Is Density Our Destiny?

Jun 15, 2012

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Future of Cities.

About Stewart Brand's Talk

Stewart Brand, the man who helped usher in the environmental movement in the 1960s and '70s, has been rethinking his positions on cities, nuclear power, genetic modification and geo-engineering. In this Talk, he gives a taste of his book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.

Brand says people begin to innovate in unique ways when they live in close proximity to one another. At left, a video example of this used in the opening of his TEDTalk.

About Stewart Brand

Since the 1960s, Stewart Brand has maintained that given access to the information it needs, humanity can make the world a better place. He is the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, co-founder of The WELL and the Long Now Foundation, as well as a writer, editor and game designer. Brand has helped to define the collaborative, data-sharing, forward-thinking world we live in now.

Brand's other projects include collaboration on building a 10,000-year timepiece, cataloging the world's languages with the Rosetta Project and co-founding a project aimed at improving long-term thinking.

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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You know, it's happening, it's happening right now, so let's see how this one goes.

STEWART: In a neighborhood north of Bangkok, a passenger train is about to roll right through a densely crowded street and market.


STEWART BRAND: It's just inches away from the people in their shops and all of that and both the train and the people are paying little attention to each other.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK, move, move, move, move, move, move.

BRAND: Like, if a - if a big Greyhound bus went through your office and you sort of stepped aside, you know, you know, whatever.

STEWART: Stewart Brand, who shared the story with us, says this kind of thing happens all the time in compact communities.


BRAND: But as the end of the train goes by, suddenly the track fills up with people and with awnings and with shops. And, within 15 seconds of the train having passed by, it's as if there were no train tracks. As if there was no train. So the community just basically heals up over this seemingly huge event that just passed through.


BRAND: But it's astonishing how quick and how thoroughly it happens. And you realize the resourcefulness of these folks and the energy and the - and the - the focus on - on, in this case, making their market happen, is formidable. And they will step briefly out of the way of a huge train, but only very briefly.

STEWART: Cities are places where manmade miracles like this happen every day. In recent years, TED speakers have made the case that cities represent humanity's best hope for a sustainable future. If our planet is to house a projected 9 or 10 billion people much sooner than one might expect, the only way to do this is for humans to live together in close quarters.

The theory is, in cities, creativity and opportunity rise while family size and carbon footprint fall. Several TED speakers make the case that you can see this most intensely in the areas where humanity is urbanizing most rapidly: the world's slums. Now, you might think of slums as deadly, stressful, unstable places. But perhaps that's not the only story. Here's Stewart Brand.


BRAND: The dominant demographic event of our time is the screamingly rapid urbanization that we have going on. By mid-century, we'll be about 80 percent urban and that's mostly in the developing world, where that's happening. It's interesting, because history is driven to a large degree by the size of cities.

The developing world now has all of the biggest cities and they're developing three times faster than the developed countries and nine times bigger. It's qualitatively different. They're the drivers of history, as we see by looking at history. In other words, the rise of the West, dramatic as it was, is over. The aggregate numbers are absolutely overwhelming: 1.3 million people a week coming to town, decade after decade. What's really going on?

Well, what's going on is the villages of the world are emptying out. Subsistence farming is drying up, basically, and people are following opportunity into town. I used to have a very romantic idea about villages and it's 'cause I never lived in one.


Because in town, they see action, they see opportunity, they see a cash economy that they were not able to participate in back in the subsistence farm.

STEWART: Stewart Brand, welcome to the TED RADIO HOUR.

BRAND: Well, thank you for having me.

STEWART: Stewart, I want to follow up on something that you said at the beginning of your talk: that history is driven to a large degree by the size of cities. They are the drivers of history. Can you explain that a bit more?

BRAND: Cities are the place where a lot of change happens, not just for individuals, but for whole societies. And so historians have caught on that, if you want to understand any particular era or any particular region of the world, look at what's going on in the largest cities at that time or in those places and then you'll get a - a good idea of where the - the driving forces of change are playing out.

And so, in the West, we've gotten used to thinking of history is driven by what goes on in London and Paris and New York. And that was the case about 100 years ago, but those are no longer the largest cities in the world. Now the largest cities are places like Lagos and Mumbai and Sao Paulo. And that's where major change is happening.


BRAND: As you go around these places, there's plenty of aesthetics. There's plenty going on. They're poor, but they're intensely urban. It is not the case that slums undermine prosperity. Not the working slums. They help create prosperity. So in a town like Mumbai, which is half slums, it's one-sixth of the GDP of India.

Social capital in the slums is at its most urban and dense. These people are valuable as a group, and that's how they work. There's a lot of people who, for instance all these poor people, there's - there's terrible things that - we've got to fix their housing. Used to be we've got to get them phone service. Now they're showing us how to do phone service. Famine mostly is a rural event now.

There are things they care about. And this is where we can help and the nations they're in, can help and they are helping each other solve these issues. And you go to a nice dense place like the slum in Mumbai and you can ask, OK, what's going on there? The answer is everything. This is better than a mall. It's much denser. It's much more interactive and the scale is terrific.

The main event is these are not people crushed by poverty, these are people busy getting out of poverty just as fast as they can. They're helping each other do it.

STEWART: Stewart, one example that you offer as a reason that cities have opportunity and might attract talent is really very simple: it's what someone can earn, how much they can earn, in a city. But for people who are listening to this and say I - money's not an incentive in my world, this is not what I think of when I think of a reason to do something, what else might a city offer someone?

BRAND: Well, the main thing it offers, really, is liberation for women. Typically in the villages, there's very traditional mores and a young woman marries some guy and she's now under the thumb of him, of the traditions, of the culture and of whoever the senior character in the family is. And basically she works for them.

Once she gets into town, she can get rid of the guy if he's a jerk. She's not under the thumb of his mother. She's got the ability to start a community organization or even a business of her own, get together with the other women, do various collaborative things with loans. Get some education for the kids; get decent medical care for herself and for the kids. And women are the major driving force in the urbanization in the developing world right now.

STEWART: That's so interesting, 'cause you would - you wonder about the ability to just shift mentally, emotionally, culturally from the way you would live, perhaps, on the farm as opposed to you live next to a gigantic city like in Nairobi.

BRAND: I think one of the great human stories that wants to be told these decades is - is what it is like for somebody to - to uproot like that and haul off and change their situation. Their family life, their whole career, their perspective on everything, their access to everything, totally in the course of a couple of weeks. Moving from a village culture that has been the same for, basically, thousands of years and move into a town, where live is different, you know, one week after another.

What's that like, to make that change? Well, the - one thing we know is that it - it must be pretty attractive, because billions of people are doing it. And what is that story? That's the story we - we'd love to know more about.


BRAND: There's all kinds of activity. In Dharavi, the slum performs not only a lot of services for itself, but enormous services for the city at large. And one of the main events are these ad hoc schools. The parents pool their money, hire some local teachers, do a private, tiny, unofficial school. Education is more possible in the cities and that changes the world.

This is what makes cities so green in the developing world, because people leave the poverty trap and ecological disaster of subsistence farms and head to town. When they're gone, the natural environment starts to come back very rapidly and those who remain in the village can shift over to cash crops to send food to the new growing markets in town.

So if you want to save a village, you do it with a good road or with a good cell phone connection and, ideally, some grid electrical power. So the event is: we're a city planet. That just happened. More than half. The numbers are considerable. A billion live in the squatter cities now. Another billion is expected. That's more than a sixth of humanity living a certain way. And that will determine a lot of how we function. Thank you.


STEWART: Stewart, finally, what are some of the possible outcomes of integrating these somewhat informal communities, although they have their own ways of working, integrating them into the larger established cities?

BRAND: I think we're - one of the things we'll be doing over the next couple of decades is learning what parts of these informal cities are actually rather wonderful. Many of the problems have to do with the great densities, but the density itself is pretty interesting. So these markets, these market lanes that you go along, and every service in the world you can imagine is offered in - in just a few hundred feet, that kind of density may actually be something that - that people realize is - is itself something worth keeping.

Likewise, the amount of space that people live in. A little bit of privacy goes a long way and the idea of having huge flats as the only way to live in a city is probably not accurate. When you have a lot of people living in a small space, so long as they have this kind of street life lane access to one another, the life of the community is - is there to be enjoyed and participated in and - and earned from.

So I bet that some of the ideas that have been playing out in - in informal towns last, because people don't want to give them up. On the other hand, gradually these things change over time and Paris stops being a huge slum and becomes Paris.

These places, the - the Lagoses and the Mumbais and the Sao Paulos and the Jakartas will become upstanding cities, not only with high rises downtown but with the equivalent of the suburbs, which hopefully, well, it won't be completely car type suburbs, but more mass transit type suburbs. Those things will come to pass and we'll look back on the era of when there were so many squatter cities as an interesting period in human history that is behind us.

STEWART: Stewart Brand, thanks for joining us on the TED RADIO HOUR.

BRAND: Thank you kindly.

STEWART: Lifelong environmentalist Stewart Brand. You can find more of his TED Talks on

As we just heard, one of the most profound trends of our time is the mass migration of the world's population into urban areas. Approximately one in six people on Earth lives as a squatter. And that number's growing fast.


ROBERT NEUWIRTH: The future of these communities is in the people and in our ability to work with those people.

STEWART: How a billion squatters are redefining the future of our cities, when we continue with the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.