The big picture of megacities
Are Cities Worth Their Existence? This was the title of one of my shelved articles. Current crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, which mainly impacted urban population, made me revisit the article. I was fired up by a friend’s social media post highlighting the irony that stoppage of non-essential businesses had started slowing down the economy. So has the economy been running mostly on non-essential activities? That’s worrisome.
I scanned my old article to see if it still was of any relevance. It was a review of pros and cons of the idea of CBD — central business district — of a modern city. My thought process was guided by the simple premise that every human activity (including business) must do something good for survival and/or growth of mankind/nature. If it doesn’t, it’s perhaps time we stopped doing the activity. Everything we do consumes energy over and above what our bodies consume sitting idle — by simply breathing and pumping our hearts. Our energy budget after all is funded by plants and cyanobacteria who work relentlessly to produce food and oxygen for us. So what activities should remain and what should we forego?
I began ticking off a typical day’s activities of an average urban adult against this broad criterion of usefulness.
I thought of things we do during daytime. But hang on, before we do anything we wake up from sleep. And wake up safe. Our safety during sleep is provided by accommodation. Accommodation is therefore an essential survival feature. Yep, it is one of the three pillars of life — food, clothing and shelter. Fair enough, I ticked off activities which lead to the provision of shelter as essential activities.
Sleep -> Accommodation -> Building industry — tick
Alright. The first thing we normally do is clearing the waste accumulated as our body finishes processing food overnight. The list took off:
- Excrete -> Toilet -> Sewerage system — tick
- Brush teeth -> Hygiene products — tick
- Shower -> Bathroom -> Drainage system — tick
- Get dressed -> Clothing industry — tick
- Eat breakfast -> Grocery business — tick
- Drink water -> Water supply — tick
- Pack lunch -> Cooking -> Food business — tick
- Commute to work -> Transport -> Roads, Automobile — tick
I paused here for a while. At this rate everything seems to be essential I thought. So is it all good? Surely not. So what the hell is wrong with our urban lifestyle? The devil must be in the details.
Consider the first item. Sewerage system essentially is a water purifying system that speeds up the otherwise natural purifying mechanism of a stream. The system also caters for drainage — another item listed above. It involves a network of pipes to carry the waste, pumps to force the flow wherever it goes against gravity, separation and dumping of debris carried along, settling of and disposal of solid waste, and finally bacterial and other treatment of water before letting it out to mix with natural waters. Add to that maintenance of every step of the process. There is a huge cost in all this which is justified because of the concentration in which people have come to live together in urban areas and our natural feeling of disgust when facing excreta of others. Yet it is important to remember that every system has its capacity. And the cost increases manifold as the number of people excreting into the system increases. The alternative? We do what animals do. Excrete on land and let nature take care of it. I guess most of us have already evolved out of this practice and wouldn’t want to go back.
Personal hygiene is next. The examples of toothpaste and soap may make such products sound essential. A stroll through your local shop will however overwhelm you with a range of specialist items staring at you. Shampoo, conditioner, hair removal, face mask, face wash, floss, nail polish, nail polish removal, hair colour, hand wash, body wash, moisturiser, body lotion, face powder, body powder, deodoriser, lip balm, lipstick, maskara, shaving gel, after shave, and so on. The less essential a product is, the louder it is advertised upon us. Our senses are regularly fed to masquerade these as essential. I don’t see ordinary soap being advertised much. Deodorisers on the other hand frequently occupy pixels of many screens our eyeballs fall upon. This poses a question: How does marketing fare with respect to my broad criterion? I know distribution is (or has become) essential. But marketing?
This story repeats itself in every essential category. We have taken our needs way beyond what really is essential. Businesses have used marketing to promote such products. Marketing has become an essential big arm of businesses and an academic discipline too. Our lifestyle has evolved phenomenally ever since we abandoned the hunter-gatherer mode and started living in groups. There are two main aspects of this evolution — division of labour and collaboration. Division of labour has led to specialisation. The level of specialisation we have attained now is mind-boggling. A simple car fix now involves a receptionist, a service centre clerk, a mechanic, a supplier, a driver and many others. The collaboration aspect has led to creation of infrastructure. Roads and communication technology, for instance, which help us interact with each other. Mind you, not every activity — specialised or infrastructure-related — satisfies basic necessities of life. A good majority of these activities are essential only for urban lifestyle, that is, they are human-created necessities of secondary nature. In my ideal world, these are justified only as long as our coming together in such numbers adds value to nature or to life in general. That benefit should compensate for the overhead of additional needs such as a sewerage system. At the very core of it, life itself has a tendency of coming together to survive/progress. However, such coming together has helped life overcome challenges it faced along its journey.
Studies indicate that about a billion years ago, individual cells had come to live together and they never looked back. The main reason for adoption of multicellularity was to survive by sharing the scarce resources. Any aggregate form of life must thrive and perform under challenging conditions. A good indicator of life’s biological performance is resting metabolic rate — the rate at which an organism spends energy needed to perform basic internal functions. Individual single-celled organisms tend to have a higher metabolic rate as the cell size increases (see figure). Theoretically then evolution could have caused a continuous increase in cell size (or body mass) for improved performance. Such a rising curve however hits a limit beyond which incremental increase in size leads to more issues of supply of resources internally. The metabolic rate increase therefore drops considerably beyond this threshold (dashed pink line in the figure). Multicellularity was the evolutionary fix which enabled organisms to continue to achieve more metabolism with body mass increase (DeLong et al., 2010). The trick was collaboration between cells and division of labour among organs and tissues. Maintenance of internal network between organs for supply and distribution was the obvious overhead which resulted in the gradient of metabolic scaling being lower than that of unicellular organisms. The larger the body, the more distance oxygen, food and blood need to travel inside the body, which makes muscles work that much harder. Most animals followed this new reduced scaling (red line in the figure) with some aberrations. Dinosaurs and similar related animals reached a limit whereupon there was no substantial gain in metabolic rate with increase in body mass. Evolution of birds fixed this (Rezende et al., 2020) and the dinosaurs vanished from the scene.
Metabolic considerations of the now extinct dinosaur could throw some light on why uncontrolled growth of cities is unsustainable. The issues of populous cities have parallels with overheads of large animals that require supply of food and oxygen and distribution of blood to each of the cells. Think of people as cells and a city as an animal.
Now let’s look at a typical western CBD. It has offices — mostly of big business houses and multinationals. There are hardly any local business offices. The existence of ‘local’ small business is increasingly being restricted to some corner franchise shops and street vendors at best. So essentially now the city’s huge public infrastructure serves the big business houses. At the expense of ordinary taxpayers. It brings thousands of workers and consumers in the city everyday and allows them to have access to workplaces and places to spend their money. And they are not being brought free of charge. They pay for the travel or, to generalise, the cost of infrastructure. Of course, the big businesses pay for the real estate used by them. But they eventually recover the costs from ordinary taxpayers. Then there are big hotels and skyscraper residential pigeonholes which allow some people to stay closer to business activities. All this causes huge real estate price shoot up. Again some private enterprises benefit from this.
There is an ever increasing inconvenience to common man who uses (or is forced to use) services in the city because of ever-growing congestion. This puts pressure on improving the infrastructure to meet the new demands. And there are attempts to ease the pressure at a cost to, no surprises here, the common man — say paid parking or tolls. A whole new ecosystem is created with the main purpose of serving the already existing ecosystem. None of them really address basic needs of people. The city also is a central place for ever growing number of middlemen in various trades who are neither creators nor consumers. The existence of these middlemen itself is in need of a thorough review. The only skill these middlemen have is a “social” network and they exploit both the producers and consumers for dependence on their services. Some of these ‘middlemen’ activities are already being gradually replaced by technology tools and many others should follow suit. More services like Deliveroo and Airbnb will gradually become important.
Cities emerged most likely as a consequence of the mankind’s shift to agriculture as the dominant occupation. Unprecedented urbanisation happened as an aftermath of the industrial revolution. So it’s basically the economic need that drove us here. Social needs hardly require us to live amidst hundreds of thousands of other people around. Now with internet connecting us without the need to be physically connected, it’s time we questioned the old, and still very much in vogue, model of city based services. Do we continue to allow the megacity dinosaur grow or let the small town/village birds fly?
DeLong, J. P., et al. (2010) Shifts in metabolic scaling, production, and efficiency across major evolutionary transitions of life. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA 107, 12941–12945.
Rezende, E. L., et al. (2020) Shrinking dinosaurs and the evolution of endothermy in birds. Science Advances 6, eaaw4486.