In the seventh edition of Cities of the World, Colgate professors Maureen Hays-Mitchell and Jessica Graybill deconstruct the urban environment.

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We’ve become a world of city dwellers. At the turn of the 20th century, only 13 percent of people around the world lived in cities — now 55 percent do, more than half of the people on earth. They include residents of more than 20 megacities — metropolitan regions with more than 10 million people, including New York-Newark with 19M; Delhi, India, with 26M; and Tokyo-Yokohama, Japan, with a stunning 38M. “We’re an urban species,” says geographer Jessica Graybill, associate professor of Russian and Eurasian studies at Colgate. “It’s time to understand what that means, both in terms of how we deal with each other on a human level, but also what it means in terms of our environment.”

Graybill aids in that understanding as co-editor of Cities of the World, alongside Colgate Professor of Geography Maureen Hays-Mitchell, the University of Kentucky’s Stanley Brunn, and Old Dominion’s Donald Zeigler. The book, recently released in its seventh edition, is a massive yet approachable tome that provides a geographical cornucopia of everything urban, including deep dives into the cities of 11 different world regions. “It’s not your traditional urban geography textbook, but it’s not quite a reader,” says Graybill.

Among the topics the book addresses are city structures, demographics, history, trends, and challenges. Hays-Mitchell, for one, finds no irony in the fact that half of the book’s editors have been writing about megacities from tiny Hamilton, N.Y. “I find the urban in everything I do,” she says. “Even Hamilton is on the urban hierarchy.” While the book focuses on urban environments, she says, studying cities casts a much broader net over the landscape. “Rural areas are usually connected to cities, through resources being funneled toward the city, or families that maintain a foothold in the countryside,” Hays-Mitchell says. “So it’s a good lens through which to view the rural sector as well.”

An expert on Latin America, Hays-Mitchell first joined the book project as a lead author of the third edition’s chapter on “Cities of South America” and became a co-editor in 2005 for the fourth edition, published in 2008. That same year, Graybill joined as lead author for the chapter on “Cities of Russia,” becoming a co-editor in 2009 for the sixth edition, published in 2012. “And now for the eighth edition,” says Hays-Mitchell, “the three of us are handing it off to Jessica”; Graybill will assemble a new team of lead editors to continue the successful book into its next iteration.

Each edition of the book has addressed a new theme. The seventh focuses on a dual theme of climate change and migration. “We let each of the 11 chapter author teams interpret those themes according to how their region is experiencing them,” explains Hays-Mitchell. In some regions, countries experience internal migration from the countryside to the city or vice versa, while others see migration from one country or geographical region to another. Climate change, meanwhile, has increasingly affected cities alongside the rest of the world. “We might think of the plight of polar bears, but there is no better way to look at climate change than diving right into urban issues,” Graybill says. Many cities, for example, are located in coastal areas, making them vulnerable to sea-level rise. Others are dealing with drought or other threats. “A significant share of tropical glaciers is located in the Andes Mountains, and these have shrunk by about one-third since 2000,” says Hays-Mitchell. “So, of course this is going to affect city water supplies in addition to agriculture and hydroelectricity, which are essential to cities.”

The world’s rapid march to urbanization began with the beginning of industrialization in Europe and the United States in the late 19th century. “We Westerners like to call it the industrial revolution, but it never really ended,” says Graybill. As various countries have industrialized, they’ve required massive concentrations of labor around factories, requiring attendant concentrations in housing. “Once we move beyond that initial industrialization moment, lots of people decide they like city living,” says Graybill. Cities provide many desirable resources to their citizens, including culture, education, and health care. “Cities are almost like magnets, drawing in people who associate them with a better quality of life and opportunities for their children and future generations,” says Hays-Mitchell.

In her chapter on South America, Hays-Mitchell reports that the region has seen more urbanization than most — rising from 10 to 85 percent urbanized during the last century or so. “The change has just been enormous.” That urbanization has clustered around a single “primate city” in each country (except Brazil, which has two major cities in São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro), often founded on ancient sites during the colonial era by Spanish and Portuguese settlers. “After World War II, development resources were concentrated in the primate city, because it was seen as having a more skilled labor force,” Hays-Mitchell says. That has created a very cosmopolitan environment in those cities, bustling with art and culture, especially in the central core, which is typified by Mediterranean architecture around a central plaza with a cathedral and civic buildings.

At the same time, the rapid urbanization has brought with it poverty and environmental challenges in the surrounding shantytowns and favelas. Less well known, says Hays-Mitchell, is that many South American cities have recently risen to those challenges to become new models of sustainability. Bogotá, Colombia, for example, has invested in electric buses and a system of cable cars to efficiently bring people into the city center. It has transformed boulevards into pedestrian malls with water channeled through them for urban gardens, enabling people to grow food inside the city. “Colombia is not a wealthy country, but if they can innovate in ways that are more sustainable, then why can’t countries in the Global North that have resources do that as well?” Hays-Mitchell asks.

In her chapter on Russia — now also including cities of Central Asia — Graybill describes a different urban topography, with many cities along the fabled Silk Road continuously occupied for thousands of years. “They are full of incredible landmarks, preserved by the Soviets through massive changes in the 20th century,” Graybill says. Alongside UNESCO heritage sites, the Soviet Union’s monolithic concrete communist architecture emphasized efficiency and equality over aesthetics. In some cases, especially in Russia, cities were plopped down in the hinterland wherever there were resources to exploit, whether or not a location was hospitable. “These cities were literally planted by planners in Moscow on the Central Asian landscape,” Graybill says. “It’s a really wild mix.”

As a result, the former Soviet Union also saw rapid industrialization, rising to 74 percent of the populace, who enjoyed housing, education, and health care provided by the state. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, urban experts have anticipated an eventual transition from communism to capitalism, which has not fully occurred, Graybill says. “It’s not a transition from one thing to another, it’s a transformation to a complex dual system — at least,” she says. While a capitalist economy takes a fragile hold, residents are still holding onto socialist principles. “People are pinching every penny and putting it into foreign cash bank accounts, at the same time they are relying on free education and health care provided by the state,” she says. Most interestingly, new housing construction is still being built on the old Soviet model. “They are being built in exactly the same way, with these monolithic buildings across the land,” says Graybill. “Everybody wants to be living compactly — it’s what they are used to, and what they can afford.”

The differences in the two regions, both in the built urban environment and the people who live within, illustrate the vast variety present in cities around the world — magnified by even more differences in the other nine regions the book covers. “Geography has been called the quintessential liberal art,” says Hays-Mitchell. “To focus on understanding location and how we are connected, geography integrates perspectives from across the social sciences, natural sciences, as well as the humanities.” Reading the book is like sampling a table full of delicious dishes from around the world, demonstrating the awesome range and diversity of human urban life.