The Human Problem Facing Global Cities


In an increasingly global and interconnected world, cities from Chicago to Rio de Janeiro confront similar issues. Where and how will people live as urban centers become both larger and more dense? What are the effects of urban renewal on lower-income populations? Carol Camp Yeakey, director of the Center on Urban Research & Public Policy and Interdisciplinary Program in Urban Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, shares her perspectives on urban studies in a global context.




Claire Navarro: Thanks for tuning in to Hold That Thought. I’m Claire Navarro. If you are a regular listener, you may have noticed that over the past several weeks, we’ve been talking about research with an international focus. To stick with that theme, we are reviving an episode from back in 2013 with education professor Carol Camp Yeakey. At the time we were doing a series focused on cities. Camp Yeakey directs both the urban studies program and the center on Urban Research & Public Policy here at Washington University in St. Louis. She joined Hold That Thought to talk about some of the problems that cities face around the globe.

Carol Camp Yeakey: If you get the impression that I like studying cities and the stuff that goes in cities in terms of the human context, you are absolutely correct. That’s me. I understand the theory and the research, and I teach it and have done it for a very long time. But I am interested in the human connection. What happens to people who live in cities?

CN: So far within Hold That Thought’s series on cities, we’ve had the chance to hear from experts across the disciplines—history, economics, and education, to name a few. For Camp Yeakey, this sort of interdisciplinary focus is an everyday reality.

CCY: The interesting thing about Urban Studies is that there is not one academic discipline or subject area that it does not touch upon. Not one. How do we handle the fact that more and more people in the global society are moving towards our cities? We are no longer a farm environment. Whether you are talking about Chicago, IL, whether you are talking about the U.S., whether you are talking about China, whether you are talking about Brazil, whether you are talking about Australia, it is now a global society, and I think it may be a decade ago, we passed the hallmark in terms of the fact that at least half of the world now lives in cities. Every that impacts on cities. How are you going to house these people? What about the environment? What about education? What about hunger? What about health care? When we tell everyone you have to get inoculated for the flu. Well, why is it important? It wouldn’t be necessary if you lived on the farm and your next neighbor was 100 miles away. In the city, flu can cause quite an epidemic. And the reverberations that can occur through the economy, through schools, through people’s ability to work or not work, through just basic health care, has impediments and import for almost every strata of society.

CN: As Camp Yeakey mentioned, one of the aspects of Urban Studies that she finds so fascinating is its global context. The 2012 book Living on the Boundaries: Urban Marginality in National and International Contexts, which she edited, really illustrates this aspect of Urban Studies. The focus of the volume really spans the globe—there are articles about Bangladesh, Sweden, England, the U.S., and just about everywhere in between. And as editor, Camp Yeakey sees connections between the urban issues presented throughout the volume.

CCY: We’re looking at almost a symmetry of problematics across the globe. Although we are different in terms of how we might look on the outside, internally and how we live there are some tremendous commonalities and complexities, which we need to solve not as the U.S. or Japan or Canada or Egypt, but how we as part of humanity can solve many of the issues, which are confronting us all. Because globally, we are smaller than we think we are.

CN: One of the global problems that Camp Yeakey focuses upon in her work is the plight of the urban poor. As cities compete with one another to become economic engines and centers for international business and commerce, efforts toward urban renewal often push out lower-income residents. And this is going on worldwide.

CCY: You find in New York what is occurring as they are building these 2 and 3 million dollar condos in New York City that the poor people are being pushed out. But not only the poor people, what about Mom and Pop Shops? Where are all those small businesses going? Once taxes rise, and Bloomberg has been a superb mayor in terms of making New York clearly a spot where companies and corporations want to be. He’s superb at that. But when you look at what some people call “the vanishing city”, it’s called vanishing because it is vanishing for those who can’t afford to live in it. So the same dynamic occurs whether you are talking about Jakarta, which is a major city, whether you are talking about Rio de Janeiro, it’s the same thing that is happening. You have so many people who want to live there and who may provide the menial kinds of labor. They can live there, but they can’t work there.

CN: Let’s stick with Rio for a moment, because the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics are causing a prime example of this gentrification.

CCY: Stay on the beaches of Ipanema and the like and look straight up, and what do you see? And there are the favelas. They are the slums for the urban poor. But those are the very thins that are being torn down for the Olympic Village, and when the Olympics are over, who do you think can afford to live there? Those with means and money. So the dynamic is the same. Where are the poor to live in our global societies and global cities? Because remember now what global cities are. They are highly cultural, meaning they have museums and amusements and all of those things that make a city part of a creative class. They are generally places where you have high areas of technological advance. And one of your other major issues is your global cities are where you have your best colleges and universities. So what does that draw? That draws your educated class, what we call you urban cosmopolites. No difficulty, because they can work in the corporations who settled there. They can work in the high tech industry and the jobs and the like, but what is happening is a tremendous disconnect because you have people who can work there and man the high class jobs and the like but you also have the urban poor who can provide the services but can’t afford to live in those cities anymore. Again, the question is where are the poor to live? And that is a question that is being asked and addressed no matter what city of the world that you go to. And we see what is happening in many of our major cities now; many of the poor are just getting angry and taking out their frustrations one another. This is not an apology for it. It is just what happens when you have so many people from different backgrounds and such a stringent and strong division between the haves and the have nots and a political climate that suggests we have given the poor too much already.

CN: If all of this seems overwhelming, or even depressing, it is helpful to remember that ever generation has had its own set of urban issues to confront and attempt to overcome.

CCY: Remember now, cities were created some 10,000 years ago, and cities have always gone through change and revolution. What makes them so fascinating and interesting is that this isn’t the first issue or evidence that clashes have taken place. They’ve taken place over the past 10,000 years. And why? Because you have so many people coming in contact with one another. We didn’t solve it when Rome was Rome and England was England, OK? So now the burden on us in the 21-century to resolve some of these kinds of issues that weren’t resolved historically. So its helpful to remember if you think this is depressing, it really isn’t. We are talking about the revolution and the advance of civilization and how people can live better with one another, and I am confident we can.

CN: Many thanks to Professor Carol Camp Yeakey for contributing to Hold That Thought. Among her many ongoing projects, Camp Yeakey is working with colleagues on a book titled Up From Rust: The Promise and Peril of Urban Renewal. You can find a link to her faculty page, as well as the website for Washington University’s Center on Urban Research and Public Policy, on our website. We’re at Thanks for listening.



Photo by Milo Miloezger on Unsplash