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Half a World Away and 12 Hours Ahead

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Today's column is a departure from my usual beat, varied as it is. This is a look at the Shanghai Expo, from which I just returned. I was fortunate to be invited and hosted by UN Habitat and URBI Desarrollos Urbanos. The vital work of UN Habitat was on full display inside the Shanghai Expo. So much was/is on display at The Expo that my trip, and what UN Habitat has to teach, provided the inspiration for the column.

A trip to Shanghai, China is an opportunity for sensory overload of the first order. China's most populous city offers a glimpse of the future and the past. Shanghai represents a largely successful model of the new reality for a growing majority of the world's population. More than half of humans now live in cities. This is true now and for the first time in history. Most of the world lives in cities in developing countries and the majority of future population growth will take the form of further swelling of urban areas in developing nations. Watching and experiencing China's growth and challenges first hand is a worthwhile experience. Visiting the Shanghai Expo, particularly the UN Pavilion, allows one to learn about and experience the contested, essential and often overlooked place of the urban experience as this becomes the human experience.

China is one of the world's most rapidly urbanizing countries; Shanghai, with 18 million inhabitants, has razed and redeveloped entire blocks of its Old City. In preparation for the Expo, the city spent more than $40 billion upgrading its infrastructure, including the complete construction of 10 subway lines in just four years. As a New Yorker, this is particularly impressive. We have been cutting lines and have a Subway system that gets more outmoded with every passing year. No doubt China hopes to model the overall Expo theme Better City, Better Life. As China rises as a development model, her great urban expo is an essential component. Unsubtle reminders of this motive are everywhere in China and around Shanghai. As in so many contested living spaces, Shanghai struggles to accommodate its past, its present and competing visions of its future. The city boasts an impressive skyline defined by soaring skyscrapers and the silhouettes of construction cranes. Down alleyways, just around the corner from ultra modern and luxurious shopping districts, one sees motorbikes piled high with wilting vegetables for sale. The sense of a rapidly-developing complexity, with one foot in the 21st century and another in the 20th, is everywhere. Then again, this is also true of New York. A trip from New York to Shanghai is a great reminder that the developing world is becoming more like the developed world.

This past week in the UN Pavilion, UN-Habitat explored three themes in a series of public events involving international experts and delegations from the Mexican Ministry of Social Development, URBI Desarrollos Urbanos in Mexicali, The Brazilian Ministry of Cities, The African Centre for Cities in Cape Town, Mistra Urban Futures in Gothenburg and Tongji University in Shanghai. The three themes were Urbanization, Density and Opportunity. I was invited to contribute to the Opportunity Dialogue and privileged to sit in on the other panels. Presenters and audience struggled with negative perceptions and realities of urbanization. Much of the world does not see urbanization as positive. For many, the growth of cities is inevitably developers seeking profit, the discriminated against fleeing the intolerance of village lives and waves of dispossessed trying to escape grinding poverty. Challenges of environment, infrastructure, crowding, violence and displacement are real. Cities do offer density, diversity, and opportunity. Urban density reflects the inherent efficiency of cities' compact development patterns; diversity, their capacity to accommodate heterogeneity and avert conflict; opportunity, how agglomeration economies generate wealth. Cities represent the best and worst of society and human impulse. This has long been true. Urban cores take in refugees. Cities shelter or abuse the local and foreign fleeing for acceptance, prosperity, tolerance, human security and modernity. UN Habitat's Shanghai Expo event played off the diversity, density and opportunity made possible by the Expo to explore and debate the vitality and opportunity urban settlement can offer.

The Expo was a chance for China to introduce her leading city to the globe and introduce her citizens to a Chinese run and ordered replica of the world. The Expo had pavilions from many nations and institutions that visitors could wander through. These Pavilions offered an official, but safe, brush with images, tastes and pictures of many nations and people. Groups of foreign and Chinese visitors passed through buildings housing staged glimpses of nations, peoples and cultures. At the UN Pavilion, Chinese students and audience were invited into the dialogues to listen, make comments and ask questions. This process was unique and valuable for presenters and the audience (I hope). Thus, UN Habitat provided one of the few truly urban and urbane experiences to be had at the Expo.

I left the expo with sense of the possibility and fragility of city life and humanity's urban future. Chinese Authorities had done a grand job of scripting and managing the event. Thus, the importance of planning and infrastructure were always on display. What makes urban life in New York, Shanghai and around the global vital is the edge of chaos, genuine opportunity to interact across culture, ethnicity, convention and comfort. Just the right side of chaos and totally unscripted, human experience defines the city for me. I found this most elegantly and eloquently reproduced in UN Habitat's Dialogues.