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Libyan Writer Ghoma

Saturday, 1 October, 2005

ON DEVELOPMENT: Megalopolises in the Desert?

By: Ghoma

       If present trends continue unchecked, Libya soon will be reduced to two aggregate conurbations, one in the east and one in the west with smatterings of small settlements scattered along the oases chain from Hun to Sabha. Between these two "giant" strips, one from Tobruk to Ijdabia; and the other from Misurata to Zwara, there will be nothing but desert! These two settlement patterns will take a good amount of land and resources. The choices are between letting things go their way, in some sort of nature takes care of itself, and doing something to direct the onslaught on what's called economically viable land. The narrow strip of 'good and fertile soil' the country has will be gobbled up soon by the whitish sandstone blocks and grey concrete stuccos. Soon will rise in this semi-desert strip an Amazonic jungle of jumbled, a la Third World slum cities; forests of antennas and tv dishes separated by dusty, barren, and tortuous alleyways, the whole is mired in perhaps some variations of 10% so-called 'middle class' and the rest in anonymous lives and underground economies! Or, subject the growth to human reason and good commonsense by trying to reach into the future and plan for it before it's here. The head scratching, of course, involves more than settlement policies. It includes economic activities, political arrangements and cultural modes and outlooks. What the oncoming ocean of humans - 25 million of them by mid 21st century- are going to do in the desert and what kind of life will they have?

       One may ask why such dire predictions when things seem to be moving somewhere? The fact of the matter things are not moving anywhere, if there's any sign of movement it's only visual illusions. The rate of population growth still amongst the highest in the world on par with other explosive rates of household formation and urbanization. These rates are matched only by the rate of desertification advance1 and the higher demand on oil and gas abstractions!

       The government has just declared the need for 300,000 housing units in the next 5 years. A city of at least one million and half, the size of Phoenix or Philadelphia, one and half times present day Tripoli! If these numbers are to be met, a building rate of 60,000 housing units yearly is a must; that's, a medium sized-city of 300,000 [assuming a family size of five!] souls every year. Not only these mega numbers point to a need for a tremendous amount of resources, not to say, muscle power, cement, and steel but above all an urgent need for sound policies and planning. Otherwise the picture will be bleak. If the needs expressed were to be let to take place by spontaneous accretion , the result will be a colossal aggregations of impoverished slums a la Baghdad, Algiers, Casablanca, or even Cairo or Bombay!

       A pressing need for crucial and vital strategic choices are due sooner than later. And since the government and its technocrats are usually in the habit of jumping on the fast and easy fixes to boost their numbers and cant their performances, the people's assemblies have to take matters into their own hands. If these assemblies were ever to reach an understanding and make some of the needed choices they have first to be presented with facts as neutral as possible, they've also to be continuously updated on the implications of each scenario and what possible trade-offs are in store. Only by having the most input from all concerned, to be later worked out into a form of workable directives and guidelines, and presented to the different teams that will handle the creative processes, can a meaningful strategic choices be made.

       A large number of choices will present themselves. Theoretically the present population of the country can be housed in an area the size of present day Tripoli or Benghazi, by increasing the density both vertically and horizontally, but that choice has its own problems and shortcomings. If it's not feasible and/or desirable to concentrate 6-million people in one large metropolis then what's the desired and politically-economically-culturally-technologically feasible: an extended low-density urbanization -similar to suburban USA growth pattern- or medium-density -as in Europe's historical pattern, or rather high-density -as in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and most of South-east Asia? Each of these systems will present its own set of choices and problems. How to reconcile the whole thing with the desert and make the utmost use of the sea2? Will a narrow strip of continuos urbanization sandwiched between the sea on one side and an agricultural belt do the job? Or, a further barrier protection of hardy trees is needed to stand against the dusty winds and the encroachment of the sand? What about using the sea water as enclosed lakes and canals. What are the environmental-ecological impacts of such ideas3? Can the littoral narrow strip which at certain points, as in the gulf of Sirt, narrows to almost zero accommodate such a scenario(s), if not what are the alternatives? What to do about potable water? Et cetera, etc. etc.

       A city is more than the collection of buildings! It's a synthesis of the society's values, ways of life and above all dreams. A city without dreams, as the late Italo Calvino, in a small book with the title "Invisible Cities," 1972, reminded us, is a dead city! As all meaningful dreams, the city cannot be allowed to rise as a disordered jumble of apartment blocks, a la socialist realism of the Soviets, but must be guided in its conception, gestation, and birth by well-trained obstetricians, gynecologists and midwives. Teams of urban planners, architects, engineers, scientists, economists, sociologist, historians, artists, philosophers, and what-have-you should be put at the task of projecting society's, history mixed with its hopes and aspirations on the landscape. Able developers and contractors, skilled workers and technicians will realize these dreams into real bricks and mortar ensembles. This is an experiment, perhaps the mother of all experiments, and the most meaningful impacts of all human endeavors. How to envisions a chain of self-contained settlements yet connected to each others in such a way they enhance each other's linear continuity, in not mere survival but prosperity and flourishing. A dire need for visionaries who'll dream and then commit to paper and realize glamorous metropolises of dramatic high-rise office buildings, hotels, etc. and beautiful and comfortable living quarters, surrounded by factors and research facilities with enough thoroughfares and ring roads, the whole glitzed up by libraries, terraced- restaurants, cafes, and entertainment centers in a shining ensembles reminiscent of Paris, Shanghai, New York, or even Las Vegas! These chain settlements will be located along or in immediate adjacency to a spinal core, service axes, that will carry rail and road and other means of conveyance and communications.

       Instead of adding such huge chunks of settlements into an already disorganized and burdened cities in what's called growth by accretion, which certainly will only further aggravate the existing problems, the new towns and cities of the 21th century should use, the 20th as well as all the preceding centuries to learn from4: How to conceptualize first of new cities and then bring them into fruition in an orderly and well-thought of process? Any serious and meaningful steps toward such endeavor(s) have to start from the political and down the road to philosophical, artistic, and technical stands and decisions that have to be made. Decentralization of power and the devolving of it to local communities to lead, direct, and manage their affairs and the growth of their settlements. What pattern of urbanization is compatible with the country's history, present circumstances, and future ways and modes of life? [ for instance, what density will be adopted: low-density, medium, or high; a mixture of the three? What metrics will be used to design as well as to measure success or failure?]. How to create a development of cities and towns that will sustain, and be sustainable with, the natural resources and to be also sensitive to the environmental constraints? How to use the least land yet endow the new cities and settlements with a good amount of green and park facilities to penetrate them like lungs and to surround them with something like walls of greenery so they can be protected from the encroaching desert, as well as to increase their livability? And so on of the many other questions that need to be thought of, about, and some working answers and hypotheses brought forth to be hashed out and tested.

       There's a piece of wisdom, call it a working principle, underlying all the projections of human activities on the landscape, which goes like this: first we shape our houses and then our houses shape us! The physical component and container of the polynomial people, activities and culture is without doubt conditions the others and mold life according to a relatively predictable forms and patterns. Here where the best minds can leave their trace without much fanfare and alarms. Call it the revenge of the intellectuals, undermining (or reinforcing) the substratum on which social processes are expressed; mind you, such an attempt is no easy task but with the ability to modify, shape, and change where the whole game of life is played comes close to being a piece of cake. For instance, by modifying the house design [form, distribution, and relationship], say from a closed on itself reminiscent of a medievalesque castle, to semi-open or even an open arrangement both inside and to the outside, one can influence the relations among the family members inside the house and their relationships with their neighbors and indeed the rest of the community on the outside. Furthermore by reducing the overall size and arrangement inside of the dwelling unit, a trend toward nuclearization of the family can be instituted. On the settlement scale by the way the different activities are distributed and arranged in relationships of hierarchical, complementary, or equivalent mutuality can influence life patterns and the way people use the spaces available to them. In other words a lot of modernity's demands and requirements can be instituted in the design of the life's stage, as Shakespeare had it, or the larger theater by, of , and on which society conducts its daily routines.

       A further point needs to be mentioned: the nurturing and caring for an indigenous problem-solvers. So far, the oil booming economies were a bonanza for the developed world companies, expertise, and products. Whatever has been done was on turnkey bases. A firm picks up a contract from A to Z and the locals played merely the role of helpers in the best and spectators in the worst. No meaningful learning experience has been obtained, even to maintain the damned projects! Local populations were reduced to passive consumers. Monkeys in the zoo! From now on things have to change if anything meaningful and lasting has to be done. Local experts -instead of being carriers of blueprints between foreign offices and their local authorities- have to be given a chance to make their own mistakes. Local companies and contractors have to be encouraged and let to make their own experience.

       The emphasis of developing local skills and expertise is twofold:

1- To germinate a generation of high-caliber experts and expertise to not only solve local problems but also to tutor the future generations who will take over from them, in addition to creating employment and absorbing the graduates from local and foreign colleges and universities

2- To solve problems and have the required feel for local history, values, and sensibilities, there's no substitute but to have your own people doing what the rest of the people will find acceptable if not genuine. No matter how good non-indigenous expertise is, it lacks the most important factor of any human endeavor, the gut feeling of what people will settle for. That doesn't mean not to use others' experience and expertise. It only means you've to know how to put it to better use so it can serve your purposes by channeling it as a cross-fertilization in an ongoing hatchery!

1- If present trends of population growth persist, with a rate above 3%, which means the doubling of current population, close to 6-millions, every 19-20 years. By 2020 there'll be about 12 million, and before 2050 the population will reach 25 million!

2- I've stated elsewhere that the only abundant resources the country has are: Sand, sun, gas and oil. To these must be added the Sea.. Unusable land (sand), a lot of energy (sun, gas and oil) and an inexhaustible source of water (sea). If these were to be combined and brought together, something may come out of them! Bring the water to where the sun is and use the other sources of energy for the condensation cycle and fresh water gush a galore, will be running in real rivers unlike that most boasted about phony tube!

3- Such ideas may sound farfetched and perhaps even loony! But think of the many enclosed bodies of salty water around the globe then perhaps you can realize there's some room for thinking such proposals. Such large bodies as Utah's Salt Lake in the USA, the Dead Sea in Palestine-Jordan region, the Caspian and the Aral Seas, etc. are serving their purposes without noticeable negative impact on their surrounding environs in terms of increasing the rate of saltification of the soil, etc....

4- Throughout history there were always events of new cities and towns. Willed by monarchies or powerful armies, these settlements took their time to grow and mature Kufa, Samarra, Baghdad, Cairo, and the Rabats on the frontiers, these were only in Eye-rab-stans! 19th and 20th centuries saw the most of new towns and settlements all over the globe. The most well-known are the British New Town movement, after WWII, and the American Suburban explosion and the New Towns experiments also after WWII. There's also a lesson to be learned from the continental (Europe) guided growths of the Germans, the French, etc., but above all the Japanese and their way of squeezing themselves into the smallest footprint on earth with 74% of the country left as wooded areas!

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