The Urban Saga and the New York Microcosm
Times Square pulses twenty-four hours a day. Flashing neon signs light up the night sky as crowds of New Yorkers and tourists dodge cars and buses, despite occasional crackdowns on jaywalking. We may find similar displays in the streets of Shanghai, London, Paris, and Tokyo, but somehow it is New York, with its Forty-Second-Street-and-Broadway anchor point for Times Square, that seems more than any other to be the crossroads of the world. ]
The new millennium brought a sanitization effort to the tawdrier side of Times Square, with sex shops, streetwalkers, and X-rated movies shunted downtown or to peripheral streets and avenues. Who knows how long this "Disneyfication"-with its spate of glass-and-steel hotels, and its theaters proffering "wholesome family entertainment"-will last before it too is replaced by the next wave of change, whether this means still-newer forms of entertainment or the lapse back into sleaze that would reflect yet another economic downturn.
Whatever happens, one thing is sure: nothing stays the same. Cities are in constant flux. When George M. Cohan wrote "Give My Regards to Broadway" in 1904, he followed the first line with "Remember me to Herald Square. Tell all the folks on 42nd Street that I will soon be there"-a reminder of the days when the theater district was in the act of pulling up its roots at Thirty-Fourth Street (that is, Herald Square, home to Macy's) and about to reinvent itself in the Times Square neighborhood, since known simply as the theater district.
Beyond recognizing the flux of a city's normal growth and change, we can also see that cities, like people, have births, lifetimes, and inevitably declines and demises. What is more, there simply was no such thing as a city just ten thousand years ago. Back then, there were roughly 5 million people on the planet-maybe 10 million at most. By 2011, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, New York City alone had some 8,175,133 residents, and millions more if you count all of Greater New York. What's more, those 5 or 10 million human souls on earth ten thousand years ago were thinly distributed around the globe, all the way from present-day Cape Town in southernmost Africa, up through the environs of modern Paris and Berlin, east over to where Calcutta and Beijing now stand, then on down to the future sites of Bangkok in Thailand and Jakarta in Indonesia, and all the way to where Australia's Adelaide, Perth, and Sydney were to be built many millennia later. People had also reached the Western Hemisphere, but just barely. By then, they might already have traversed what would someday become Manhattan Island. And while some bands had reached as far south as modern-day Brasilia, people hadn't yet made it to Kingston in the Caribbean islands.
Only small, temporary villages held any concentration of people, for humans, scattered around the globe as they were, still lived the seminomadic life that is the lot of all folk who hunt, fish, and gather wild plants to stay alive. The relatively few hunter-gatherers who survive today generally cluster in small groups of between 40 and 70 people. These bands live in temporary encampments with hide tents or simple thatch or wooden huts, migrating seasonally or as environmental conditions dictate. It cannot be otherwise, for all their water and food supplies come from their surrounds, the natural ecosystems of which they are an integral part. ]
Think of a hunter-gatherer, a San person (a "Bushman"), say, living in the Kalahari Desert that sprawls across large sections of Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. The distinction between life in a semidesert and life in millennial New York may seem obvious: Aboriginal San, documented by anthropologists, had few material goods beyond their simple clothing: bows and poison arrows, gourd bowls, and a few other products fashioned from the minerals, plants, and animals that came to hand.1 New Yorkers of all social strata, however, have televisions, computers, cell phones, electricity, hot and cold running water, and so on, an almost limitless list of material goods inextricably linked to modern life. New Yorkers live in brick-and-mortar, steel-and-concrete, wooden, or granite or brownstone buildings, all of which exude an aura, at least, of permanence; San, in contrast, lived in easily constructed and dismantled one-room huts.
More crucially and tellingly, San men were often out on the hunt, while San women were constantly collecting tubers, melons, and other plants to prepare their meals. All members of the group were highly aware of where their food and water came from. In stark contrast, New Yorkers go shopping for their supplies at the corner market, the big supermarket, or upscale food emporia. New Yorkers in general think no more of where their food comes from (other than "da store") than they think about where their electricity, running water, or heat comes from. ]
But below the surface differences between the San way of life and a New Yorker's lies a profound gulf of radical change. The New York mode of getting food from the store (much less takeout delivery) did not somehow evolve gradually from the constant search for food that was the human condition until around ten thousand years ago. Instead, regular food supplies represent a major revolution in the economic (or ecologic) affairs of humanity, the first agricultural revolution.
Think what agriculture means: taking the production of your food into your own hands. No longer do you sally forth with your compatriots, carefully stalking game or scouring the environs for edible fruits and veggies. Instead you go out to the fields nearby, cut the trees, remove large boulders, scrape some furrows in the land, plant your millet, wheat, or sorghum seeds-and pray for rain. Every day you go out to check the progress of your crop, for if it fails to thrive, the winter will be harsh. You learn to remove the native plants that forever try to regain their lost foothold in your fields. You scare away, trap, or kill the animals that still think your fields are their lands to graze and hunt on.
Before agriculture, there were neither "weeds" nor any animal "pests." Only after we took over the lands, declaring all plants off-limits except the one or two crops we were intent on growing, did we start competing with Mother Nature rather than viewing ourselves as parts of the local ecosystem, careful to take only what we needed to keep ourselves going. Suddenly we needed that land for our own exclusive use. It is as if people had declared war on the natural ecosystems with which they had peacefully coexisted throughout all former human history.
This giant step was an extremely bold and immediately successful move: we abandoned the natural world of the ecosystem to take life into our own hands. With that step, we became the first species in the entire 3.7-billion-year history of life to try something different. For the first time, we chose to live not off the natural fruit of the land, according to our tastes, needs, and ability to wrest a living from the natural world, but rather according to our wits and emerging skills at farming and animal husbandry.
So far, it has proved to be a successful experiment. Although famine has stalked the enterprise since its inception (every bit as much as it still haunts us today), those crops have yielded plenty for us more often than not. Ecologists measure success by the rate of expansion of a population, and if we apply this simple yardstick, the invention of agriculture and the simultaneous abandonment of life in the natural ecosystem has been a howling success. At the very dawn of agriculture only ten thousand years ago, we were a few million; we now number in the billions-6 billion at the dawn of the new millennium, nearly 7 billion a decade later, and still very much in the explosive, expansionist phase.
The agricultural way of life had other immediate effects on the way people lived their lives. Most hunter-gatherers are at least seminomadic, wandering a wide range as they move on to fresher fields. Some follow migrating herds; others track emerging fruits and vegetables in different areas as the seasons progress. Nearly all temporarily deplete what nature has to offer, and most move on to richer areas, giving the places they most recently occupied a chance to recover and once again become an attractive place to live.
But to farm is to plant your feet firmly in one place. True, soils lose their nutrients and harvests dwindle if fields are constantly used and replanted with the very same crops. Some early farmers, particularly in regions with wet tropical forests, developed a slash-and-burn approach, felling a section of forest, burning the cut brush and timber to enrich the soils, then planting yams or manioc for years until the soil weakened and it was time to repeat the process in an adjoining stretch of woodlot. Eventually, all tall timber in that neck of the woods would be felled, and then it would be time to either relocate the settlement or start the cycle all over again right there.
Farmers today still let their fields lie fallow to recover, or they plant a rotation of crops that lends a chemical balance to the land. They fertilize their fields-at one time with manure or perhaps fish (as native Americans, including the legendary Squanto, a member of the Pokanoket tribe, taught the pilgrims to do when they planted corn), but now, increasingly, with chemicals that, along with pesticides, have had alarmingly negative effects on life outside those farm fields.
But whatever tricks farmers across the ages have devised to keep their fields productive, our point is that farming literally keeps you close to home. Throughout history, farming has led to increasingly permanent settlements. Long gone are the days when small villages of farmers could simply pull up stakes and find some new locale in which to set up their enterprise, for as human numbers have grown, available land has proportionately shrunk. And these settlements have of course grown-to the point where no one thinks of a city like New York as a place where farmers live and go out every day to tend to their crops in adjoining fields. Never mind that until around 1900, Brooklyn (the third-largest city in the United States until 1898, when it became a borough of the city of Greater New York) supplied much of the green groceries that reached the dining tables of New York City-meaning, for the most part, the denizens of Manhattan Island. Truck farming was a vibrant feature of the landscape of the Bronx, Staten Island, and Queens, not to mention a feature of what later became, after World War II, the rural suburbs of Westchester and, increasingly, of New Jersey's coastal plain. (New Jersey's nickname, "the Garden State," pays tribute to its former role in provisioning "the Empire State.") ]
Agriculture first arose in several different world regions at once, apparently independently, as if it were an idea whose time had come. The earliest records are from the Middle East, where the Natufian peoples of the Levant region (bordering the eastern Mediterranean) seem to have been the first to master the rudiments of isolating kernels of primitive wheat (traditionally called "corn" by Europeans, a source of great confusion to speakers of American English) and sowing them for next year's crop. This was about ten thousand to eleven thousand years ago. The famous Fertile Crescent, now largely the site of Iraq-a land bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers-was another early locus of farming, as was the incredibly fertile Nile Valley, whose fields were replenished every year by the floods that rise up deep in the heart of the African continent. With the floods came nutrients and a thin yet rich layer of new soil-no crop rotation necessary in Egypt!
No one supposes that these several, separate sites in the Middle East all reflect independent invention of farming know-how. Though warfare was common among the early states, so was diplomatic contact that fostered the spread of knowledge. Even warfare brought innovation, as conquering peoples brought with them new ideas. Probably the most famous example was the introduction of the wheeled vehicle to Egypt by the mysterious Hyksos invaders. (This in contrast to records of the potter's wheel seen in Egyptian tomb pictures from about 2500 B.C.) The Hyksos, also referred to as Hyk-Sos or as "shepherd kings," defeated the Egyptians and closed the pages of history on the "Middle Kingdom," largely by dint of their use of horse-drawn chariots, which until then had been wholly unknown to Nile Valley dwellers. The Hyksos invasion came at about 1650 B.C., after some two thousand years of successful Egyptian life, when cities like Memphis flourished and the huge pyramids were built, all without the aid of wheels.
There was plenty of communication to spread the word about farming around the Middle East (and eventually around the entire Mediterranean basin, and later into western Europe). But people elsewhere, seemingly independently, were also discovering the advantages of taking control by planting crops and domesticating animals for food and other uses, as hunting aids and home protection, not to mention as friendly household pets. Along the Indus River in what is now Pakistan, the city of Mohenjo-daro sprang up, along with the first flickers of what was to develop into the vast, rich Indian culture. Agriculture also fueled the early fires of Chinese civilization, at first especially along the banks of what Anglophones now call the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers.
The people of the New World, who had first arrived from Asia in significant numbers starting around 12,500 years ago (though some evidence suggests earlier arrival dates for the very first immigrants), also developed several farming nuclei. Most famous are the Mayan and Aztec city-states of Central America and Mexico, as well as the cities of the Incan peoples of Peru. But agriculture soon developed virtually everywhere in the Americas, as the pilgrims and other early settlers of the east coast of North America quickly discovered.
One thing is clear: although we tend to think of farming as a purely rural activity, far removed from the inner workings of major cities, it is certain that without agriculture there would be, indeed there could be, no cities. True, many agricultural peoples have lacked a major settlement you would call a city. And many rural areas, even in technologically advanced nations like the United States, are far away from anything remotely resembling a true city. But the reverse is not true: there never was a city unless there was agriculture.
Looking at any map reveals another major feature of cities: by far the great majority of them are close to water, situated either along riverbanks, on the shores of major lakes, or-among those founded somewhat later-on harbors opening to the sea. Today, eight of the ten largest cities in the world are adjacent to, or connected to, the sea (the exceptions are Delhi and Mexico City). Most fertile farming areas, after all, are in the floodplains of rivers, so it was only natural that the earliest agriculturalists would be living where they had the best chance to succeed at this grand experiment in cultivation. And of course, farmers need water for their fields. The annual flood of the Nile brought more than nutrients and a thin rime of fertile new topsoil: it brought water itself, which the early Egyptian farmers learned to trap in a system of canals and dams. During the dry season, the Egyptian farmers would lift the water up to the level of the fields with a number of clever devices-including a simple clay pot on a counterbalanced pole (the shadouf) and, somewhat later, the Archimedes screw, a large screw inserted inside a cylinder that drew water upward when the screw was rotated. Still later, the Egyptians were bequeathed the ox-driven water wheel by their Roman conquerors.
Water is so important to the agricultural enterprise that some scholars have insisted that control of the waterways was the key to political control ("unification") of large areas, typically along the course of major rivers such as, once again, the Nile. There's a lot to this argument: consider the political troubles over water rights that continue to beset the American West. Much of the water of eastern California and western Nevada was long ago earmarked for thirsty Los Angeles; with urban growth outstripping even these supplies, Los Angeles has turned to the waters of the Colorado River-which now no longer reaches the Gulf of California.
Nor are New Yorkers immune from political hassles over water, as we shall see in greater detail in chapter 5. New York's water supply lies well to the north, and while New York City might own the land around its upstate reservoirs and along the rights-of-way of its pipelines in order to protect the drainage basin and control sources of pollution, there has been friction over water use over the years, mitigated in recent years by cooperative policies. Restrictions on reservoir usage is but one of the prickly issues that constantly erupt in this situation. The water issue for New York and all other cities is in itself a microcosm of the reach of cities-and the sometimes negative impact of the sheer existence of cities on surrounding regions many miles distant from a city's core.
Water has always been a touchy issue. Who controls the water coursing from the interior uplands in progressively widening rivers as it nears the sea has always been a source of contention; people downstream are constantly worried about water being diverted farther upstream. The rise of cities is in no small measure the story of the successful political control of waterways. The political unification of Egypt-of the primordially separate fertile delta near the Mediterranean (Lower Egypt) with the four hundred miles or so of broad and fertile Nile Valley (Upper Egypt, stretching from Cairo south to the first cataracts of Aswan)-was accomplished, legend has it, when King Narmer seized control of this vast expanse of river and land.
Integrated control of waterways (including the periodic flooding of major rivers such as the Nile) is perhaps the essential ingredient of the growth of the early political states that arose after people developed a settled existence based on their early successes with agriculture. But why cities? After all, as recently as the 1970s, a satellite photograph of the Nile delta showed an astonishingly regular (though presumably not preplanned) distribution of towns and hamlets dotting the landscape. Only Cairo at the southern end of the delta; and Alexandria, the seaport on the Mediterranean; and a few other coastal sites were bona fide cities. The rest remained smaller concentrations of humanity.
So why cities? Think of another major side effect of farming, of taking the production of food directly into our own human hands: from the beginning, farming was for the most part a success. Local populations, no longer limited in numbers to the carrying capacity of the landscape around them (as had been the case for our hunter-gatherer progenitors), began growing almost immediately. Not everyone was needed to labor in the fields-and indeed, other needs prompted by settled existence quickly surfaced. In short, developing agricultural societies experienced an almost inevitable division of labor. Some people worked the fields; others made shoes, wove fabrics, or made beer and bread. Some worked metals into tools and weapons; some tended livestock; others made pots. Items were bartered, and later, with the invention of a monetary system controlled by the central government, people were paid in cash and bought their food, their shoes, their tools-all their necessities and more-with cash (or credit). The rudimentary division of labor typical of hunter-gatherers-with men doing the hunting, women and children the vegetable gathering and food preparation-became far more intricate. Some people could lead comfortable lives without thinking for a moment about where their food came from, as long as the merchant down the street kept selling the bread, the meats, the spices and fruits they could buy or trade for.
Again, water is the key, at least for early cities. Rivers were the highways of the ancient world, and although camel caravans could traverse the Silk Road and cross vast stretches of the Sahara, most of the early commerce was along rivers and, eventually, over stretches of large lakes and even seas. Rudimentary trading was known to Neanderthals and other early humans: in some areas, the best material for stone tools, for example, was often hundreds of miles away from where the tools have been found-yet it made its way far from the local outcroppings that were the only known source of supply. The trading habit was stimulated by the division of labor that sprang up with village life, itself a product of the agricultural revolution.
Water was power: for crops to feed the populace, as a source of political power, and as a highway that permitted the maintenance of order through power, and which supplied a means of moving people around and a means of exchanging material goods. Political power was concentrated in the hands of a few-or of a single king, emperor, or Pharaoh-God-while the economic power had to be concentrated in relatively few locales. The places best suited to meeting all these needs were generally very close to water. These were the places where population, material wealth, and political power tended to congregate and accumulate. They were places from which power radiated, and to which people could retreat (often behind fortresslike walls) when the enemy penetrated the outer defenses and drew close. These were the earliest cities.
Cities and the Natural World
What could be more different than a city like New York and a wild place like the Grand Canyon? New York is a paved-over, concrete, steel-and-macadam-ridden chunk of real estate. The Grand Canyon, in contrast, is a mile-deep chasm cut through the layers of the Colorado Plateau by the Colorado River, a gleaming ribbon to the eyes of the visitor gazing over the edge of the precipice. In many ways, cities like New York are the apotheosis of environmental destruction. What was once an ice field, then a tundra, then a forest is now a jumble of buildings and roadways. Places like the Grand Canyon, in contrast, survive either because their awesome beauty or remoteness-or in the case of the Grand Canyon itself, its sheer physical structure-preclude mass occupation by human beings. The Grand Canyon, much like New York, in the old saying, is "a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there."
True, people flock by the thousands in good weather to visit the Grand Canyon. And some intrepid souls walk or ride mules or horses down to the Colorado River and back up again, or they sally forth in rafts to brave the rapids of the river. You do not have to look far to see the "hand of man" imprinted all over the place. And on the other side of the ledger, trees actually do grow in Brooklyn-and in Manhattan, too. The garden plots, roof gardens, and extensive parks of New York everywhere refresh the urban environment, deliberately recalling the natural woodlots and fields that not long ago dominated Manhattan Island. But if there is people-induced degradation in almost all wild places, and if there are parks and gardens in even the most crowded of cities, such as New York, on the whole the differences are nonetheless glaring: New York is human-made, the Grand Canyon is of nature. ]
Nature has been taking it on the chin ever since people came along-people with increasingly sophisticated cultural techniques for hunting and otherwise taking from the natural world what they need in order to live. And when agriculture came along, "fageddaboudit!" as New Yorkers are prone to say. Tilling the fields, and keeping all but the planted crops and invited stock animals out, is a direct declaration of war on the very existence of the natural world. Never before had humans so passionately seen themselves as conquerors of nature-as beings perhaps made in God's image but, in any case, separate and distinct from the beasts of the field and all the rest of the natural world. Sportscasters on New York AM radio routinely refer to the Hackensack Meadowlands (across the Hudson River in New Jersey-home to both the "New York" Giants and Jets) as "the Swamp." New Yorkers and Jerseyites for the most part continue to see swamps as places where bad things happen, such as disease, as in malaria ("bad air"), or Mafia body-dumping. They especially see them as wasted space, places where a little landfill will go far toward making room for new condos, shopping malls, and sports arenas.
Yet the Jersey Meadowlands, washed twice a day by oceanic tides, are historical nursery grounds for many species of marine fishes and invertebrates, including significant components of the Atlantic fisheries that, until now, we could expect to find at the fish market or restaurant. Tidal wetlands also provide a buffer between oceanic storms and the land, as well as a source of flood protection. Loss of wetlands up and down the coast-and all over the world-explains in part why 90 percent of the major commercial fisheries of the oceans are severely depleted and, in some cases, faced with imminent collapse. There is a price to not knowing where your food comes from-other than from "the store."
Here's the problem: the invention of agriculture, followed quickly by the rise of cities and the flood of humanity that has yet to reach its peak, has put tremendous pressure on the lands and seas of the earth. At first glance, this may seem fine, for city dwellers in general like cities. (New Yorkers are notorious for not being able to imagine living anywhere else!) We have been on an extended honeymoon away from nature ever since agriculture came to inform the lives of the majority of the earth's people. We see ourselves as outside nature, which is neither wrong nor all bad since, as we have already noted, agriculture really does take people not just away from but truly outside, the living world.
Yet even though we are outside nature, we humans survive by wallowing in the wealth of nature's biodiversity. United Nations statistics suggest that people the world over-in cities but also in rural areas, in developed as well as in so-called third world nations-rely on a minimum of forty thousand species of plants, animals, fungi, and microbes on a daily basis just to keep going. We scour the seas for fish; we cut trees for fuel and building materials. We use plants for medicinal purposes as well as for food. Wild species play an important role in the ongoing search for medicines. In the world of modern biochemistry, we can synthesize most of the drugs we use to combat disease. But we can't make what we don't know about. So the major pharmaceutical companies are keenly interested in exploring the natural pharmacopoeia of plants (and even animals, such as coral-reef invertebrates) whose natural chemical products have already been discovered by indigenous peoples to have beneficial medicinal effects, or which, through direct experimentation, may prove to be the case. That the plants and animals of the world are rapidly disappearing is not only poignant but also a cause of great alarm among those who would document the vast untapped treasure troves of molecular pharmacology trapped in wild plants and animals before they all disappear.
Even agriculture itself, the very thing that plucked us from the arms of Mother Nature in the first place, is still tied to Mother's apron strings. Since all domesticated plants and animals came from wild species, the more we narrow the genetic variation in our domestic crops, the more urgent it is to locate the ancestors of domestic corn, wheat, apples, and oranges in the wild. We need ancestral genotypes so that we may study and even extract the original genetic materials, perhaps to help reinvigorate domestic lineages and to convey their resistance to disease and climatic events that has been lost over the ages as we have single-mindedly bred our domestic crops for high crop yields.
Beyond seeking food, shelter, and medicines, we rely as well on what is left of natural ecosystems to regulate water cycles and to produce oxygen and fix nitrogen, all essential ingredients of continued human existence. After all, no matter how civilized we take ourselves to be, we are very much still animals. We need oxygen; we need water; we need nitrogen. Nitrogen is an essential element in all proteins; no animal, certainly including human beings, is able to extract nitrogen directly from the environment and incorporate it into his or her body chemistry, despite the fact that the atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen. Only some bacteria and fungi-often in association with the roots of leguminous plants such as the members of the pea family or the clovers-can fix nitrogen in plants and thus make it available to animals (including us) when they eat those plants or eat the flesh of other animals who have eaten such plants.
Once again we confront the subject of water. Seemingly ubiquitous, it is an increasingly rare and precious commodity for fully one-third of the world's population, who have no ready, dependable access to freshwater supplies safe enough to drink. Water fills the oceans, but freshwater, the kind we humans use, must constantly be replenished. Water evaporates from standing bodies like lakes and ponds and, especially, the oceans, and it falls as rain, sleet, hail, and snow. Water runs down the hills in rivulets, merging into streams and then mighty rivers before it once again reaches the sea.
Water is trapped-at least temporarily-in lakes, ponds, and bogs; it saturates the ground, forming the water table. Part of the problem of access to water these days is that much of the water is either diverted, used up, or so badly polluted it can't be used. But a large part of the problem is destruction of the world's ecosystems: water is recycled through plant life. Plants take in water and carbon dioxide, which they transform, through photosynthesis, into oxygen, sugars, and water. Plants hold soil with their roots, retarding erosion, and they transpire-which, in the tropics, is the usual cause of the daily afternoon thundershowers during the rainy season. Plants also filter harmful chemicals from the air; nowhere is this most evident than in cities, in which air is measurably cleaner where trees are allowed to grow.
Paradoxically, then, people continue to need the natural world, and all the more so as our numbers grow and more and more of us lead the life of the inner-city resident. As cities have grown, it has become harder and harder to see that this is so, but it is indeed the case. Others have argued that, no matter how wedded to city life we may be, the lush greens of the countryside are part of our psychic makeup, even to the point of being somehow part of our genetic makeup (this is the notion of biophilia, developed by Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson).
The human population has skyrocketed since we took life into our own hands with the invention of agriculture. As our numbers have expanded, so have the acres of farmland we have put under cultivation. We have already exploited virtually all of the earth's natural habitats in our quest for resources. Human success, as expressed by our sheer growth in numbers, has come at the expense of the natural world-so much so that all the world's species (there are at least 10 million species) living in all the world's ecosystems are suddenly faced with extinction. Indeed, some are already gone, and an estimated thirty thousand species a year are currently being forever lost.
This is the great biodiversity crisis-the period of human-induced environmental change that has begun to drive entire species extinct. Some biologists have called this loss of species through the depletion of ecosystems the Sixth Extinction, since it resembles so closely the events of the past that also resulted in the net loss of millions of species. The last great mass extinction occurred 65 million years ago, when a huge asteroid struck the earth, creating ecological havoc and consigning many kinds of animals and plants, on land and in the sea, to oblivion. Among them were the dinosaurs-who had managed to survive for 150 million years before this cataclysm took them away. And while it may be happy news that, with the passing of the dinosaurs, we mammals began our ascendancy, consider this: it took the earth at least 5 million years to recover to the point where life had regained a semblance of normalcy.
Cities in many ways epitomize environmental destruction. Nothing else on earth comes as close as a city like New York to total environmental subjugation. To build a city, you not only cut down trees and plow under grasslands, but you also fill in entire lakes, remove entire hillsides, and displace huge quantities of earth and rock to plant the roots of tall buildings and to construct the tunnels where water, waste, subway lines, steam pipes, and electrical lines snake their way around as literal infrastructure.
Furthermore, because of the city's insatiable thirst for water and its need for food and other products, its reach extends far beyond its footprint, into the surrounding countryside. Nowadays, in the global economy, the reach of New York City is all the way around the world as traded goods depart from and arrive daily in New York's harbor. And perhaps even more critically, places like New York serve as financial hubs for the entire global trade apparatus, which exceeds $1 trillion dollars in trade every day! It is as if cities, blinded by their own needs and desires, and running on sheer need to keep the business flowing, are the ultimate source for much of the world's environmental destruction.
The picture is grim. But there is another side to it: if cities in themselves-and through their mighty and far-flung effects on distant lands-are the quintessence of environmental destruction, they also hold out our best chance to strike a balance, to conserve enough of the world's natural systems that human life will persist along with a goodly chunk of our biodiversity, whatever remains of the world's species and ecosystems.
Once again, there are local, regional, and international aspects to the good that cities can and do present to the natural systems of the world. Locally, through conservation of remnant wild areas, through preservation of unique animals and plants, and especially through the determined establishment of parks and gardens, cities actively recognize the needs of their inhabitants to keep in touch with the wilder, more natural parts of their earthly heritage. But even as cities reach their destructive tentacles far beyond their own physical and political limits, they also have the very strong potential to reverse, or at least slow down and alleviate, the tide of destruction now engulfing the entire planet. Most of the world's great cultural institutions-including institutions of higher learning such as universities, along with research institutes such as museums and zoos-are located in cities. The great banking and political forces are there, as are most of the media. If solutions are to be found to the current problems facing all of life on earth, human and otherwise, they are most likely to be found, developed, and promulgated in the world's great cities.
That, in a nutshell, is the yin and yang of cities with respect to the "forest primeval," which Henry Wadsworth Longfellow mentioned in his epic poem Evangeline. Cities need healthy chunks of the world's ecosystems to persist if they themselves are to persist; yet cities, like parasites, grow and prosper by local destruction of these very ecosystems. At once wonderful and terrible, cities offer the very best and the very worst of human existence, especially when we think of what the world was like just ten thousand years ago.
New York City is a youngster as far as cities go. Damascus in Syria is said to be the oldest of the world's continually occupied cities. Cairo was founded by the time of King Narmer, 3100 B.C. But whatever their age, cities represent that most human of impulses to associate in large numbers, protected from the usual limits nature imposes on life. Some Old World cities, such as Cairo, stand on ground occupied by prehistoric people so long ago that the surrounding deserts were then meadows filled with waterbirds and papyrus. Cities in the New World, such as Los Angeles and São Paulo, sprang to life in the wake of the European conquerors who followed Columbus. And cities like Beijing and New Delhi, with long imperial histories, have traded their traditions of rarified nobility for the roaring economic power that drives a national economy and concentrates impossibly large numbers of hopeful workers in a largely unplanned megalopolis.
Whatever the history or location, all megapolitan centers face universal challenges to survival. A brief review of their development and their responses to such needs as freshwater, clean air, adequate housing, and rubbish disposal reveals a pattern of underlying parallels in the timing and nature of solutions, even though local conditions or practices reflect unique problems and innovations. New York City and Los Angeles can breathe easy when they compare their air quality to places like Cairo and Beijing, which are listed in the top ten for poor air quality among the world's biggest cities. Yet, when we recall New York City's past, when it was mired in horse dung and blackened with coal smoke, it's no surprise to find planned reforms and environmental controls in less developed cities as they, too, grow up and catch up with places like New York or Singapore.
A 2002 World Bank study calculates a world urban average of 60 micrograms of particulate matter-soot, ash, dust, and so on-per cubic meter of air. Cairo, among the top five worst-affected cities in the world, comes in with levels above 130 micrograms per cubic meter. By comparison, the residents of New York and Los Angeles inhale 22 and 36 micrograms of particulate matter, respectively, in each cubic meter of air. It has been said that living in Cairo is like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, but there are signs that air improvement efforts are working. To remedy dangerously high levels of lead in the air and reduce exhaust, the government runs a free program to get some of the city's 1.5 million drivers to convert their cars to natural gas and underwrites the purchase of this fuel, so that it sells at the same price as gasoline. Around fifty-five thousand vehicles have been converted, which seems to be helping, since a 2004 pilot survey shows a significant decrease in many air pollutants. In addition, the Egyptian government has moved to control both agricultural burning and industrial sources of pollution such as potteries and foundries.
Beijing's best efforts to reduce pollution remain hazy at best. While considerable green efforts born on the eve of the 2008 summer Olympics continue to thrive, the population of Beijing now exceeds 17.5 million, and coal continues to supply 40 percent of its energy consumption. Meanwhile, congestion remains a challenge, with a thousand new vehicles registered daily. The usual toxic blend of domestic, industrial, and agricultural waste effluent and runoff renders much of Beijing's water unpotable. Of twenty-one reservoirs serving the city, several have dried up as a result of the progressive desertification of the countryside and owing to upstream degradations, diversions, and overuse. Water in the city's fourth-largest reservoir is now fit only for irrigation, and nearly half of Beijing's sightseeing lakes and ponds are too polluted to use for irrigating their surrounding parks. Beijing is currently experiencing severe water shortages, and the Yangtze River diversion has just recently begun sending water to Beijing.
In the New World, São Paulo is the earth's second-largest city, a megalopolis of 10 million within the larger metropolitan extent of Greater São Paulo encompassing a population of over 19 million Brazilians. Many live informally housed in favelas, the squatter settlements that sprout up without basic plumbing, sanitation, and electricity, which are unaffordable to a poor population pouring in from the countryside. To cite a single example, consider the impact of the favelas on the Guarapiranga reservoir located in the southwest of the metropolitan region of Greater São Paolo. The reservoir supplies 3 million inhabitants of metropolitan São Paolo. Mountains of uncollected garbage plus solid and contaminated waste previously blocked the natural drainage system, while liquid wastes drained into the reservoir, polluting the entire Guarapiranga water basin. In 1993 the city and the World Bank joined in funding a cleanup program that has shown positive results: fifty-two favelas in the Guarapiranga water basin gained infrastructure, recreation areas, and new housing units; nearly seven thousand families have seen such improvements, and a program of public information and environmental education helps residents learn how to protect their own environment and the reservoir.
For the 13 million people of Cairo, there is no water shortage on the banks of the Nile, which meets the city's entire freshwater demand, but the accumulated discharge into the Nile's 660-mile channel south of the Aswan Dam leaves it heavily polluted with wastewater. And while Cairo's drinking water is generally rated safe, in squatter neighborhoods such as the City of the Dead, which houses many thousands of living families in the cemetery's aboveground tombs, only public fountains are available. While official estimates calculate that 90 percent of residents have piped-in drinking water, the true figure is probably much lower, and long lines prevail at many public taps. Environmental studies show that as much as 80 percent of Egypt's industrial effluent is discharged into the Nile; at least half of the country's industry is located in the capital.
Yet the Egyptian Environmental Agency, established in 1997, reports progress in controlling industrial pollution. By 2006 the agency reported three consecutive years of improving water quality and the termination of industrial effluent from eighty-three establishments.
When we consider that, until recently, filthy conditions prevailed in the Hudson and East Rivers of New York City, that urban degradation in Westchester County polluted the Croton watershed north of New York City, and that New York City drains water from the Catskills and other outlying regions, our example of New York (see chapter 5 for a fuller account) holds promise for developing cities, even as they may supply some innovative solutions of their own.
In this regard, Singapore sets a standard that offers hope to the rest of the world. Considering the entire nation, with its population of 4.35 million, as the fully urbanized modern city-state it truly is, here we see one of the most densely populated places in the world. Yet a rigorous system of monitoring, regulation, and relocation of industrial sites, and vigilant pollution control, gives the nation access to approximately 1.3 million cubic meters of potable water a day. While the water quality fully meets World Health Organization requirements, Singapore is working to meet even higher criteria.
Garbage is another universal urban dilemma, but wealthy, first-world cities generate far more waste than poorer ones. Cities in the United States can reach waste-generation rates of over 1.2 kilograms per person daily, while the residents of some African cities may generate as little as 200 grams a day, most of it organic, in contrast to the high percentage of glass, plastic, and metal packaging associated with processed and packaged first-world goods. Since waste generated in developing countries generally contains about three times the percentage of organic materials found in industrialized countries, it tends to be denser and more humid, making it less suitable for compacting and landfill. In fact, the hilly location and narrow, ill-paved roads of places such as Mexico City and São Paulo make access for garbage trucks difficult anyway, causing half of Mexico City's garbage trucks in 2002 to be out of commission and in need of repair.
São Paulo's fourteen-thousand-ton daily discard equals the weight of the leaning Tower of Pisa, but the city's warm temperatures and humid climate make solid compacting techniques that are common in the United States unworkable here. Instead, organic trash is sorted out to be laid in windrows for composting, while catadores, the trash pickers of São Paolo, improve their lot by earning a better-than-average laborer's wage as they help the environment by scavenging and recycling most of the solid waste. Similarly, the trash pickers of Cairo-the zabbaleen-earn about triple the minimum wage there, where a pair of workers with a donkey cart may service up to 350 households a day. Little goes to waste as they collect organic waste for pig food, and human and pig excrement for agricultural fertilizer, and they pass along the scrap metal, plastic, paper, and glass they collect to be recycled.
India's capital city, New Delhi, announced in April 2007 a comprehensive plan to tackle its slum problem directly by redeveloping informal housing, razing unsafe dwellings, and relocating as many as 2 million poor tenants into new, high-rise buildings. The city, which now numbers 15 million residents, annually absorbs about a half million refugees from the poverty-stricken countryside. But construction laws have not kept pace, and since 1950 all building has been regulated by a single municipal board, the Delhi Development Authority; for the first time, tall construction will be zoned for all but protected historic quarters, and private development will be allowed and encouraged.
The present situation in New Delhi combines all the ills of unscheduled housing: as much as 60 percent of the city's population lives in illegal buildings that have no official existence and, therefore, "no safe water supply, no legal electricity system and no proper sewers," as reported by the New York Times in the April 13, 2007, article "A Plan to Tame the Architectural Chaos of India's Capital," by Amelia Gentleman. The resultant tangle of electrical wires snaking power from pylons frequently sparks fires that are hard to extinguish as they race along the narrow lanes of unplanned settlements with no formal streets. Moreover, the unscheduled and underserved demand for water sorely taxes Delhi's system, so water flows into much of the city at a trickle, for just a few hours a day. Power outages are common too, and uncollected garbage chokes the streets. As the city government contemplates a predicted expansion to 23 million residents by 2021, it hopes to improve conditions by building upward in a city that until now has mostly limited housing to three-story buildings. Delhi's city planners hope to achieve an expanded water system, broad new avenues, verdant parklands, and many new apartment buildings by expanding upward.
As the home of both Hollywood and Disneyland, the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana megapolis is the "dream factory," and it also may well be the world's most dreamed-of city. With a documented population of close to 12 million spread out over nearly two thousand square miles, LA is home to over a quarter of California's entire population, making it the second-largest city in the nation. And while the West enjoys a reputation for wide-open spaces, there is a severe housing shortage in Los Angeles. The Washington Post reported 2005 U.S. Census Bureau figures indicating that "ten municipalities in the nation average more than four people per household-and nine of them are in greater Los Angeles," mostly in older neighborhoods of tract houses, where many garages are turned into illegal apartments.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power claims to be the nation's largest municipal utility, responsible for both water and power services to the city's 3.9 million residents. In March 2007, the utility announced plans to increase its renewable energy supply to 20 percent by the year 2010, starting with the purchase of energy from several small hydroelectricity-generating facilities in the Pacific Northwest. In November of 2006, the city also made a landmark decision to approve the San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan, called the most comprehensive strategy to cut air pollution and reduce health risks ever produced for a global seaport complex. The plan calls for the phasing out of high-polluting diesel trucks servicing posts, stringent goals for air quality improvements, and technological advances to reduce greenhouse gases in this highly polluted American city.
If some of the greatest challenges to a civilized way of life may be found in today's largest urban centers, it's also where we must seek the answers to questions about humanity's future well-being. The very impulses that bring people together in metropolitan settings hold the promise of a cleaner and healthier future. Cities also hold the key to the preservation and reconstitution of the shrinking, truly wild places that still survive on the planet. In the ensuing chapters, as we survey the challenges and solutions of America's leading first-world metropolis, New York City, we will see in microcosmic detail how a small foothold in the New World grew throughout a history that was neither fully planned nor untroubled, and how the city arrived at its twenty-first-century position as an exemplar of metropolitan greatness.