In This Issue
Earth Systems Engineering
March 1, 2001 Volume 31 Issue 1

Hybrid Cities: A Basis for Hope

Thursday, March 1, 2001

Author: Geeta Pradhan and Rajesh K. Pradhan

Combining the best features of city and country life in one place can create the diversity and sense of community needed to nurture creativity and innovation.

Some years ago, the people of Mexico City realized with horror that the city had started sinking. Water drawn over the years to sustain life had far exceeded what trickled down to replenish underground sources, triggering sometimes dramatic subsidence. Excessive paving made matters worse, leading to water run-off, flooding, aquifer depletion, and reliance on an expensive water supply system. Mexico City illustrates starkly how unsustainable our current practices are.

This article draws upon an inspiring thought by the Italian writer-philosopher Italo Calvino to offer an alternative approach to the development of cities. In his 1986 book, Invisible Cities, Calvino describes the empire of the Tartan Emperor Kublai Khan. It is crumbling and Kahn is devastated. To divert him, the Venetian traveler Marco Polo recounts for him stories about the several cities he has seen during his travels. He tells of cities of memories, cities of dreams, of thin cities and wide cities, of trading cities and cities of desires, signs, and eyes, cities of names, and hidden cities. Soon it becomes clear to Khan that each of these fantastic places is really the same place-Kublai Khan’s empire.

But a down-in-the-dumps Khan cannot see any hope of getting out of this ever closing-in inferno, and Polo tells him:
. . . There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

The idea explored in the following pages has precedents in wisdom drawn from the past and echoes the vast literature on administrative decentralization. It takes into account some of today’s scientific and technological advances, and it tempers the grandeur and visions of utopia with the realization that human activity and population growth can no longer keep pace with the world’s finite resources. Like Calvino’s spaces within the inferno, it tries to give legitimacy and room to small trends and innovative concepts emerging in several cities in response to problems created by urbanization. It seeks to offer a new model of development-a hybrid approach-that combines the best of rural and urban attributes to create “a village in a city, a city in a village.” Metaphorically, it urges us to look outside cities as we rethink today’s urban centers and design those of tomorrow.

The world’s population, which reached 6.1 billion in mid-2000, is projected to grow to 8.1 billion by 2030 (United Nations, 2001). Projections show that almost all of this growth will be concentrated in urban areas of the less developed world, and rural to urban migration and the transformation of rural settlements into cities are expected to be key contributors to this trend. Although an increasing share of the world’s population is living in urban areas, the percentage of people living in very large urban agglomerations-the megacities-is still small. In 2000, 4.3 percent of the world’s population lived in cities of 10 million or more; by 2015, 5.2 percent are expected to. Cities of 5-10 million inhabitants, which currently account for 2.6 percent of world population, will hold about 3.5 percent of the planet’s people by 2015. By comparison, the number of people living in smaller cities, though increasing at a slower pace, is considerably larger. In 2000, 28.5 percent of the world’s population was living in cities of 1 million or less; by 2015, cities of this size will account for 30.6 percent of total population.


Congestion, health risks,
social chaos among problems
common to largest cities.

Though cities account for just 2 percent of the world’s surface, they use up a disproportionately large portion of the world’s resources. For instance, roughly 78 percent of carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement manufacturing, and 76 percent of industrial wood use worldwide, occur in urban areas. Some 60 percent of the planet’s water tapped for human use goes to cities in one form or another (O’Meara, 1999).

Cities account for a majority of the world’s wealth and provide over 50 percent of the world’s employment. If population growth remains on its current trajectory, the global workforce will swell from about 3 billion today to nearly 4.5 billion by 2050 (World Resources Institute, 2000). In a desperate search for jobs, higher incomes, and a greater diversity of options, people will continue to be drawn to cities.

Many urban areas provide an inhospitable environment, creating incentives for people to move away and escape city life. Congestion, health risks related to pollution, ungovernability, and social chaos are common problems in some of the world’s largest cities. According to the World Resources Institute (1996), at least 220 million people in cities of the developing world lack clean drinking water, 420 million do not have access to the simplest sanitation, and between one-third and one-half of city trash goes uncollected, contributing to flooding and the spread of disease. Domestic and industrial effluents released with little or no treatment into waterways are affecting the quality of water far beyond cities, rendering many urban rivers like the Pasig in Manila and the Yamuna in New Delhi biologically dead. Breakdowns and undercapacity in the aging infrastructure of cities, especially water-supply and sewer systems, increases the incidence of water-borne and water-related diseases. At any given time, close to half the world’s urban population suffers from one or more of these diseases (World Bank, 2000).

Rising rates of automobile ownership and the absence of public transportation and environmentally sound rapid transit systems are creating unprecedented pollution levels and traffic congestion in cities. Urban air pollution is estimated to be responsible for over 3 million deaths annually worldwide, almost all of those among children (World Health Organization, 1997). The air in some cities in Latin America, China, and India has concentrations of pollutants, such as nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, and particulates, that are two to four times those set by World Health Organization guidelines (Davis, 1999). The amount of air pollution children in these cities are exposed to is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes per day (World Bank, 2000).

Despite problems associated
with growth, development
policies continue to favor
the urban sector.

Vehicle exhaust, the dominant ingredient in urban air pollution, also is spewing lead into the air. This toxic metal impairs the kidneys, liver, and reproductive system, and at high levels causes irreversible brain damage. Recent studies suggest that about two-thirds of children in New Delhi and an even greater proportion of children in Shanghai have blood lead levels higher than those expected to cause adverse health effects. In Cairo in early 1999, worsening traffic in the city’s industrial areas contributed to atmospheric lead concentrations that exceeded health guidelines by a factor of 11 (O’Meara, 1999).

Despite all the problems associated with the growth of cities, development policies have continued to favor the urban sector. This “urban bias,” to borrow a phrase popularized by the economist Michael Lipton (1977) in his work on urban and rural development, grew from a much earlier debate about how less industrialized nations should modernize. In the view that gained acceptance, generally credited to Arthur Lewis (1954), the strategy was to focus on cities (as opposed to agricultural areas) as places that could provide jobs, produce goods using low competitive wages due to surplus labor, generate wealth through exchange, and create a dense environment necessary for economic interdependence and innovation. The result of this development strategy was excessive migration to cities, urban sprawl, and the relative stagnation of villages. Many cities, those in the less industrialized world in particular, have become unmanageable, ungovernable, and unsustainable.

The Consequences of Urban Sprawl

In the United States as in the rest of the industrialized world, the debate about cities now is framed differently, not on economic growth per se but on ways to achieve better quality of life. These are new expressions of old ideas in American history, where city planners saw the ideal city as one that took care of three sides of human experience: work, family, and leisure. Over time, however, quality work life, family life, and leisure time have come to be associated not with inner cities but with suburbs. With employment moving out to the suburbs, with family concerns about schools and safety in cities, and with greater opportunity for leisure in natural suburban settings, cities are witnessing out-migration or suburban sprawl. The result is a substantial loss of agricultural land and forests, urban disinvestments, and an increase in transportation and residential and commercial land use.

As an illustration of this trend, America’s metropolitan population, which includes people living in suburbs, grew from 60 percent of the total population in 1950 to about 80 percent in 2000 (Ecological Cities Project, 2001). An implication of this growth in the Boston metropolitan region, for instance, is the loss of over 37 percent of open space to sprawl in just 50 years (Pradhan and Kahn, 2000). The impact of automobile usage extends even to such issues as loss of productivity. Drivers in 70 U.S. metropolitan areas spend an average of 40 hours each year sitting in stalled traffic, resulting in wasted fuel and lost productivity that costs about $74 billion annually (O’Meara, 1999).

Concerns about health, productivity, and overall quality of life provide an incentive for people to move away from cities. Those with the means can choose to maintain two homes, one in the country to enjoy serenity, the other in the bustling city to experience and enjoy diversity and culture, for employment, and for wealth creation. This phenomenon of dual habitation, growing in both the West and among affluent city dwellers in the developing world, gives one glimpse of what people would do if they could.

Resource Pressures Create Social Stress
As cities continue to expand, whether from urbanization or sprawl, the pressures to manage water and energy resources, organize food production and distribution, and manage basic urban amenities such as housing, transportation, and public health will increase. Access to and control over these resources and services increasingly are becoming arenas of social conflict, particularly in megacities. Ironically, even if population does not grow at the predicted rate, cities will still have to contend with normal wear and tear of vital infrastructure.

Relative to the enormity of problems facing cities, our responses have been timid. They have ranged from popularizing environmentally sound technical solutions (e.g., energy conservation equipment and pollution-prevention and clean-up technologies) aimed at fixing problems to appealing to people to establish a deep (spiritual) bond with environment and nature. Neither approach provides much hope for significantly improving the quality of life in today’s sprawling cities and emerging urban centers.
Rather, what we need today is an inspiring vision that provides new direction for cities of the future. We need a utopia of sorts, a basis for hope, and a redefinition of what a city is. The answer to the problems of cities of today may rest with development approaches that concentrate on smaller urban centers, those with populations of one million or less, and on creating coutryside or small-town-like environments within large urban centers.

The vision we propose is of a sustainable community that emphasizes civic engagement, social justice, environmental soundness, and economic diversity. It is based on an understanding of factors that over the ages have lured people to cities and of qualities of life people seek when they move to the countryside and to small towns. Termed the “hybrid city,” the proposed approach attempts to combine the best of cities-diversity, density, innovation, opportunities for economic mobility, and access to means for human development-with the best of village or small-town life-cultural wisdom, frugality, conservation, resource efficiency, a sense of scale and place, self-reliance, and a sense of community and connectedness.

The approach uses lessons learned from innovations in such areas as food production, open-space creation, waste management, and transportation. Used to take the heat off the “infernos” that many large cities have become, these innovations also offer hope for the sustainability of smaller urban centers. A few examples should suffice.

  • The creation in cities of village-like, self-reliant activities. Many small but successful efforts to enhance urban sustainability or livability provide residents with goods and services produced locally. They are, in other words, guided by the principle of self-reliance, a characteristic associated typically with the village or country town of the past, when transportation options were limited.


Public markets testimony
to the demand for urban

    Chinese cities, for instance, have long reserved surrounding areas for agriculture and used city-generated wastes to fertilize the fields. In Africa, urban agriculture is often a survival strategy for the poor (O’Meara, 1999). In Boston, 150 community gardens augment the food budgets of families in the inner city; the gardeners are often low-income and the elderly. New York City is organizing to protect its ad-hoc urban gardens. In one sense, the popularity of public markets that stock locally grown produce and food products is testimony to the latent demand for urban agriculture.

    The hybrid cities approach would make urban agriculture an explicit element of city planning. To the extent it creates a variety of jobs in production, processing, and support industries (favoring less-skilled workers), the strategy would further the goals of equity and social justice. And, from an architectural or urban design point of view, it would enhance diversity within cities that may be becoming too city-like.
  • The creation in cities of village-like open spaces and clean air. Perhaps inadvertently, urban agriculture is adding badly needed open space in congested cities. Some U.S. metropolitan centers are more consciously working to contain their boundaries, limit growth, and increase countryside-like open spaces. By moving a major above-ground highway underground, for instance, Boston has created huge open spaces in the heart of its downtown. The desire for more pristine air has led Chattanooga to replace automobile traffic in the downtown area with free public transportation that runs on nonpolluting fuels (World Resources Institute, 2001). The change has led to massive economic investments in the city center.


Creating an island of city
life surrounded by a sea of

  • The creation in cities of village-like frugality and resource conservation. Curitiba, Brazil, has managed to link its waste recycling program to efforts to boost nutrition. For every bag of recyclables they turn in, citizens receive a bag of locally grown vegetables. Similar recycling strategies are occurring on an industrial scale. For instance, in Kalundborg, Denmark, waste from one industry feeds directly into another as raw material in a kind of “industrial symbiosis.” Metropolitan Tokyo, with over 80 percent of its land covered by asphalt, is harvesting rain water for nondrinking uses (O’Meara, 1999). Boston is conserving its drinking-water resources by replacing leaky pipes, installing water-saving features, and educating the public about the importance of water conservation. It has reduced water loss in the past two decades from 33 percent to about 11 percent (Pradhan and Kahn, 2000).
  • The creation of a city in a village. Technological advancements and traditional wisdom make it possible to create an island of city life surrounded by a sea of countryside. Anna Hazare’s Raley Gaon Sidhhi project in Maharashtra, India, is one such example (Hazare, 1997). The project is hailed as one of the most successful sustainable community projects in India and has been replicated in over 600 villages. It, too, applies the idea of “city in a village,” creating not an urban center but a sustainable village with town-like diversity that provides an array of jobs and employs low-cost, environmentally sound technologies and watershed management approaches to sustain what is essentially village life.

Behind many innovative solutions in urban sustainability lies the unspoken idea of adding to cities qualities associated with the countryside. Technology today makes such integration more possible, unleashing forces that respond simultaneously to the longing for the intensity of a city and the ideal of a small-town life in a global economy.

Hybrid Cities and Diversity
Another way of looking at hybrid cities is to focus on the issue of diversity, one of the defining characteristics of the city itself. Introducing the kinds of innovations we have just described will lead to a broadening and deepening of diversity. That diversity, more generally, could allow different ideas, opportunities, and experiences to coexist, thereby creating conditions for constant innovation and creativity. The hybrid city is both an actor in the global economy and a self-reliant entity that meets local need for basic goods and services. Its diverse economy is both industrial and craft based, high tech and low tech, formal and informal.

Ideally, a hybrid city is relatively small, governable, and manageable. It offers a sense of community and allows people to feel connected. The “hybridization” of an existing megacity could occur in a number of ways, some of them complementary: by administratively breaking up the giant settlement into several small towns; through community- or neighborhood-based planning consistent with the decentralized units; or by incorporating countryside-like spaces and activities along the periphery as well as within the city itself. Similarly, one could imagine high-technology based urban clusters within the countryside. The idea, in other words, is to diversify both the city and the countryside.

To put it differently, the small town (or the countryside) needs to become the planning tool for the development of existing large cities. To the extent that the hybrid city incorporates the ideas inherent in small towns and rural settings, it draws our attention inevitably to civic engagement and social justice, issues that get lost in the rush to make the city more modern or manageable but that are critical to making cities more sustainable.

By advocating in cities village- or craft-like activities in production, processing, manufacturing, and servcies, the hybrid city attempts to create multiple work opportunities and an outlet for many skills that have become irrelevant in cities today.

A Conglomeration of Small Towns
By conceptualizing the big city as a conglomeration of small towns interspersed by pockets of the countryside, the hybrid city inevitably turns resource allocation and city planning into neighborhood- or community-based activities. It facilitates civic engagement by relying on small administrative units as opposed to the centralized administration of traditional megacities. By so doing, hybrids foster diverse power centers and give legitimacy to many different voices. Finally, by drawing attention to small urban centers and developing urban clusters within villages-possibly the hybrid cities of the future-the strategy directs investments to relatively forgotten communities.

The idea of enjoying the best of both worlds is not new. After the Industrial Revolution, when conditions in cities became unbearable, urban thinkers developed visions of utopia that combined the best of technology with ideas of social justice to create equitable societies in harmony with nature. Whether or not we agree with them, ideas from Ebeneezer Howard’s Garden Cities movement, Le Corbusier’s skyscrapers set in open parkland, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s sprawl over suburbia made possible by the automobile found their way into 20th century urban planning throughout the world. Such is the power and influence of visions!

Unlike some of the utopian visions of the past, the hybrid city approach does not pretend to be a fully developed idea. It aims simply to unify disparate and badly needed attempts at sustainability by mixing, like an alchemist, seemingly opposed elements-the city and the countryside, the megacity and the rural village.


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  • Davis, D. 1999. Urban Air Pollution Risks to Children, A Global Environmental Health Indicator. Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute.
  • Ecological Cities Project. 2001. Change in U.S. Metropolitan Populations and Land Area (1950-2050). Available online at (March 27, 2001)
  • Hazare, A. 1997. A Veritable Transformation. Translated by B. S. Pendse. Ralegan Siddhi, India: Ralegan Siddhi Pariwar Publications.
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About the Author:Geeta Pradhan is a consultant in sustainable community development and planning and former director of Sustainable Boston. Rajesh K. Pradhan is a consultant in Urban and social enterprise development, currently consults for the Center for Reflective Community Practice at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is Chairman of the Social Enterprise Trust in New Delhi, India. This article is based on remarks made by Geeta Pradhan 24 October 2000 at the NAE Annual Meeting Technical Session.