A Planet of People: Angel's Planet of Cities


Professor Shlomo Angel's new book, Planet of Cities, seems likely to command a place on the authoritative bookshelf of urbanization between Tertius Chandler's Four Thousand Years of Urban Growthand Sir Peter Hall's Cities and Civilization and The Containment of Urban England. Chandler produced the definitive volume of gross population figures for urban areas (cities) over millennia. Angel, takes the subject much further, describing detail how urban areas have grown over the last two centuries, both in population and continuous urban land area. The book focuses principally on population growth,  urban spatial expanse, and density. Moreover, Professor Angel develops both a statistical and analytic framework that complements the voluminous work of Peter Hall. Planet of Cities is liberally illustrated, which greatly aids understanding the trends.

Urban Population, Land Area & Density Evolution from 1800

Planet of Cities looks at the urbanization trend from various dimensions. A sample of 30 urban areas was used to gauge urban expansion and density changes from 1800 to 2000.

At the same time, he describes the well documented urban density declines in the United States as well as the similar trends in Western European urban areas  often been missed by analysts who imagine that spatial expansion is limited to America.

He goes further, showing that the rapidly growing urban areas of the developing world are also declining in urban density, with spatial expansion rates far exceeding those of population growth. This has been evident in New Geography’s  Evolving Urban Areas series (such as Mumbai, Jakarta, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City and others).

Angel uses examples, such as Cairo and Accra, Ghana to illustrate both longer term and recent expansions of urban land area and the consequent drastic declines in urban density. In Cairo, the urban land area increased 16 times from 1938 to 2000, well in excess of the approximately 10 times population increase. In Accra, a 50 percent population increase from 1985 to 2000 was dwarfed by a 150 percent increase in urban land area.

The analysis also includes a larger number (3600) with populations greater than 100,000. He estimates that all of the world's urbanization covers no more than 0.5 percent of the world's land. Angel suggests that the world the urban footprint could double or triple in the next few decades. However, he concludes that, even with this expansion, there are "adequate reserves of cultivatable land sufficient to feed the planet in perpetuity."

Taking note of the slow growth or even population declines in the more developed world, he reminds readers that that nearly all of future population growth will occur in the urban areas of the less developed world. Angel strongly contends that this urban expansion is necessary. This, of course, places him "swimming upstream" against the prevailing doctrines of urban planning. The title of his first chapter "Coming to Terms with Urban Expansion" gives fair warning of his challenge to current planning doctrines. Throughout the volume, Angel expresses the view that declining urban densities are "inevitable," based upon his historic analysis, review of current trends and perceptions of the future.

A Mumbai slum

The Prime Concern: Housing

Angel’s "primary policy concern" as "that in the absence of ample and accessible land for expansion on the urban periphery, artificial shortages of residential land will quickly extinguish any hope that housing will remain affordable, especially for the urban poor..."

Angel expresses concern that the urban containment policies that so dominate American and Western European planning could be damaging to less developed nations, cancelling out much of the economic rewards of rapid urbanization. He expresses surprise that the attempt to impose Western planning models on the developing world raises so little objection (see China Should Send the Western Planners Home).

Consistent with his "primary policy concern," Angel offers a "decent housing proposition," countering the present one-dimensional focus on environmental issues. In contrast, Angel suggests a more rounded approach to urban planning. He surmises \ the very purpose of cities:  to improve the economic lot of those who are attracted there. People are not generally attracted to cities because of the quality of their planning or the uniqueness of their architecture. In short, as he puts it, "few move to the city for its fountains." Unless they perform their economic task, cities stagnate or die, as so often happened before the modern age. The near exclusive draw of cities is household economics. Beyond the unprecedented value of the quantitative data and analysis provided, Planet of Cities is rooted in the reality of that   measure.

At the same time, Angel is himself is unabashedly a planner. He is an adjunct professor of urban planning at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service at New York University, a lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and a senior research scholar at the urbanization project at the Stern School of Business at New York University.

Restoring a Genuine Focus to Planning

Angel expresses a strong interest in the most fundamental of planning issues: the provision of infrastructure that allows the urban area to better serve its residents and those it attracts. He is thus simultaneously for both more and less planning. He would curb the excesses of intervention in land markets that are now rife because they compromise the ability of cities to perform their primary function of improving affluence. He would expand the focus of planning to facilitate the organic urban expansion associated with growing cities.  This means that sufficient available land must be available for development without materially increasing land and house prices. It also requires making provision for the basic infrastructure such as an arterial grid of dirt roads on the expanding fringes of developing world cities.

Abandoning Destructive Planning Doctrines

Angel calls for abandonment of artificial limits on urban expansion and population growth (such as urban growth boundaries and housing moratoria) and instead seeks economic development and improvements in the quality of life.

Professor Angel does not mince words about the consequences of relying of urban containment policy ("smart growth," "growth management," "compact cities,") as a strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The consequence would be that the "protection of our planet would likely come at the expense of the poor." He adds that strict measures to protect the natural environment by blocking urban expansion   could "choke the supplies of affordable lands on the fringes of cities and limit the abilities of ordinary people the house themselves."  He decries the notion that "cities should simply be contained and enclosed by greenbelts or impenetrable urban growth boundaries as "uninformed and utopian" because it makes sustainability "an absolute end that justifies all means to attain it." This policy approach sacrifices such imperatives as the quality of life and full employment.  

A Planet of People

Angel's treatment is consistent with the urban scaling research of West et al at the Santa Fe Institute, which found that as cities increased in population they become more productive (As we indicated in a previous article, the Santa Fe Institute research did not deal with urban densities, despite misconceptions of some analysts).

Angel's concern about the impact on low income households is consistent with the focus of the international sustainability movement, which , declared at the recent Rio +20 conference:

Eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an
indispensable requirement for sustainable development. In this regard we are committed to
free humanity from poverty and hunger as a matter of urgency.

Angel's Planet of Cities is about urban areas that serve their residents instead of theoretical, often utopian notions.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”


Publication information:
Shlomo Angel, Planet of Cities (2012) Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

Photo: Cover: Planet of Cities.  http://www.lincolninst.edu/pubs/images/2094_Planet_of_Cities_Cover_web.jpg