Hal Weiner, writer and director of "The Urban Explosion"

Marilyn Weiner, producer of "The Urban Explosion"

Maureen O'Neill, Senior Regional Urban Coordinator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 2

Michael White, Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center

co-sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Project &
the Comparative Urban Studies Project

21 March 2001-More than half the world's population now lives in cities. A major dilemma facing civic, national, and global institutions is how to service this exploding urban base without destroying the delicate natural balance that makes urbanization possible in the first place.

"The Urban Explosion," an hour-long film from Screenscope Inc. originally broadcast as part of the "Journey to Planet Earth" series on PBS, details the dramatic environmental problems of four rapidly growing megacities—Mexico City, Istanbul, Shanghai, and New York—as well as efforts in these metropolises to work towards sustainability. The film was shown at the Wilson Center as part of the 2001 Environmental Film Festival in Our Nation's Capital and was followed by a panel discussion that included the filmmakers.

Degradation and Hope

"The Urban Explosion" argues that vast waves of immigration have fueled tremendous rates of urban population growth around the world, leading to dangerous levels of air and water pollution as well as health crises and resource stress that threaten these cities' ultimate viability. For example, breathing the smoggy air of Mexico City (which has 20 million residents and is growing by three million annually) is like smoking two packs of cigarettes daily. And toxic waste runs in the city's open canals and brings cholera to the surrounding valley.

In Istanbul, green space is swallowed up by illegal housing developments, and 50% of the city's sewage runs untreated into the neighboring Bosphorous Strait, virtually ruining one of the world's most productive fisheries. In Shanghai, the "mecca of materialism" for China, smog from low-grade coal burning, buses, and autos chokes the city. East Harlem is home to six of seven New York City bus depots and suffers from an epidemic of asthma caused by diesel exhaust.

But "The Urban Explosion" also finds hopeful efforts in these cities—by both governments and community groups—to counteract environmental degradation and its assault on livability. Besides tightening their emissions standards and enhancing their rapid transit systems to address air pollution, both Mexico City and Shanghai are building deep-tunnel sewage drainage systems in an effort to eliminate open wastewater canals. Texcaco Lake and nearby lands have been restored using treated Mexico City water. Community groups in Istanbul are sponsoring construction of sustainable housing with nearby hospitals, schools, green spaces, and infrastructure. Sweat equity and investment are helping to recapture neighborhoods and common spaces in the South Bronx and Brooklyn. "The Urban Explosion" ends by arguing that the right to sustainability is as much a human right as democratic or economic freedom.

New York: Success and Challenges

Maureen O'Neill of the U.S. EPA Region 2 began the post-screening panel discussion by detailing some of the environmental successes and remaining challenges for New York City. Immigration and the diversity of the city impacts how government must deal with environmental issues, said O'Neill: for example, a campaign against a number of illegal pesticides sold on the city's street corners and in its bodegas must be conducted in the 140 languages spoken there.

But there have been major environmental successes both in New York (such as the recent city-state watershed protection plan) and the United States (where the aggregate six priority pollutants have gone down since 1970 despite rises in GDP and vehicle miles driven over the same period). "You can have clean air and a healthy economy—they're not opposed," argued O'Neill. She warned, however, that dramatic climate change will affect New York City disproportionately: any rise in sea-level because of polar ice-cap melting, for instance, would be disastrous for this predominantly coastal city.

Past and Present Urban Explosions

Demographer and Wilson Center Fellow Michael White followed by contextualizing and historicizing urban population trends. According to White, "urban explosion" has been an oft-repeated theme dating back to the 1950s. In fact, today's urbanization is not out of pace with other urban population booms of the past: many cities have grown rapidly in brief periods, a dynamic usually tied to economic development and in-migration.

What is different about today, said White, is that urbanization is taking place under "incomplete demographic transition"—that is, overall national population growth rates are also growing along with those of their cities. Megacities are also now sprouting up in countries (such as China) that are making fundamental political and economic transitions. While it takes tremendous resources and money to stem environmental degradation, White also argued that strong institutions, governmental regulation, and the prodding of nongovernmental organizations and community groups are also essential to this process. He ended by noting that 90 percent of the world's urbanized population does not live in megacities but will have to respond to the same environmental issues.

The Making of "The Urban Explosion"

Filmmakers Hal and Marilyn Weiner talked about the making of "The Urban Explosion" (which was originally broadcast in 1999) as well as their plans for future films in the upcoming "Journey to Planet Earth" season. Hal Weiner said that the films they currently have in production will discuss environmental injustice (which he called a "terribly, terribly important issue") as well as emphasize U.S. responsibility in environmental degradation and the state of the planet. Marilyn Weiner added that grassland loss, infectious diseases, and environmental security issues are also critical to potential global destabilization.

In response to audience questions, Hal Weiner said that recent Bush administration actions have galvanized the environmental community, and that a counter-effort against the weakening of governmental environmental regulations is imminent. Michael White added that the "environment vs. jobs" debate so prevalent today is a false one—that we can have economic development without environmental degradation, but that community groups need to speak out to promote environmental equity. White also noted that discrepancies in resources and general issues of development affect the relative capacities of cities to carry out environmental restoration projects. "What New York City can spend on water resources is vastly different than what Mexico City or Shanghai can spend," said White.

Marilyn Weiner related that U.S. audiences are still very provincial and have to be convinced that conditions in other countries are worth caring about. Hal Weiner concluded by lamenting that the West seems to have written off Africa. He called Africa's lack of health infrastructure and economic development as well as its epidemic of HIV/AIDS "desperate and terribly unfair," and also noted the chronic epidemic of vector-borne diseases in southern Africa. (For example, 11 percent of Kenyan children under 5 die of malaria—a disease easily curable with the proper medicines.)