Megacities: Scars On The Earth, Or Keys To Growth?

Dec 12, 2011
Originally published on December 12, 2011 2:12 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from National Geographic in Washington, D.C. The chairman of the London County Council described his city as a tumor, an elephantiasis sucking into its gorged system half the life and the blood and the bone of the rural districts. The description dates from the 1880s, but it fairly states the opinions many hold today of places like Karachi, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, New York or Los Angeles.

As Earth's population surpasses seven billion, cities are going to continue to grow whether we like it or not, and you may be surprised to hear more and more experts use words like vibrant, cheap, prosperous and green.

Well, why does your city work or not? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're also going to take questions from people who have joined us here in the audience at the Grosvenor Auditorium, and thanks very much for coming in.


CONAN: Later in the program, photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair gives us an inside look into the secret world of child brides, but first megacities, and with me onstage is Steve Inskeep, host of NPR's MORNING EDITION, the author of "Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi." Steve, thanks very much for being with us.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Honor to be here, Neal, thanks.

CONAN: And also with us, Robert Kunzig, senior environment editor for National Geographic, author of "The City Solution: Why Cities are the Best Cure for Our Planet's Growing Pains," which appears in the December issue of the magazine. Nice to have you back.

ROBERT KUNZIG: Nice to be here, Neal, thanks.

CONAN: And Steve, elephantiasis, tumor, is that a fair description of the city you wrote about, Karachi?

INSKEEP: You know, on the surface you would say yes because it's a violent city, it has a terrible reputation. It is maybe best known around the world as the place where the journalist Daniel Pearl was killed, as a place where a terrorist attack was launched on Mumbai, India.

And yet this is a city that when I studied it, I learned first off that it's growing spectacularly. It was about 400,000 just after World War II, and today it's something like 13 million. That is a horrifying number for a lot of people to hear. But one of the major reasons for that growth is that people are moving there.

The reason they're moving there is because it's a better place to live. They make a choice that it's a better place to live than wherever they were before. It is a place where you can get a job, where you can get an education, where you can find opportunity.

CONAN: And Robert Kunzig, as you wrote about London in the 1880s, that description of elephantiasis and tumor really did apply there, as much then as perhaps it does to parts of places like Mumbai and Karachi.

KUNZIG: Yeah, it certainly did, Neal. You quoted the chairman of the London County Council. Another thing he said in a speech once was: I'm always haunted by the awfulness of London. I guess civic leaders weren't obliged to be boosters back then to the same extent.

But conditions in London in the 1880s were wretched. It was urbanizing very rapidly, gaining about a million people a decade. And those people were fleeing a depressed countryside, and they were finding where they were living were hovels, basically, without - with even fewer of the modern conveniences that you might find in some third world cities today.

CONAN: You also, in your piece, compared London then to a city that's undergone much the same kind of explosive growth as Steve was describing about Karachi and in much the same time frame, Seoul, South Korea.

KUNZIG: Yeah, I did. I was trying to get at the - as you said at the beginning, urbanization is a fact. There doesn't seem to be any indication that we can stop it. It's going to continue growing basically because economic development doesn't seem to be possible without it, at least as far as we can tell. So the question becomes: What are we doing with these growing cities?

And so I wanted to look, to compare what had happened in the developed world of Europe and North America with an example of what's been going on in Asia. And I picked Seoul basically because on the whole, they seem to have managed it pretty well.

CONAN: Yet you also describe driving into the city, and you see an almost endless array of soulless - forgive the pun - concrete housing blocks, towers, one after another after another, distinguishable only by the number painted on the side.

KUNZIG: That's right, yes. It's not - that is, to a Westerner driving in, the first impression is not pretty of Seoul. And I think to many Seoulites themselves, I talked to quite a few who were not enamored with their built environment. But it all - if you look at it historically, what those blocks took the place of, I mean, in 1960 there were a few million people living in Seoul, a great many of them in shantytowns.

So the development has just been astonishing. They've gone from a country that made $100 per capita in GDP in five decades to one that is, you know, ranks up there with European countries as one of the wealthiest in the world.

So the price has been not the prettiest kind of development, but materially, they are a lot better off.

CONAN: And Steve Inskeep, that kind of prosperity would be a miracle in Karachi, but people there go for the same reason that Robert Kunzig was talking about...

INSKEEP: Yeah, I think you can see this in city after city around the world, places that we do think of as nightmares, like Lagos. Edward Glaeser who wrote an excellent book called "Triumph of the City" points out that even though there are water shortages, for example, in Lagos, water, clean water may be more available there than in the countryside.

In a place like Karachi, I was able to look at the United Nations statistics for people's health, for their education levels, for their income. They're all better in these supposedly nightmare cities than in the countryside. There is a reason that people are moving from villages to the city, the same reason that they - many people moved to cities in the United States in recent decades.

But I don't want to gloss over the horror that you encounter along the way. I think that there is a terrible human cost that goes along with that progress. There had been instances in which the death rates in rapidly growing cities were so excessive that you needed more immigrants to keep the population from going down.

You have crime. You have ethnic conflicts. You have terrible struggles with diversity, and that's true in the city that I studied. There are a large number of ethnic groups, religious groups, people speaking different languages, who come together in a city. That can be one of the great strengths of these rapidly growing cities. They can be tremendous centers of idea and innovation, but they can also become centers of conflict and of nightmares, and that is true in some rapidly growing cities, as well as the progress we're describing.

KUNZIG: Yeah, if I can just interject, in London it was the same thing in the 19th century. The death rate was so high, if it had not been for people migrating in from the countryside, London would not have been growing at all.

INSKEEP: And this is just pollution, horrible living conditions, long hours...

KUNZIG: No modern sanitation, no vaccines and so on. And that is one big difference today is that the - it is happening, urbanization is happening faster, even faster today than it did in 19th-century Europe, and it's happening at a much higher population number because they've gotten these improvements in health and sanitation.

CONAN: And Steve, you describe in Karachi a riverbed that used to be dry most of the year now runs red as it flows sewage into the harbor.

INSKEEP: Yeah, there are little red streams you'll see in some of the streets that are believed to be pollution from tanneries. The Lyari River is not necessarily that color, but the fact that it flows at all most of the year is a little troubling.

CONAN: Yes. We want to hear from you about whether your city works, how does it work or not. 800-989-8255. Email We'll start with Sharon(ph), and Sharon's calling us from Oklahoma City.

SHARON: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

SHARON: Yes, I was born and raised in Oklahoma City, and then I went off to college, and I moved away for job reasons about 18 years ago. Well, last year I moved back, and I can see where - while the city has grown, there's a lot more industry here than there was, there is a decline in the infrastructure, mainly the public transportation, and there's no light rail. There's no public transportation in the suburbs.

And while there are some areas that are re-gentrifying, there are some areas that are left - and I feel it's purposeful - neglect.

CONAN: Interesting, Robert Kunzig, you describe the various lurches and fits and starts of urban planning and suburban planning in your article. But I think one of the things that Sharon is talking about is if cities are prospering, they're doing so, they're vastly outstripping the ability of planners to plan for them. And if they're dwindling, they're dwindling faster than planners can deal with either.

KUNZIG: That's right. I mean, I think every city is essentially a tension between these two impulses, between the planned aspect and the extent to which it grows on its own and creates itself. And in the early part of this century, there was a tendency to try to plan a city completely, to try to create utopia, and that didn't do so well.

But the opposite extreme is just as bad, when cities no longer invest in their basic infrastructure. And I think what planners are learning, and in Seoul they certainly did learn, is you - city governments have to handle a few basic things, like transportation, like the network of parks and so on. That can't just be left to the people or the free market to create.

CONAN: You say we failed at utopia, yet we sit here in Washington, D.C.


KUNZIG: An interesting example.


KUNZIG: I was born in Washington, D.C., and I think we're a little closer to utopia than we were 50 or even 100 years ago. But...

INSKEEP: It's interesting, Neal, because we brought up Oklahoma City, we brought up an American city in this context. One of the reasons that I got interested in some of the issues surrounding cities around the world was what happens in Washington, where I live now.

I live in a neighborhood that was a historically black neighborhood. Then there was a riot in 1968. There was tremendous decline. There was a lot of vacant land in the neighborhood. Now it's changing and going a different way, and different kinds of people are coming in.

And you have this constant churning, this constant change of cities as they grow and this constant mixture of different kinds of people who are challenged to deal with each other's differences. And the way that they deal with those differences and the way that they deal with conflicts over resources, conflicts over real estate, over land, the desire for money, says a lot about where the city is heading.

CONAN: Sharon, how's the job working out for you? Oh, I think Sharon may have left us, our conversation was so riveting.


INSKEEP: But in any case, we are talking about megacities this hour. Places like Oklahoma City, medium-sized cities, are also experiencing a lot of growth in various places around the world. It's not just the Mumbais and the Karachis.

Oh, yeah, but let's think of it as metropolitan areas, not as central cities. Some central cities may decline while the area grows.

CONAN: We're talking about megacities, enormous, crowded places once compared to a cancer. Now some say our urban areas may be the key to a sustainable future. More about that in just a minute. We'll continue talking with NPR's Steve Inskeep, author of "Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi"; and Robert Kunzig, senior environment editor for National Geographic whose piece "The City Solution: Why Cities are the Best Cure for Our Planet's Growing Pains" appears in the December issue of the National Geographic magazine. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the Grosvenor Auditorium at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. Our guests: Steve Inskeep, host of NPR's MORNING EDITION, author of "Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi"; and Robert Kunzig, senior environment editor for National Geographic.

We're talking about megacities today and the idea that these may be the hope of a sustainable future. There's also an audience here in the Grosvenor Auditorium, and we're getting questions from them. Why don't we go to the microphone now?

JOE OPPENHEIMER: Yes, my name is Joe Oppenheimer(ph), and I wondered - you asked us do our cities work for us. And I was wondering whether we might better phrase that: Who do the cities work for? Because they certainly don't work equally for what we might want to call the wealthy or the powerful and the less powerful and the poor. And I think that might give you more leverage over how to judge whether a city is functioning or not.

CONAN: Hard to find a place where that contrast is more vivid than Karachi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that's an excellent question that you raise because you get to a question that a lot of people are asking. They will identify themselves by groups, and it may very well be rich and poor and something like income and equality that's been so discussed in the United States in recent months is dramatically on display in a city in the developing world because public services may be so inadequate that the people who can afford their own services live a dramatically better life than those people who cannot.

There are other kinds of divides that politicians often will take advantage of, between different races of people, between different ethnicities of people, people from different villages. There are a lot of - you could even call them tribal conflicts that show themselves in a city.

And the way that a city is built can dramatically affect the way different kinds of people are able to live in it. Let me give you one historic example from the United States, from New York City. Robert Caro's great book "The Power Broker" talks about the development of New York and gives the example of Jones Beach State Park, which is in the New York metropolitan area.

There's an expressway, a highway that was built to go there, and they deliberately, deliberately did the overpasses on that highway too low for a bus to travel to be sure that poor black people from Harlem could not ride the bus to the state park, that only people who could afford cars in the 1950s and '60s could get to that state park.

That's a particularly egregious example, but we can go around the world and find ways that cities are built now - whether you're talking about gated communities, which are very common around the world - you can find many ways that cities are built to ensure the comfort of the privileged and not to do so much for everybody else. And people then in that city will begin asking questions about why it is so.

CONAN: Yet - it's a good point, yet Robert Kunzig, people flock to cities because there is opportunity there. It is not simply the middle class and the wealthy who move to these places. It is people who move to those places, poor, impoverished people, in hopes of making it to the middle class. It is a dream that is unfulfilled for many, but for some it's real.

KUNZIG: Yeah, that's right. I mean, there's no - in general no army that's forcing people to flee into cities. In fact, generally the problem has been it's the reverse, is that people are so afraid of the growth of cities, including the leaders of the city itself, that they try to keep people away.

But I think you're absolutely right, that the cities do not work as well for poor people as for rich people. That's a problem that permeates the economy. But the - what a city can do is provide some - provide greater opportunity for even the poorest when it's working right.

INSKEEP: I interviewed people in Karachi who had moved from the far northwest of Pakistan, the war-torn border area where the United States is involved, and met this young man named Friti(ph), who was in his early 20s, give or take, and had come to Karachi to get a better education than was available in the countryside and ended up running a wholesale business, textile business in the city with money that was sent by the elders from his village.

And then more people came down from the village to work there, and they were making only three or four or five dollars a day, but it was a much better living than they could have found in that war-torn area, the Swat Valley in northwestern Pakistan.

CONAN: Here's an email from Emily(ph) in Minneapolis: What works? Minneapolis, Minnesotais the number one biking city in the United States. Let's go next to Tom, and Tom's on the line with us from Raleigh in North Carolina.

TOM: Thank you, yes. I was recently in Delhi for six months, and it's I guess somewhat similar to Karachi. But I found the public transportation, the metro around Delhi, was really easy to use for a person from America. I mean, there's a hustle and bustle there that's unmatched and as well as - one thing that, you know, most people would take away from India is how dirty it is. There's no real public sanitation department, per se.

I mean, that's my take on Delhi. I mean, it's a wonderful city, and it's very cheap to get around.

CONAN: That's an interesting word you used at the end, cheap, and he's talking about transportation. And Robert Kunzig, that's been the key to the - one of the reasons the cities work so well, when you have populations densely packed, the costs of transportation are remarkably reduced.

KUNZIG: That's right. I mean, cities exist because businesses locate there, and businesses locate there because they can cut their costs. And one of the chief ways they cut their costs is just by reducing the distances between people. Their people can get to work. You can't create a factory if everyone lives 100 miles away, it's that simple.

But then you need a good transportation system for this to work, and that's really, I think, one of the key ways in which cities that succeed distinguish themselves from those that fail.

CONAN: And those cities that are densely populated and have good transportation systems, then you don't need to drive. In fact, your article suggests that New York, the most densely populated city in this country, has the - individuals have the lowest carbon footprint of almost anybody in the country.

KUNZIG: Yeah, that's right, and it's not rocket science. They - I lived in New York for a long time, and I occupied a lot fewer square feet than I would occupy if I were living in the country or than I did when I lived in France. And I - getting to work was a lot easier by public transportation. So both of those things mean that on - per capita, you use a lot less energy when you're living in a dense city with a good transportation net.

CONAN: And as these cities - well, they're growing whether we like it or not - but this may not be a bad thing, that density as people try to attract people back to downtown areas, to the center city, as it were, that density could turn out to be, as we look toward sustainability, a very good thing.

KUNZIG: It could indeed, and I think that's one of the hopeful trends, maybe one of the few hopeful things about the fact that we're all getting old in this country, is that we seem to be...

CONAN: Speak for yourself. Steve and I are...


KUNZIG: Not you, not you, right. Developing - aging boomers seem to be rediscovering the central city, and that is - that's a good thing for the planet insofar as that means we're going to reduce - it gives us the chance of reducing our energy consumption.

INSKEEP: And you're not going to force people to live in a smaller home. You're not going to force people to give up their cars necessarily, that's a great challenge, but the - I guess the benefit of a large city, a densely packed city, is it encourages people to want to live that way, to make that tradeoff.

It is interesting enough, it is lucrative enough, it is exciting enough that people want to be there even if they don't have a McMansion to live in.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Pear(ph), and Pear's with us from Portland.

PEAR: Yeah, well, in Portland we had this urban growth boundary for quite a while now, and then four years ago the city commissioned a peak oil task force to make recommendations about what to do as the price of oil goes up. And one of the things is that as the price of oil does go higher, there will be less mechanized farming.

You will need more people growing food. Now, maybe we can do part of that in the cities, but I think if the oil gets expensive enough, there may be a reversal: People may be migrating out to the countryside just to find a piece of land.

CONAN: Interesting, the growth boundary, what does the growth boundary consist of?

PEAR: Well, it's a - every few years they say that if you drive out to the suburbs from downtown, you will see there will be subdivisions, and then there will be a line. You can just see this line, almost like a fence, and beyond that is open farmland. We have some of the best farmland in the world in the Willamette Valley, and so the subdivisions go up to a certain point, and then it's farmland.

And every few years they make a few little adjustments, but we've been doing that for quite a while now.

CONAN: There have been previous efforts, Robert Kunzig, to hem cities in with green belts.

KUNZIG: Yeah, and not all have been as successful as I gather the caller feels Portland's has been. The - what has happened in London or in Seoul or in other places where they've just essentially drawn a border around the city, with a goal of preserving some greenery, is that the development has just leapfrogged beyond the city.

And people end up - you don't stop the growth of the city. You just force people to commute longer distances. So in terms of the overall environmental impact, it's not a clear win.

INSKEEP: If I may mention, even in Portland, which is a really interesting example with not just the growth boundary. They've got light rail. They've got a lot of interesting development things going on. Years ago on NPR, we did a series on commuting in America. Portland was one of the places we went. And you can find people, even in Portland, with very, very, very, very, very long commutes. The place has spread regardless of whatever efforts the people have made, although the gentleman is correct. There's some land that has been preserved.

CONAN: They don't do it on Segway either.


INSKEEP: No, not exactly.

CONAN: I have a question on the microphone.

PIERRE: The key is T. Boyle(ph), I believe.

CONAN: Yes. Well, the American cities were all designed around the automobile.


CONAN: And that's - that may have to be changing too. But anyway, let's go to - thanks very much for the call. We'll go to a microphone here.

FRAN ROTHSTEIN: Hi. I'm Fran Rothstein(ph) from Silver Spring, Maryland. I was interested in what you said about people moving to these megacities, being the reason that they are growing so rapidly, and they are so crowded. We know what happened - and one of the reasons people come is because there is the opportunity for education and better health care. We know that women who get educated tend to have fewer children. And I wondered if you could talk about the relationship of megacities to family size and birth rate. Is the fact that people are moving to megacities having a positive impact on family size?

CONAN: Robert Kunzig, do you know?

KUNZIG: Yeah. I'm really glad you brought that up. I think it is. It's hard to - in all these things that hard to tease out, chicken and egg, but they do seem to go together. In other words, people and cities, as a general rule, have fewer children. And the urbanization of a country goes hand and hand with the industrial development of a country, with the increase in the education level and with the drop in fertility. So if you're worried about population growth, as so many people are, urbanization is something you should applaud as a way of limiting it.

CONAN: Steve?

INSKEEP: But make no mistake that even though some of those trends may be at work, we're still going to pack a few more billion people on to the planet. I think that India, which is rapidly urbanizing, and the median age is about 25. Pakistan, which is rapidly urbanizing, the median age is about 18. I think there's going to be another couple of generations of kids before some of those trends really, really take effect, although population growth is swelling in a lot of countries.

CONAN: Yet, if we can live in dense urban cities, you can put tremendous percentages of the world's population on a very small parcel of land, thereby freeing up the rest of land for people to grow food on.

KUNZIG: Yeah. But and it's not like anyone is out there choosing this, right? So it's not like one of us gets to make the decision where we're going to put this extra two billion people. They are going to go where they're going to go, and it is going to be in cities. The next - there are going to be 2 million more people by 2050, and most of them are going to be in cities in Asia and Africa. That's where people are being born. And they're going to choose to live in cities because that's going to be the best place for them to make a living.

ROTHSTEIN: But do you think that the trend toward megacities is going to slow over population and population growth?

CONAN: It seems to be slowing anyway, whether that's a factor or not. Again, it's the chicken and egg thing. So we'll have to consider that. And Steve and I will be around to see it, since we're ageless. Robert Kunzig is our guest, of National Geographic magazine. He's the author of the article in the December issue, "The City Solution: Why Cities are the Best Cure for Our Planet's Growing Pains." Also with us, NPR's Steve Inskeep, author of "Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to - excuse me. Let's go to Malcolm. Malcolm with us from Grants Pass in Oregon.

MALCOLM: Well, good morning. This is a fascinating subject, and I agree with most of what your guests are saying. I would like to point out, however, that a lot of people, I think, don't move into cities because they think they are a wonderful place to live. They move there because there's perhaps more opportunity. But also, they're moving there, in Oregon at least, because they're being forced to by the rising prices in the rural areas.

I'm on the rural planning commission. We have rules now in my county - and I think this true of most Oregon - where you can't build one house on your farm unless you have over 80 acres. You can't - the minimum lot size for anywhere else is two acres right now. But we've been getting letters from our rural land - or excuse me - the LCD, the Land Development Commission of Oregon saying, we want to raise the minimum lot size in rural areas outside of the urban growth boundary to 20 acres. There's other factors that are being pushed to drive the price up, too, but I won't go into all of them. But the fact is this is getting to where it cost more and more money to live outside the city. So there is this pressure to move people into town. And I think maybe it has gone a little overboard.

INSKEEP: You have an ally, I think, Malcolm, in Ed Glaeser. I think I mentioned earlier the author of "Triumph of the City." He is someone who will argue. And we can argue about it, that a lot of land use restrictions that seem to be environmentally friendly, in his opinion, may not be and cost a lot of money. And rules particularly that say that you can only have one house per acre, or one house per two acres, the thing you said about having an extra house is only allowed if you only have 80 acres is pretty spectacular.

MALCOLM: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

INSKEEP: But those kinds of rules, he would argue, make it harder to have a cluster of population, and raise the cost for everyone and make it much harder for people who are not well-off to live in a particular area. He's no fan of those things. He's more of a free market guy. We could argue that - plus...

MALCOLM: I'm a fan to some extend. I'm not saying we should throw out all of our planning laws at all. I think they're very useful. I just think that some of them are too extreme, like the 80 acres, like the 20 acres minimum that they're proposing right now.

INSKEEP: Well, let me just...

MALCOLM: We got a letter from LCDs to that effect at one of our hearings recently.

INSKEEP: Let me just make a general statement that I think is true and that is worth bearing in mind in any issue that you're dealing with, in any hometown in America. That any planning that you do, from my study of the history, quite often has unintended consequences. And it's worth bearing in mind the possibility that things do not turn out exactly as you intend.

MALCOLM: That's brilliant. Thank you.

CONAN: Steve - Malcolm, thanks very much for the phone call. Email question from Ruth in Wilmington, North Carolina. This is for Steve. Can you tell us what ethnic groups left Karachi and why?

INSKEEP: Oh, well, I can. This was a majority Hindu city in 1947, when Pakistan became an independent country. As a majority Muslim country, India was becoming independent at the same time as a majority Hindu country. A couple of hundred thousand Hindus fled the city or were driven out. Within a space of a few months, something like half the population left. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims replaced them, actually, much greater numbers fleeing from India. This was one of the great incidence of mass violence in the history of humanity, may be the greatest of all time, or one of the greatest of all time. And so you had a lot of people, old timers in the city leaving and being replaced by new groups. And there were continual conflicts then between insiders, outsiders, old timers, newcomers and different kinds of people who saw their interests in different ways.

CONAN: We're going to take this over and take a couple of more questions on how does your city work or not. Steve Inskeep is with us from MORNING EDITION, also Robert Kunzig from National Geographic. We'll also talk with Stephanie Sinclair, who spent eight years documenting the secret world of child brides, some as young as 5 years old. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the headquarters of the National Geographic in Washington, D.C.

Normally, at this time, we broadcast the Opinion Page. We're at National Geographic today. We'll get to the Opinion Page tomorrow. We're also going to talk with Stephanie Sinclair in just a few moments about images featured in the June issue of National Geographic magazine, "Too Young To Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides."

But we want to continue our conversation with Robert Kunzig of National Geographic, author of "The City Solution: Why Cities are the Best Cure for the Planet's Growing Pains." And Steven Inskeep of NPR's MORNING EDITION, author of "Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi." And let's see if we can get Grace on the line. Grace calling us from Philadelphia.

GRACE: Hi. None of the things that happens from growing cities is cities within cities. I come from - I live in Philadelphia, but I come from Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa and we have a couple slums, the biggest being Kibera because there's no affordable housing for the people who come from the countryside, come and live in the city to work for the middle class and the more affluent people. And so, you know, that's - you may not - you may try planning and it may not work out, but sometimes planning of at least affordable housing for people who might be moving into the cities for work might help cities, you know, avoid situations like slums.

CONAN: And, Steve Inskeep, there were, in your description of Karachi, these improvised areas; miles and miles and miles of places that are shanty towns.

INSKEEP: Yeah. I'm glad that you mentioned Kibera. People describes these areas as slums. And sometimes, they're rather solidly built, sometimes not. In Karachi, there are concrete block houses of varying qualities of construction. But the most important thing to me - the most important theme to me is that they are outside the law. They're often people who grab the land. There may be developers who grab vast plots of land and subdivided them. Everything is being done outside the law. And in Karachi, at least, the police get paid off not to notice that the entire neighborhood exists.

The electricity has to be stolen by people who are hooked up to the electric power lines. The water may be trucked in rather than being piped in by plumbing. You have people who were living beyond government as we know, beyond public services as we know it.

CONAN: And what about the police?

INSKEEP: Well, they're well-paid...


INSKEEP: the residents. The last time that I checked in Karachi, there was a standard bribe of 5,000 rupees per home lot, which is 50-some dollars, $57, $58. You go to the commander of the local station, you pay that $57 or $58, and he doesn't notice that your home is there and doesn't arrest you. And then your house is legal until the guy is transferred, and then you have to go pay the new commander more money.

CONAN: And, Robert Kunzig, in your article, yes, there are the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. There are terribly poorer places in Nairobi, as our caller, Grace, suggests. Yet, these are also places that are - they can be awful, but they could be engines of vibrancy and life.

KUNZIG: They can be, indeed, but I think they would all be better, and we would all be better off if the city governments that are, in a sense, at war with their own people, with people who are coming to live there. Instead, had a change of mindset and just accepted that their cities were going to grow and did some modest amount of planning for it; acknowledge that the territory was going to have to get larger and planned the infrastructure that would be needed to serve these places more adequately.

CONAN: Well, that's a question raised by email like Denise. I understand that crowding people into megacities makes sense for an overcrowded planet. Doesn't this have a negative effect on global warming? Shouldn't we be concentrating on reducing population?

KUNZIG: Crowding people into cities does not have a negative effect on global warming because if you accept that the people are going to exist anywhere anyway and the question is where. If - it's better to put them in cities because as I mentioned earlier, they - in general, cities dwellers use less energy per capita. They use less resources. When things are closer together, you build less roads to serve them. You build - your sewer pipes are shorter. Your - everything about your infrastructure is more compact and therefore demands fewer resources.

CONAN: And in terms of reducing the world's population, that may be a goal. It's hard to convince people to do that.

KUNZIG: Well, they decide to do it themselves, as the questioner said earlier, when people - it all goes hand in hand: economic development, urbanization, industrial development. People come to the idea themselves that they might like to have two children rather than 10. It's all part of this process. They don't - they can be encouraged by making family planning available, above all, by making education available, and they'll get - they'll reach that conclusion on their own.

CONAN: One last emailer votes - this is Vince in Baltimore - votes for Toronto. A metropolitan area of 3.5 million - clean, one of the best transit systems, and booming real estate market. Clearly, in another country. So any case, Steve Inskeep, thanks very much for coming over from MORNING EDITION to be with us.

INSKEEP: Thanks for the invitation.

CONAN: Steve Inskeep's book is "Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi." Robert Kunzig, a senior environment editor for National Geographic. In the December issue of the magazine, "The City Solution. Why cities are the best Cure for a Planet's Growing Plains." Thanks very much.

KUNZIG: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up, we'll talk with Stephanie Sinclair about the secret world of child brides. Stay with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.