News Stories

Lost Cities

A remote area of theAmazon oncecontained thriving cities, which have now been completelyengulfed by the jungle, in the same way that Mayan citieswere lost for centuries. And what will thecities of thefuture belike?

Archeologists have found evidence of a grid-like pattern ofsettlements connected by roads, with large central plazas,reminiscent of Mayan settlements (although no pyramids havebeen found). There are signs of agriculture, irrigation andeven fish farms. And just as with the Mayan cities in Mexicoand Ecuador, the local Indians have always known where theyare, probably because they are descendants of the people whobuilt them.

BBC News quotes researcher Mike Heckenberger as saying,"These are not cities, but this is urbanism, built aroundtowns."The people who once lived in them were probably wiped out byEuropeans, who brought new diseases with them, somethingthat happened on this continent, when the colonistscontacted theIndians.

That's thepast, butwhat about the cities of the future? Cities in Africa andAsia are creating a new template for urban development.Though some may see them as backward, these may actually bethe cities of the future. One big problem: there is anenormous gap between the rich and the poor.

Sociologist Martin J. Murray set out to explore questions ofurban space and to understand why and how the affluent inthose cities are able to insulate themselves from having tomake any real sacrifice.

Johannesburg is the dominant city in South Africa, andMurray felt it was the best place to measure and see howmuch had changed after apartheid. 40% of the population isunemployed, but it?s also a city of incredible wealth, withluxurious hotels, opulent shopping malls and massive newdevelopments of gated communities.

All of these spaces are made possible by private security:there are 10 times as many private security officers aspublicly employed police in Johannesburg. And residents areconstantly under surveillance; the city has thesecond-largest number of closed circuit TVs in the world,behind London. Johannesburg's elite have made their homesand even their cars into fortresses.

One example? A device like a flamethrower intended fordrivers who fear being carjacked. The flip side of thiswealth is the city's "outcast ghettos," where some 3.5million people live in informal settlements that lack basicservices such as water and electricity.

For better or worse, Murray sees cities like Johannesburg asthe model for the future. A third to half of downtown isunder the control of so-called business-improvementdistricts, essentially privatizing public space and forcingout the poor.

He says, "Americans have a tendency to look at cities inAfrica or Asia as lagging behind or lacking certainfeatures. I think it's the opposite. The template for thefuture is in Africa or Asia: an entrepreneurial or privatecity that has leapt beyond the US."

Art credit: gimp-savvy.com

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