| Ghost Cities Of 2100 |
By Elisabeth Eaves
June 11, 2007
For 900 years, Moenjodaro, a city in what is now Pakistan, was the urban
hub of a thriving civilization, the New York or London of its day. Around
1700 B.C., residents suddenly abandoned the Indus Valley city, and it was
lost in the sands of time until archaeologists began excavating it in the
1920s. Today, visitors can wander for hundreds of acres among its deserted
streets and homes.
It's believed that Moenjodaro had already fallen into economic decline
when an invading army attacked, delivering the sudden fatal blow.
Moenjodaro never rose again, and the Indus Valley civilization that it
dominated soon disappeared too.
Most of today's cities seem pretty sturdy. Indeed, the possibility that
they might crumble to dust seems to be less of a concern than how nations
will cope with the rise of so-called "megacities," cities with populations
of more than 10 million: Tokyo, New York, São Paolo and Mumbai are already
around twice that size or bigger.
In Pictures: Ghost Cities Of 2100
But could the opposite problem occur? Could some of our cities vanish as
thoroughly as Moenjodaro did?
It's hard to predict, of course, but factors as diverse as climate change
and aging populations mean that even as the global urban population
continues to grow, some cities are shrinking. It's not just small towns,
although in wealthy nations, small communities may face the most extreme
effects. In Japan, many rural hamlets, left with only a few elderly
residents, are in danger of total disappearance. In the U.S., towns in
Kansas and the Dakotas face extinction mainly because of an exodus of
young people. Some Kansas towns are fighting back by giving away free
land, with mixed results.
But some bigger centers also face the risk of annihilation. Urban planners
across Europe and North America are already grappling with what to do with
"shrinking cities." After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, millions of
residents of what had been East Germany moved west. More than a million
apartments were simply abandoned.
In response, the German government sponsored the Shrinking Cities Project
to study what is now a global phenomenon. The project has an exhibit on
tour that examines shrinkage in Russia's Ivanovo, Leipzig in Germany,
Manchester and Liverpool in Britain and Detroit in the U.S.
Whether these cities disappear entirely, of course, is an open question.
Detroit's population has fallen by around a third since 1950 and now
equals about 950,000. It is expected to shrink slowly but steadily until
at least 2030; unemployment inside the city is more than 10%. (The suburbs
around Detroit, meanwhile, are growing.) If trends hold, Detroit will be
altered beyond recognition by 2100.
As Detroit flirts with demographic disaster, some cities face the natural
kind. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, forecast a 75%
chance that San Francisco will be struck by a major earthquake of
magnitude 7 or above by 2086. Some might argue that city dwellers will
survive and rebuild, although the fate of New Orleans in the wake of
Hurricane Katrina, which flooded 80% of the city in 2005, offers mixed lessons.
San Francisco is also one of the fastest-shrinking cities in California,
part of an overall population shift away from the expensive and
geographically hazardous coast toward inland cities. A major disaster
could accelerate that trend.
Rising sea levels threaten cities around the world. The industrious Dutch
have strong enough dikes and clever enough engineering to survive a one
meter rise in the oceans, even though two-thirds of their country lies
below sea level. But Banjul, capital of Gambia in West Africa, is likely
to sink entirely into the ocean due to a combination of erosion and rising
sea levels, according to a 2002 World Bank discussion paper on cities and
climate change. The same paper forecasts that sea levels will rise between
10 and 90 centimeters worldwide this century, affecting many coastal
cities, including Alexandria, Egypt; Tianjin, China; Jakarta, Indonesia;
and Bangkok, Thailand.
Whether from natural catastrophes, economic collapse or the slow
encroachments of sand or water, it seems likely that at least some of
today's cities will meet the same fate as Ozymandias, the king of kings
who built a monument to himself. As the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley
wrote, "Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The
lone and level sands stretch far away."