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Jewish World Review Nov. 8, 2002 / 3 Kislev, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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National Geographic: Urban overpopulation is good | Has anyone noticed what Sao Paulo looks like lately?

Anyone care? Didn't think so. Sao Paulo is one of those mysterious cities down there in Brazil somewhere that most folks in Norte America have forgotten even exists. But while no one's been paying attention, Sao Paulo has become the third largest city on Earth.

That is Sao Paulo's hideous but amazing forest of downtown high-rises sprawled across three pages in the November National Geographic, which makes an interesting and surprising case that it's a good thing that the world's biggest cities are swelling with population.

We think Las Vegas has had a growth spurt because its population has gone up 83 percent since 1990. A hundred years ago, Sao Paulo had 265,000 people - fewer than Pittsburgh had at the time. Today, it has 18 million citizens.

Only Tokyo (26 million) and Mexico City (18.1 million) are bigger. Sao Paulo doesn't have an NFL team yet. But it's the economic locomotive of Brazil and Latin America's largest consumer market. It also is home to enough crime, poverty and traffic problems to make Rudy Giuliani cry - 9,000 murders a year compared to 700 for New York City, for example.

Sao Paulo is one of four cities most people never think about that National Geographic visits in "Cities," which says 60 percent of the world's population will be urban by 2030. The other cities are Bangkok in Thailand (10 million), Lagos in Nigeria (9 million) and tiny Hyderabad in India (5 million).

The furious growth of mega-cities - urban areas with 10 million people or more - around the globe has been astounding. As one of National Geographic's trademark graphics shows, in 1950 there was but one mega-city on the planet - New York. By 1995, there were 14. By 2015, there will be 21.

Cities have been getting a bum rap since the Industrial Revolution started sucking the starving wretches from the English countryside. Cities are where the sins are, where the exploitation of workers takes place, where life is poor, dirty and bad compared to the alleged Garden of Eden everyone enjoyed in the sticks.

But surprisingly, National Geographic's writer, Erla Zwingle, doesn't buy into those anti-city, anti-capitalist fallacies. (To see how nasty, brutish and short life really was in rural England, rent "Monty Python and the Holy Grail.")

As Zwingle points out, cities also are where the courts, the markets and the universities are - and where a country's wealth and prosperity are jacked up for millions.

What passes for better city living today in teeming Third World burgs such as Sao Paulo, Bangkok, Lagos and Hyderabad is shocking to us in ways that Zwingle's descriptions and Stuart Franklin's good photos can only hint at.

But Zwingle, rightly, sees the people packed into these urban jungles not just as social burdens that need to be fed or sheltered, but as their cities' richest resources.

More than 100 years ago, we First Worlders figured out - kind of - how to make untamed metropolises such as London and New York work. Zwingle believes the "tenacious, gallant, ingenious and hopeful" Third Worlders she saw in places like Sao Paulo and Lagos will figure it out, too.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald