The crowded agoras of the world’s largest megacities offer some of modernity’s most fascinating scenes. This is partly because there is, as I see it, a reactionary dread toward crowds. Think of the pejoratives levied on them: droves, herds, hoards, legions, masses, mobs, packs, rabbles, swarms. Planners go to drastic lengths creating separation, committing immeasurable social resources toward antisocial yard-and-car suburbs.
In this kind of world, crowding raises resonant political questions. Why do some of us spread out across acre lots in Orlando while others of us share single rooms in Mumbai? Why does private transit (cars, helicopters, NetJets) constitute a growth market while trains and buses burst at the seams? Mumbai’s bustling rail system, where accidents killed 36,000 people over the span of a decade, is an extreme case.
Media images frequently present crowded public spaces as proof of overpopulation, evoking the Malthusian desire to limit finite resources to a privileged few. Never mind that the quintessential megacities in these photographs—Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Mumbai, New York, and Shanghai—all possess plenty of wealth, and exist in a world with plenty of wealth. Never mind that India, in the case of Mumbai, is mostly rural (like almost half of the world). On the other hand some planners glorify congestion as a good thing, and rationalize spatial inequality as a Newtonian market force gravitationally pulling people toward already overcrowded places. Of course, it is the poorest that suffer crowding’s inevitable discomforts while the global affluent can divest themselves from the masses when it suits them. This is manifest in cursory walks through any of these cities, all crucibles of class conflict marred by permutations of gates, razor wire, helicopter travel, and heavily guarded high-rises. […]