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A five-part, multimedia series on the coming dystopia that is urbanization.
DHAKA, Bangladesh — The future is here, and it smells like burning trash.
As the evening call to prayer echoes across Dhaka’s teeming slums, a bluish haze rises in the murky air. Cooking happens mostly on open fires in the shantytowns of the Bangladeshi capital, the flames kindled with paper, scavenged lumber and bits of plastic junk.
On a recent evening in a broken labyrinth of shacks called the Korail slum, a wiry young mother in a red sari stooped to light the clay hearth outside her family’s one-room home. Mina, 24, touched her match to a castoff vinyl folder, three-hole-punched for documents she’ll never read.
“I don’t like to live in Dhaka,” she said, fanning the smoking plastic, then laying splintered bamboo on top. “But we have a dream to buy a piece of land, some land back in our village.”
Mina, who uses only one name, followed her husband here in 2009 — joining the nearly half-million migrants who pour into Dhaka each year. It’s not clear how soon, if ever, they’ll leave. Mina’s husband saves only a few dollars each month from his job selling fish. Mina, meanwhile, cares for their two children and, like millions of other women here, fires up the family’s nightly meal.
The smoke from these fires signals not a return to a prior age but, rather, the dawn of something new. Depending on how one measures, the planet now boasts 20 or so megacities — urban agglomerations where the United Nations estimates the population has reached 10 million or more. The world’s rapid urbanization is a reality fraught with both peril and hope. The peril is obvious. Overcrowding, pollution, poverty, impossible demands for energy and water all result in an overwhelming sense these megacities will simply collapse. But the hope, while less obvious, needs more attention. The potential efficiencies of urban living, the access to health care and jobs, along with plummeting urban birth rates have all convinced some environmental theorists the migration to cities may in fact save the planet. But only, these experts hasten to add, if this shift is well managed.
Among these megacities, The World Bank says Dhaka, with its current population of 15 million people, bears the distinction of being the fastest-growing in the world. Between 1990 and 2005, the city doubled in size — from 6 to 12 million. By 2025, the U.N. predicts Dhaka will be home to more than 20 million people — larger than Mexico City, Beijing or Shanghai.
Mass migration, booming populations and globalized trade are swelling cities worldwide, but these forces are perhaps more powerfully concentrated in Dhaka than anywhere on earth — offering a unique window on an urban planet soon to come.
“You are seeing the early future of the world, which is not a very pleasant thought,” said Atiq Rahman, a Dhaka climate and migration researcher who heads the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies. Explosive growth in cities like Dhaka, he said, has created “a cluster of demographic chaos.”
The earth’s countryside is emptying out, more quickly all the time. It took about 10,000 years for the human population to become 3 percent urban — a period extending roughly from the dawn of human settlement until 1800. A century later, Earth was still just 14 percent urban. But in 2007, the United Nations announced we’d crossed a monumental threshold. For the first time, more than 50 percent of the world lived in cities rather than rural villages and farms. By 2030, some projections say more than 80 percent of humanity will be urban, with many inhabiting the slum-choked cities of the developing world.
The shift is “a watershed in human history, comparable to the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions,” urban theorist Mike Davis wrote in his book “Planet of Slums.”
In the simplest sense, this transformation has a dual cause: Masses of migrants are abandoning the countryside, and they keep having babies after coming to town. By some accounts, fertility is a larger slice of the pie.
“It’s roughly a 40/60 split,” said Deborah Balk, an urbanization specialist with the CUNY Institute for Demographic Research in New York City. “We have more large concentrations of people than we’ve ever had before. That is new. And those concentrations themselves, they have momentum.”