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Urbanization of Poverty

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Megalopolises, teeming with people, pollution and poverty, may not be an attractive lifestyle for you. But, urban life is the future for most of the world's poor.

"The world's urban population, only 750 million in 1960, grew to 3 billion by 2002 and is expected to surpass 5 billion in 2030," reports Joel Kotkin in The City: A Global History. By 2015, 23 cities globally will have 10 million people or more; 19 of them in the developing world.

It is no mystery why the world is urbanizing. Jobs, more than anything, are the magnet. Cities -- often founded as religious or political centers -- advance to become powerful centers of commerce. Urban governors and mayors were the first social and economic entrepreneurs to operate at scale -- building roads, canals, communication systems and, of course, standardized units of measure for weighing goods.

Population urbanization and globalization suggest a future reality that, for good or ill, we all need to understand. First, if we are going to be crammed together, we had better learn to live together. Consider the Arab-Israeli conflict over urban Jerusalem or, closer to home, disputes over where to locate religious centers in downtown New York.

Second, according to Kotkin, 600 million people are already landless in the middle of cities. In the developing world illegal slums engulf sprawling cities, often crowding in more squatters than legal residents. Community organizations, such as Terra Nova Regularizações Fundiárias in Brazil, are emerging to reconcile property rights, human rights and governmental interests to give the poor a landed stake in their own communities.

Third, as individuals with less privacy and as collective members of various ethnic, racial, political, faith, cause and economic groupings, everyone will have someone or something to dislike and lots of people to envy. Think upstairs/downstairs in Victorian England or, in our time, the chic, high-end urban restaurant -- affluent diners engorging themselves while the Hispanic kitchen staff cooks and cleans.

Urban elites will be surrounded by vast under classes -- economically and educationally underdeveloped, but working in close proximity to the well off. Indeed, in large measure, the working poor will continue to work the service jobs which feed, clothe and tend the upper crust of society.

For all that, innovation blossoms in the cauldron of commercial and intellectual diversity. Think about Amsterdam in the 16th Century run by global merchants, ferociously driving change and seeking opportunity. And, in our era, the social mobility of New Amsterdam (now called New York) is legendary.

For the early city-states, education and invention were competitive advantages, just as they are today for corporations and nations. In the words of Socrates: "The country places and the trees don't teach me anything, and the people in the city do."