Cities on the Edge

Winter 2010

As if aging bridges, roads, pipes, and transmission lines weren’t enough to worry about, there is another stealthy challenge facing cities in developed and developing nations around the world: rising sea levels. “If you look at a map of the world and start counting the number of cities and the percentage of the world’s population that lives at sea level it quickly becomes apparent how big a problem we face,” says Ralph Gakenheimer ’57, a professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “Most of the world’s great cities started as ports, so it’s a long list. Amsterdam—and most of the Netherlands—is already below sea level.”

Although Gakenheimer began his academic career studying engineering science at Johns Hopkins, an interest in Spanish language and history led him to research and write about the early history of Latin American cities under the guidance of civil engineering professor Thomas Hubbard. That in turn led to a master’s degree in urban planning and an eventual PhD focused on the history of urban development and transportation in Latin America. After that, he says, “I joined the circus and became a city planner.”

In the years since, Gakenheimer has worked as a scholar of international development on projects ranging from metropolitan planning in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to transportation needs in San Miguel, El Salvador. Most recently he has been serving as chair of a United Nations–appointed committee charged with overseeing comprehensive planning for Makkah (known in the West as Mecca), Saudi Arabia, which once a year welcomes about 3 million pilgrims for the annual five-day Muslim hajj, bringing the faithful from all over the world together for shared rites.

“There are great opportunities and needs in infrastructure planning and development all over the world, but particularly in the developing countries,” he says. “These solutions need to be ‘green’ —in transportation especially we are looking desperately for a transport system that uses a minimum of carbon fuel.” What is really needed, he believes, is systematic redesign of how cities are organized and how they operate. “For the most part cities grew up on an ad hoc basis, but some have been thought through better than others. Although the Romans were good at planning in advance, most other cultures have not been. But systematic planning is extremely important to enable urban life to be more externally efficient.”

In the 21st century, he says, the developing world is both rapidly expanding and rapidly motorizing. In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, planners and government officials in cities everywhere will need to reduce the amount of travel people undertake, especially in personal vehicles. “I think much of this will be ‘reduce by inducing’—employing techniques like congestion pricing and improved land use to encourage greater efficiency,” he says. “I think we are seeing the beginning of a wide series of strident strategies that will be employed.”