Thursday, February 03, 2011

City State

Estonia is often described as a "City State". It is not really true, after all -territorially- the country is quite large, about the size of Belgium or Denmark. Yet given that half of the 1.3 million population lives in Harju County- the area in and around the capital, Tallinn- it is clear that the country is quite urban and quite concentrated. Yet, away from Tallinn, there are only four cities over 70,000 people, so the rest is small towns, villages, farms and forests.

Yet what we mean by a City is now being challenged by the staggering urbanisation taking place in China. There is now a proposal to link four or five already quite large cities around the Pearl River delta in Guangdong Province into a huge "mega-city" of nearly 50 million people. As in so many things, China is emerging as a pioneer. Urbanisation has been identified as something that provides net benefits to city dwellers, yet I for one can help feeling a little nervous about what this headlong dash towards the mega-cities of the future might mean. There are over 170 cities in China that are larger than the entire population of Estonia. Yet I ask myself, "what happens if something breaks down?". We know that Cities provide greater social and technological opportunities compared to rural dwellers, and they tend to be much richer too. Yet Cities are also rather fragile constructs of our civilisation. Cities are a product of the surplus of food that the countryside can create. Concentrating so many people into a relatively small space, also maximises the opportunities for human parasites: including diseases. While it has been nearly a century since the last pandemic, the fact is that periodic plagues are something that Humans must expect, and Cities are ideal transmission grounds for these.

There are further challenges- only yesterday, there was the news that the magma chamber underneath the Yellowstone super-volcano has been quite active. An eruption here would have planet wide consequences, while some cities, such as Istanbul and Tokyo are also sitting on highly active fault lines: both are overdue major earthquakes. So, although cities do bring benefits, they also carry risks- and there seems to be little awareness or preparation for dealing with these risks.

So, Estonia benefits from the relative urbanisation of its population, but it also benefits from the fact that almost all of the urban inhabitants have roots in the countryside. Most have summer homes in the country, where they grow fruit or vegetables, or keep beehives. Most Estonians eat organic, because they know of no other kind of food. The food processing that mega-cities rely on to feed themselves is nearly unknown here. Even at the airport food is freshly cooked from unfrozen and unprocessed ingredients

In the world of the mega-city, the kind of rural life that remains open to Estonians is becoming rarer- indeed it might almost be regarded as a luxury to have so much space. The roads are quiet, the forests silent and yet teeming with wildlife. As I walk through the mediaeval city walls and into the centre of Tallinn I breath the clean sea air- and I am very thankful for it.

1 comment:

Edis said...

Little noted fact. Estonia is twice as big as Israel.

Estonia 45,228 km2
Israel 20,700 km2 (almost exactly the same size as Wales)

That though always sobers me when thinking about Israel security issues....