One thing your students should notice as their study of World History moves into the 21st century is that the world’s population is rapidly urbanizing. More than half of all humans now live in cities, a drastic change from just over 60 years ago, when two-thirds of all people lived in rural areas. By 2050, demographers project that two-thirds of people will live in cities, most likely a “megacity” or a metropolitan area with a population of more than 10 million people. This high-resolution, downloadable map is from National Geographic Magazine (click here to download the .pdf), and shows the locations, populations, and growth of megacities.
Photographs that illustrate life in megacities are also available from National Geographic Magazine here: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0211/feature3/zoom1.html. You can also explore these megacities on Google Earth.
People are drawn to megacities by the promise of employment, and the sense of connection to the rest of the world (especially to the glamour of older megacities such as New York and London). These megacities contain not only a sense of globalization and global connections, but also of class polarization. This can lead to pervasive corruption, as described in this bleak New Yorker article about Lagos, Nigeria:
The patronage system helps the megacity absorb the continual influx of newcomers for whom the formal economy has no use. Wealth accrues not to the most imaginative or industrious but to those who rise up through the chain of patronage. It amounts to a predatory system of obligation, set down in no laws, enforced by implied threat… the megacity doesn’t encourage social responsibility and collective action to improve public life. The very scale of it is atomizing. The absence of government services in most neighborhoods rarely leads to protest; instead, it forces slum dwellers to become self-sufficient through illegal activity. They tap into electrical lines, causing blackouts and fires; they pay off local gangs to provide security, which means that justice in the slums is vigilante justice.
Read the entire article here: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/11/13/061113fa_fact_packer.
Newer megacities are extremely challenging places to live. The issue is so pressing that the United Nations has an entire agency, UN-HABITAT, which was mandated by the UN General Assembly in 1978 to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all. As their website states, “In many cities, especially in developing countries, slum dwellers number more than 50 per cent of the population and have little or no access to shelter, water, and sanitation.” They make a wealth of data available in an interactive format through the Global Urban Observatory’s databases.
When finishing up a chapter on late 20th century/early 21st century developments in a particular region, pay particular attention to the megacities that are emerging in that region. What social, economic, and political problems do they face? How are effectively these problems being resolved? Allow your students to use their knowledge of the region’s culture and history to brainstorm their own possible solutions. As a final wrap, consider the differences between megacities: How and why is Tokyo’s infrastructure different from Dhaka’s? Why might a solution that works in Sao Paulo not work in Bangalore?