Better City, Better Life

Better City, Better Life   —by Jinny Batterson

“Better city, better life” was the theme and mantra of Expo 2010 Shanghai China, held from May 1 through October 31 of that year in one of China’s preeminent urban areas. This international exposition, the first since 1992, was extravagant in every way. My brief visit was a drop in the bucket of the 73,000,000 visitors to the fair, a record since attendance has been tracked. On a single day in October, 2010, over a million people passed through the Expo entrance turnstiles. During the three days in which I had a chance to visit, I barely scratched the surface of the 246 national and organizational pavilions that made up this biggest of all global expositions so far (both in land area and in number of exhibitors).

Most of the time I’ve spent in China, I’ve avoided large metropolitan areas, where crowding and pollution can be detrimental to both mental and physical health.  However, increasingly in China, and globally, humans live in cities. According to the most recent update from the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in 2014 about 54% of the world’s population lived in cities. This is a big change from the 34% of global population that inhabited cities as recently as 1960. Asia is one of the most rapidly urbanizing regions. The small-scale Chinese farmer plowing his rice paddy with a water buffalo is increasingly a thing of the past.

When America was industrializing in the early 20th century, a popular song of the time wondered about the preferences of U.S. World War I veterans returning from service in Europe:  “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree (Paris)?” The same can now be said for Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and numerous other Chinese metropolises. Especially for young men, the dislocations and changes in lifestyle that accompany moving to the city can be offset by increasing economic opportunities. Urbanization is happening much more quickly in modern China and India than it did in Europe and North America last century. Those of us with rural or small-town roots may bemoan the loss of the so-called bucolic lifestyle we imaginatively remember from long-ago childhoods. What we too easily forget is the amount of hard physical labor required to do small-scale farming, or the isolation that can stalk those whose nearest neighbors may be out of sight.

Both the content of Expo 2010 and the rapid transitions of Chinese and of global populations toward urban life highlight some of the opportunities and challenges that city life presents.  How do rural-to-urban migrants develop and adapt appropriate urban life skills? How do we maintain ties with neighbors when we have millions of them? How do we create transportation systems that are convenient but minimally polluting?  How do we provide safe and reliable supplies of food and water when much of the land surface is sparsely peopled, and close to 2/3 of all humans live in urban centers of 100,000 people or more?  How do we avoid pandemics? Are there keys to sustaining “megacities” (of over 10 million population)? Are there limits to the population size of a viable urban center?

No current city, not even Shanghai, is an ideal model.  Some of Shanghai’s features were hastily and temporarily improved for the period of the exposition—factories were shut down or moved, construction of new subway lines was expedited, neighborhoods at or near the Expo site were either demolished or spruced up. Since the end of Expo, the city has had at least one spell, in December 2013, in which particulate air pollution reached such dangerous levels that school children were cautioned to stay indoors.

A transition to cleaner energy and more climate-friendly living styles is a needed part of “better city better life,”  in Shanghai, and everywhere else.

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