps in city life that fast development and uneven distribution of benefits have torn open.

Bangkok's Duang Prateep Foundation ( is an excellent example, with the added benefit that its founder, Prateep Ungsongtham Hata, was born and grew up in Bangkok's oldest and largest slum, Khlong Toei. Now a national senator, Prateep met me in the national parliament building. "When I was five my mother took me to play on the swings at Lumpini Park," she recalled, referring to a park in an upscale section of Bangkok. "I wondered why I couldn't have that every day. But I only did that one time when I was a child."

Certain facilities in Khlong Toei are better now—paved streets, coin laundries, even an Internet café—but the quality of the services is still a problem, especially lack of schools in the poor areas. Prateep, a former teacher, is concerned with how education shapes the future. "How to help the young children is to show them how to have a vision for their own future," she said. "They don't have that. Because if we are poor we need to develop ourselves to get a better future, not just give up and get some money easily." I deduced that she was referring to crime and drug trafficking, much worse now than when she was a child. To help nurture that vision of the future, the Duang Prateep Foundation has established numerous projects, ranging from kindergartens, school lunch programs, and a credit union, to vocational training, care for the elderly and disabled, and health education, including an AIDS project to raise awareness about prevention as well as training volunteers to help care for the ill at home. Puppet shows, art camps, and offering help with legal and other problems combine to fulfill the foundation's name: "beacon of hope."

— Erla Zwingle

Did You Know?

Related Links
United Nations Human Settlements Programme
Learn more about the United Nations' efforts to improve living conditions—both urban and rural—for the world's people.

World Urbanization Prospects: The 2001 Revision, Data Tables and Highlights
Read the UN's most recent report on the history and future of urbanization worldwide. If you live in a very large metropolitan area, you may find projections for its future population—through 2015—in table A.12.

Prague Institute for Global Urban Development
This nonprofit organization works to improve urban environments around the world.

The Urban Institute
The Urban Institute's wide-ranging experts—including economists, policy analysts, population specialists, and urban planners—examine urban conditions around the globe and advise policy makers on ways to improve quality of life in cities.


Caldeira, Teresa P. R. City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo. University of California Press, 2000.

Evans, Peter, ed. Livable Cities? Urban Struggles for Livelihood and Sustainability. University of California Press, 2002.

Hall, Peter, and Ulrich Pfeiffer. Urban Future 21: A Global Agenda for Twenty-First Century Cities. E and FN Spon, 2000.

Hardroy, Jorge E., Diana Mitlin, and David Satterthwaite. Environmental Problems in an Urbanizing World. Earthscan Publications, 2001.

United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat). Cities in a Globalizing World: Global Report on Human Settlements 2001. Earthscan Publications, 2001


NGS Resources
Mitchell, John G. "Urban Sprawl," National Geographic (July 2001), 48-73.

Swerdlow, Joel. "Tale of Three Cities: Alexandria, Córdoba, and New York," National Geographic (August 1999), 34-61.

Levine, Robert. "Time Doesn't Stand Still for Cities on the Go," National Geographic (March 1998), Geographica.

Dunn, Jerry. "Treasures in Thailand," National Geographic World (October 1995), 2-6.

Schultheis, Robert. "Bangkok," National Geographic Traveler (March/April 1989), 42-60.

Graves, William. "Bangkok, City of Angels," National Geographic (July 1973), 96-129.

Moore, W. Robert. "As São Paulo Grows: Half the World's Coffee Beans Flavor the Life and Speed the Growth of an Inland Brazil City," National Geographic (May 1939), 657-688.


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