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'Pay attention to the urbanization of major population centers'

Essay excerpted from "America in the World: MIT Speaks," a booklet of 25 essays by a diverse group of student leaders to describe what they think the United States must do to make the world a better place in 2008.

Pay attention to the urbanization of major population centers

-- Angelica G. Weiner '09 (Course 11)

We are reaching a pivotal point in history when, for the first time, the majority of the population is expected to live in urban areas. Globally, more than 75% of future urban growth is expected to occur in already crowded slums. According to a 2003 United Nations HABITAT report, slums are sites of extreme inequality, places where people cannot secure key necessities such as water, durable housing, even a nearby toilet. This problem does not only afflict the developing world; American communities are experiencing the pressures of crowding, poverty, and diminishing green space.

If the future of our planet is indeed an urban one, we need to see greater leadership from scholars and politicians in the field. Those who are responsible for shaping our built environment and city infrastructure have not been as innovative as they can be, a reality that is costing communities extra tax dollars and causing them great environmental harm. With rising carbon dioxide emissions and shrinking freshwater reservoirs, the option of designing environmentally sustainable cities to manage a population of over 6.6 billion is no longer a luxury.

Domestically, we need to adopt progressive legislation and pay greater attention to urban issues. Internationally, the United States Agency for International Development should take a more aggressive approach in addressing urban issues via leadership and information sharing, as opposed to its current stance of providing "catalyst funding" to outside groups.

Americans should care about rapid urbanization because it involves human rights, because slums are breeding grounds for crime and terrorism, and because it is the source of environmental degradation via pollution, depleted water tables, and deforestation. The future of our cities, as with many phenomena, presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

Angelica G. Weiner is an Executive Member of Engineers without Borders and an active member of the Urban Studies Student Council.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 4, 2008 (download PDF).

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