“Inhabiting the Global Anonymous,” seemed like a nebulous title, even for a Nerdnite talk.
But, Ishita Sharma, was delightfully giggly as she started her lecture about urban evolution by talking about how difficult it is to define a city. “Nobody can really agree about what it is that a city is,” she said, “I would argue that no matter the geographic or political boundaries, we all have this intuitive sense of knowing when you’re in, or outside of a city.
An architect, photographer and self-described,”passionate generalist,” Sharma came bearing facts and figures set against the backdrop of beautifully laid out graphics and photography.
She outlined the shift of the world’s population from rural to urban settings and pointed out that globalization has exponentially increased the rate of migration over the past few decades. The percentage of people living in cities jumped from 2 percent, in 1800, to 50 percent in 2010. “By 2050,” she said, “75-80 percent of people are expected to live in cities.”
She went on to explain that cities, which are always evolving, are a complex series of interrelated systems that grow through an almost organic process. At the forefront of this evolution are cities in the developing world, particularly in Asia. “By 2015,” she said, “only one of the worlds largest cities (New York City) will be in the western hemisphere.”
Tokyo featured prominently in her talk, as the worlds first megalopolis, or a city with more than 10 million people. She used it as an example of how the worlds emerging cities are a platform for cultural cross-pollination. “Globalization is about integration,” she said, “as more advancements happen, slowly the foreigness of places dissipates.”
She spoke about how Tokyo, reflects a fusion of cultures and ideas that have taken years of evolution to become the city we see today. Sharma pointed out that Tokyo is collage of modern features and remnants of the past, which helps give the city its unique flavour. “In Japan it’s more of a joint existence,” she said, “There are random juxtapositions, trying to assimilate new stuff.”
Of the many interesting ideas she shared, was about the importance slums play in urban evolution.
“1 billion people live in slums today,” she said, “by 2030 it’s going to be 2 billion.” Although it is always surprising, and a little alarming, to hear that 1/6th of the world’s population lives in slums, Sharma intuited this potential reaction and reassured the audience saying, “despite how frightening this sounds, it is a good thing.”
She went on to explain that despite the fact that slum life doesn’t seem like something to aspire to, it’s really all a matter of perspective. Ultimately, it is a fundamental step in the development of new cities as a crucial way to bring urban immigrants into the fold. ”When you escape the village life and you come and live in a slum or shanty town, it’s really a step up, it’s a sign of hope,” she said,”You have better sanitation, you finally have better access to education, and that’s monumental. It means you’re actually moving up rather than stagnating in your little village because again, cities are connected. They’re networks.”
As with any type of growth, there are always a few growing pains. The problems, of course, for a megalopolis, like Delhi, Sao Paolo, Mexico City or New York are the same problems that any city might have but on a much MUCH larger scale. Sanitation, governance, access to clean drinking water and traffic are all part of the challenges that cities must learn to manage, as they continue to expand and bring diverse groups of people together. “There are traffic jams in Bangkok,” she said, “where people wear diapers because they know they’re going to have to go potty on their way home and there’s no place to stop.” But before anyone could comment that it couldn’t happen here she quipped playfully, “Have you been to Houston? It’s an extreme case, but not too far away.”
She closed out her talk discussing re-purposed spaces, and how they are part of an evolving urban landscape and then moved into a lengthy question and answer session which ended the evening. Her talk was less about giving answers than asking questions, and while its delivery was light in tone she made some fascinating observations about what it means to be living in this rapidly changing world and what role we each play in this evolution.